Russian Roulette

The Western Pacific gray whale, once thought extinct, clings to life in a remote Siberian sea. Biologists fear their research is serving as cover for massive oil drilling that could wipe out this lost tribe once and for all.

As summer approaches, the marine biologists, scattered from San Diego to Seattle to Kamchatka to Moscow, await word on whether they will have money to continue working on a program to minimize the effects of the rapid and noisy deployment of industrial machinery off the coast of Sakhalin.

They know their work is crucial.

They are either documenting the final days of one of the world's largest creatures, or they are witnessing the beginning steps to recovery of a species on the brink.

The lighthouse encampment is covered by 10 feet of snow in the winter.
John Dougherty
The lighthouse encampment is covered by 10 feet of snow in the winter.
Researchers carry a Zodiac down to Pil'tun Lagoon.
John Dougherty
Researchers carry a Zodiac down to Pil'tun Lagoon.

The outlook is not good.

"There's 100 Western Pacific gray whales. It's in the Russian Far East, where there is no real legal framework or enforcement. There is zero money going into protecting them and huge oil companies that have massive profits on their mind," says Jared Blumenthal, program director of habitat for animals for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

"The chances of saving them are pretty grim."

First light brings welcome news.

"Good weather!" booms a voice from the kitchen.

The skies are clear. The fog has lifted. Seas are calm, and the mosquitoes are swarming.

The seven members of the research team -- five Russians and two Americans -- scramble from their plywood bunks and quickly converge in the kitchen. The smoky, cast-iron wood stove heats coffee. Fresh-baked bread is cut and smothered with cheese and jam.

There is no time to waste. Good weather doesn't come often and may not last long at the Pil'tun lighthouse camp overlooking the Sea of Okhotsk, also known to the native population as the Sea of Death.

The encampment is enchantingly rugged and quiet -- save a few hours in the evening when the diesel generator is fired up to power the beacon atop the red-and-white steel-panel lighthouse tower. There are no cars or roads, just pathways through the sand and scattered patches of tundra.

Isolated from the outside world -- telephone communication is restricted to a 15-minute window each evening via a satellite phone -- the four women and three men who manned the research station last August lead a rustic and simple life that naturally keeps them focused on the task at hand: to study the gray whales.

The biologists share a 20-meter-long, wood-frame and tarpaper fourplex with two Russian families who operate the lighthouse -- one of more than a dozen that encircle Sakhalin Island. The fourplex was badly damaged in a 1995 earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) that leveled the nearby town of Neftegorsk, killing 2,000 people. Researchers rebuilt part of the structure, adding men's and women's bunkhouses and crafting a crude but functional kitchen out of scrap.

Researchers take advantage of evening electricity to recharge batteries, listen to music (Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Beatles), and download data into laptop computers. It's also the only time hot running water is available -- a byproduct of cooling the generator. The team queues up for showers in the generator shed, with each person getting a turn every couple of days.

Drinking water comes from a well beneath the kitchen table. The water is pumped each evening into an open 55-gallon plastic drum, then filtered with portable water-purifying kits. A single-hole outhouse suffices for a toilet.

Reindeer herders occasionally stop at the camp to smoke cigarettes and exchange stories with the lighthouse keepers and their families, tying their animals to a hitching post. Only the dogs and the keepers' young children spend much time outside, seemingly oblivious to the dense thicket of mosquitoes that swarm unmercifully when the air is still.

The encampment is in one of the remotest spots in Sakhalin, which itself is considered an exotic and infamous locale by most Russians. During czarist Russia, Sakhalin became a giant penal colony, and it was used as a dumping ground for undesirables during the Russian purges of the 20th century. Russian writer Anton Chekhov made the island notorious in his 1890s book A Journey to Sakhalin: "I have seen Ceylon which is paradise and Sakhalin which is hell."

Sakhalin burst into international prominence in September 1983, when Soviet MiG fighters scrambled from heavily fortified airfields and shot down Korean Air Flight 007 after the Boeing 747 pierced Sakhalin's restricted air space. But Sakhalin soon receded from the world's attention and resumed its status as one of the poorest provinces in Russia.

The closest large city is Okha, a decrepit oil town (population 36,000) on the northern end of the island. There are no paved roads from Okha to Pil'tun; in fact, most of the way, there is no road at all. It takes four hours to traverse the rugged, largely undeveloped, and stunningly beautiful coastline in an old Soviet army jeep expertly driven by former Okha Police Chief Yuri Shvetsov.

The final stretch of the journey is a quick ride on a Zodiac across the narrow Pil'tun Lagoon to the lighthouse, which also serves as a terrific observation point for biologists scanning the horizon with high-powered binoculars to watch the gray whales graze from the shallow sea shelf.

From the top of the 35-meter-high lighthouse, Pil'tun Lagoon can be seen stretching to the northern horizon. The 80-kilometer-long saltwater lagoon hosts a mélange of wildlife and is fed by a series of rivers that drain from inland mountains. The rivers are teeming with Pacific salmon. The lagoon is believed to be the incubator of a rich mix of nutrients that flows into the sea through the lagoon's only opening -- a 1-kilometer-wide channel near the lighthouse.

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