Russian Roulette | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Russian Roulette

Shades of Gray Second in a series New Times continues this week with its series on the gray whale -- its questionable health, its environmental symbolism and the cultural conflicts it is generating from the Siberian Arctic to the warm lagoons of Mexico. On March 29 ("Dying Breeds," David Holthouse),...
Share this:
Shades of Gray
Second in a series

New Times continues this week with its series on the gray whale -- its questionable health, its environmental symbolism and the cultural conflicts it is generating from the Siberian Arctic to the warm lagoons of Mexico.

On March 29 ("Dying Breeds," David Holthouse), we revealed the precarious position of Siberian Eskimos who are fighting off starvation by restoring their lost tradition of hunting whales, while facing a new, previously unreported threat: The Eastern Pacific gray whales they hunt appear to be starving and possibly poisoned.

In this issue, John Dougherty tells another story that has not been told: The Western Pacific gray whale, once thought extinct, but feeding in small numbers in the Sea of Okhotsk near Japan, is endangered by an American-Russian oil-development project that could wipe it out once and for all.

Pil'tun Lighthouse, Sakhalin, Russia -- The gray whale breaks the surface of the Sea of Okhotsk and sets a course for the inflatable Zodiac.

Unlike its brethren that the team of Russian and American marine biologists has been tracking all morning, this whale doesn't immediately dive to resume feeding off the shallow bottom. Instead, the whale stays on the surface, swimming straight toward the Zodiac, the boat's engine idling in the frigid sea three kilometers from shore.

The whale's head rises high in the water, exposing the yellowish baleen hanging from its jaws. It glides past the five-meter boat with 10 meters to spare.

The crew stares into the eye of the whale, a split second before it disappears under the water.

Suddenly, the whale's head bursts through the surface 20 meters from the boat and surges toward the sky, pulling half of its 40-foot body out of the water. Casually, the 60,000-pound whale rotates onto its back as it falls into the sea with a tremendous splash before vanishing once again beneath the waves.

The breaching whale triggers a round of jubilant exclamations -- even from four seasoned scientists who spend each summer zipping across the Okhotsk studying one of the world's rarest and most endangered whales -- the Western Pacific gray.

The show isn't over yet.

The whale, named Balamoot by the scientists, punctures the surface once again, providing an encore breach to wrap up another day of research on this remote and fertile sea wedged between the Siberian coast to the west, the Kamchatka peninsula to the east and Japan to the south.

The scientists have traveled from across Russia and the United States to study and help create a plan to save one of the most threatened populations of whales on earth. Once thought extinct, the Western Pacific grays tenaciously cling to survival with a mere 100 or so remaining from a family that once numbered 15,000.

The team has spent the last four summers photographing, counting and studying these whales that have survived decades of industrial hunting, only now to face another lethal threat, this time on their rich feeding grounds off the northeastern coast of the Russian province of Sakhalin, a 900-kilometer-long island north of Japan.

A combination of politics, economics and oil has conspired to make the whales' only known summer feeding range the epicenter of an international effort to develop vast oil and gas reserves locked beneath the sea floor.

Sakhalin's offshore oil reserves would have remained untapped -- and the whales left in peace -- were it not for a historic agreement negotiated by then-U.S. vice president Al Gore and Russian premier Viktor Chernomyrdin in 1994.

The agreement called for multinational oil companies to provide the capital and technology to develop Sakhalin's energy fields, while Russia -- for the first time -- would allow foreign companies access to its reserves. The oil companies and Russia would split the profits. Tapping the huge energy fields could lead to more than $40 billion in investment in one of Russia's poorest regions.

But lost in the euphoria over a brighter future for this forgotten province was the Western Pacific gray whale. None of the negotiators who hammered out the groundbreaking agreement was concerned about the possible impact on the whales. In fact, most assumed the Western grays were gone. Experts had declared them extinct 30 years ago.

Luckily for the whales, they had a champion in California marine biologist Robert Brownell. He had argued all along that this lost tribe had not really disappeared, and he was later proved correct. By the early 1980s, Russian scientists knew that a handful of Western Pacific grays returned each summer to Sakhalin, near the mouth of nutrient-rich Pil'tun Lagoon. Each winter, the whales depart for points unknown -- but believed to be in the South China Sea -- to mate and give birth.

When Brownell -- one of America's top marine mammal scientists who is also adept in the back hallways of international politics -- blew the whistle in 1996 about the critical location of the whales' feeding grounds, there was a stunned reaction from Moscow, Washington and oil headquarters throughout the world.

"You have to be kidding," was the response Brownell says he got.

Brownell pressed on and persuaded the Clinton administration to support research on the whales' natural environment. On February 7, 1997, Gore and Chernomyrdin signed a joint statement "on measures to ensure conservation of biological diversity near Sakhalin Island." A consortium of oil companies led by Sakhalin Energy Investment Company agreed to fund the lighthouse research team with $350,000 a year.

That's the last time the United States and Russia took any significant steps to ensure the whales' survival.

An eight-month investigation by New Times reveals that environmental negligence by the oil companies and lax oversight by international lenders -- combined with inaction by environmental groups and moribund response from Russian and American government agencies -- are threatening to wipe out the remaining Western Pacific gray whales.

Among New Times' findings:

• Not only are Western Pacific grays dwindling in number, they are getting weaker each year. Of the 54 whales identified on the feeding grounds last summer, 27 appeared to be seriously malnourished, preliminary reports say. Unless something is done right away, Russian environmental authorities say, the whales will be extinct in three years.

• The companies harvesting the oil have reduced funding for the scientists who are documenting how drilling affects the whales. The research biologists, living in crude, mosquito-infested quarters at a remote lighthouse camp, began documenting in 1997 and 1998 how drilling, blasting and seismic underwater testing by oil-survey ships were changing the whales' behavior. The consortium of oil companies that pays for the studies then cut the research budget by 60 percent in 1999. It cut funds again in 2000 to a meager $99,000.

• Not only have the companies reduced funding, but scientists say their findings are being censored and sabotaged by the consortium that pays for the studies. They say threats to the whales were ordered excised from annual reports, and research work was split between Russian and American scientists, preventing crucial cross-referencing to reach conclusions. Researchers, until now, have remained quiet about their concerns, fearing a Sophie's Choice of having their research eliminated or having their results distorted and used to justify drilling that pushes the whales toward extinction. In response to New Times' questions, at least one major investor, Mitsubishi, said it was committed to research on the whales and would investigate the scientists' complaints.

• Sakhalin Energy has failed, after more than four years, to publish and put in place a habitat-protection plan for the whales, as required by international loan agreements and strongly suggested by the Gore-Chernomyrdin statement. The company says the protection plan, which is expected in 2002, will not be made public.

• The threat of a major oil spill is high; a minor one has already occurred. Earthquakes wrack the region, and winter ice packs limit offshore oil production to six months a year. The production sequence is tricky and fraught with danger, particularly when transferring the oil to tankers. Experts have sharply criticized Sakhalin Energy's plan for responding to an oil spill.

• The United States is practically a no-show in protecting the whales, giving only about $20,000 for environmental studies. Yet it has provided hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of financing and risk insurance to the oil companies to protect their investment -- at American taxpayers' expense -- in the event of political upheaval in Russia.

