OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Whale from endangered population surprises scientists

12/23/2010

NEWPORT, Ore. – A lone western gray whale, tagged off Russia’s Sakhalin Island by scientists in September and tracked for more than 70 days, has suddenly taken off from its feeding area and sped across the Sea of Okhotsk to the west side of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Dubbed “Flex” by researchers, this 13-year-old male is one of just 130 western grays remaining in what is one of the world’s most endangered whale populations.

Scientists tracking the whale’s movements via satellite at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center say they are surprised by Flex’s movements and wonder what the animal will do next. They are inviting the public to follow the whale’s progress on a map that is updated weekly (http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2010).

“We’re making guesses as to where ‘Flex’ will now head, but they’re just guesses because western gray whales have never been tagged before and we do not know where they breed and calve in the winter,” said Bruce Mate, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute and a principal investigator on the project.

“Many scientists think he could wind up in the southeast China Sea, but he might head over to the east side of Kamchatka Peninsula for the winter, or he could surprise us all and come east across the Aleutian Island chain and then head south to Baja and the Sea of Cortez with eastern gray whales.”

Going to Baja would be unexpected, Mate pointed out, because western whales are considered genetically distinct from their much more common eastern North Pacific cousins.

“These are uncharted waters for scientists and we’re anxious to see where he goes – and how long the tag will last.”

Mate is a pioneer in the use of satellites to track marine mammals. The OSU professor led the tagging portion of the study, which was conducted in collaboration with Russian scientists. Western grays were decimated by whaling in previous centuries and the whales were feared to be extinct in the mid-1970s. But a population was rediscovered off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored since the mid-1990s.

Sakhalin Island is the site of major offshore oil and gas activities and efforts are under way to minimize the impacts of industrial development on the whales, which also face threats from accidental entanglement in fishing gear. Five female western gray whales have died accidentally via entanglement over the past four years.

Flex spent two months feeding off Sakhalin Island after he was tagged and his departure may be timed to the weather, Mate said. The ocean there will ice over soon. The whale was first seen as a calf in 1997 and has been observed visually on a regular basis during summers since then. But this is the first time a whale from this critically endangered population has been tagged and followed by satellite.

Scientists had hoped to tag a dozen whales during the month-long expedition in the fall, but poor weather conditions and treacherous seas made even finding and approaching the whales difficult. They finally were able to tag Flex on the last day of their voyage and have been tracking him since.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Mate said. “This particular tag stays attached an average of about three months on gray whales. Western grays are bottom feeders and the tag can easily get scraped off while feeding, or during contact with other whales during mating.

“But we’ve had two months of monitoring during the feeding season now, which has never been done before with western gray whales,” he added. “And we have seen movements over a very small area. This is a great chance for the public to learn about these whales at the same time we are.”