The western gray whale is one of the world's most endangered whales species. Listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List for Threatened Species, there are thought to be only 130 western gray whales living today.
Whaling has had a major impact on the western gray whales and in the mid-1970s they were thought to be extinct. These majestic creatures were 'rediscovered' around Sakhalin Island off the coast of Russia, where there has been monitoring in place ever since.
One of the biggest threats to this species is that Sakhalin Island is a major offshore oil and gas site and there are now international efforts in place to help reduce the impacts from industrial development on the whales.
Whilst their feeding grounds in the Russian Far East are well understood, information on their routes for migration and where they go to breed are not. A team of scientists from America and Russia have now successfully tagged and tracked by satellite one of these endangered individuals, known as 'Flex', using telemetry where the data is transmitted via a tag on the whale's back. Greg Donovan, Head of Science for the International Whaling Commission (IWC) says “tremendous care was taken to select a healthy adult male and although the risks associated with such tagging are minimal, we wanted to take absolutely no chances with females or young animals”.
Understanding more about where these endangered whales go to breed and how they migrate there is critical to enabling more effective measures to be developed to help protect the whales. Mr Donovan explains that "the information we expect to get from this study is vital to international conservation efforts to preserve this population, as is the collaboration between governments, international organisations, international scientists, industry and other stakeholders".
The scientists headed to the remote region of Russia to locate and then tag whales off the Sakhalin Island in late August.
Since then, daily information has been transmitted from 'Flex' back to the laboratories. Interestingly, the whales have stayed close to land and fed along the eastern shore of the island. Now with the winter season in full swing, insights will be gained about the most critical information, where the gray whales will go to have their babies.