The vessel was hired for a seismic survey as part of a major development of oil reserves in the NW Pacific, off the coast of the Russian Far East, north of Japan. Okay, anybody with an atlas at this stage can work out it is Sakhalin Island, that long fish-shaped strip of land, the size of England but with the population of a small European city.
It is not hard to see why the place is so sparsely populated. The climate is inclement. At the time of writing, the air a couple of feet from the porthole is dancing with tiny droplets of water vapour. A layer of sea fog coats the ocean surface, thin enough to allow the blue sky to be seen above but cutting visibility down to less than 100 metres. This morning the fog just lifted enough to allow the support vessel to be seen only by the lower hull, making it look like a giant orange-red inflatable banana, the kind of amusement towed behind speedboats at the warmer beach resorts of the world. Sakhalin has indeed miles of beaches, but it's a brave person who swims from them.
After a period of rough weather, the sea ice on the east coast finally broke up on the 10th of June. From November it had built up, thickly crusting the shoreline. Massive slabs, looking from afar like pieces of royal icing from a shattered wedding cake, still littered the beach as our survey vessel passed by. By mid-summer's day, the water temperature had risen to a balmy three degrees Celsius. If you are in Europe, be grateful for the Gulf Stream otherwise this would be our climate too. Sakhalin is no further north than France and southern England,
It is the clearing of the ice that finally brings in the grey whales. For half the year, the bottom-dwellers along the littoral line have been able to exist in relative peace and have obviously being able to spend time being fruitful and multiplying. Now though these giant mammals start to
move in to reap the harvest. Scooping up mouthfuls of mud and water and using its massive tongue, a grey whale squeezes its mouthful out through baleen plates, leaving behind the clams, crabs and small fish to be swallowed. The ocean shoreline must indeed be fruitful because just to the north of our survey area is the equivalent and a whale drive-through and shopping experience. It is not just grey whales though: orca, porpoise, fin, beaked and minke whales all put in appearances at various times, as well as Stellar sea-lions and several species of seal.
It does occur to one what other whales might think if they were ever to witness a greys feeding.
"They do what? Eat mud? Eeyooo! That is disgusting. Why can't they eat nice clean krill or herring by the mouthful like a decent whale?"
I know: a total piece of anthropomorphism but still...
In fact it was during the vessel's emergency boat drill that I saw my first whale blows. It was cold, with not much shelter on the helideck. As the muster was coming to the end, I thought I was having an hallucination. A grove of transparent palm trees, four of them at once, sprang straight up from the sea surface, bloomed into leaf and, just as they started to dissolve, four more sprouting up close by. "Whale!" I half-shouted. "Whale," I repeated, pointing to starboard and ahead. Most of the crew ignored me, only the MMOs turning around in an half-interested manner. A minute or two later, more glass palm trees erupted, hung and dissipated. Some of the crew had stayed but with this, in the teeth of the cold wind, it was enough to satisfy their curiosity and I was alone on the back deck. My reward was to be the sight of a back back, topped with a small dorsal fin.
Later I was reminded by Igor, the lead MMO (marine mammal observer) that a whale can be identified by its blow. The tall straight ones we saw are typical of fin whales, the second largest of the whale family. Before the advent of steam ships, this fortunate species were safe from the whaling boats as they are fast enough to out-swim them. From the end of the 19th Century through to the 1970s, they too were driven to the edge of extinction.
Grey whales are still hunted by some indigenous peoples of the northern Pacific. It was long thought that the Grey Whale population off Sakhalin were an isolated sub-species with numbers on the verge of extinction but recent evidence suggests that there is some mixing between the populations on each side of the Pacific. A female Grey was successfully tracked swimming from Sakhalin to Baja California and back again in just over half a year - a return journey of over 14,000 miles and a world record for known mammalian migration.
Some may say that there should not be any industrial activity in a habitat where whales frequent. In an ideal world I guess that is so. Meanwhile, in this world the oil companies involved have done a lot of work to minimise the disturbance to the environment. This was achieved by various ways:
- Research - in depth studies were made to identify those areas most frequented by grey whales.