• Major environmental groups are a no-show, too. They have virtually ignored the plight of the Western Pacific gray whale while focusing worldwide attention on protecting its less-endangered cousin, the Eastern Pacific gray whale. The Eastern grays number more than 26,000 and have been removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list, although they have recently begun giving birth to fewer calves, showing up malnourished and dying in larger numbers.

New Times' reporting suggests that the study of the Western grays could offer invaluable points of comparison for deciphering the apparent slide in the Eastern gray's recovery. Study of the Western grays may also discount a theory supported by proponents of commercial whaling -- that the Eastern grays are so populous they are outstripping their food supply and so should have their herd thinned, so to speak, by loosening international limits on whale hunting. But if the tiny population of Western grays is starving, too, it could hardly be overgrazing its food base.

• The pressure to hunt more whales is growing, and meat from endangered Western Pacific grays is showing up on Japanese dinner plates. The Japanese, who have major public and private investments in the Sakhalin offshore oil rigs, are pushing to lift the worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling put in place in 1986. The Japanese are allowed to conduct "scientific" whale hunts under the ban, and a New Zealand researcher recently detected Western Pacific gray whale meat in Japanese market samples for the first time. Whale meat fetches up to $500 per kilogram in Japan.

These developments couldn't have come at a worse time for the Western Pacific gray whales.

Scientists are unsure what's causing the "skinny" whales. They speculate it could be an oceanwide disease reducing the amphipods that gray whales eat. It could be other cyclical changes in the quality or quantity of their prey due to El Niño or La Niña weather patterns. It could be the consequence of sudden industrialization a short 20 kilometers away from the primary feeding zone.

More ominously, scientists fear that global warming could be having an oceanwide impact on the gray whales' food supply, which in turn is slowly starving one of the largest mammals on earth.

"It may be an ocean-basin-wide, or even global change that is going on, and these are the first signals that we are getting," says marine biologist Dave Weller, who has directed gray whale field studies from Pil'tun the last four years. "But we don't know. Nobody has got their finger on that pulse. So we don't really know."

As summer approaches, the marine biologists, scattered from San Diego to Seattle to Kamchatka to Moscow, await word on whether they will have money to continue working on a program to minimize the effects of the rapid and noisy deployment of industrial machinery off the coast of Sakhalin.

They know their work is crucial.

They are either documenting the final days of one of the world's largest creatures, or they are witnessing the beginning steps to recovery of a species on the brink.

The outlook is not good.

"There's 100 Western Pacific gray whales. It's in the Russian Far East, where there is no real legal framework or enforcement. There is zero money going into protecting them and huge oil companies that have massive profits on their mind," says Jared Blumenthal, program director of habitat for animals for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

"The chances of saving them are pretty grim."

First light brings welcome news.

"Good weather!" booms a voice from the kitchen.

The skies are clear. The fog has lifted. Seas are calm, and the mosquitoes are swarming.

The seven members of the research team -- five Russians and two Americans -- scramble from their plywood bunks and quickly converge in the kitchen. The smoky, cast-iron wood stove heats coffee. Fresh-baked bread is cut and smothered with cheese and jam.

There is no time to waste. Good weather doesn't come often and may not last long at the Pil'tun lighthouse camp overlooking the Sea of Okhotsk, also known to the native population as the Sea of Death.

The encampment is enchantingly rugged and quiet -- save a few hours in the evening when the diesel generator is fired up to power the beacon atop the red-and-white steel-panel lighthouse tower. There are no cars or roads, just pathways through the sand and scattered patches of tundra.

Isolated from the outside world -- telephone communication is restricted to a 15-minute window each evening via a satellite phone -- the four women and three men who manned the research station last August lead a rustic and simple life that naturally keeps them focused on the task at hand -- to study the gray whales.

The biologists share a 20-meter-long, wood-frame and tarpaper fourplex with two Russian families who operate the lighthouse -- one of more than a dozen that encircle Sakhalin Island. The fourplex was badly damaged in a 1995 earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) that leveled the nearby town of Neftegorsk, killing 2,000 people. Researchers rebuilt part of the structure, adding men's and women's bunkhouses and crafting a crude but functional kitchen out of scrap.

Researchers take advantage of the evening electricity to recharge batteries, listen to music (Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Beatles) and download data into laptop computers. It's also the only time hot running water is available -- a byproduct of cooling the generator. The team queues up for showers in the generator shed, with each person getting a turn every couple of days.

Drinking water comes from a well beneath the kitchen table. The water is pumped each evening into an open 55-gallon plastic drum, then filtered with portable water-purifying kits. A single-hole outhouse suffices for a toilet.

Reindeer herders occasionally stop at the camp to smoke cigarettes and exchange stories with the lighthouse keepers and their families, tying their animals to a hitching post. Only the dogs and the keepers' young children spend much time outside, seemingly oblivious to the dense thicket of mosquitoes that swarm unmercifully when the air is still.

The encampment is in one of the remotest spots in Sakhalin, which itself is considered an exotic and infamous locale by most Russians. During czarist Russia, Sakhalin became a giant penal colony, and it was used as a dumping ground for undesirables during the Russian purges of the 20th century. Russian writer Anton Chekhov made the island notorious in his 1890s book A Journey to Sakhalin: "I have seen Ceylon which is paradise and Sakhalin which is hell."

Sakhalin burst into international prominence in September 1983, when Soviet MiG fighters scrambled from heavily fortified airfields and shot down Korean Air Flight 007 after the Boeing 747 pierced Sakhalin's restricted air space. But Sakhalin soon receded from the world's attention and resumed its status as one of the poorest provinces in Russia.

The closest large city is Okha, a decrepit oil town (population 36,000) on the northern end of the island. There are no paved roads from Okha to Pil'tun; in fact, most of the way, there is no road at all. It takes four hours to traverse the rugged, largely undeveloped and stunningly beautiful coastline in an old Soviet army jeep expertly driven by former Okha police chief Yuri Shvetsov.

The final stretch of the journey is a quick ride on a Zodiac across the narrow Pil'tun Lagoon to the lighthouse, which also serves as a terrific observation point for biologists scanning the horizon with high-powered binoculars to watch the gray whales graze from the shallow sea shelf.

From the top of the 35-meter-high lighthouse, Pil'tun Lagoon can be seen stretching to the northern horizon. The 80-kilometer-long salt-water lagoon hosts a mélange of wildlife and is fed by a series of rivers that drain from inland mountains. The rivers are teeming with Pacific salmon. The lagoon is believed to be the incubator of a rich mix of nutrients that flows into the sea through the lagoon's only opening -- a 1-kilometer-wide channel near the lighthouse.

Researchers believe the gray whales return each summer to Pil'tun to feast on the benthic soup fed by the nutrients generated by the lagoon. The symbiotic relationship between the lagoon and the gray whales has remained unchanged for eons.

Only now is that crucial link showing signs of decay.

At night, an eerie orange glow contaminates the dark sky. It first appeared in July 1999 when production began on the giant oil rig Molikpaq, which sends up a fireball fueled by vented natural gas.

About the same time the purity of the night sky was spoiled, the gray whales began moving farther north, away from the mouth of Pil'tun Lagoon, and away from the oil rig's steady stream of loud noises. Such industrial noises have been well documented to disturb Eastern Pacific gray whales.

Prominent bioacoustic whale biologist Marilyn Dahlheim of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory has conducted groundbreaking research on the impact of underwater noise on Eastern Pacific gray whales for two decades. In the 1980s, she broadcast underwater noise into a Mexican lagoon where gray whales congregate in the winter to mate and give birth. The sounds, which included industrial noises, appeared to cause most of the whales to abandon the lagoon for the season.

In a recent report, Dahlheim stated that underwater noise, both natural and manmade, has a "profound effect on the behavior" of gray whales.

The impact of the Molikpaq oil rig and its noise on the Western Pacific grays so far is inconclusive. Scientists have collected preliminary data that indicate the whales are being impacted by offshore noise, but more funding and better research are needed before they can reach definitive conclusions.

At the lighthouse, the good weather is spurring the researchers to move quickly. They finish breakfast and head into the foyer to put on orange Mustang survival suits -- an absolute necessity in case of a fall into the 40-degree sea.

The two Zodiacs are quickly hauled down to the lagoon. There is little chatter as the mosquitoes -- impervious to copious amounts of insect repellent -- launch dreadful attacks on the researchers' faces as they load cameras, a crossbow with hollow-tipped arrows, snacks, water and monitoring equipment into the vessels.

Welts form on foreheads and cheeks as the crew members jump into the Zodiacs, fire up the outboard engines and head toward the Sea of Okhotsk in search of gray whales.

"Blow!" says Yulia Ivashchenko, pointing toward the horizon where a faint column of mist is dissipating.

Alexander (Sasha) Burdin guns the 40-horsepower Johnson outboard motor -- which is in serious need of an overhaul -- and the Zodiac lunges toward the morning's first gray whale.

Made famous by Greenpeace activists in ocean encounters with industrial polluters, the Zodiac is the perfect research vessel for navigating the choppy Okhotsk. It's fast, stable, maneuverable and cheap to operate.

Burdin, a 45-year-old marine biologist from the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology and Nature Management, switches on a portable radio and asks for better coordinates of the whale from 23-year-old Irina Zhilinsky, who is perched atop the lighthouse scanning the horizon. A quick conversation in Russian ensues, and Burdin shifts course slightly.

In the bow, Dave Weller, the 38-year-old field leader from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, prepares his Nikon camera with a 100 mm to 300 mm zoom lens for the day's first whale encounter. Next to him, Ivashchenko, a 25-year-old graduate student from Yaroslavl State University near Moscow, readies her video camera.

Perched in the middle of the crowded boat, Amanda Bradford, a 25-year-old graduate student from the University of Washington, flips through her cheat sheet of whale photographs to assist her in identifying the cetaceans, most of which have nicknames to go with their identification numbers. Bradford's duties also require her to record the location of each whale with a global position satellite monitor, frequently take water salinity and temperature measurements and record the sea depth.

The Zodiac quickly approaches a pod of three whales, and Burdin cuts the throttle about 50 meters out. The researchers know most of the whales immediately -- grays are relatively easy to identify because their sides are covered with unique patterns of barnacles and sea lice that serve as a fingerprint.

Sometimes the grays are named after a quirky behavior or physical characteristic such as "Speedy," "Flaming Eyeball," "Sunglare" and "Pirate." Other whales are named after researchers -- "Dave," "Yulia," "Sasha" and "Amanda." One of the primary goals is to identify photographically as many whales as possible to establish a firm population estimate. Researchers are confident there are only about 100 Western Pacific gray whales, with fewer than 50 of them mature adults capable of breeding.

Burdin slowly moves the Zodiac within a few meters of one of the whales -- Flaming Eyeball -- while Weller and Ivashchenko photograph first its left side, then its right side, then its fluke.

The weather is warm, the sea is calm and the whales are everywhere.

Sometimes the researchers hear the whale before it surfaces, as the powerful exhale begins beneath the water line -- "Pwhoooshhh." A column of water shoots into the air five meters or so, with the sunlight sometimes refracting into a rainbow of colors.

Within seconds, a powerful odor like burnt cauliflower envelops the air and lingers above the water for minutes. Researchers say the smell is related to the whale's feeding off the bottom of the sea floor 20 meters below.

Slowly, the whale's head surfaces for a brief moment to take in air through its two blow holes before it disappears beneath the murky water. As the whale's head descends, its black back arches above the surface like a cat's. The ridges on the dorsal spine drift past and, occasionally, the whale will flip its fluke as it dives for the sea floor.

Gray whales feed primarily on crustaceans and marine worms on the ocean floor, referred to by scientists as "benthic" prey. During the six-month feeding season, the whales eat 2,400 pounds a day, gaining up to 30 percent of their body weight. This must sustain them though their migration to breeding grounds during the winter, and the return trip to the feeding grounds.

Grays are believed to live 50 to 60 years, but that is considered a rough estimate. Females are slightly larger than males, averaging 46 feet and weighing about 70,000 pounds.

Photographing the whales is relatively straightforward. Getting a biopsy sample is another story. Researchers are trying to get blubber samples from every whale to build a genetic database so they can determine, among other things, which whales are related to each other.

About mid-afternoon, a whale known only as number 69 is spotted, and the team mobilizes for a biopsy. Weller trades his Nikon for a crossbow and a hollow-tipped arrow with a rubber float.

Burdin begins to close in on 69, but the whale is not going to cooperate. It dives and stays down for a couple of minutes, surfacing 30 meters off to the port. Burdin moves the Zodiac toward the whale as it submerges and pursues a course in the same direction. The whale, however, veers course underwater and pops up 20 meters behind the boat.

The dart-and-whale game goes on for 30 minutes.

Finally, Burdin maneuvers the Zodiac within three meters of the surfacing whale, and Weller fires off an arrow into its side. The whale reacts immediately with a powerful flip of its fluke, leaving a large splash in its wake.

Weller retrieves the arrow from the water. A piece of skin and blubber, about three inches long, hangs from the dart.

"Oh, my gosh," says Bradford, reacting to the unusually large sample.

"I think it is the yellow float," Weller says, indicating the float needs to be modified so the arrow doesn't take so much skin. In any case, the wound is harmless to the whale, he says. Weller puts the sample into a salt-saturated solution and stores it in an ice chest.

"We will use this tissue to look at population distinction between Eastern and Western gray whales," he says. "We will also use it for . . . DNA fingerprinting, which will allow us to identify relatedness between individuals and gives us a fingerprint essentially of who they are."

Before the day's end, the researchers travel 41 kilometers north from the lighthouse and encounter 27 whales. On the trip back to Pil'tun, a light rain begins to fall, and the sea gets choppy. Three brightly colored tufted puffins accompany the crew for a distance. Harbor porpoises swim nearby. The blow from whales dots the horizon.

The crew hunkers down on the inflatable's sides, holding on to ropes as Burdin guns the engine to 40 kilometers per hour. Nine hours on the sea is exhausting, and everyone is looking forward to dinner.

Without warning, Burdin loses control of the motor, sending the boat into a sharp right turn. Perched on the left side of the boat, I am thrown into the air as centrifugal force proves impossible to overcome.

A split second later, I splash into the Sea of Okhotsk. The Sea of Death. The Mustang survival suit does what it is supposed to do: keep me afloat. The scientists struggle to pull me from the icy water back into the boat. Once on board, someone pulls the suit's hood tight over my head. I am stunned. But the survival gear works like a wet suit, and within minutes my body temperature stabilizes.

It's still another 30 minutes to the lighthouse.

A couple rounds of vodka after a dinner of pasta and sturgeon trigger a raucous chorus of laughter, and the adventures of the day are commemorated with a hearty toast.

Mishaps come with the territory.

One year, a Texas A&M researcher spent a few days in the Okha hospital at death's door after accidentally eating a poisonous mushroom. Last year, one of the research team's Zodiacs was stolen off the beach, only to be found months later in an Okha warehouse. On another occasion, several team members were robbed while walking through the streets of Okha.

Despite the inherent hazards of living in one of the remotest areas of Russia, the working conditions have been the least of the scientists' multitude of challenges.

Getting the oil companies to accept their data and provide the necessary resources to properly conduct the studies has proven far more difficult.

During a series of interviews in Pil'tun and later from San Diego, Weller says he's slowly become convinced that the oil companies are "cleverly" working to sabotage the research project by censoring preliminary reports, cutting funding and severing crucial noise research from whale-behavior research.

"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 by the U.S. Navy and Scripps Institute of Oceanography to study 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.

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. 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 Company, 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 roundtable 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 [the whales] 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.

"The reviewers came back and said, 'Well, without additional information on every environmental variable that's out there, you can't say for sure that there is a direct relationship,'" Weller says. "It's that kind of stuff in which they can nit-pick in such great detail that you can no longer respond to them. You can no longer get around those criticisms.

"So your choice is either to fight for it, knowing full well that you will never get anywhere, or to let it go and just leave it out."

The scientists did manage to include some behavioral impacts in their 1997 and 1998 field reports, being careful not to draw conclusions but emphasizing the need to do more acoustic monitoring and to begin studying the food supply.

The oil companies responded by slashing the researchers' funding to $140,000 in 1999 and $99,000 in 2000. Researchers could no longer afford a theodolite, a sophisticated measuring device used to observe whale behavior from the lighthouse.

The companies also split the research into two camps, with the crucial undersea acoustical monitoring contracted to a Russian team based in Vladivostok. Exxon switched its funding from the Pil'tun researchers to the Russian team, leaving the Pil'tun team financially reliant on Sakhalin Energy.

The Russian team, Weller says, is not trained in bioacoustic monitoring and is simply measuring noise without connecting it to the whales.

The bottom line, Weller says, is that the oil companies eviscerated a key part of the research by eliminating linkage between underwater noise and whale behavior.

"That kind of cut the legs out from underneath it," he says.

Behavioral changes linked to industrial noise could be crucial to the whales' long-term survival. Convincing evidence collected for more than a decade indicates this only known population of Western Pacific gray whales gorges each summer off Pil'tun on tiny organisms on the sea floor. They fast during their six-month migration to their mating and birthing grounds, the location of which is unknown.

If industrial noise makes them eat less, or if pollution or sediment from drilling wastes disturb their food supply, they might not survive migration and be able to reproduce.

"It obviously is an important part of their life cycle," Brownell says.

The funding cuts have forced the Pil'tun research team to focus primarily on photo ID and genetic testing.

"The photo ID is very valuable, from a scientific and also a monitoring standpoint. But it's not all that we need," Weller says. "We need full-time acoustic monitoring around the clock. We need a theodolite team up in the lighthouse monitoring how the whales behave. We need benthic research. Satellite tracking [to determine where the whales go in the winter].

"We have been pushing for those since 1997. Every year we have been pushing."

"They just reject it," says Sasha Burdin, who is considered one of Russia's premier marine-mammal scientists.

Without any independent research, Sakhalin Energy controls not only how research is conducted but also what information is released to the outside world. At the same time, the oil-company consortium can point to the ongoing research at Pil'tun and report that it is conducting serious scientific studies.

The strategy may prove fatal to the whales.

"We are actually enabling industry to move full steam, unintentionally, by being in this situation," Weller says.

The scientists realize they are in a quandary. Not only is their research allowing progress on a project that could cause the whales' extinction, they have been reluctant to speak out publicly -- until now -- about how the oil companies are compromising the science.

"It's like, 'Well, we can tell you what you want to hear and then we will be able to get money to continue the following year,' and so that helps science at its most fundamental level," Weller says. "But when are we ever going to be able to get out the truth?"

Despite the frustration and the ethical dilemma, Weller says it is worth continuing the fundamental research, even if it is compromised.

"As a scientist, I have to remind myself that whatever we can get out of the field season, we are learning a heck of a lot about this population," Weller says. "We are still coming away with more than has ever been learned about [the Western gray]."

By complaining publicly, the scientists risk losing the research contract.

"It's a sensitive issue," Weller says. "We need to maintain a working and professional relationship" with the oil companies.

It's not only the researchers who have been compromised by the oil companies.

Three international lending agencies have played a crucial role by advancing $348 million to Sakhalin Energy Investment Company.

An official with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says the agency, which has lent $116 million to Sakhalin Energy, has accepted a series of environmental reports from the company even while recognizing that possible links between acoustics and behavioral changes are not addressed.

"One of the problems for the lenders is we get the individual reports and then we talk to the company about why they all seem to be very discrete," says Liz Smith, senior environmental manager for the EBRD. "The acoustics aren't joined together with these other things, so you get these individual pieces of information. But it's important to put them together and to look at them in relation to the project . . . so that you can try and find out if there are impacts that can be linked to different things."

A U.S. lending agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, 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.

"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.

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 a new calf.

"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.

Gray whales tend to calf every other year. In 1998, seven females returned to Pil'tun with calves. Researchers expected that at least some of the seven would arrive in 2000 with calves. All seven came back to Pil'tun, but they came without calves, preliminary reports indicate.

"Thus, the 1998 mothers either did not produce calves or lost them before arriving to the feeding grounds," the report says.

Four of the seven returning mothers were also tentatively identified as unusually thin in 2000.

"The lower than expected number of calves observed off Pil'tun in 2000 may be due to the poor physical condition (i.e. thinness) of some females, as 'skinny whales' are unlikely to become pregnant, carry a fetus to term, or successfully suckle a newborn calf," says the preliminary report, which is subject to revision.

The four females were among as many as 27 "skinny" whales identified in 2000, up from a dozen in 1999.

"We are not exactly sure what's going on there," Weller says. "Some of those whales are repeats from 1999 to 2000. They are still looking thin but have survived and are making it."

Scientists also began seeing skinny Eastern Pacific gray whales in 1999 and 2000.

"The explanation for the Eastern group is they are nearing carrying capacity (maximum population), and they are having a hard time finding food," Weller says. "But I don't think that really holds much weight right now because we are seeing the same thing on the other side of the Pacific, and that population is nowhere near carrying capacity.

"We are not ready to point the finger at anything in particular until we can get a better handle on what's happening with both populations," he says. "It's a bit of a puzzle right now."

Some of the theories being tossed about include disease; cumulative effects of stress from the oil project, including sudden exposure to underwater noise while feeding; or some unknown phenomena.

