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Rare whale passing near Island festival

Mar 18 2012

An international celebrity could be off the coast of Tofino and Ucluelet, just in time for the Pacific Rim Whale Festival.

Varvara, a rare western gray whale, is speeding up the west coast, probably on her way home to Russia's Sakhalin Island.

The nine-year-old female was near the Washington-B.C. border Friday, travelling north at a speed of about 160 kilometres a day, which should get her to Tofino in time for the whale festival, which runs until March 25.

"There's great interest in Varvara's journey in Tofino," said Jim Darling, a director of the Pacific Wildlife Foundation.

"Many have been following each update on Varvara since she passed on her southward trek last January."

Varvara is one of five critically endangered whales tagged in Russia last fall by U.S. and Russian scientists. The other whales lost their tags, but, to the amazement of scientists, Varvara's tag is still transmitting after a 13,000-kilometre journey.

The information it has provided has turned conventional gray whale science on its head.

The western gray population, which has only 130 members, and the eastern grays, which number between 18,000 and 20,000, are believed to be separate populations and genetically different.

However, the lines have been blurred by Varvara and Flex, a western gray tagged last year.

Like Varvara, Flex zipped across the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean to Vancouver Island and was tracked down the coast. The tag stopped transmitting just before he reached California.

Flex was later identified in photos showing he had visited Tofino several years earlier.

The pattern set by Flex has now been solidified by Varvara, who swam down to the eastern gray breeding and calving lagoons of Baja Mexico and mingled with her eastern cousins.

"She did not calve, for sure, or she would have stayed in one place for four to eight weeks," said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. "Most likely, she would have been breeding this year and she spent time around three areas where that activity is commonly seen."

The whales' behaviour has significant ecological and population management implications, Mate said.

"Clearly, the experience of Varvara, and Flex before her, demonstrates that western gray whales can and do come over to the eastern Pacific," Mate said.

"Whether this suggests that they are not a distinct population, or that we underestimated their range, isn't yet clear."

Varvara is now following the path of eastern gray whales, who are migrating from Mexico to the Bering Sea for the summer.

"Among the many things Varvara and Flex have taught us is the potential for intermingling between the western and eastern gray whales - not only on the breeding grounds, but during migrations and spring feeding aggregations along the way," Darling said.

However, celebrity-watchers may have difficulty picking out Varvara. Although she is identifiable to scientists, to the uninitiated, she appears almost identical to her eastern cousins. jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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