Arrival at IFAW’s Piltun Lagoon Western Pacific Grey Whale Research Station

Post by Jake Levenson, IFAW Global Program Officer for Whales, Headquarters Office

6612_242916290166_623935166_7919953_4216585_n Wow, was I happy to see the IFAW logo on Sasha's hat when the train finally came to a stop this morning in Nogliki. The train had been making various stops throughout the night and even though my stop was the end of the line, I was still worried I'd sleep right through it. This was my second night in a row of solid travel, and I was definitely feeling the effects. Sasha and his son were a huge help with my gear (whch had also been my bed for the overnight train ride). When we had everything loaded intoSasha's Soviet era military truck, we began our 6+ hour trek to the Piltun Lagoon research site. 

This part of Sakhalin Island is drastically more remote Yujno. It's quickly obvious  that this is a frontier outpost where the law is set by the oil companies (literally). Just  minutes after leaving the train station, we passed what appeared to be a police checkpoint. There was a police car and a uniformed man standing opposite us at an intersection. At his signal, Sasha pulled over, got his paperwork from the glove compartment, and jumped the few feet down to the ground.  The police man couldn't have been older than 20, and spent some time talking with Sasha and looking over his paperwork.  I waited quietly, watching as several bright-orange off-road buses for the oil company passed us without stopping.

After a couple minutes Sasha quietly climbed back in the cab waving his arm dismissively with a sigh. He only speaks a few words of English, but the two words from his mouth, "Sakhalin Energy" and frustrated sigh were all I needed to hear.  Here at Sakhalin, it's the oil companies that get the preferential treatment and everyone else is in the way -- including the people and animals that call this land home.

Before heading to IFAW's research site on the Piltun Lagoon, we stopped at Sasha's apartment, which is six flights of stairs up in a decaying soviet era style crumbling concrete building. I thought we were going to wait out the tides, which can block the roads to the site. But, instead, Sasha was just collecting a 50-pound sack of potatoes for the research team. After helping him load the potatoes, we were again on our way/

Between Sasha's handful of English words and our hand gestures we did manage to speak about a few things during the four or five hour bone-jarring  ride to the Piltun camp.  I learned he routinely sees reindeer and bears along this route and enjoys fishing for salmon on some of the many remote rivers in the area.   Sadly, with no environmental laws or effective enforcement authority in place, poaching of reindeer, bear, and salmon have also increased since Russia's far east oil boom.

The road (and that's using the term loosely) to the Piltun Whale Camp is a mix between oil-company-built gravel roads, sand and mud. The final few miles are basically a coastal path that serves the lighthouse station.  As I suspected, erosion is a big problem here. This is mostly due to deforestation, whent he forests are cleared away to allow for over-land oil pipelines and gravel access roads to oil rigs. The result is awful. There is so much dust and dirt that Sasha has to slow down every time we pass another truck -- the dust clouds are literally too thick to safely see and drive through. Many people don't realize that sedimentation in the ocean -- caused by erosion -- is a problem for whales, but it is. Especially here.  These highly endangered whales only feed in this one small lagoon.  They come thousands of miles to feed at the mouth of this lagoon, and this lagoon only.  Excess sediment smothers marine life. If too much sediment flows into this lagoon, it will suffocate the delicate mix of organisms these whales need to survive. 

About halfway through our drive we pass a huge oil truck laying in the woods on the opposite side of the road.  Sasha saw a man next to the disabled truck and chuckled "fell asleep." Because there are no real laws here, driving can be extremely dangerous. In fact, Kate from Sakhalin Environment Watch warned me that Sakhalin Island, in general, has a very high pedestrian fatality rate.  Having traveled the "roads," I now understand why.  

As our truck crosses a final tidal inlet, where the water is about two feet deep, I see the Piltun Lighthouse through the fog.  Finally I've arrived at Piltun!  Better yet, I can offload this giant duffel of survival suits I've been lugging around since Boston! Then, after two nights of constant travel, I can sleep. Wonderful.

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