"It could be that the food resources are truly poor for them," Weller says. "And it could be a cyclic and natural type of thing where those food resources are really great for some years and for some years they are really quite diminished."

Or the food supply for both Eastern and Western Pacific populations could be crashing because of global warming.

"It could be," Weller says. "Or it also could just be coincidence."

Continuing to study the Western Pacific grays is crucial to developing a plan to save them. Scientists need to learn more not only about their feeding grounds in Sakhalin, but also about their migratory route and the locations of their winter lagoons. It's important because besides threats from oil drilling, the whales face danger from ship strikes, entanglements in fishing gear and illegal hunting.

Once at a population of 15,000, the Western Pacific grays have been one of the most intensely harvested whale populations in the world. Unlike the Eastern Pacific gray whales, whose numbers rebounded to 26,000 from a low of 3,000 before their hunting was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1946, the Western Pacific grays continued to be exploited into the 1960s by commercial whalers off the Korean coast.

Despite the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting of almost all whale species, Japanese fishermen continue to hunt the Western Pacific grays.

Brownell documented one illegal take of a Western Pacific gray by Japanese porpoise fishermen in May 1996. He confronted the Japanese in 1997 and 1998 at the annual IWC meetings.

"Their reaction is sort of the usual," Brownell says. "They said maybe it was killed by some people someplace else and floated down. They always make up stories for trying to explain it.

"Of course, the likely scenario is the one that turns out to be the case. We know they took it. I've got pictures of the harpoons that were taken out of it. The harpoons are used by some other fishermen that hunt something called Dall's porpoise in the area.

"They just had a chance to get this whale and decided, 'Okay, we can get this.' They ended up using only half of it, and half of the carcass came on the beach, the head end," Brownell says.

More evidence has turned up in recent months showing that the Japanese are selling meat from Western Pacific gray whales as well as other endangered whales in commercial fish markets.

Researchers from the University of Auckland have been testing DNA samples of whale meat sold in Japanese and South Korean fish markets since 1993. The Japanese are allowed to hunt several hundred minke whales, which are relatively abundant, under a "scientific" exception to the IWC's 1986 commercial-whaling moratorium.

But the DNA records from two 1999 fish market surveys show the Japanese selling far more than minke whales.

"More than 14 years after the moratorium, there is a surprising diversity of whale species currently for sale in commercial markets, and some of these products are from protected species," states a recent report by C. Scott Baker of the University of Auckland.

"The 1999 surveys include two species not previously found in market surveys, the gray whale and the finless porpoise."

Baker tells New Times that he has found seven gray whale samples from Japanese markets.

"We cannot yet determine, however, if these are from one or several individuals," he says.

Brownell says the gray whale meat turning up in the Japanese markets appears to be from the whale illegally hunted in 1996.

Whether Weller and his team will get a chance to work on any of the puzzles surrounding the Western Pacific gray whale, and especially the phenomenon of the "skinny whale," appears to be up to the oil consortium Sakhalin Energy Investment Company. A spokeswoman for Sakhalin Energy says the company intends to continue funding whale research at Pil'tun but hasn't yet selected the contractors for the 2001 season.

Sakhalin Energy Investment Company offices are housed in a new six-story, earthquake-proof building in downtown Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the province's capital and largest city, located near the southern end of the island.

Security is tight -- television monitors, fortified entryways and guards greet visitors. The imposing entrance stands in sharp contrast to fading chalk drawings etched on the street in front of the building beseeching the company to protect the Western Pacific gray whales. The art protest last August was arranged by a local environmental group, Sakhalin Environment Watch.

Dennis Royal, Sakhalin Energy's health, environmental and safety manager at the time, sets a strident tone for the interview at the outset, complaining how journalists focus too much on environmental issues.

"When journalists call and want to talk to us about environmental issues, I'm not always happy to do so," says Royal, who has since left the company. "It always surprises me that you don't pay as much attention on the impact we have on the people or the lifestyle on this island.

"It's always the environment," he says. "It's very important. But it always seems to be one-sided."

It's nearly impossible to overstate the magnitude of the potential economic impact of Sakhalin's offshore oil and gas reserves. This remote Russian outpost, seven time zones away from Moscow, is now the country's second-largest region for foreign investment, trailing only Moscow.

Sakhalin Energy is the largest foreign investment in the Russian Far East.

Whether the Russians on Sakhalin will profit from the latest energy boom to sweep their island is uncertain. The onshore oil industry, one of the oldest in Russia, generated little wealth for the average Russian during communism and left an environmental catastrophe in its wake.

So far, there is little indication that the average Russian is benefiting directly from the offshore oil bonanza. Many of the skilled laborers working on the Molikpaq are foreigners, and Sakhalin has had a difficult time producing qualified companies to bid for highly technical oil-industry contracts.

While the agreements signed between the United States and Russia stipulate that Russian contractors should get 70 percent of the work, so far, Russian companies have been awarded less than 20 percent because they lack the expertise.

Sakhalin Energy's Royal says oil revenues helped fund significant highway improvements on the island in the last few years. But there is no stipulation that the Sakhalin government or the Russian national government must spend its share of oil revenue on the people who live there.

Despite some recent projects, the economic and environmental conditions on the island are dreadful by Western standards.

The water-supply system in the capital city is poorly maintained and polluted. Pipes in the system are old; tap water is undrinkable, even when boiled. Viruses, such as hepatitis A, are found in the city's water.

Air pollution is worsening as coal-fired electric-generating plants blanket the capital city with a fine, black dust. Automobiles spew uncontrolled emissions. The average level of benzene in the air of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is 10 times the allowed level.

Domestic-waste processing and recycling are not practiced in the region. The only type of waste disposal for Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is periodic burning of the huge city dump at the edge of the city. The sewage system fails during frequent power outages.

Compounding the problems are the geography and the weather. The region is dotted with active volcanoes and is frequently rocked by major earthquakes. The island is slammed by powerful winter storms that paralyze the region's few roads.

As bad as the environment is, the economy is worse.

School teachers go unpaid for months at a time. The military frequently fails to pay its bills to local suppliers, as well as its soldiers. Dodging taxes is a national pastime, leaving governments strapped.

The Sakhalin economy is based on fish, fish processing, logging and oil and gas industries. The island is the third-largest producer of fish products in the Russian Far East. Seafood and timber are exported mostly to Japan, as well as to other Asian countries. The island's onshore oil industry is nearly depleted, leaving in its wake a mess of ruptured pipelines and contaminated lakes and rivers.

Illegal fishing and logging extract untold amounts of the island's resources. Many raw materials are sold on the black market -- which hinders the region's attempt to create processing industries that will bring higher-paying jobs.

Residents of Sakhalin need a minimum of about $55 a month to get by, according to recent data from the Sakhalin Regional Administration for Labor. But one out of three inhabitants of Sakhalin and the adjacent Kuril Islands lives on less than that. By comparison, workers in U.S.-owned factories in Mexico earn about $120 a month.

The housing in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk consists primarily of block after block of dreary, five-story apartments that haven't had a coat of paint since they were built 30 or more years ago under communism. After the Soviet Union fell, the flats were given to the residents. But improvements have come slowly because of the unstable ruble and the lack of hard currency.

