2014 Russian Western Gray Whale Research Team reports good news from Sakhalin Island

There has been a lot of good news from the Western Gray Whale expedition this year, despite ongoing threats.We are back with some news from Piltun, where we study gray whales in the Sea of Okhotsk off northeastern Sakhalin Island.

We are at the middle of our expedition at the moment, and can look back on July and see what we have accomplished by now.

Unfortunately, in terms of the weather July was not that favorable in comparison to last year. Till 26th July, we had only three days on which we were able to go out to the sea to look for whales. This made us to worry about having enough workable days to observe a good number of whales this season. However, the end of July simply spoiled us with the nice weather: five working days in a row.

RELATED: Spotlight Russia: Despite fog, Western Gray Whale Research Team’s work continues

On 26 July, we went out on the boat north of our research camp, photographed 13 gray whales. All of them were observed in previous years, and some were also already photographed this season.

On the next day, 27 July, we left our camp around 7 am, and very soon found first whales of the day. This was a mother/calf pair feeding very close to the shore just slightly north of the entrance from the Piltun lagoon.

Thirty minutes later we observed another mother/calf pair, also very close to the shore. They would often leave circles of mud on the surface indicating feeding on the sea bottom fauna.

Later on the same day, we sighted four females with their calves (one of them was already photographed in the morning)!

Thus, the total number of mother/calf pairs identified in 2014 was increased to five in one day. Four of these females have been seen in previous years, and known to have calves before.

On 28 July, we also went to the sea in the morning. But the wind kept picking up and we had to go back to the camp in only a couple of hours. But we had a chance to photograph four whales. First group consisted of three whales: female and her calf, and another young whale never seen before and identified as a yearling.

And again, the weather allowed us to go out on the boat in the morning of 29 July. It was a very productive day with 22 whales photographed. We went 25 km south of our research camp. We saw two mother/calf pairs again (already photographed this season), and 10 individuals seen in previous years but not photographed yet this year.

Also, one of the whales was new to our gray whale catalog meaning, we have never seen this whale before. Three individuals were yearlings – calves of 2013.

This was very good news to see them returned to Piltun again.

There was one big group consisted of seven whales. They were in some distance apart from each other but all feeding and constantly moving from one to another.

The last working day of July (30th) was productive as well. Some fog in the morning kept us in the camp, but gave us a chance to go out in the afternoon. We went 20 km north from our camp and identified 16 whales. We were happy to see one of the mother/calf pairs again. One of the observed whales was identified as a new individual to our catalog.

On another positive note, we sighted Ponchik (our famous whale that was entangled last year) four times in July.

He seems busy with feeding and interacting with other whales, and we hope to see him sometime in August again.

--The WGW Expedition Team

The western gray whale (WGW) expedition is a team of scientists from Russia and the USA that have been returning every summer since 1995 to Sakhalin Island (in the Sea of Okhotsk near Piltun Bay) to monitor and research western gray whales. Annually since 2000 IFAW has supported this research program that collects population data through photo-identification and genetic analysis of skin tissue biopsy samples. Information about population condition is very important to understanding the impact and influence of oil industry on the WGW population, and is key to IFAW’s WGW campaign.

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Experts

Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Dr. Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, Country Director, Germany
Country Director, Germany
Isabel McCrea, Regional Director, Oceania
Regional Director, Oceania
IFAW Japan Representative
IFAW Japan Representative
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Whales