Field journal: northeastern Russia western gray whale expedition - early July

This post was filed from the field by the International Fund for Animal Welfare Western Gray Whale Research team collectively. - MV

A monitoring program designed by scientists from Russia and the USA has been ongoing every summer since 1995, with annual support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare every year since 2000.

The research taking place in the Sea of Okhotsk near Piltun Bay focuses on photo-identification, collecting images of individual gray whales observed in the study area. Each whale photographed is given an identification number and included in the main catalog of western gray whales (WGW). This information is then used for population estimates, an important piece of information when seeking to understand the impact and influence of the oil industry on the WGW population.

A Western Gray Whale in the foreground off the coast of Piltun Island. The lighthouse observation point where the "shore people" work.Another very important objective of this study is to collect biopsy samples – skin tissues of whales. This provides us with the information about the sex of each whale, as well as their relationship to other whales within this population and from other areas.

Weather off northeastern Sakhalin Island can be challenging to work with.

However, early on the weather here on Piltun was very favorable. We went out to sea six times with a few days on the boat from morning till night. It can be exhausting but is wonderful and exciting to see many of our good old friends – gray whales that we have known for years.

To get to the sea, we first have to cross Piltun Bay. The entry from the bay to the sea has its own difficulties due to very shallow water and big swells. But once we pass the entry, we begin to look for whales. Usually, we have four people on the boat and two staying on shore. “Shore people” conduct observations from the top of the lighthouse, scanning the area with binoculars, recording sightings, and contacting us on the boat by radio to help with the search.

A Western Gray Whale mother and calf in Piltun Bay, off the coast of Sakhalin Island, Russia.On July 9th, we sighted 20 individual gray whales, including our first mother-calf pair of the season, a huge success for our first full working day. On July 10th, we went out in the morning and photographed our second mother-calf pair south of the lighthouse. The pair preferred staying further away, but we managed to take pictures and identify the mother – a female frequently sighted in previous years, that last calved in 2011. Unfortunately, right after this, we were driven back to camp by a very dense fog that covered everything for the rest of the day.

But the next day brought very nice weather and very long working hours on the sea. The first whale we sighted was a yearling – calf of 2012. We also saw two young whales calved in 2011. And how lucky we are: this long day ended with sighting the third for this season mother-calf pair. The pair was very relaxed and did not mind our boat being close to them. The mother appeared to be a female that we knew as a calf herself that had her first calf in 2011. We took a biopsy from the calf for genetic analyses to determine how it is related to other known whales.

We had three more days at sea, during which we saw whales further offshore, traveling 30km north of the lighthouse, and 25 km south. On July 15th, we sighted two mother-calf pairs, one pair already recorded this season. The other pair was new, number four for the season. The mother from this pair was a well-known female that we have seen with calves in previous years.

So, we had very busy and successful days but now the fog and wind have returned, so we wait and hope for better weather! 

Signed - The IFAW western gray whales (WGW) expedition, north east of Sakhalin Island, Russia.

Stay tuned for more updates from the team as they continue their research!

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation