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.

Researchers believe the gray whales return each summer to Pil'tun to feast on the benthic soup fed by the nutrients generated by the lagoon. The symbiotic relationship between the lagoon and the gray whales has remained unchanged for eons.

Only now is that crucial link showing signs of decay.

At night, an eerie orange glow contaminates the dark sky. It first appeared in July 1999 when production began on the giant oil rig Molikpaq, which sends up a fireball fueled by vented natural gas.

Pil'tun field leader David Weller with biopsy crossbow.
John Dougherty
Pil'tun field leader David Weller with biopsy crossbow.
David Weller prepares to fire a hollow-tipped arrow to take a biopsy from a Western Pacific gray whale.
John Dougherty
David Weller prepares to fire a hollow-tipped arrow to take a biopsy from a Western Pacific gray whale.

About the time the purity of the night sky was spoiled, the gray whales began moving farther north, away from the mouth of Pil'tun Lagoon, and away from the oil rig's steady stream of loud noises. Such industrial noises have been well documented to disturb Eastern Pacific gray whales.

Prominent bioacoustic whale biologist Marilyn Dahlheim of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory has conducted groundbreaking research on the impact of underwater noise on Eastern Pacific gray whales for two decades. In the 1980s, she broadcast underwater noise into a Mexican lagoon where gray whales congregate in the winter to mate and give birth. The sounds, which included industrial noises, appeared to cause most of the whales to abandon the lagoon for the season.

In a recent report, Dahlheim stated that underwater noise, both natural and man-made, has a "profound effect on the behavior" of gray whales.

The impact of the Molikpaq oil rig and its noise on the Western Pacific grays so far is inconclusive. Scientists have collected preliminary data that indicate the whales are being affected by offshore noise, but more funding and better research are needed before they can reach definitive conclusions.

At the lighthouse, the good weather is spurring the researchers to move quickly. They finish breakfast and head into the foyer to put on orange Mustang survival suits -- an absolute necessity in case of a fall into the 40-degree sea.

The two Zodiacs are quickly hauled down to the lagoon. There is little chatter as the mosquitoes -- impervious to copious amounts of insect repellent -- launch dreadful attacks on the researchers' faces as they load cameras, a crossbow with hollow-tipped arrows, snacks, water, and monitoring equipment into the vessels.

Welts form on foreheads and cheeks as the crew members jump into the Zodiacs, fire up the outboard engines, and head toward the Sea of Okhotsk in search of gray whales.

"Blow!" says Yulia Ivashchenko, pointing toward the horizon where a faint column of mist is dissipating.

Alexander (Sasha) Burdin guns the 40-horsepower Johnson outboard motor -- which is in serious need of an overhaul -- and the Zodiac lunges toward the morning's first gray whale.

Made famous by Greenpeace activists in ocean encounters with industrial polluters, the Zodiac is the perfect research vessel for navigating the choppy Okhotsk. It's fast, stable, maneuverable, and cheap to operate.

Burdin, a 45-year-old marine biologist from the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology and Nature Management, switches on a portable radio and asks for better coordinates of the whale from 23-year-old Irina Zhilinsky, who is perched atop the lighthouse scanning the horizon. A quick conversation in Russian ensues, and Burdin shifts course slightly.

In the bow, Dave Weller, the 38-year-old field leader from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, prepares his Nikon camera with a 100mm to 300mm zoom lens for the day's first whale encounter. Next to him, Ivashchenko, a 25-year-old graduate student from Yaroslavl State University near Moscow, readies her video camera.

Perched in the middle of the crowded boat, Amanda Bradford, a 25-year-old graduate student from the University of Washington, flips through her cheat sheet of whale photographs to assist her in identifying the cetaceans, most of which have nicknames to go with their identification numbers. Bradford's duties also require her to record the location of each whale with a global position satellite monitor, frequently take water salinity and temperature measurements, and record the sea depth.

The Zodiac quickly approaches a pod of three whales, and Burdin cuts the throttle about 50 meters out. The researchers know most of the whales immediately -- grays are relatively easy to identify because their sides are covered with unique patterns of barnacles and sea lice that serve as a fingerprint.

Sometimes the grays are named after a quirky behavior or physical characteristic such as "Speedy," "Flaming Eyeball," "Sunglare," and "Pirate." Other whales are named after researchers -- "Dave," "Yulia," "Sasha," and "Amanda." One of the primary goals is to identify photographically as many whales as possible to establish a firm population estimate. Researchers are confident there are only about 100 Western Pacific gray whales, with fewer than 50 of them mature adults capable of breeding.

Burdin slowly moves the Zodiac within a few meters of one of the whales -- Flaming Eyeball -- while Weller and Ivashchenko photograph first its left side, then its right side, then its fluke.

The weather is warm, the sea is calm, and the whales are everywhere.

Sometimes the researchers hear the whale before it surfaces, as the powerful exhale begins beneath the water line -- "Pwhoooshhh." A column of water shoots into the air five meters or so, with the sunlight sometimes refracting into a rainbow of colors.

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