Piltun Lagoon, Tomon and Grey Whales

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

I was so tired after arriving at the research site yesterday that I don't really remember falling asleep. Needless to say, I slept extremely well, as soon as my sleeping bag and foam pad rolled out. 

I awoke this morning before most of the team and decided to have a look around this side of the lagoon. We had a bit of fog so couldn't head out first thing this morning, but the slight breeze gave a small hint that the fog would soon clear out.  By the way, I've learned a new Russian word. Tomon (pronounced too-mon) is Russian for fog. Already, I've heard this word many times in Piltun.

The camp is fairly small, and always oriented towards the lagoon. Both the lighthouse and the abandoned side of the light-keeper's hut that we call home, sit facing Piltun Lagoon, and then open ocean just past.  The whales often congregate here, in an area barely 15 by 5 kilometers in area. Sand bars protect the lagoon, and offer a welcomed resting spot for local harbor, ringed and bearded seals. The lagoon also harbors a healthy population of fishes, which attract the giant Steller's sea eagle.


Grisha, Pasha and I decided to take a quick trip in our Zodiac inflatable to scout out the area just past the cut in the sandbars. These mark the lagoon's entrance and direct a fresh influx of sea water into the lagoon with each flooding tide.  Out in the lagoon, we spotted a few whales. Encouraged, we decided to radio in and tell the team to get ready.  The fog had retreated far enough by 9:00 AM that we could get the survey team in place for one survey.   Two of us worked on photo identification with a video and still camera, while a third person  took notes and a fourth guided our vessel. 

Over the day we spotted numerous whales and three mother-calf pairs. This means --  on my first day -- I already have seen 3/4 of this year's calves (there have only been five new calves this year). Mind boggling and extremely humbling. Also terribly frightening to consider that this entire species produced a total of five babies this year.

Here are a few images from today:

Western Pacific grey whale mother and calf, with the shore in the background:

Western Pacific grey whale with the Piltun Lagoon campsite and lighthouse in the background:

Back on dry land, we are using our computers to match today's photographs with older photographs of known whales. This will tell us exactly who we saw today.

The ocean side of the lagoon, where the whales feed, is sandwiched right between two oil platforms of Sakhalin Energy's so thoughts on the harm these platforms are causing from ocean noise pollution, and the imminent danger of a spill damaging this fragile habitat never really left my mind. (Platform picture)

Finally (it's 8:00 PM) we're ready to sit down for a dinner of bread and beet stew, so I'm going to sign off for now. More updates coming soon! Thanks for following along. And please remember, if you would like to support our work preserving whales in Russia and elsewhere, we can always use your help. In fact, we couldn't do this without you!

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