The whale's head rises high in the water, exposing the yellowish baleen hanging from its jaws. It glides past the five-meter boat with ten meters to spare.
The crew stares into the eye of the whale, a split second before the animal disappears under the water.
Suddenly, the whale's head bursts through the surface twenty meters from the boat and surges toward the sky, pulling half of its forty-foot body out of the water. Casually, the 60,000-pound creature rotates onto its back as it falls into the sea with a tremendous splash.
The breaching whale triggers a round of jubilant exclamations -- even from four seasoned scientists.
They have traveled from across Russia and the United States to help create a plan to save one of the most threatened whale populations on earth. Once thought extinct, the Western Pacific grays tenaciously cling to survival, with a mere one hundred or so remaining from a family that once numbered 15,000.
The team has spent the past four summers photographing, counting and studying these whales, which have survived decades of industrial hunting only to face another lethal threat, this time on the rich feeding grounds off the northeastern coast of the Russian province of Sakhalin, a 900-kilometer-long island north of Japan.
Sakhalin's offshore oil reserves would have remained untapped -- and the whales left in peace -- were it not for a historic agreement negotiated by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin in 1994.
The agreement called for multinational oil companies to provide the capital and technology to develop Sakhalin's energy fields, while Russia -- for the first time -- would allow foreign companies access to its reserves. The oil companies and Russia would split the profits. Tapping the huge energy fields could lead to more than $40 billion in investment in one of Russia's poorest regions.
None of the negotiators who hammered out the groundbreaking agreement was concerned about the impact on the whales. In fact, most assumed the Western grays were gone. Experts had declared them extinct thirty years earlier.
But the whales had a champion in California marine biologist Robert Brownell. He had argued all along that this lost tribe had not really disappeared. By the early 1980s, Russian scientists knew that a handful of Western Pacific grays returned each summer to Sakhalin, near the mouth of nutrient-rich Pil'tun Lagoon. Each winter the whales departed for points unknown -- but were believed to be in the South China Sea -- to mate and give birth.
When Brownell -- one of America's top marine mammal scientists, who also is adept in the back hallways of international politics -- blew the whistle in 1996 about the critical location of the whales' feeding grounds, there was a stunned reaction from Moscow, Washington, D.C., and oil headquarters throughout the world.
"You have to be kidding" was the response Brownell says he got.
On February 7, 1997, Gore and Chernomyrdin signed a joint statement "on measures to ensure conservation of biological diversity near Sakhalin Island." A consortium of oil companies led by Sakhalin Energy Investment Company agreed to fund the lighthouse research team with $350,000 a year.
That was the last time the United States and Russia took any significant steps to ensure the whales' survival. And our eight-month investigation reveals that environmental negligence by the oil companies and lax oversight by international lenders -- combined with inaction by environmental groups and moribund response from Russian and American government agencies -- threaten to wipe out the remaining Western Pacific gray whales.
First light brings welcome news.
"Good weather!" booms a voice from the kitchen.
The skies are clear. The fog has lifted. Seas are calm.
The seven members of the research team -- five Russians and two Americans -- scramble from their plywood bunks and quickly converge in the kitchen. The smoky cast-iron wood stove heats coffee. Fresh-baked bread is cut and smothered with cheese and jam.
Good weather doesn't come often and may not last long at the Pil'tun lighthouse camp overlooking the Sea of Okhotsk, also known to the native population as the Sea of Death.
The encampment is enchantingly rugged and quiet -- save a few hours in the evening when the diesel generator is fired up to power the beacon atop the lighthouse tower. There are no cars or roads, just pathways through the sand and scattered patches of tundra.
Isolated from the outside world -- telephone communication is restricted to a fifteen-minute window each evening via a satellite -- the four women and three men lead a rustic and simple life that naturally keeps them focused on the task at hand -- studying the gray whales.
The biologists share a twenty-meter-long wood-frame and tar-paper fourplex with the two Russian families who operate the lighthouse -- one of more than a dozen that encircle Sakhalin Island. The fourplex was badly damaged in a 1995 earthquake that leveled the nearby town of Neftegorsk, killing 2,000 people. Researchers rebuilt part of the structure, adding men's and women's bunkhouses and crafting a crude but functional kitchen out of scrap.