The only recent economic development -- a couple of upscale hotels -- is a result of Sakhalin's offshore oil investments. The oil and gas fields clearly offer the most promising economic engine. Whether the wealth they generate stays in Sakhalin or is exported to shareholders of multinational oil companies remains to be seen.

Before the 1994 Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, Sakhalin's offshore resources went untapped for decades because technological barriers made it impossible to overcome the ice floes and earthquakes there.

The numbers involved are huge.

Offshore oil reserves are roughly estimated at 3.5 billion barrels of oil and 18 trillion cubic feet of gas for the first two production-sharing agreements alone -- Sakhalin I, controlled by an ExxonMobil and Russian joint venture, and Sakhalin II, controlled by Sakhalin Energy. Originally, Sakhalin Energy included two U.S. companies, Marathon Oil and McDermott International. They have since sold their shares, and Sakhalin Energy now includes Shell (55 percent), Mitsui (25 percent) and Mitsubishi (20 percent).

These, plus at least five more offshore oil and gas fields off the east coast of Sakhalin, are projected to become strategic energy sources for Japan, South Korea and China.

In the next 20 years, $25 billion to $45 billion could be spent to develop the production and transportation infrastructure. Shell expects to invest $5 billion over the next five years for oil and gas pipelines from just south of Pil'tun to the southern end of the island, as well as an export terminal for liquefied natural gas. The pipeline could revitalize many Sakhalin industries and create 14,000 jobs on this island of 670,000.

The pipeline is crucial. Currently, the Molikpaq is the only oil-production rig, and tankers can reach it only six months a year. The rest of the time, the rig is encased in ice.

The United States is closely monitoring the oil and gas projects, and the State Department is helping American businesses looking for trade there. In July 1999, former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson attended a reception on Sakhalin to mark the first oil production from the Molikpaq.

The United States has also pumped money into Sakhalin Energy. The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation's $116 million loan to the consortium in 1997 matched investments from Japanese lending agencies and from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. OPIC also is providing political-risk insurance to Sakhalin Energy.

"If Russia changes its law and shuts down the project, Sakhalin Energy could issue a claim against OPIC to reimburse it for its losses," says David Gordon, director of Pacific Environment, an Oakland, California, environmental group monitoring Pacific Rim industrial developments. "Therefore, the risk is shifted to U.S. taxpayers."

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is in the early stages of negotiating a new project with Sakhalin Energy partners reportedly worth up to $10 billion to explore additional oil and gas reserves. The project could trigger the second larger-scale stage of developing Sakhalin's resources.

While investment in Sakhalin is massive, the actual oil production from the Molikpaq rig is projected to be about 22 million barrels a year, less than 5 percent of the oil produced annually in Alaska. Royalties of about $75 million a year will be divided between Russia (40 percent) and the Sakhalin provincial government (60 percent). The local proceeds so far are being spent on roads, schools and hospitals, according to Sakhalin news reports.

While rivers of money and political commitment flow into Sakhalin's oil and gas reserves, only a drizzle goes toward a protection plan for the gray whales whose existence depends on the food in these waters.

Despite environmental stipulations in the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and the OPIC and European bank loans, no whale-conservation plan exists.

The lack of data collected by the biologists is one reason, Weller says. And, he adds, that's directly tied to the lack of funding to conduct fundamental research.

When asked about the biologists' concerns that reducing funds to $99,000 a year has severely hampered their research, Sakhalin Energy's David Royal bristles. He implies that the Pil'tun team working under the auspices of Texas A&M is greedy and unwilling to share research dollars with Russians.

"I think there is one thing you have to understand," he says. "The Texas A&M people would like to do everything. We have to provide the opportunities to Russian scientists to participate in this and every other work that we do."

Royal says Sakhalin Energy is under no legal obligation to continue paying for whale research. He says the company has fulfilled its obligations under the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement but will keep funding research because it wants to know how the whales are affected.

But Sakhalin Energy's environmental consultant, John Coil, says the company has no interest in doing fundamental whale biology.

"We have to support that portion of the research that has the most effect on us and where we can have the most effect," says Coil, who also has since left the company. "We don't have the money to pay for fundamental research."

When pressed on the Pil'tun biologists' complaints that research, limited as it is, is being censored, Royal becomes angry.

"Quite frankly, the people who are working there are properly financed by us. When they have complaints of that nature, they should bring it to us. They shouldn't feed it to a newspaper reporter. I don't feel it is good information. I would have to hear that direct from them before commenting on it."

Sakhalin Energy is taking the official position that the oil development has had no impact on the whales -- despite the scientists' data from the first two years showing possible behavior changes from noise and more recently, the appearance of "skinny" whales.

"There is no evidence that our operations have had any effect on the gray whales that summer near Pil'tun," states Sakhalin Energy spokeswoman Yelena Uspenskaya.

She says whatever is causing the recent increase in malnourished Eastern Pacific gray whales may also be affecting the whales near Sakhalin.

But at least one of the joint-venture partners apparently is willing to listen to the scientists. Mitsubishi officials in New York say they were unaware of concerns raised by whale biologists until contacted by New Times and will take the scientists seriously.

"There are very few gray whales. They are endangered. It is critical that nothing be done to harm them," says Mitsubishi executive vice president and legal counsel James E. Brumm. "I agree that certainly people need to study and know a lot more about them to make sure they are protected."

Mitsubishi is sensitive to complaints over the gray whale, having endured a massive worldwide environmental campaign that focused on perceived threats to the Eastern Pacific gray whale from a planned salt-evaporation plant Mitsubishi wanted to build in Mexico. The Mexican government last year canceled plans to build the salt plant.

Stephen Wechselblatt, Mitsubishi's vice president for public affairs, says there is no reason to skimp on research if it can help prevent the Western Pacific gray whale from going extinct.

The Pil'tun team estimates that $500,000 a year would pay for the proper baseline environmental studies to develop a habitat-protection plan.

"If it is a couple of hundred thousand dollars for fundamental research on a species that may become extinct, you gotta do the research," Wechselblatt says.

"It's the sort of the thing you need to do as a matter of course. I just want to make sure that will be done."

At least one of the three major international lending agencies funding Sakhalin Energy is also expressing concern over the company's statements on a whale-protection plan.

Sakhalin Energy officials tell New Times the plan will remain secret once it is completed next year. "This document will be an internal document also containing commercial information, and we do not plan to make it a public document," says Sakhalin Energy spokeswoman Uspenskaya.

That secrecy took Liz Smith by surprise. She is the senior environmental official for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. She says the bank met with the company in early April to discuss the habitat-protection plan and talked specifically about "a wider circulation" of the draft document.

"This is of international interest, and there are quite a few people who would be interested in the results," she says. "It would surprise me if it was not [public]."

Just before press time, Uspenskaya sent an e-mail saying that even though the detailed study would not be released, "the public will be advised upon request about the scientific results obtained from this program."

A few blocks away from the Sakhalin Energy headquarters, Dimitri Lisitsyn and Natasha Barannikova direct operations of the island's only environmental group, Sakhalin Environment Watch.

On the second floor of an old apartment complex, the group's office is filled with plants and decorated with Greenpeace posters of whales and dolphins. Maps of Sakhalin line the wall. Two laptop computers and a desktop unit make up the heart of the command center.

