There are believed to be as few as 130 endangered western gray whales left in the waters off of the North Pacific, precariously clinging to survival in their increasingly imperiled habitat as they have for centuries -- but for one youngster, it was evidently time to move on.
Last September, biologists studying the endangered species along the western coast of Asia attached a satellite tracking device to a nine-year-old gray whale they named Varvara. Researchers were hoping to gain insight into the troubled whales' migratory patterns, but what they learned instead has forced them to rethink what the species is capable of. Just months after being tagged, Varvara was discovered wading near the coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula -- a remarkable detour for a whale not known for traveling long distances over open ocean.
"It’s a scientific event - a big one," says Randall Reeves of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel. "It’s always been believed that gray whales are coastal migrating mammals."
To get to Mexico, Reeves said, Varvara had to cross the Okhotsk Sea off the Siberian coast, navigate up Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, strike out across the huge and deep Bering Sea far from any coast, and into Alaskan waters. Once there, the whale would have migrated to Baja along the North American shoreline.
"For all scientists interested in animal migration, we are following this pretty closely," Reeves said.
Gray whales once swam in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans. Under intense whaling pressure - whale oil was then what petroleum is to the world today - they had disappeared from the North Atlantic by the early 1700s.
Although Varvara's epic swim was likely a lonely one, scientists are optimistic that the youngster's instinct to set out for distant shores demonstrates an adaptability which could be key to the species' long-term survival, particularly as off-shore drilling platforms in their native romp nudges them towards extinction.
"It’s a very dangerous place to be a whale," says Stephen R. Palumbi of Stanford University. "If a whale population is stuck there, it’s like being stuck in a very bad inner-city neighborhood."
Researchers have yet to determine what Varvara's next move will be, or if a new population of western gray whales could arise along the coast of Mexico, but still one thing's for certain -- her trip was one long swim for a whale, and one giant leap for her kind.