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For gray whale on the go, question of romance remains

Mar 09 2012

The big question is left hanging: Did she or didn't she?

There are no definite signs that Varvara, the rare western gray whale, bred with one of her eastern cousins while visiting Mexico, says Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.

"There's really no way to tell," he said.

Mate, one of the international scientists who tagged five critically endangered western grays in their summer home off Sakhalin Island in Russia this year, has watched as Varvara - the only whale whose tag continued to transmit - sped across the ocean and down the North American coast to Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

The whale, which at nine is old enough to breed, nosed around the calving lagoons before turning north, apparently starting her long trip home to Russia.

"I do not know what she did around the lagoons," Mate said. "This is the first time that we know any whale has visited all of the major breeding areas, not to mention all in one season."

Scientists will be watching carefully to see whether Varvara produces a calf.

The gestation period is one year and Varvara would be expected to come back to the Mexican calving lagoons to have the calf.

"We know what she looks like, so everyone in that area will be on the alert for her," Mate said.

Varvara is now in southern California, following the migration route of eastern grays, which swim from Mexico north to the Bering Sea for the summer.

Varvara's journey blurs the line between the western population, with only 130 remaining members, and the eastern population, which numbers between 18,000 and 20,000, even though there are genetic differences.

"When a whale from Russia comes all the way over to the eastern North Pacific and to the breeding areas, that's a big deal," Mate said.

It is estimated Varvara has swum at least 12,000 kilometres so far.

Flex, the only western gray tagged last year, also swam to North America, but his tag stopped transmitting as he was about to reach California. It was later discovered Flex had been photographed several years previously off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Mate is hoping the tagging program will get sponsorship for next year, as two of its major sponsors will no longer provide funding.

"It's a really interesting story that's coming forward," he said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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