Every summer at Sakhalin Island in Russia’s far east, the gray whales arrive. One of the smallest populations of whales in the world, they come in pairs and small groups from May to early June, and spend the summer feeding in the shallow coastal waters. When the icy Russian winter returns, the whales leave.
Like migrating birds, scientists assumed they went south in the winter, along the Asian coast to the South China Sea.
But in 2010, one 13-year-old whale made an incredible journey, trekking vast ocean distances and changing marine scientists’ understanding of the entire gray whale population.
The voyage demonstrated that the small group of around 170 western gray whales arriving at Sakhalin each summer is in fact connected to the larger eastern gray whale population. Until then scientists had believed they existed separately, as the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific Ocean, lies between them.
The western gray whale is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). To collect data that would help them understand and safeguard the population, including where the whales live and how far they travel, a team of scientists from Russia and the United States, with support from the IUCN and the International Whaling Commission, successfully tagged one of the western grey whales with a satellite tracking device in October 2010.