Drinking water comes from a well beneath the kitchen table. The water is pumped each evening into an open 55-gallon plastic drum, then filtered with portable water-purifying kits. A one-hole outhouse suffices for a toilet.
The encampment is in one of the most remote spots in Sakhalin, which itself is considered an exotic and infamous locale by most Russians. During czarist times, Sakhalin became a giant penal colony, and it was used as a dumping ground for undesirables during the Russian purges of the twentieth century. Sakhalin burst into international prominence in September 1983, when Soviet MiG fighters scrambled from heavily fortified airfields and shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 after the passenger jet pierced Sakhalin's restricted airspace. But Sakhalin soon receded from the world's attention and resumed its status as one of the poorest provinces in Russia.
From the top of the 35-meter-high lighthouse, Pil'tun Lagoon can be seen stretching to the northern horizon. The eighty-kilometer-long saltwater lagoon hosts a mélange of wildlife and is fed by a series of rivers that drain from inland mountains. The rivers are teeming with Pacific salmon. The lagoon is believed to be the incubator of a rich mix of nutrients that flows into the sea through the lagoon's only opening -- a one-kilometer-wide channel near the lighthouse.
Researchers believe the gray whales return each summer to Pil'tun to feast on the nutrients generated by the lagoon. The symbiotic relationship between the lagoon and the gray whales has remained unchanged for aeons.
Only now is that crucial link showing signs of decay.
At night, an eerie orange glow contaminates the dark sky. It first appeared in July 1999 when production began on the giant oil rig Molikpaq, which sends up a fireball of vented natural gas.
About the same time the purity of the night sky was spoiled, the gray whales began moving farther north, away from the mouth of Pil'tun Lagoon, and away from the oil rig's loud noises.
For two decades, whale biologist Marilyn Dahlheim of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory has conducted groundbreaking research on the impact of underwater noise on Eastern Pacific gray whales. In the 1980s, she broadcast underwater noise into a Mexican lagoon where gray whales congregated in the winter to mate and give birth. The sounds, which included industrial noises, appeared to cause most of the whales to abandon the lagoon for the season.
The impact of the Molikpaq oil rig and its noise on the Western Pacific grays so far is inconclusive. Scientists have collected preliminary data indicating that the whales are affected by offshore noise, but the scientists need more funding and better research before they can reach definitive conclusions.
At the lighthouse, the researchers finish breakfast and put on orange survival suits -- an absolute necessity in case of a fall into the forty-degree sea.
They haul two Zodiacs down to the lagoon. There is little chatter as mosquitoes -- impervious to insect repellent -- launch concentrated attacks on the researchers' faces while they load cameras, a crossbow with hollow-tipped arrows, and monitoring equipment into the vessels.
Welts form on foreheads and cheeks as the crew members jump into the Zodiacs, fire up the outboard engines and head toward the Sea of Okhotsk.
"Blow!" says Yulia Ivashchenko, pointing toward the horizon, where a faint column of mist is dissipating.
Alexander "Sasha" Burdin guns the forty-horsepower outboard motor -- which is in serious need of an overhaul -- and the Zodiac lunges toward the morning's first gray whale.
Burdin, a 45-year-old marine biologist from the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology and Nature Management, switches on a portable radio and asks 23-year-old Irina Zhilinsky, who is perched atop the lighthouse scanning the horizon, for better coordinates of the whale.
In the bow, Dave Weller, the 38-year-old field leader from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, prepares his camera. Ivashchenko, a 25-year-old graduate student from Yaroslavl State University, near Moscow, readies her video camera.
Perched in the middle of the crowded boat, Amanda Bradford, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Washington, flips through whale photographs to help her identify the cetaceans, most of which have nicknames to go with their identification numbers.
The Zodiac zooms toward a pod of three whales, and Burdin cuts the throttle about fifty meters away. The researchers know most of the whales immediately -- grays are relatively easy to identify because their sides are covered with unique patterns of barnacles and sea lice.
