OSU researchers miniaturized the radio tag in 1997 so it could be implanted as a dart into humbacks, which are known as the "singing" whales. Dr. Bruce Mate says of this revolutionary development, "By tagging humpback whales in Hawaii with these new tags, we traced the first complete migration route between a whale's breeding and feeding areas.
The route was a surprise—it went to Russia, via the Aleutian Islands. We did not know whales breeding in Hawaii went there." In 1998, another humpback was tracked from Hawaii to the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia in just 30 days and then for an additional three months of feeding in Southeast Alaska. Other incomplete migration trajectories from Hawaii suggest destinations along the Aleutians, perhaps into the Bering Sea.
During the summer of 1997, OSU researchers tagged 12 humpback whales feeding in Southeast Alaska and observed them for two months. The graduate researchers recorded no evidence of infection or changes in behavior. One whale was tracked for five months (the longest tracking time to date) and provided the first information about how whales move within their feeding range. Most whales tended to stay in the sheltered waters of Southeast Alaska and separately visited specific areas.
Our field season in 2004 was part of the TOPP program (Tagging of Pacific Pelagics), co-funded by the Sloan, Packard and Gordon Moore foundations. We used our new research boat, the R/V Pacific Storm, to travel from Oregon to the waters off central California in search of blue and humpback whales. This season was extremely successful: in four weeks we tagged 29 animals, eight of them with new depth tags.
In the summer of 2005 we returned to the waters off central California for another field season of tagging blue and humpback whales as part of the TOPP program.
If you’d like to read more about our humpback research, check out:
Local and migratory movements of Hawaiian humpback whales tracked by satellite telemetry
Bruce R. Mate, Robert Gisiner and Joseph Mobley
Abstract: We examined inter-island movements and offshore migrations of six humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) tagged during March and April 1995 with satellite-monitored radio tags off Kauai, Hawaii. The tags transmitted 0.5-17 days (Ö=8.5 ± 2.7 days) and produced 1-66 locations that met our screening criteria. Total travel distances per individual ranged from 30 to 1860 km. After screening criteria were applied, satellite-acquired locations ranged from 1.8 to 3.9/day for individuals (group average 2.7/day). One adult traveled 250 km to Oahu in 4 days. Another visited Penguin Bank and five islands (820 km) in 10 days, suggesting faster inter-island movement than had been previously thought. Three whales traveled independent, parallel courses toward the upper Gulf of Alaska on north-northeast headings. A female with a calf was the fastest: 670 km in 4.5 days (150 km/day). Two whales traveled for 14.7 and 17 days, an average speed of 110 km/day (4.5 km/h). A 4200-km migration to the upper Gulf of Alaska at that speed would take 39 days. If the fastest whale’s speed was maintained on a straight course, the entire migration could be accomplished in as little time as 28 days. Based on the two longest tracks, the first third of the migration route is within 1º of magnetic north. These data represent the first route and travel speeds for humpbacks migrating from Hawaii toward Alaska.