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.

A U.S. lending agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., is accepting Sakhalin Energy's reports as gospel.

"Our environmental team has not found conclusive evidence reported to them that the project has had an adverse effect on the whales," says an OPIC spokesman.

With neither the scientists nor the lenders challenging the oil companies and the accuracy of their reports, it is unlikely the research at Pil'tun will lead to a suitable habitat-conservation plan as called for in the 1997 agreement.

From left, Amanda Bradford, Dave Weller, Yulia Ivashchenko, and Sasha Burdin cruise across the Sea of Okhotsk in their Zodiac.
John Dougherty
From left, Amanda Bradford, Dave Weller, Yulia Ivashchenko, and Sasha Burdin cruise across the Sea of Okhotsk in their Zodiac.
Sasha Burdin, one of Russia's top whale specialists, says offshore oil drilling will destroy the whale's habitat.
John Dougherty
Sasha Burdin, one of Russia's top whale specialists, says offshore oil drilling will destroy the whale's habitat.

"They have tied our hands on many of the methods we need in order to make the proper assessment," Weller says.

Sakhalin Energy officials say scientists have received adequate funding to conduct research. The company says the Pil'tun team is unwilling to share resources with Russian scientists.

The scale of the Sakhalin offshore oil development will transform a coastline that is largely devoid of industrial activity into one the world's major oil and gas fields, on a par with Alaska's North Slope.

Sasha Burdin has seen the devastating ecological impacts of his native Russia's onshore oil industry and is pessimistic about what large-scale development will do to the whales and other marine mammals and fish.

"When they start digging up oil, or gold mining, or something else, it's too late," Burdin says. "The area will be destroyed."

The photo-ID work conducted the last four years at Pil'tun has identified 94 Western Pacific gray whales among this population that 30 years ago was thought to be extinct. Bob Brownell suggested in 1976 that a remnant population survived, and Russian scientists finally spotted small numbers off Sakhalin in 1979.

The data also indicate that fewer than 50 of the whales are mature enough to breed. This is a crucial benchmark that last year led the World Conservation Union, a Switzerland-based international wildlife conservation agency, to designate the Western Pacific grays as "critically endangered." Researchers hope the designation, the union's most serious short of extinction, and the first for any species of whale, will attract more attention to the project -- and more funds independent of the oil companies.

The Pil'tun research also has determined that the Western Pacific grays and the more numerous Eastern Pacific grays differ genetically, even though they are considered the same species.

"I think this is very powerful information showing that indeed, not only are [Western grays] few in numbers, but the breeding populations are probably separate from each other," Weller says.

Researchers believe the populations have been separate for as many as 10,000 to 15,000 years, perhaps drifting apart during the last ice age.

The separate populations mean the only chance for the Western gray whales to survive is for the remaining 50 or so mature animals to successfully breed.

"If of those 50, 40 of them are males, then it is really a problem," Weller says.

So far, Weller says, they don't definitively know the male-female breakdown. They do know that the same reproductive females are returning year after year to Pil'tun. These whales require the most food because they are pregnant or nursing.

"To us, this is an indication that this is probably one, if not the only, important feeding ground for the population," Weller says.

So far, the Western Pacific grays have not shown the unusual behavior of some Eastern Pacific grays in their winter lagoons on the western coast of Baja. Those Eastern grays will approach small boats, nudge their calves forward, and allow humans to touch them. They have become tourist attractions for their friendly behavior.

"We haven't seen the same type of behavior," Weller says.

Instead, mothers with calves are typically quite skittish early in the season, making it difficult for researchers to approach and take photographs. But over a few months, the whales become accustomed to the Zodiacs and in some cases approach the boats.

"Not to the point they are friendly whales, popping their heads up, but actually coming closer to us and much easier to follow and easier to photograph," he says.

Unlike the whales in Baja that are mating and calving, the Sakhalin whales are focused on feeding.

"They got a job to do here," Weller says. "They are feeding, feeding, feeding. There is not much social behavior."

The Western gray whales arrive in Sakhalin in May and stay until November, when the sea begins to freeze into a massive ice pack. The whales then travel south, and records indicate they pass both the west and east coasts of Japan, traveling through the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, respectively.

But where the whales actually congregate to mate and give birth is unknown.

"It's strange, actually, that they disappear," Burdin says. "They need to congregate to breed. They need to meet each other. But where?"

The scientists want to attach satellite transmitters to several whales in hopes of tracking them to their breeding lagoons, believed to be in the South China Sea. They have raised some funds and built transmitters, but so far the Russian government has refused to approve permits to bring the transmitters to Pil'tun.

It's uncertain whether the Western Pacific gray whales can reproduce fast enough to stem the tide pushing them toward extinction.

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