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He thinks the whales haven't been able to eat enough to sustain that incredible biological process. So when a pregnant whale realizes she's not getting fat, "she buys out of the pregnancy early on rather than when she has a big investment in it," he says, in essence miscarrying the fetus.
One reason Perryman is convinced the calf problem is centered on the female simply not carrying the fetus to term is because scientists have not seen a large number of dead calves in the lagoons or along the beaches, as they would if the babies were being born and then died for some other reason.
In recent years, Perryman has focused his research on female gray whales, believing that the condition of the females may tip scientists to future problems with the entire population.
In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal. The trek joins the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists, and local residents. In this issue, Patti Epler explores the science, the money, and the politics behind gray whale research. With hundreds of whales mysteriously washing up dead and a plunging calf count coupled with reports of chemical contamination, scientific research has taken on a new urgency.
Visit Shades of Gray
A series documenting the perils, cultural conflicts and global and ecological warnings surrounding the gray whale.
So on the last couple of days in December and for a few days in January, Perryman will load high-tech camera gear on a twin-engine plane -- both of which he often borrows from pals in the military -- and fly over southbound gray whales as they pass the coast of Northern California, near San Simeon. At an altitude of about 600 feet, the "photogrammetry" technique is capable of capturing snapshots of migrating whales as if they were lying still.
Length, width, and shape of the whales is telling, and Perryman makes careful measurements from his photos. "As gray whales lose weight, the relationship between their length and width changes," he says. "They're shaped differently if they're pregnant, and near-term females are much wider."
Perryman says he has seen a change in the condition of the whales in the last three years -- a change for the worse because the whales are substantially skinnier. He is at work on a new scientific paper that moves beyond the increasing distinctions between fat and skinny whales, and looks at how skinny whales may be linked to calf production and ice conditions from 1997 to 2002. He concedes his ice-cover theory is just that -- a theory -- and hopes that someday various pieces of the puzzle will finally be thoroughly studied and the puzzle solved.
Perryman's work is a good example of the larger quandary facing scientists. The existing data suggests a serious problem, but the field research that would nail down the answer is still beyond their financial grasp.
"There is a very complex answer," he says. "I think we'll have enough information next year [before the IWC meeting] to have a good idea what's going on in the population. As far as having the entire picture wrapped up by next April, it's not going to happen."
Wayne Perryman's photogrammetry work has become one of the main components of NMFS' gray whale monitoring program. But the government pays nothing for the studies and Perryman has had to beg and borrow gear and aircraft in recent years to carry out the important research.
He's a personable guy, and the fact that he's a former naval officer helps when he needs to borrow a plane and the special camera gear from associates in the military.
"It's a real struggle," Perryman says. "I haven't been getting any money, so I've been stealing a bit from other people."
Lack of cash for work considered as significant as Perryman's demonstrates a fundamental truth of how science gets done in the 21st century. There's simply no money for a species that is not on the edge of extinction or showing signs of slipping that way.
"The most critically endangered species where we could mitigate the cause of the decline is our highest priority," says Doug DeMaster, who is head of NMFS' National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle and oversees much of the funding.
Until the strandings, researchers had been hard pressed to argue that the grays need more money. The population has been growing in number and it's been fairly easy -- and cheap, thanks in part to the dedication of researchers like Perryman -- to keep tabs on the whales. After all, they swim within sight of shore and have become a major attraction for eco-tourism companies. The semiannual Granite Canyon count, the calf production survey, and the photogrammetry work have been enough to appease NMFS when it comes to gray whales.
"The gray whales are very abundant, so, on the one hand, why worry about them?" says Dave Rugh, the NMFS biologist in Seattle who is in charge of the southbound counts. "But they are very visible and they have a lot of media and popular visibility. So we have to push to get out there and keep the counts going."
Other species of marine mammals present a much more compelling budgetary plea.
Consider the numbers: In the past five years, NMFS has spent a mere $500,000 on gray whale studies.
Compare that to about $12 million spent in the same period for the North Atlantic right whale, a species that is down to fewer than 300 and falling. The right whale money is split between grants for scientific research and cash to help coastal communities with conservation efforts. The government also has imposed special restrictions on the fishing and boating industries to protect right whales.