Eighty-two feet above the shore at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, biologist Joel Ortega spots a gray whale swimming — nautical miles offshore.
A few seconds later, his team of observers, on hand with binoculars, a surveying instrument called a theodolite and a laptop, pinpoint the whale's location, just inside the boundary of Oregon territorial waters where a wave energy park has been proposed for development.
"I've been doing marine mammal observations for about 12 years now, so I can't avoid it," says Ortega, a research associate at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. "Whenever I'm near the ocean, I start looking for whales and dolphins."
Since early December, the team of OSU biologists has been cataloging the eastern gray whale as it migrates south from Alaska to Mexico, passing through the site of what one day could be Oregon's first commercial wave energy park.
Their data will serve as a baseline of information to determine whether the whales' path will change direction, speed or location after the buoys are installed.
The state is banking on wave energy as an industry it can dominate, and companies are eager to test their technologies for deployment.
"A wave energy research center could be a nice focus for the state of Oregon for what we're doing with (renewable) energy generation," said George Boehlert, director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
But state and federal regulators are hesitant to approve development of commercial wave energy parks without detailed environmental impact studies. Because ocean power technologies are relatively new, their effects on whales, dolphins, sea lions and other ocean life are largely unknown.
OSU's marine mammal study is one of several funded by the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, which recently received $1 million from the Oregon Innovation Council to oversee research and development of ocean power technologies in the state. The grant is part of $4.2 million earmarked for wave energy by the 2007 Legislature.
"It's very important to the wave energy sector to have this kind of a study being conducted," said Mary Jane Parks, senior vice president of Finavera Renewables, which tested the AquaBuoy wave energy device that sank off the Newport coast last year. "We do need to have more marine research in this area to understand what the impacts are so we can better site the location of ocean energy plants."
At Yaquina Head, the science team works quickly, scanning the horizon with high-power binoculars for a whale's signature spouting. They zero in on the exact geographic location with a theodolite, the same instrument highway construction workers use to survey roads. Then they map the data on a laptop.
They take measurements to find the migration corridor, a whale highway for traveling to and from their mating grounds in Mexico. The grays are the only whales that follow a completely coastal route, making it possible to observe their migration from land. Other whales, such as humpbacks, travel through the open ocean as well as along the coast.
Gray whales typically migrate south between December and January, Ortega said, with the peak of the migration between Christmas and the first week in January. This year the whales appear to have left Alaska later than usual, since the peak happened later.
Ortega hopes to discover how gray whales follow the coast. The whales might stay at a certain depth of water, a set distance from the coast, or they might travel along the most direct route between destinations.
So far the whales are staying outside the Oregon territorial boundary, — nautical miles offshore, or just outside the waters proposed for the wave park. But, Ortega says, past studies have shown the whales swim closer to shore on their return north. More research is needed to find the exact location of the whales' highway and determine the effects of the actual wave energy technology once it's deployed.
"This is relatively new territory for everybody," Ortega says. "And that's why we're here to find those facts and base that decision on solid science."
On the Net:
Hatfield Marine Science Center: http:hmsc.oregonstate.edu/waveenergy/
Whale routes studied in preparation for wave energy