Sometimes the grays are named after a particular behavior or physical characteristic: "Speedy," "Flaming Eyeball," "Sunglare" and "Pirate." Other whales are named after researchers -- "Dave," "Yulia," "Sasha" and "Amanda." One of the primary goals is to identify photographically as many whales as possible to establish a firm population estimate. Researchers are confident there are only about one hundred Western Pacific gray whales, with fewer than fifty of them mature adults capable of breeding.
Burdin slowly moves the Zodiac within a few meters of Flaming Eyeball while Weller and Ivashchenko photograph first its left side, then its right side and then its fluke.
The weather is warm, the sea is calm and the whales are everywhere. They feed primarily on crustaceans and marine worms on the ocean floor, referred to by scientists as benthic prey. During the six-month summer-feeding season, the whales eat 2,400 pounds a day, gaining up to 30 percent of their body weight. This must sustain them though their migration to breeding grounds during the winter and the return trip to the feeding grounds.
Grays are believed to live for fifty or sixty years, but that is a rough estimate. Females are slightly larger than males, averaging 46 feet and weighing about 70,000 pounds.
Photographing the whales is straightforward. Getting a biopsy is another story. Researchers are trying to get blubber samples from every whale to build a genetic database so they can determine, among other things, which whales are related to each other.
About midafternoon, a whale known only as number 69 is spotted, and the team mobilizes for a biopsy. Weller trades his Nikon for a crossbow and a hollow-tipped arrow with a rubber float.
Burdin begins to close in on 69, but the whale will not cooperate. It dives and stays down for a couple of minutes, surfacing thirty meters to port. Burdin moves the Zodiac toward the whale as it submerges and follows its course. The whale, however, veers away underwater and pops up twenty meters behind the boat.
The game goes on for thirty minutes.
Finally, Burdin maneuvers within three meters of the surfacing whale, and Weller fires an arrow into its side. The whale reacts immediately with a powerful flip of its fluke, leaving a large splash in its wake.
Weller retrieves the arrow from the water. A piece of skin and blubber, about three inches long, hangs from the dart.
Weller puts the sample into a salt solution and stores it in an ice chest.
Before day's end, the researchers travel 41 kilometers north from the lighthouse and encounter 27 whales. On the trip back to Pil'tun, a light rain begins to fall, and the sea gets choppy.
Nine hours on the sea is exhausting, and everyone is looking forward to dinner.
A couple of rounds of vodka after a dinner of pasta and sturgeon trigger a raucous chorus of laughter, and the day is commemorated with a hearty toast.
Dangers come with the territory. One year a Texas A&M researcher spent a few days in the hospital in Okha, the closest large city (a decrepit oil town of 36,000 on the island's northern end), hovering at death's door after eating a poisonous mushroom. On another occasion several team members were robbed while walking the streets of Okha.
Despite the hazards of living in one of the most remote areas of Russia, the working conditions have been the least of the scientists' challenges.
Weller says he has slowly become convinced that the oil companies are "cleverly" working to sabotage the research project by censoring preliminary reports, cutting funding and splitting up teams of researchers whose work should be done in tandem.
Weller earned his master's degree at San Diego State University, focusing on bottlenose dolphins along the California and Baja coasts. He moved on to Texas A&M for doctoral studies, spending most of his time in the Gulf of Mexico studying social affiliations of bottlenose dolphins. He also got involved in a controversial underwater noise project by the U.S. Navy and Scripps Institute of Oceanography to study global warming. Researchers broadcast loud underwater sounds and measured how fast they traveled through the ocean, since slight changes in ocean temperature, as global warming might cause, can impact how fast the sound travels. It was during this research that Weller became acquainted with subtle behavioral changes in whales reacting to undersea noise.
Weller was tapped by Bob Brownell in 1997 to head up the field research team in Pil'tun, where Weller has spent the past four summers.
"Anything we learn is new because the population is so unknown," Weller says. "Any information that we can provide to managers, for example, and even to industry to help them to mitigate things to conserve the population and the habitat is pretty neat."
