The Beginning of the End of Russia’s Summer

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

"Well, Jake, it looks like Sakhalin Summer has ended." This is how I was greeted today by Grisha, as I was pouring my morning cup of coffee. I've been lucky. The weather has been fantastic for much of my stay here at Piltun Lagoon. This part of Sakhalin Island is located at a latitude of 52 degrees north, which is what you'd consider a sub-arctic ecosystem.  That means that this ecosystem is adapted to cold weather, and that's exactly what it is today.  A cold front blew in while we were sleeping, and the past few days of sun, clear sky and light wind seem to have been only a dream when compared to today's weather, complete with a strong, cold wind gusting from the north. 

"This is what Sakhalin is like most of the time," says Grisha, which helps me realize that the weather I've enjoyed the past few days was a rare treat. There will probably be no more of those sunny summer days for Sakhalin Island this years; winter weather is fast approaching.  From what I hear, it's not uncommon to have a fall gale -- like New England's wicked nor'easters -- in August here.

Today, we are grounded. Unable to get the boat out in such weather, and unable to make observations from the lighthouse (every foamy, wind-whipped wave looks like a whale spout), we hung out inside and worked with data. Here are a few photographs of us working to identify the individual whales we've be photographing.

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My time here is winding down, and we still haven't had a chance to test the kite-cam. If the weather improves enough to fly the kite, we're going to try to conduct a census of the seal colony on the northern sandbar. These seals spook easily, and disappear underwater whenever a boat approaches. Since the seals spook so easily, I'm hoping to land a boat about a mile away, and quietly fly the kite-cam over the colony to get some photographs and estimate the colony's population size. This gives us another means to gauge the health of Piltun's lagoon. Should an oil spill ever occur, we'll have photographic evidence of what a pre-spill Piltun looked like. We hope this never happens, of course. But, if it does, we will be ready to help. As always, we couldn't do it without you. Your support helps our emergency relief team respond to animal disasters all over the world.

With winter on its way, the whales will soon begin leaving. Over the coming weeks, the mothers will begin weaning their calves before departing on their long and mysterious annual migration. We don't kow where they will go, and can only hope they will find their way back next year. Sadly, the odds are not good for the newest members of this critically endangered species. Western Pacific gray whales have an extremely high calf mortality rate. It will be a frustrating and long wait before we know whether these calves have survived -- young whales generally don't return to Piltun's lagoon until they are 4 to 6 years old. No one knows where they spend these years, but we hope they will be safe.

Some of the whales may hang around Piltun until mid-autumn, but most will begin leaving within the next few weeks. We don't know where they will go, but we do know that they face a tough journey. Few areas in the world's oceans are safe for whales these days, the Western gray whales' suspected migratory route takes them frightfully close to some of the world's most heavily fished waters. This means a serious threat of entanglement in fishing gear, which often leads to a slow and painful death from starvation, exhaustion or infection.

This is why we travel here every year to photograph these whales. Every new thing we learn about their behavior and biology can help guide our conservation efforts. And, so, we keep at it, despite wind and rain, cold weather and seemingly never-ending fog. Because the Western gray whales may not have much time left, and we may be one of their last hopes.

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