NEWPORT – A team of researchers from the Marine Mammal Institute at the Hatfield Marine Science Center plan to depart today (Wednesday) for a month-long research cruise to the Eastern Pacific Gyre where they will search for a pod of rare beaked whales that have never been previously identified living in the wild.
Formerly known as the Beaked Whale Expedition to the Eastern Pacific Gyre, the cruise is part of a collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provided both scientists and equipment to the expedition. .
Lisa Ballance, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, will lead a team of eight scientists from OSU and NOAA, along with the ship’s crew, as they begin their search for the elusive marine mammals this week. The OSU’s R / V Pacific Storm is expected to depart today for an expedition to Hawaii.
“We still have a lot of preparation to do and the weather looks a bit risky, so we could be delayed a day or two, but our departure is imminent,” Ballance told News-Times staff on Monday. “I’ll be the principal investigator, that’s what we call the direction of these kinds of projects. We have a very strong science team and crew and most importantly, I want to stress this, it will be a full collaboration with NOAA. “
The mysterious whales in question were first sighted during a 2014 expedition in the Eastern Pacific Gyre, located roughly halfway from Newport to Hawaii. The gyre is a calm central point between the water currents of the Pacific Ocean and was once home to large amounts of algae and plankton. Since human activity became more prevalent in the ocean, however, the gyre is now commonly known as the Eastern Pacific Waste Plate, due to the amount of man-made material there. are accumulated.
The 2014 expedition was studying the effects of ocean litter on the vortex area when it encountered and photographed two groups of unidentified beaked whales.
“They were over there investigating how to deal with the rubbish area and kind of blundered this cryptic whale that repeatedly surfaced near their ship,” Ballance said. “They managed to get some photographs, which reached us. However, we were not able to identify the whales solely from the photographs, but we now have a co-investigator from this expedition who is one of the world’s leading experts on this type of whale to help us. “
Based on evidence gathered from the 2014 expedition, the whales were suspected to be gingko-toothed whales, Deraniyagala’s beaked whales or another as yet unidentified species, none of which were ever identified at the time. that she lived in the wild, having only been discovered and documented. after their dead remains washed up on shore.
The first and foremost goal of the new expedition is to locate the whales using powerful binoculars and an advanced acoustic monitoring system, in which case they hope to take detailed photos using cameras on the ship and of airborne drones.
If they are successful in finding and documenting the whales, the researchers will then attempt to collect a DNA sample, either by collecting water left in the whale’s wake or by taking a tissue sample the size of the whale. ‘a pencil eraser using a crossbow, provided they can get close enough. .
“Half the crew is a very experienced visual investigation team with two very powerful mounted binoculars that we call ‘big eyes’,” Ballance said. “They will stand from sun to sunset looking for these animals visually. The other half of the team is a passive acoustic team since these animals, being such deep divers, they almost certainly feed in total darkness at these depths. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises, especially toothed and beaked varieties, echolocate (emit a sound wave that bounces off an object), and these whales should do so continuously at this depth.
It is assumed that whales are part of the genus Mesoplodon, which can grow up to 17 feet long and weigh up to 1.5 tons. It is estimated that they can dive two or three thousand meters below the ocean’s surface, so deep and dark that they would most likely need to rely heavily on echolocation for hunting and travel. They are considered one of the least studied animals their size on the planet.
“This family of beaked whales, all of them are very deep divers, and I mean very deep. Those that have been tagged by satellite are known to dive thousands of meters, ”Ballance said. “They stay underwater for over an hour and we think they all eat squid exclusively. They are found in very small groups and are afraid of ships and are only found in deep water. Typically, if a vessel passes them, they will see them for a brief moment to take a quick glance or two before diving for an hour, if they are even seen.
The research team plans to document the expedition and most of its findings online as access to technology allows, but the public can also follow online through the expedition’s blog at the. address: https://agsci-labs.oregonstate.edu/gyrecruise.
Ballance also noted that residents of Oregon who purchased the state’s Gray Whale license plate helped fund this project and others like it.
“People who buy the plaque pay additional fees, a portion of which goes to marine mammal research, to support graduate students, education and awareness,” Ballance said. “Those who purchased these plaques can all be proud to have contributed and to be a small but truly critical part of this project and to have contributed to our success. “