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Rare western gray whale passes Vancouver Island

Mar 21 2012

Varvara, the rare western gray whale from Russia, has skipped the Pacific Rim Whale Festival and is continuing to head north.

The nine-year-old whale, a member of the endangered population of western gray whales from Sakhalin Island in Russia, reached northern Vancouver Island during the weekend and is expected to soon start heading west and back to her home territory.

Varvara is travelling about 160 kilometres a day, and it was hoped she would be in the vicinity of Tofino or Ucluelet for the whale festival, which runs until March 25.

Until now she has swum the same route north as migrating eastern gray whales, which are making their way from the calving and breeding lagoons of Baja Mexico to the summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea.

There are 130 remaining western gray whales, compared with 18,000 to 20,000 eastern gray whales.

Varvara’s sprint across the ocean from Russia and time spent around the breeding lagoons has raised questions among scientists about the mixing of the two populations and the navigational skills of gray whales.

Varvara was one of six whales tagged by Russian and American scientists last fall — 200 days ago — but her tag is the only one that has continued to transmit.

One other whale was tracked into the Gulf of Alaska, but her tag then stopped working.

Last year, Flex, a 13-year-old male from the western gray whale population, was tracked swimming near southern Oregon before his tag stopped transmitting.

Satellite tags usually last about 123 days on gray whales. The longest a tag has continued to function is 380 days.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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