Farewell to Belugas. Hello to Trans-Russia Travel.

Post by Jake Levenson, IFAW Global Whale Program Officer, Headquarters Office

Sea_of_Okhotsk_map_ZI-2b I've left IFAW's Beluga Camp behind, and am back in Moscow for a brief layover. I'll miss the belugas, but I have to admit I'm happy to have ready access to electricity and running water, even if just for a short while. Tonight, I leave for IFAW's Piltun Lagoon Research Site on Russia's Sakhalin Island (see map), where we are working with the most endangered whale in the world: the Western Pacific gray whale. We all know Russia is a really big country, but I had no idea just how gigantic it really is, until now.  This evening it's going to take me more than 9 hours to fly from Moscow to Yhuzo-Sakalinsk, the capital of Sakhalin Island.

3779682513_274fa46cf1 Before returning to Moscow, I spent a few hours exploring the Slovky Monastery and its grounds. The monastery is amazing and beautiful, which makes its horrific past even more awful to imagine. This was the site of the very first Gulag Prison Labor Camp. The 500 monks who had called this monastery their home were forced out before this place was transformed into something they would never have imagined, or recognized. In just 16 years, 80,000 people were imprisoned here.

Now, monastery tour complete, I'm back in Moscow before leaving for Yujuno-Sakalinsk this afternoon. After a 9-10 hour flight across the entire continent, I'll meet Dimitry Lisitsin in Yujno-Sakhalinsk. Dmitry is the head of Sakhalin Environment Watch, and I'm really looking forward to meeting him. Sakhalin-Watch is an environmental organization dedicated to preserving the unique biodiversity of this remote region.  It's a good thing they're around too, otherwise tere would be no one keeping an eye on what happens in this remote island. And, there's a lot worth protecting around Sakhalin Island: this remote region is home to the world's most endangered whale, countless seals and Steller's sea eagles, a bird that is especially revered in Japan. Unfortunately, Sakhalin is also rich in oil. Two oil platforms are already in operation, and another nine are currently being planned.

With oil companies jockeying for a piece of the Sakhalin pie there is a high probability someone might try something they ordinarily wouldn't in a more visible area. Luckily, with IFAW support, Sakhalin Environment Watch is keeping a watchful eye on the oil companies, and the incredible animals that call these islands home.

Once Dimitry drops me off at the Yujno-Sakhalinsk train station, I'll travel another 15 hours to the very end of the line: Nogliki. This will be my very first train ride (not counting subways and commuter rails), and I'm imagining the old stream locomotives from Western movies, with a gang of bandits riding horses along side. A far cry from reality, I'm sure. But, this will be another first for this trip: My first train ride, my first visit to Russia, and my first sighting of the world's most endagered whale (soon). What an amazing adventure this has all been!

Nogliki, where I'll depart from the train, is an isolated town on the northern end of Sakhalin Island. Once there, I'll meet up with a military truck that will take me the rest of the way to the Piltun Lagoon Research Camp Site. We'll need to time our trip carefully. The six-hour drive is all off-road, and crosses several low areas. If we don't take the tides into account, we could be stuck between two rivers of water while we wait for high tide to recede.

At the end of all this -- more than 30 hours of travel by plane, train and automobile (literally) -- I will arrive at IFAW's Piltun Lagoon Research Camp Site, where I'll spend a few days with our Western Pacific gray whale team.

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