- Planning - the procedures used were not put together by the oil companies but by the MMOs, who are in the main marine biologists and active academics in the field.
- Timing - the vessels involved in the surveys were standing by and ready to go as soon as the ice melted. Those shallow water areas along the shore were targeted first, before the majority of whales arrived in the area.
- Observation - each vessel involved in the survey came with qualified MMOs. This is pretty standard with all seismic activity but what is not standard is the depth and thoroughness of observation that took place. Not only were teams of MMOs on the seismic vessels involved (one or two is more normal), but also on the supporting vessels and in camps along the shoreline, all coordinated from a central post. According to JNCC (Joint Nature Conservancy Council) guidelines, seismic vessels have to shut down their guns if a mammal comes with 500m of the guns. This happened a couple of times. In addition to that, acoustic sondes were deployed and the gun output monitored. If a whale was observed in an area deemed too noisy, the operation was shut down, regardless of distance away from the source boat.
In short, the companies took there environment duties seriously and every effort was taken to work around the animals.
Preventative shutdowns at long range did happen: they were annoying for the crew as the attitude was "let's get it over with as quickly as possible" but accepted and the procedure followed scrupulously. There was a particular zone, just off one end of the survey zone, where shutdowns were more common and which came to be nicknamed the Whale Walmart. The central coordination point became known as the Whale Police, which led to the creation of the following joke:
Got stopped by the Whale Police today. They issued a cetacean.
(Sorry about that).
One morning the seismic boat was allowed a clear run by a pod of orca, who spend a couple of hours swimming in front of us, not too close, maybe a couple of kilometres ahead. The male was a magnificent fellow, with a dorsal fin standing easily over two metres high. It was a shame we could not hire them for the duration of the survey. One had to wonder what their price would be though: if it were a tongue from a grey whale, that might defeat the object somewhat.
My personal best sighting came about on a beautiful evening. The vessel was on the turn, just south of Whale Walmart, guns off after successfully completing a line. The animal was in clear view and approached to a range of 750m metres. Not close perhaps but close enough to see even without binoculars that the species are well-named and that they are without a dorsal fin. Instead greys have a series of ridges along their lower back, which reminded me of knuckles of a fist. Their blow is rounded and hang in still air, reminiscent in shape of a heart from a St.Valentine's card.
* * *
Now I am writing on board a chase boat, heading back to port once infield duties are completed. Igor (another Igor) promised me fur seals the next day.
Igor did not lie. The sun shone brightly, encouraging many fur seals (which, incidentally are not seals but a species more closely related to sea lions) to sunbathe, often asleep on the surface. A piece of wood would slowly raise a flipper or two in lazy salute as the ship passed. Usually in would be just a single fur seal but on occasion a pair or even three would be dozing in the warm sunshine. Then two kilometres ahead I saw a blow and a massively long back break the barely rippling water. Fin whale! A second, then third blow and we were heading almost for them. I waited with the tension and excitement of a hunter.
At a distance of 750m off starboard, dead level with the bridge, the water broke and a distinct pwhorr-suuck could be heard as the giant exhaled and inhaled. Its nostrils already underwater, the back followed, and kept coming. What a back, huge, glistening and well over 20m long, it just seem to go on forever. As it disappeared, a oily smudge and swirl marked the spot. A second spout, breath and back, a bit shorter. A third, then a fourth! I know that people have had closer sightings but this, to be in the presence of such giants, is an awe-inspiring experience.
My wonder was not over yet, as I was still looking astern when from the port side Igor called out. A pod of Dall's porpoise, about ten-strong, had joined us, splashing and in the sun. No circus-like aerobatics from these dumpy black-and-white creatures but one got the sense they were really enjoying their play. Still we were not finished, as they were left behind another sleepy fur seal then a pod of North Pacific Harbour Porpoise passed through, small but stately in manner.
All this in no more than fifteen minutes. That was a good sighting.