The flat looks like something out of Greenwich Village circa 1970s, and so do its director Lisitsyn, a geologist, and assistant Barannikova, an economist specializing in energy developments. The group has four full-time employees and about 20 volunteers tracking the rapid destruction of Sakhalin's forests, rivers, fisheries and now, its seas.

Called "The Watch" for short, the group is despised by the government -- "They hate us," says Lisitsyn -- and has found little public support for its campaign to protect the Western Pacific gray whales' habitat.

"Nobody is thinking about it," he says.

The reason is simple, Barannikova says.

"People are very poor. Life is so hard," she says. "They don't think about whales because it is too far from their real lives."

Lisitsyn predicts that perception will change, but only at a very high cost.

"The main reason people's minds will change will be from a huge oil spill," he says.

The group argues that Sakhalin is entitled to offshore oil-industry environmental standards no lower than those in Norway, Alaska or the United Kingdom. So far, Lisitsyn says, those standards have not been met.

As with any offshore oil project, there is always the possibility of a massive oil spill. In this case, the risks appear higher than usual. Less than two months into operation, a spill at the Molikpaq dumped about 3,000 pounds of crude into the sea. Although the amount wasn't great, the spill attracted attention from fishermen and environmentalists worldwide.

Sakhalin Environment Watch, with the help of funding from Pacific Environment, brought in three oil-spill-prevention experts to review Sakhalin Energy's offshore oil-spill contingency plans. The assessment concluded that the protections in place were inadequate.

The three men who wrote it -- Dan Lawn, Rich Steiner and Jonathan Wills -- have extensive backgrounds in the oil industry.

Lawn, of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, works for the Alaska State Department of Environmental Conservation and was the first state official aboard the Exxon Valdez the night it ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989.

Steiner is a former commercial fisherman who responded to the Valdez spill and is now a professor in the Marine Advisory Program at the University of Alaska. Wills, an environmental consultant from the Shetland Islands, has written extensively on oil-field development in the North Sea for the last 20 years and monitored cleanup of major oil spills from the Esso Bernicia in 1978 and the Braer in 1993.

Their 48-page report concluded that Sakhalin Energy was failing to use the best-available technology to respond to a possible oil spill. They said the Russian government needs improved laws to protect its resources, including requiring double-hulled tankers and greater financial liability for companies in the event of a spill.

"We have found serious environmental concerns about how the development is proceeding," the authors stated in the October 1999 report.

The primary problems are at the Molikpaq, the oil-production rig about 20 kilometers southeast of the Pil'tun lighthouse and the entrance into the critical Pil'tun Lagoon.

The Molikpaq is an ice-resistant structure built for the Canadian Beaufort Sea but mothballed in 1990. In 1995, Sakhalin Energy towed the structure more than 3,000 miles and had it overhauled in South Korea. The rig operates in 30 meters of water and has been reinforced to protect it from harsh storms and ice floes.

The Molikpaq pumps oil from beneath the sea floor and transfers it via a two-kilometer-long flexible hose to a nearby 140,000-ton storage tanker. The double-hulled storage tanker is temporarily anchored to the sea floor, but must be able to leave the area when the winter ice forms. The oil is transferred through another flexible hose to 80,000-ton shuttle tankers.

The weather on the Sea of Okhotsk changes quickly, and powerful storms with dangerous winds, severe waves, icing of vessels, intense snowfalls and poor visibility can occur. A sudden storm in September 1999 caused the connection between the Molikpaq and the storage tanker to snap, spilling about 1.5 tons of oil into the sea. Sakhalin Energy's emergency response vessel Agat scooped up less than 10 percent of the slick. The company was fined $17,710.

Wills says the spill raised serious questions about what would happen if a shuttle or storage tanker broke loose. High winds and strong seas could leave as little as three hours before a disabled tanker could run aground. If oil entered the lagoons, it could do incalculable damage to fish spawning grounds, wildfowl habitat and local commercial and subsistence enterprises, he said in a journal article last summer.

"What they are doing at present is dirty, uneconomic and potentially disastrous," Wills tells New Times.

Sakhalin Energy's Dennis Royal acknowledges that a spill that moved onshore in the lagoons could be catastrophic, but he emphasizes the company is taking precautions to minimize any spill.

"We think we have a pretty good oil-spill response set up there," Royal says.

"We got the equipment, we got the boats, we got the booms. We have got the personnel, which is the most important thing."

Nevertheless, Royal appears willing to sacrifice the beaches in the event of a major spill, and implies the company will focus on protecting the lagoon entrances.

"The lagoons are the most sensitive area along the coastline," he says. "The rest of the coastline is very sandy shore and relatively environmentally inactive."

Royal says oil coming up on a sandy beach "usually doesn't do much damage."

"It's a mess, it looks horrible, but you can clean it up," he says. "So we concentrated on the entrances to the lagoon as far as protection is concerned."

Whether the lagoon protection measures would work is in doubt. Oil-spill response equipment will be difficult to deliver to Pil'tun and other coastal lagoons because of the near complete lack of roads.

Wills says the company's equipment is insufficient "to mount more than an initial defense of a single lagoon entrance."

In the event of an oil spill that heads toward shore, Sakhalin Energy's first line of defense will be the use of dispersant chemicals that generally cause the oil to break up and often sink to the sea floor. That would damage the whales' benthic food supply.

"Using dispersants, at least in that area, wouldn't be a good idea," says marine biologist Brownell.

Sakhalin Energy admits there is some risk, particularly since the whales tend to feed in shallow water within five kilometers of shore. "There could be more potential impact to benthic communities when you are in shallower water," says John Coil, Sakhalin's former environmental consultant.

Despite the inherent dangers of offshore oil production, Sakhalin Energy apparently is promoting the Molikpaq as a benefit to the local marine environment.

"We were told that the Molikpaq will actually increase and enrich the environment," says Masha Vorontsova, the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's office in Moscow.

Vorontsova dismisses such claims as propaganda. Instead, she says there is widespread concern about oil-drilling wastes being dumped onto the sea floor. The muddy wastes could increase sediments and chemical contamination in the whale's food supply.

"Normally, these muddy waters get pumped back into the hole and covered. But in the situation of Sakhalin, it all goes into the water," she says.

Liz Smith of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says drilling wastes appear to be confined to within 200 meters of the Molikpaq.

The unknown impact of drilling wastes along with the increase in malnourished whales makes it imperative that proper benthic studies are done, says Vorontsova.

Bob Brownell keeps his passport in his shirt pocket.

Brownell's job -- director of the Protected Resources Division at the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, California -- keeps him constantly on the move trying to protect marine mammals around the world.

From Sakhalin to Australia to London to Alaska, Brownell is a man on a mission to save the world's remaining whales.

"Whales are his life," says Pil'tun field biologist Weller.

His office is filled floor to ceiling with books, papers, maps and articles, mostly on whales and dolphins clinging to survival in various spots around the globe. He answers questions methodically and carefully. He's very slow to jump to conclusions -- exhibiting the patience that 30 years of hard science have drilled into his psyche.

