At the same time hundreds of dead gray whales were washing up on beaches, their birthrate was plunging. Theories abound, but little hard data has been gathered to solve this environmental puzzle.

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

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.

On a late spring day two years ago, veterinarian Frances Gulland perched precariously atop a large and very dead gray whale floating in San Francisco Bay. The doctor's grim task of slicing blubber from the thick skin of the 40-foot-long mammal was not made any easier by the cold chop rolling in under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Migrating whales captured by aerial photography.
Wayne Perryman
Migrating whales captured by aerial photography.

The position was certainly not a new one for Gulland, a staff veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. In 1999 and 2000, hundreds of gray whales washed up on Pacific Coast beaches from Bahia de Banderas in Mexico to the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska. Vets from the Sausalito center alone examined more than two dozen of the emaciated creatures, some still floating in nearshore waters, but many more decomposing on mudflats, beaches and rocky shorelines.

Scientists and others who tracked these unusual mortalities referred to the events as "strandings."

So many gray whales died those two years along the grays' migratory route that locals say there was good money to be made if you were an enterprising boat owner willing to tug stinking whale carcasses off the beaches and out of the bays to deeper water for disposal.

The spike in strandings happened during a cycle that saw the gray whale birthrate plummet; this year, scientists counted fewer gray whale calves than ever before. Calf production is down 83 percent from five years ago.

And there are other signs the gray whales may be in serious trouble. For the past couple of years, Siberian whalers have been reporting "stinky" whales -- grays that give off a strong medicinal odor that some scientists believe may signal chemical contamination.

While high strandings and low calf counts are besetting the Eastern Pacific gray whale -- the leviathan that hugs the coast of North America on its annual migration to and from the calving lagoons of Mexico -- scientists are also documenting problems with the Western Pacific gray whale, a second group belonging to the same species that populates the opposite side of the ocean.

The Western grays, found off the Russian coast near Sakhalin Island, have dwindled to fewer than 100. They have been deemed "critically endangered" by marine mammal officials. Scientists and environmentalists are urging an oil drilling consortium at work in the area to stop seismic exploration activity and take care not to disturb the whales that feed in the lagoon in summer.

The Eastern Pacific gray whale, on the other hand, had been an environmental success story. Once hunted nearly to extinction, an international ban on commercial hunting sparked a turnaround that led to its removal from the U.S. Endangered Species list. Having rebounded to historic levels -- roughly 26,000 grays by most estimates -- the whales' mortality rate and plunging calf count have scientists groping for answers.

What's going wrong?

Most explanations point to theories about potential problems with the whales' food supply, primarily in the Bering Sea. In summer, the giant whales must ingest huge amounts of tiny creatures called amphipods to sustain them on their migration down to Mexico and back up to Alaska again the next summer.

But no one knows what, if anything, is amiss with the amphipods. Some scientists believe a short-term "warm water event" like El Niño killed off the food supply for just a couple years. Some think recent severe winters in the far northern seas have left an ice cover over the feeding grounds for too long, so the whales didn't have enough time to eat. Several scientists are proposing that some sort of widespread environmental change is afoot -- like global warming wreaking havoc with the ecosystem in the Bering Sea. Still others say the whales may have reached their "carrying capacity," that there are just so many gray whales now that the environment can't sustain them.

But not one of these theories has been investigated.

Because there are thousands of Eastern Pacific gray whales, there is little money available for significant field studies. Limited government funding goes to marine mammals that are obviously on the verge of extinction.

Since dead gray whales started washing ashore in record numbers more than two years ago, no government or private researchers have been dispatched to the Bering Sea to examine the gray whale food supply.

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