NEWPORT, Ore. – For the second consecutive year, an international team of scientists has tracked a whale via satellite from one of the world’s most endangered populations to the West Coast of the United States from the waters off Russia’s Sakhalin Island.
Last year, the saga of “Flex” captured the attention of the public as the male, 13-year-old western gray whale journeyed across the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean to Vancouver Island and down to Oregon before the tag finally quit working.
This year, they are tracking “Varvara,” a 9-year-old female western gray whale that has again surprised scientists by not only coming to the West Coast – but by apparently heading for a known breeding ground of eastern gray whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon of the Sea of Cortez. Varvara took a different route across the Bering Sea than did Flex but both moved swiftly down the West Coast upon arriving in North America.
Varvara (which is Barbara in Russian) has steadily moved south at a clip of about 100 to 125 miles a day, breezing past Washington, Oregon and California and has entered the waters off Mexico – her fourth country in two months. Interested persons can track her progress online.
Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, whose team tagged the endangered whale in September and has watched her make the 6,000-mile-plus trek over the past two months. He said her journey is more than a feel-good story, such as that depicted in the new film, “Big Miracle.”
Varvara’s adventure has tremendous ecological and management significance, Mate says.
“There are only about 130 western gray whales left in the world,” Mate said, “and they were thought to be distinct from their more populous cousins, the eastern gray whales that we see up and down the Pacific Coast. But this is the second consecutive year we have tracked a whale from Russia to our coast, so Varvara’s journey is suggesting that the visit from Flex last year may not have been an anomaly.”
In the 1970s, western gray whales were thought to have gone extinct, but a small aggregation was discovered by Russian scientists off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored by Russian and U.S. scientists since the 1990s. Eastern gray whales likewise were decimated by whaling and listed as endangered, but conservation efforts led to a recovery and, at 18,000 strong, they have been delisted.
Protecting such an endangered population has been difficult. Five western gray whales have died in Japanese fishing nets within the past five years, and their migration patterns take them into shipping lanes and through oil and gas drilling sites.
Not all scientists believe that western gray whales are a separate, distinct species. Valentin Ilyashenko of the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, who is the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission, has proposed since 2009 that recent western and eastern gray whale populations are not isolated and that the gray whales found in Russian waters are a part of an eastern population that is restoring its former historical range.
Ilyashenko, Mate and their colleagues first tagged and tracked a western gray whale near Russia in December of 2010, when they followed a male named “Flex” to the West Coast of the United States. It was the first time scientists had documented that western gray whales journey to this side of the Pacific Ocean.
In the fall of 2011, the team returned to the Sakhalin Island region and tagged six whales to see if they would duplicate the migration pattern followed by Flex. Four of the tags stopped working before the whales left Sakhalin in the fall. Varvara and a whale named “Agent” crossed the Bering Sea into the North Pacific and into the home range of eastern gray whales. Mate said researchers lost the signal on Agent halfway across the Gulf of Alaska, but Varvara’s signal is still going strong.
“The average tag lasts 123 days, and she has passed that mark already, but the tags also are capable of lasting up to a year,” Mate said. “Ideally, it will continue to operate as she returns north from the breeding lagoon so we can see if she takes the same route back to Russia.”
Greg Donovan, head of science for the International Whaling Commission and coordinator of the project, said the data the team is acquiring is of enormous significance.
“Western gray whales could be a separate population, they could represent an expansion of eastern gray whales, or there could be some of both sharing some of the same feeding grounds off eastern Russia,” Donovan said. “It is clear that we need to re-examine our understanding of the population structure of gray whales in the North Pacific and any conservation and management implications that arise from that understanding.”
OSU’s Mate said past studies by the university’s Marine Mammal Institute suggest that gray whales typically stay in the breeding areas for 20-25 days before beginning their return migration. That should put Varvara back in the ocean off Los Angeles in late February, and back to Oregon by March, he estimated.