By Michelle Klampe
Funded partly by Oregon Sea Grant, researchers at Oregon State University have launched a website with profiles and “medical records” of nine well-known gray whales along the Oregon coast.
There’s Scarlett, who has a large scar on her back and has been observed in the Pacific Northwest since 1996. Then there’s Buttons, who has been issued an honorary library card by the Port Orford Public Library. Another, Solé, can be spotted at her favorite foraging ground she returns to each year.
Each was nicknamed by researchers in the lab of Leigh Torres, a marine mammals specialist with Oregon Sea Grant. Over the years, the researchers have learned the identifying marks, behaviors and health conditions of these and other whales that frequent the Oregon coast.
On IndividuWhale.com, people can learn about how fishing gear, noise and ocean traffic stress out whales; how researchers use photos, drones and poop samples to study whales; and why kelp forests are important to gray whales. After reading about the whales, people can try their hand at identifying them through photos.
“We wanted to share the stories of these whales because they are residents of Oregon like us, and they have personalities and stories to tell,” Torres said. “These whales have interesting lives that we’ve learned a lot about over the years through our research.”
Most gray whales in the Eastern North Pacific population cruise along Oregon’s coast as they migrate south in December and January to breeding grounds in Mexico. Then they head back north in March to feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas between Alaska and Russia, where they spend the summer. But Torres and her team study a distinct population of gray whales known as the Pacific coast feeding group, which spends the summer feeding off Oregon, northern California, Washington and southern Canada.
Torres and her team have been observing and conducting annual "health checkups" on this population since 2016. When they spot a defecating whale from a boat or via a drone, they follow in the animal’s wake and use nets to capture samples that can be used to monitor reproduction and stress. The drones are also used to capture images of the whales, allowing researchers to monitor the animals’ body condition and behavior.
“We can track a lot about the whales’ lives,” Torres said. “We know their age and sex, their body condition and we can also track some of their different experiences, such as injuries or reproduction.”
Torres and her team have cataloged about 190 whales, each with its own name and identification number, in the Pacific coast feeding group. Some have become so well known, the researchers – and sometimes the public – recognize them instantly. For example, Scarlett, also known as Scarback, is frequently seen in the Depoe Bay and Newport areas.
“We’ve seen her every year that we’ve gone out on the water. She’s a resilient whale who recovered from this huge wound on her back and then was able to successfully reproduce,” said Lisa Hildebrand, a doctoral student who provided web developer Erik Urdahl with content for the website.
Another whale, Roller Skate, was first identified as a calf in 2015. In 2019, she was spotted with fishing line around her fluke. In 2020, the researchers documented her again in the same area.
“She survived a very gnarly, embedded wound, and part of her fluke was effectively amputated,” Hildebrand said. “She dives differently now than she did before the injury.”
Torres said one aim of the website is to educate the public about the threats facing Oregon’ gray whales, including human-caused noise, propeller injuries and entanglement in fishing gear. Gray whales also face changes in the availability of prey due to changing ocean conditions that affect the health of kelp forests, which are home to the mysid shrimp that the whales eat.
“We want people to understand the connection between their behavior and these individual whales,” she said. “We’re trying to reach those everyday ocean users. If everyone changes one behavior, like slowing down while boating near the reefs where gray whales feed, reducing use of plastics that pollute the ocean, and removing recreational crabbing gear promptly so animals don’t get tangled in it, these are all things that can make a huge difference.”