But that doesn't mean he's unwilling to rattle cages and throw harpoons into recalcitrant bureaucrats -- whether it's Japanese officials denying that their fishermen illegally slaughtered a Western Pacific gray whale, or the Clinton administration nearly overlooking the gray whale's plight in its eagerness to sign an oil deal with the Russians.

Focused as he is on marine mammals, Brownell has another side.

"For four or five months, we didn't have any salary," Russian marine biologist Sasha Burdin says. "It was really hard. And Bob helped us. He proposed some projects and tried to get some grants for us to help us to survive. He's just an amazing person."

It was Brownell who brought the plight of the Western Pacific grays to the attention of Gore's oblivious staff during the negotiations for the oil agreement with Russia.

"I told them, 'Look, we are pushing this as a big development program for the Far East to help the Russians. There is also U.S. involvement,'" Brownell says, recalling his conversations with Gore's aides. "'Gore needs to be concerned about the environment.' After I explained it to them, they said it was an important issue."

The result was the one-page Gore-Chernomyrdin statement that recognized the need to develop "environmentally sound exploration and production practices" that will mitigate disturbances to the whales.

Despite the agreement, the United States has given only token financial support -- about $20,000 -- to make sure such practices are put into place. Meanwhile, oil production has begun, oil has been spilled and expansion plans are proceeding.

One reason for the lack of U.S. support is that the previous administration took a "half-assed" approach to the problem, says a federal official familiar with the situation.

"The environmental components to these offshore Sakhalin investments were afterthoughts," the official says. "Afterthoughts, you know, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."

David Gordon, director of Pacific Environment, says America's lackadaisical approach is not surprising. U.S. foreign policy in the Russian Far East, Gordon says, is based on energy development.

"If oil goes forward, then U.S. interests advance," he says.

Brownell takes a matter-of-fact approach to the oil developments and political realities. He hopes to minimize disturbances such as low-flying helicopters over the feeding grounds and develop the best oil-spill contingency plan possible.

"After that, there's not much you can do," he says.

The Western Pacific grays have attracted little interest from well-funded international environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. The international media, too, have ignored the situation, with only brief reports in a few environmental journals.

Brownell says NRDC contacted him several years ago and pressed him for his support of its campaign to stop construction of the salt plant in a Baja lagoon called San Ignacio where the Eastern Pacific gray whales congregate in winter to mate and give birth. "I said, 'I'm working on real problems. I don't have time to work on this,'" Brownell says.

He says he told NRDC about the serious threats to the Western Pacific grays, but was brushed off.


"It's easier to relate to Mexico than it is to Sakhalin," Brownell says. "If you went down to La Jolla and asked 10 people where Sakhalin was, you would get 10 zeros."

NRDC is still taking little interest in the Western Pacific gray whales.

"We are aware of it, but we haven't gotten directly involved ourselves," says NRDC's whale expert Joel Reynolds.

But others are getting worked up over the Western grays. The increasing number of skinny whales turning up off the coast of Sakhalin is beginning to spur several major environmental groups, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, to take more active roles.

The three groups are beginning to pressure Russian leaders to become more aggressive in protecting the whales. Masha Vorontsova, IFAW's Moscow director, says top Russian wildlife officials believe the Western Pacific grays could become extinct within the next three years unless immediate steps are taken to protect their habitat.

Vorontsova says Russian marine officials intend to highlight the Western Pacific gray whale at the upcoming International Whaling Commission meetings in July in London.

IFAW is also considering an international campaign to create a whale sanctuary off Sakhalin. The proposed sanctuary "would prohibit any oil exploration, oil extraction or oil transportation during the time the gray whales are there," according to Jared Blumenthal, IFAW's program director of habitat for animals.

Such a proposal seems a bit optimistic, given the huge amount of oil exploration and production already taking place there, nearly all of it during the warm months when the sea ice has melted and the whales return to feed.

As forces slowly mobilize to protect the Western Pacific grays, no one really knows whether this tribe can rebound from such low numbers, regardless of the oil fields.

"There is lots of debate in the conservation world about how small can a population be before it can't recover," Brownell says. "Because this is one of the smallest whale populations in the world, whatever we learn from this will be good insight for other small populations that are in similar situations."

But if the whales are to survive the next decade, a habitat-conservation program is crucial, Brownell says. So far, Sakhalin Energy has failed to produce a plan and, when it finally does, intends to keep it secret.

"It looks like they are doing it in a vacuum," he says. "That's my big concern."

Sitting in Brownell's La Jolla office, it's difficult not to note the irony of the crisis facing the remaining 100 or so Western Pacific grays.

The world's top political leaders -- including a vice president who touted his "greenness" during a close presidential election -- cut a deal to develop Russia's offshore oil resources.

Ground zero for the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement turns out to be the feeding ground for one of the most critically endangered whale populations in the world. With great fanfare, the U.S. invested more than $116 million into developing the oil project, and shifted much of the risk to U.S. taxpayers.

At the same time, the U.S. has spent nearly nothing on scientific studies of the oil development's impact on the whales and has exerted no political leverage to force creation of a habitat-protection plan.

Asked for his reaction, Brownell leans back in his chair and stares out the window.

"Um, (long pause) I just think that life's not fair," he says.

At this critical juncture in the Western Pacific gray whale's survival, the whale's principal champion has been sidelined.

Last fall, Brownell was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He recently had surgery and is recovering at home.

Sasha Burdin sets the tone for dinner at the Pil'tun camp.

As the oldest, most experienced biologist present at the camp, he sits at the head of the table. And he does so with grace and disarming humor.

He has a broad background and provides perspective -- both from a scientific view and a political one. This is important, because it is obvious the researchers are intensely focused on their work.

So much so that it is easy to get lost in the project.

"It's typical of scientists when they are performing research," says IFAW's Vorontsova, who herself is a marine biologist. "They get so interested in what they are doing they forget that something is endangered. By the end of monitoring, you find out, 'Wow, they are not here.' I'm afraid that is what is happening [in Pil'tun]."

The failure of the scientists to publicly complain about censorship and funding cuts when they first began several years ago has contributed to the perception that they are more interested in conducting basic research than developing a plan to save the whales. At the same time, the scientists knew the only way they could continue any research on one of the world's least understood populations of whales was to compromise. If these whales go extinct, and it is highly likely they will, at least scientists will have closely observed their final days.

But there is a more overarching reason for studying the Western Pacific gray whales than simply documenting their tentative hold to life after millions of years of existence, says Burdin.

The Sea of Okhotsk is one of the last major productive seas in the world. Many of the world's great fishing fleets are extracting pollock, salmon, crabs and other shellfish at a tremendous rate. Worldwide demand for seafood is huge, particularly in Asian countries.

Burdin foresees a day when the world is engulfed by protein wars. He worries that Sakhalin's offshore oil and gas developments threaten not only the whales, but the food supply for millions of people.

"It's not just this crazy ideal, 'Let's save the whales,'" Burdin says. "Let's save the sea. The whales are just one very nice indicator of how the whole sea is working."

It's a simple relationship, he says.

"The more whales, the more clean seas, the more food for people."

The Western Pacific gray whales are now swimming north from their winter breeding grounds -- back to Pil'tun.

Scientists wait to see how many will make it back this summer.

Shades of Gray
Read more stories examining the identities of the gray whale in North America.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.