Do gray whales head to Baja California for the winter for the same reason we do? A vacation from the cold? Apparently not. A paper by MMI Affiliate Jim Sumich that analyzes heat loss in gray whale calves shows, surprisingly, no substantial benefit to being born in warmer waters. The real motivation behind the southward migration might actually be avoiding those pesky killer whales.


Read more about gray whale migration 

A gray whale calf swims close to the protection of its mother as it migrates from breeding lagoons in Mexico to feeding grounds in the Arctic. Photograph by John Durban and Holly Fearnbach.

OSU's Pacific Storm

“If I were to describe the Pacific Storm in one word, it would definitely be ‘resilient’,” said Lisa Ballance, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute. “She was built as a commercial fishing vessel and later gifted to MMI. Now her future is with marine mammal research and broader research pertaining to marine ecosystems.” Read the vessel's story in "Journey of the Pacific Storm: From commercial fishing to marine research."


Charter R/V Pacific Storm

MMI Director Lisa Ballance is leading a team of 12 scientists and crew on a month-long research expedition aboard the R/V Pacific Storm to search for whales that have never before been identified alive in the wild. The Beaked Whale Expedition to the Eastern Pacific Gyre ("GyreX") draws on the expertise of both OSU and NOAA to locate, identify, and ultimately help protect these cryptic whales. Follow along the journey at our blog.

Follow the GyreX Journey

Pictured: An unidentified Mesoplodon photographed off Baja California, Mexico. Species unknown. Photo credit: Simon Ager, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
MMI Affiliate Faculty Rachael Orben coauthored a recently published paper that examines the use of marine management areas around the Falkland Islands. The Falkland Islands are home to globally significant populations of marine predators, including 75% of the global population of Black-browed albatross, 50% of the global population of South American fur seals, and 30% of the global population of Rockhopper and Gentoo penguins. The proposed marine management areas are an important step towards an ecosystem approach to conservation in the region.

Learn more at the Seabird Oceanography Lab blog

Join the OSU Marine Mammal Institute for an extraordinary whale-watching adventure in Baja California, Mexico.

Early each year, gray whales can be found in the protected, shallow waters of San Ignacio lagoon. The Marine Mammal Institute has been hosting educational expeditions to the lagoon and surrounding areas for more than 30 years. Travel with us, for a truly remarkable marine mammal experience. 

Our next trip is March 9–17, 2022.

Explore the Baja Expedition

We use electronic tags to remotely "ride along" with whales as they go about their lives. Developing a better understanding of the patterns of whale habitat use, the reasons behind it, and whales' responses to different conditions, leads to improved conservation measures for the whales and the marine environment in which they live.

Watch videos about tracking whales

Marine mammal stranding networks provide a first line of detection for marine animal and ocean health concerns. The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network (OMMSN) is based here at the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, managed by Jim Rice. It is a collaborative organization comprising Oregon universities, state and federal agencies, and citizen volunteers that offers continuous surveillance for diseases and causes of death in marine mammals, particularly in areas frequented by the general public. 

For an overview of the OMMSN, we invite you to watch the 8-min video shown here. The objectives of the network keep us vigilant about changes in the health and challenges to the welfare of marine mammals along the Oregon coast, providing a unique window into the state of the natural world.

Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network


Whales are big, dynamic, and spend most of their lives under water — factors that challenge our ability to study their ecology, health, and behavior. Drones, or Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS), are helping us overcome some of these challenges by offering a new, and noninvasive, perspective on the lives and world of whales. Over the last six years, the GEMM Lab has developed new methods, applications, and knowledge based on the use drones to study marine mammals, including documenting new whale foraging behaviors, understanding how krill respond to whale predation, and the relationship between whale body condition and environmental conditions. For more information, check out the Drone-based Innovative Assessments of Megafauna Offer New Discoveries (DIAMOND) project.
In early February, Debbie Steel and Scott Baker of the Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Laboratory hosted the biennial meeting of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPWRC). This year’s meeting was limited to members of the SPWRC Executive Committee and held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these limitations, the meeting was a success, with attendees sharing updates on research and conservation initiatives currently underway across the South Pacific region.


Learn more about the SPWRC

"I write this as my first-year anniversary with the Marine Mammal Institute approaches. Despite these unprecedented times, it has been a fabulous year for me and for the Institute. And it has been an historic one." 


Read Director Ballance's Letter

Photo-identification is not just for whales! MMI researchers and interns use photo-id to evaluate habitat use of harbor seals along the central Oregon coast. Harbor seals haul out on rocks during low tide to rest. This creates the perfect opportunity to collect photographs of the seals and their unique spot patterns. Collecting these photographs at several haul-out sites along the coast, researchers can compare photographs from each region to gain a better understanding of the habitat use of the seals. Aimee Aguilar, an undergraduate intern with MMI, spent most of her summer taking photographs and cataloging individual seals at the haul-out site in Alsea Bay. 


Photo-ID comparisons of whale flukesPhoto-identification is an important tool that helps MMI researchers keep track of the whales we see. Happywhale is an online photo-ID resource that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically compare and match photographs of individual humpback whales. The software can match whales 40 times faster and more accurately than the human eye! Explore the WHET Lab page at Happywhale to take a closer look at the humpbacks we have identified, from Antarctica to the Bering Sea. Photo-ID catalogs such as this one help scientists around the world collaborate to understand whale movements and identify critical habitats. 

The Cetacean Conservation and Genomic Laboratory is working to develop methods for detection and identification of whales and dolphins using environmental DNA, or (e)DNA. This is the DNA that organisms shed as they move through the environment. In a recently completed project, we took advantage of a fixed acoustic array maintained on the Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre (AUTEC) in the Bahamas. With this acoustic assistance, we were about to locate and collect eDNA samples from Blainville’s beaked whales (pictured to the right), revealing previously unreported diversity in mtDNA haplotypes from this enigmatic species.

Whale calf on mom's backThe GEMM Lab is wrapping up their sixth consecutive year of data collection on gray whale ecology and physiology off the Oregon coast, including observations of the well-known whale “Scarlett” and her new calf, seen here riding on the back of her mom. More information about this research project can be found in the GEMM Lab blog and the research project webpage.

MMI's administrative team supports the director in overseeing MMI’s fiscal, personnel, and communications activities. Their role is to help all of MMI function efficiently, effectively, and ethically. Click on their photos to learn more about how Mark Wilke and Minda Stiles support marine mammal research and graduate student education.

MMI is pleased to introduce our affiliate faculty members. Affiliate faculty strengthen and promote MMI’s collaborations across OSU. We are proud of the diversity these professionals bring to our research portfolio. To date, MMI's Affiliate Faculty members are Renee Albertson, Angela Sremba, Rachael Orben, Robert Pitman, and Holger Klinck

Read the welcome letter from MMI's new director, Lisa T. Ballance.