Rare western gray whale tracked off Canada

Posted: Tuesday, February 01, 2011

ANCHORAGE — A highly endangered whale that spends summers off Russia has moved into water off British Columbia after crossing the Bering Sea and passing the Aleutian Islands.

The 13-year-old, male western Pacific gray whale dubbed Flex is being tracked by U.S. and Russian researchers.

Its last location was logged Thursday about 400 miles off the coast of British Columbia, said Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.

Mate said it was possible the whale’s satellite tag had fallen off, or that bad weather interfered with transmissions.

“We have not heard from the animal for the last three days,” Mate said. “There is a pretty good lump out there in terms of swell, but it’s nothing like what was out in the southeast Bering Sea. We may be coming to an end of this, but it’s a little early to say.”

Western Pacific gray whales are the second-most threatened species of large whales after North Pacific right whales. Only 130 of the gray whales remain.

In contrast, there are about 18,000 eastern Pacific gray whales. Those whales breed and give birth in warm water, mostly along Baja California, and migrate north to spend summers on feeding grounds in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Western Pacific gray whales spend summers near Sahkalin Island at the south end of the Sea of Okhotsk near Russia. Little is known of their winter habits. North America waters were not high on lists of suspected winter sites.

Last year, researchers from Oregon State and the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences had hoped to tag 12 western Pacific gray whales but were limited by typhoons and gales to one on the last day of field work.

Flex was tagged Oct. 4. He spent more than two months feeding near Sakhalin Island and moved across the Sea of Okhotsk to the west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The chances of finding the whale if the tag is off are minimal.

The public can track the whale on Oregon State’s website.

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