OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Scientists still following far-ranging Varvara as Russian whale returns

03/16/2012

NEWPORT, Ore. – After visiting three different lagoons in the Pacific Ocean side of Baja Mexico, a rare western gray whale named “Varvara” is migrating up the West Coast – presumably en route to her home range near Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

The Mexican lagoons are known calving and breeding grounds for eastern gray whales and Varvara may have gone there in search of a partner, scientists say.

“She did not calve for sure, or she would have stayed in one place for four to eight weeks because the calves need to gain strength, coordination and blubber – for fuel and insulation,” said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. “More likely, she would have been breeding this year and spent time around three areas where that activity is commonly seen.”

By Friday, the 9-year-old female was near the Washington/Canadian border, traveling northward at a rate of up to 100 miles a day.

There is “great interest” in Varvara’s journey in Tofino, the whale watching hub on the west coast of Vancouver Island, according to Jim Darling of the Pacific Wildlife Foundation, who has studied whale populations for years.

“Many have been following each update on Varvara since she passed on her southward trek last January,” Darling said. “Among the many things Varvara and Flex have taught us is the potential for intermingling between the western and eastern gray whales – not only on breeding grounds, but during migrations and spring feeding aggregations along the way.”

The public can follow the travels of Varvara online at: http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2011

The long-distance journey of Varvara – which means Barbara in Russian – is critical because this is the first time scientists have documented that critically endangered western gray whales travel to Baja Mexico, where eastern gray whales frequent. Western gray whales are thought to be genetically distinct from their more populous cousins that are common up and down the West Coast, but Varvara clearly was mingling with eastern gray whales.

Mate said there are only about 130 western gray whales in the world and the behavior of Varvara has significant ecological and management implications.

“Clearly the experience of Varvara, and Flex before her, demonstrates that western gray whales can and do come over to the eastern Pacific,” Mate said. “Whether this suggests that they are not a distinct population or that we underestimated their range isn’t yet clear.”

Last year, American and Russian scientists teamed up to follow “Flex,” a 13-year-old western gray whale that journeyed across the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean to Vancouver Island and down to Oregon before the tag finally quit working. The scientists returned to Sakhalin Island last fall to tag a half-dozen western gray whales and this time one of the tags, on Varvara, lasted all the way through her journey to the Sea of Cortez and is still transmitting – some 8,000 miles later.

“The average tag survives 123 days,” said Mate, who works out of OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center, “and this one is still working. Hopefully it will last so we can see if Varvara takes the same route back to Russia, or travels through different waters.”

In the 1970s, western gray whales were thought to have gone extinct, but a small aggregation was discovered by Russian scientists off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored by Russian and U.S. scientists since the 1990s. Eastern gray whales likewise were decimated by whaling and listed as endangered, but conservation efforts led to a recovery and, at 18,000 strong, they have been delisted.