Tracking the Titans

By Lee Anna Sherman

A whale named Varvara is following in the fluke-path of a whale named Flex, who surprised scientists last year by taking an unexpected migratory route from Russia to Oregon. Scientists led by Bruce Mate at the Marine Mammal Institute are following Varvara’s incredible journey via satellite signals from an electronic “tag” she received in September.

Varvara and Flex are western grays, an endangered species of only 130 individuals worldwide. However, not all scientists are convinced that western grays are distinct from eastern grays (the species that whale watchers are most likely to spot from the capes and headlands of the Oregon coast). This study will help sort out that question.

“Western gray whales could be a separate population, they could represent an expansion of eastern gray whales, or there could be some of both sharing the same feeding grounds off eastern Russia,” says Greg Donovan, head of the International Whaling Commission and coordinator of the project. “It is clear that we need to re-examine our understanding of the population structure of gray whales in the North Pacific and any conservation and management implications that arise from that under- standing.”

Varvara, who travels at least 100 miles each day, headed for the Sea of Cortez, a well-known breeding ground for eastern grays, according to the researchers. She visited three lagoons there before turning back north. At the end of March, she was near Sitka, Alaska. You can follow the whale’s progress online at www.