Piltun’s Crumbling-Down Lighthouse and its 260 Steps
Post by Jake Levenson, Global Program Officer for Whales, IFAW Headquarters Office
It's Saturday morning and thanks to some lingering overnight fog I finally got to catch up on a few hours rest by sleeping in. Well, by "sleeping in," I mean I lounged until 9:30 AM.
By 10:00 AM the fog was clearing. The boat photo ID team packed their gear, pulled on their boots and survival suits, and prepared for another day on the water. I helped lug the boat through the sand and thick mud, and into the shallow water where -- finally -- it was deep enough to put the outboard motor into the water without losing the prop in mud and muck. Then, I wished them good luck and headed back towards the lighthouse with Max and Pasha.
Today, Jana, Pasha and I were scheduled for the lighthouse survey. For these surveys, we climb 260 steps up a rusty staircase (yes, I counted them all), to arrive at the top of the lighthouse. There, we use binoculars to scan the water for whales. We divide the viewable water into sections and use binoculars with built-in compasses to watch for whales. Whenever we spot a whale or whales, we count the number of individuals and record the compass bearing relative to the lighthouse. This survey is completely different from the boat-based photo ID surveys. From the boat, we take photographs that we will later use to identify individual whales. From the lighthouse, however, we are working to assess abundance and location of whales.
During our scans, we rely on the same clues that whalers once used to hunt the Western gray whale. We look for white water on the surface, which can indicate where a whale just jumped or splashed. We also look for spouts or blows, which the whales release when they surface for a breath. It sounds incredible, but it's actually possible to identify different species based only on their spout. For example, blue whales have a high and narrow spout, while humpbacks have short and wide spouts. It's an imperfect science, but it helps. I've noticed that gray whales have a spout that is very similar to one I'm already familiar with: the North Atlantic right whale. Like the right whales, the Western Pacific gray whale has a V-shaped spout, shaped that way from their two distinct blowholes.
The lighthouse -- our precarious perch -- is actually really neat, assuming you don't know anything about structural engineering (and thus can't spot the signs of weakness) and have no fear of height. Luckily, neither apply to me, and we spent hours surveying the waters for signs of Western gray whales. The weather was perfect (as perfect as Russia's summer gets, at least), and our visibility extended 15 miles or more. We had an excellent survey.
And this is how I spent my day. Clinging to the top of an ancient Russian lighthouse, perched on the north-eastern tip of a remote island, watching for signs of the worlds rarest whale. Not a bad way to spend a day.
Here are a few of my favorite photographs from the day: