NEWPORT, Oregon — Drones in the air and GoPros in the water allow an Oregon State University marine ecologist to document gray whale behaviors off the Oregon Coast.


Leigh Torres with OSU just finished her fourth season tracking these animals.

Torres and her team use a 17-foot inflatable boat.  Once they see a whale, they drop a GoPro underwater to see what the whale is eating and deploy a drone overhead to watch its behaviors and gather information on the size of the whale. 

If they are lucky, the researchers spot and gather poop which further helps them understand whales' health and biology.

“We are using these relatively new technologies to do health check-ups on the whales,” said Torres, who works at the Marine Mammal Institute at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. “We’re able to see differences in individual whales and how those change over time. It’s opening up new ways to understand the lives of whales.”

This past season Torres and her team captured drone footage of 102 gray whales and recording from 105 GoPro camera drops. Behaviors they filmed included whales breaching, surface feeding, snaking through kelp in search of food and feeding on the seafloor bottom.

They also collected 58 fecal samples. After spotting whale poop, the team has about 20 to 30 seconds to swoop in with a fine mesh net and scoop up some of the material before it sinks to the ocean floor. These  samples are then taken to the lab and analyzed for hormone levels and genetics.

Because the gray whales are abundant and stay close to shore, they're easily accessible research subjects. And Torres can apply her gray wale research findings to other threatened whale species, such as blue whales and right whales.

The research from Torres this past field season was funded with proceeds from the sale of an Oregon license plate featuring gray whales.

The Marine Mammal Institute receives proceeds from the sale of the Oregon gray whale license plates and uses the funds for marine mammal research, education and conservation.