Gray whale tracked from Russia to our waters

gray-whale-map.pngA female gray whale that summers off Sakhalin Island in the western North Pacific was expected to swim past the Los Angeles County coast on Thursday and head south on Friday. Named Varvara by scientists, the eight-year-old whale is interesting to researchers because, 1) she's wearing a transmitter that lets her be tracked, and 2) she has changed sides of the Pacific and appears to be headed to Mexican waters with gray whales from the British Columbia area. The Russian whales used to be thought to stay on their side of the ocean, and the Canadians on our side. But there's some revision going on. Outdoors writer Pete Thomas explains:

Varvara hails from a critically endangered population of perhaps 130 Western Pacific gray whales, with very few breeding-age females. There are about 20,000 Eastern Pacific gray whales, famous for their annual 10,000-mile round-trip migration from the Bering and Beaufort seas to and from winter breeding areas in lagoons along the Baja California coastline.

It has become increasingly evident that both populations utilize the same breeding areas. However, David Weller, a marine mammal specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, has authored a manuscript (under peer-review) which states that despite this mixing, "Significant DNA and nuclear genetic differences between whales utilizing the Sakhalin feeding ground and those summering in the Eastern North Pacific support the continued recognition of Sakhalin animals as a distinct genetic unit."

It was unknown Thursday whether the whale would pass inside the Channel Islands, and possibly be spotted by whalewatch boats, or outside. They're just boogeying past to get to the warm water off Mexico. The map above shows Varvara's progress, from Oregon State University.

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