A western gray whale has completed a nearly 14,000-mile journey from Sakhalin Island, Russia, to Baja California, Mexico — the longest mammal migration ever recorded.
In the early 1970s, scientists thought the western gray whale had gone extinct. Now researchers estimate about 150 individual whales remain.
Bruce Mate is the director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and lead author of the study. He says this migration pattern raises serious questions about the genetic link between the critically endangered western gray whale and its more populous cousin, the eastern gray whale.
“Were there ever any western gray whales?” asked Mate, “Or were they just a westerly-extension of these eastern North Pacific animals?”
Mate said in addition to questions of genetics, researchers are scratching their heads to understand how the whales were able to navigate over vast distances of open water across the Bering Sea.
He said researchers have already ruled out the possibility that the whales were using geomagnetic forces or island references to guide them. What’s most likely, said Mate, is that the whales follow the exact path that they learned from their mothers when they were calves.
Oregon Field Guide first interviewed Bruce Mate about his work tracking whales by satellite back in 1991.