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.

Three years after the first stinky whale was discovered by whaling crews from Chukotka in the Russian Far East, U.S. scientists have yet to perform analyses on tissue and blubber samples of the smelly whales. In fact, this summer the Russian government turned away a scientific team from Alaska that was endorsed by the International Whaling Commission to help the Siberians.

The only research on the plight of the Western Pacific gray whales has been paid for by the very oil companies that are working in the area. The scientists say their findings have been compromised and in some instances suppressed, leading the IWC, at its annual meeting in July, to call for an independent review of findings by scientists not on the payroll of industry.

And even examination of the stranded whales themselves has been lacking. Although more than 600 whales died on beaches and in nearshore waters, only about 100 of them were tested for chemical contamination or other unseen problems. Fewer than 10 full necropsies were performed, and, until recently, veterinarians like Gulland, from Mexico to Alaska to Russia, had no standard protocol to follow to ensure that all researchers were collecting scientifically consistent information.

Frances Gulland, head veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, takes blubber samples from a dead whale in the San Francisco Bay area.
Frances Gulland, head veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, takes blubber samples from a dead whale in the San Francisco Bay area.
The gray whales' primary feeding ground and main migration route are within areas that the federal government wants to offer for oil and gas leases.
Matt Kania
The gray whales' primary feeding ground and main migration route are within areas that the federal government wants to offer for oil and gas leases.

This year, the mystery of the gray whales deepened. The strandings have virtually stopped. Only 13 dead whales were counted along West Coast beaches during the spring and summer. And whale counters who watched the 2001 migration have reported that the whales appeared fatter and healthier than they have in years.

No one knows why the strandings stopped. More to the point, scientists don't know why so many whales died in the first place. It's an environmental conundrum that government officials now are calling a random event, even though examinations of the dead whales consistently showed the animals were starving.

But the mystery of the strandings should not be left behind so quickly. Whatever the explanation for the low stranding rate this year, birthrates for the grays continue to drop. So the problem is not merely a piece of theoretical jerky to be chewed upon.

Significant national and international policy decisions are looming that could affect the gray whale population. In six months, the International Whaling Commission will meet again, this time in Japan, to decide how many Eastern Pacific gray whales can be harvested by aboriginal hunters in Washington state and Russia without harming the overall whale population.

The federal Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore oil and gas projects, will soon be offering up new oil and gas leases in the Alaska region. Eight of the areas up for grabs include main migration routes and primary feeding grounds for gray whales.

And in Canada, the oil industry is pushing to lift the moratorium that has been preventing oil and gas development off the Canadian west coast -- a main migratory path for the grays.

Some scientists and environmentalists worry that this year's lack of strandings is the random event, that the grays are in the eye of some bigger ecological storm that begins in the far northern feeding grounds of the Bering Sea.

Ten years ago, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks researcher counted amphipods in the Bering Sea and predicted that in about the year 2000 gray whales would be in some trouble. He believed the fast-growing whale population was wiping out the amphipods, which take many years to reproduce.

Now, that same scientist, Ray Highsmith, has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to return to the Bering Sea. Next summer's feeding grounds study should -- finally -- answer the fundamental question of whether the gray whales have reached carrying capacity or if there is some larger environmental problem at work.

The questions are vital. If the grays' food supply is threatened, oil drilling in gray whale territory or continued hunting on the open seas could have serious long-term consequences.

Today, there is little hard data upon which to make those decisions.

Right now, daylight in the Bering Sea is down to less than eight hours a day and fading at a fairly rapid meteorological clip. Scientists believe it is this shortening of days that signals the gray whales it's time to head south for warmer habitat, the lagoons of Baja California, 6,000 miles away.

By January, the bulk of the migration will be passing along the northern California coast, in particular a point called Granite Canyon where trained observers with the National Marine Fisheries Service will count them as they go by.

Scientists have been standing on cliffs counting the whales for more than 100 years. In 1885, the biologist C.H. Townsend watched the whales from the hills at San Simeon, where Hearst Castle now stands, and counted 160 of the leviathans. He had no way of estimating the size of the entire population beyond what he could see.

But Townsend's quasi-official count came a mere three decades after the notorious whaling captain Charles Melville Scammon decimated the gray whale population. Scammon, who is also credited with providing much of the early information on gray whale migration and behavior, discovered the calving lagoons of Baja -- then nearly wiped out the mammals in his zest for whale oil.

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