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.

"This is the first time that I ever felt like there was some amount of censorship going on," Weller says during an evening discussion in the Pil'tun bunkhouse. "To me, that's the hardest line to walk."

Before coming to Sakhalin, Weller's work was pure academic science. As an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, he worked in the dolphin- cognition laboratory studying language capabilities and conducting aerial surveys of humpback whales around the Hawaiian Islands.

Weller earned his master's degree at San Diego State focusing on bottlenose dolphins along the coasts of California and Baja. He moved on to Texas A&M for his doctoral studies, spending most of his time in the Gulf of Mexico studying social affiliations of bottlenose dolphins. He also got involved in a controversial underwater noise project, sponsored by the U.S. Navy and Scripps Institute of Oceanography and aimed at studying global warming. (Researchers broadcast loud underwater sounds and measured how fast they traveled through the ocean. Slight changes in ocean temperature, as global warming might cause, can impact how fast the sound travels.) It was during this research that he became acquainted with subtle behavioral changes in whales reacting to undersea noise.

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.
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.

Weller was tapped by Bob Brownell in 1997 to head up the field research team in Pil'tun, where Weller has spent the last four summers studying gray whales.

"This is truly a conservation-phase project," Weller says. "Anything we learn is new because the population is so unknown. Any information that we can provide to managers, for example, and even to industry to help them to mitigate things to conserve the population and the habitat is pretty neat. For me, it's very directly connected to conservation, which is a good feeling."

But that good feeling is steadily eroding.

During the last few years, Weller says he's become increasingly suspicious that the oil companies are controlling research to prevent the scientists from developing solid conclusions that can be used to develop a mitigation plan to protect the whales.

Weller says all of the research team's preliminary findings and recommendations are reviewed by oil-industry personnel and their outside consultants.

"In a lot of cases, they will say, "This section of the report is unacceptable based upon this, this, and this,'" he says.

Weller says the oil companies make it clear that the team's final report won't be acceptable if the controversial statements remain.

"We know full well if we leave it in there or if we try and argue for it that the report will never be finally accepted, and the contract can then be negated," Weller says.

"So, it's always been up to us to kind of compromise and to come up with ways to nevertheless say something, but either tone it down or remove it completely from what our original impressions were."

During the first two years of the field studies in 1997 and 1998, about $350,000 a year for research came from ExxonMobil, which has the concession to an offshore area known as Sakhalin I; and Sakhalin Energy Investment Co., which includes Shell, Mitsubishi, and Mitsui and has the concession to Sakhalin II. The money covered several studies -- including crucial monitoring of noise from oil-survey ships and behavioral observations from the lighthouse. The money, however, wasn't enough to begin vital baseline studies of the gray whales' benthic food supply off Pil'tun.

The funding amounts and relationship between the oil companies and researchers quickly degenerated.

"I think we have done such a good job that we have alienated ourselves, at least, from Exxon," says Weller during a round-table discussion at the dinner table.

What data have irritated Exxon?

For example, Weller says, "We have plenty of background information and data to show that they are truly endangered. [But] they didn't even want us to call them endangered."

If the oil companies were reluctant to acknowledge even the obvious, it was not surprising that they reacted strongly when data from the first two seasons showed possible negative impacts on the whales from the surveying ships' noise.

The ships bounce loud sound waves off the seabed to help determine how much oil may be below. The noise travels a great distance in the water and can be detected by whales up to 100 kilometers away.

In 1997 and 1998, researchers found fewer whales in their primary feeding zone immediately after seismic tests.

"This apparent change in overall whale occurrence could be related to individual whales reacting differently to seismic sound, by, for example, increasing travel speed, changing directions ... or changing basic behavior patterns of feeding, travel and socializing," the 1997 field report states.

Changes in the whales' swimming patterns are particularly important because that may indicate they are deviating from their normal feeding behavior.

"We do not presently know how to relate these findings to a possible "nervousness factor,' but hypothesize that it may be indicative of disturbance to feeding ...," the 1997 report states.

The researchers also conducted a study of whale behavior when there was no outside disturbance, when a temporary drilling rig was operating, and with the presence of the permanent production platform, the Molikpaq.

They found changes when noise was present, but the results of that study never made it into print.

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