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), 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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty