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.

Within seconds, a powerful odor like burnt cauliflower envelops the air and lingers above the water for minutes. Researchers say the smell is related to the whale's feeding off the bottom of the sea floor 20 meters below.

Slowly, the whale's head surfaces for a brief moment to take in air through its two blowholes before it disappears beneath the murky water. As the whale's head descends, its black back arches above the surface like a cat's. The ridges on the dorsal spine drift past and, occasionally, the whale will flip its fluke as it dives for the sea floor.

Gray whales feed primarily on crustaceans and marine worms on the ocean floor, referred to by scientists as benthic prey. During the six-month feeding season, the whales eat 2,400 pounds a day, gaining up to 30 percent of their body weight. This must sustain them though their migration to breeding grounds during the winter, and the return trip to the feeding grounds.

Weller displays a piece of whale blubber lodged in the arrow's tip.
John Dougherty
Weller displays a piece of whale blubber lodged in the arrow's tip.
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winiter ice packs.
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winiter ice packs.

Grays are believed to live 50 to 60 years, but that is considered a rough estimate. Females are slightly larger than males, averaging 46 feet and weighing about 70,000 pounds.

Photographing the whales is relatively straightforward. Getting a biopsy sample is another story. Researchers are trying to get blubber samples from every whale to build a genetic database so they can determine, among other things, which whales are related to each other.

About midafternoon, a whale known only as No. 69 is spotted, and the team mobilizes for a biopsy. Weller trades his Nikon for a crossbow and a hollow-tipped arrow with a rubber float.

Burdin begins to close in on 69, but the whale is not going to cooperate. It dives and stays down for a couple of minutes, surfacing 30 meters off to the port. Burdin moves the Zodiac toward the whale as it submerges and pursues a course in the same direction. The whale, however, veers course underwater and pops up 20 meters behind the boat.

The dart-and-whale game goes on for 30 minutes.

Finally, Burdin maneuvers the Zodiac within three meters of the surfacing whale, and Weller fires off an arrow into its side. The whale reacts immediately with a powerful flip of its fluke, leaving a large splash in its wake.

Weller retrieves the arrow from the water. A piece of skin and blubber, about three inches long, hangs from the dart.

"Oh, my gosh," says Bradford, reacting to the unusually large sample.

"I think it is the yellow float," Weller says, indicating the float needs to be modified so the arrow doesn't take so much skin. In any case, the wound is harmless to the whale, he says. Weller puts the sample into a salt-saturated solution and stores it in an ice chest.

"We will use this tissue to look at population distinction between Eastern and Western gray whales," he says. "We will also use it for ... DNA fingerprinting, which will allow us to identify relatedness between individuals and gives us a fingerprint essentially of who they are."

Before the day's end, the researchers travel 41 kilometers north from the lighthouse and encounter 27 whales. On the trip back to Pil'tun, a light rain begins to fall, and the sea gets choppy. Three brightly colored tufted puffins accompany the crew for a distance. Harbor porpoises swim nearby. The blow from whales dots the horizon.

The crew hunkers down on the inflatable's sides, holding on to ropes as Burdin guns the engine to 40 kilometers per hour. Nine hours on the sea is exhausting, and everyone is looking forward to dinner.

Without warning, Burdin loses control of the motor, sending the boat into a sharp right turn. Perched on the left side of the boat, I am thrown into the air as centrifugal force proves impossible to overcome.

A split second later, I splash into the Sea of Okhotsk. The Sea of Death. The Mustang survival suit does what it is supposed to do: keep me afloat. The scientists struggle to pull me from the icy water back into the boat. Once I'm on board, someone pulls the suit's hood tight over my head. I am stunned. But the survival gear works like a wet suit, and within minutes my body temperature stabilizes.

It's still another 30 minutes to the lighthouse.

A couple rounds of vodka after a dinner of pasta and sturgeon trigger a raucous chorus of laughter, and the adventures of the day are commemorated with a hearty toast.

Mishaps come with the territory.

One year, a Texas A&M researcher spent a few days in the Okha hospital at death's door after accidentally eating a poisonous mushroom. Last year, one of the research team's Zodiacs was stolen off the beach, only to be found months later in an Okha warehouse. On another occasion, several team members were robbed while walking through the streets of Okha.

Despite the inherent hazards of living in one of the remotest areas of Russia, the working conditions have been the least of the scientists' multitude of challenges.

Getting the oil companies to accept their data and provide the necessary resources to properly conduct the studies has proven far more difficult.

During a series of interviews in Pil'tun and later from San Diego, Weller says he's slowly become convinced that the oil companies are "cleverly" working to sabotage the research project by censoring preliminary reports, cutting funding, and severing crucial noise research from whale-behavior research.

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