But that good feeling is steadily being eroded.
Weller says all of the research team's preliminary findings and recommendations are reviewed by oil-industry personnel and their outside consultants. "In a lot of cases they will say, 'This section of the report is unacceptable based upon this, this and this,'" he says. "We know full well if we leave it in there, or if we try and argue for it, that the report will never be finally accepted, and the contract can then be negated.
"So it's always been up to us to kind of compromise and to come up with ways to nevertheless say something -- but either tone it down or remove it completely from what our original impressions were," Weller continues.
During the first two years of the field studies in 1997 and 1998, about $350,000 a year for research came from ExxonMobil (which has the concession to an offshore area known as Sakhalin I) and Sakhalin Energy Investment Corporation, which includes Shell, Mitsubishi and Mitsui (and has the concession to Sakhalin II). The money covered several studies -- including crucial monitoring of noise from oil-survey ships and behavioral observations from the lighthouse. The money, however, wasn't enough to begin vital baseline studies of the gray whales' benthic food supply off Pil'tun.
The funding amounts and the relationship between the oil companies and the researchers quickly degenerated. "I think we have done such a good job that we have alienated ourselves, at least, from Exxon,'' says Weller.
For example, Weller says, "We have plenty of background information and data to show that [the whales] are truly endangered. [But] they didn't even want us to call them endangered."
If the oil companies were reluctant to acknowledge even the obvious, it was not surprising that they reacted strongly when data from the first two seasons showed possible negative impacts on the whales from the surveying ships' noise.
The ships bounce loud sound waves off the seabed to help determine how much oil may lie below. The noise travels a great distance in the water and can be detected by whales up to one hundred kilometers away.
In 1997 and 1998, researchers found fewer whales in their primary feeding zone immediately after seismic tests.
Changes in the whales' swimming patterns are particularly important because they may indicate the whales are deviating from their normal feeding behavior.
The researchers also conducted studies of whale behavior when there was no outside disturbance, when a temporary drilling rig was operating and with the presence of the permanent production platform, the Molikpaq.
They found changes when noise was present, but the results of that study never made it into print.
The scientists did manage to include some behavioral impacts in their 1997 and 1998 reports, being careful not to draw conclusions but emphasizing the need to do more acoustic monitoring and to begin studying the food supply.
The oil companies responded by slashing the researchers' funding to $140,000 in 1999 and $99,000 in 2000. Researchers could no longer afford to keep operating their theodolite, a sophisticated measuring device used to observe whale behavior from the lighthouse.
The companies also split the research into two camps, with the crucial undersea acoustical monitoring contracted to a Russian team based in Vladivostock. Exxon switched its funding from the Pil'tun researchers to the Russian team, leaving the Pil'tun team financially reliant on Sakhalin Energy.
The Russian team, Weller says, is not trained in bioacoustic monitoring and is simply measuring noise without connecting it to the whales.
The bottom line, Weller says, is that the oil companies eviscerated a key part of the research by eliminating linkage between underwater noise and whale behavior.
Behavioral changes linked to industrial noise could be crucial to the whales' long-term survival. Evidence collected for more than a decade indicates that the only known population of Western Pacific gray whales gorges each summer off Pil'tun on tiny organisms on the sea floor. They fast during their six-month migration to their mating and birthing grounds.
If industrial noise makes them eat less, or if pollution or sediment from drilling wastes disturbs their food supply, they might not survive migration and be able to reproduce.
"It obviously is an important part of their life cycle," Brownell says.
The funding cuts have forced the Pil'tun research team to focus primarily on photo ID and genetic testing.
"The photo ID is very valuable, from a scientific and also a monitoring standpoint. But it's not all that we need," Weller says. "We need full-time acoustic monitoring around the clock. We need a theodolite team up in the lighthouse monitoring how the whales behave. We need benthic research. Satellite tracking [to determine where the whales go in the winter].
"We have been pushing for those since 1997. Every year we have been pushing," he adds.
"They just reject it," says Sasha Burdin, considered one of Russia's premier marine-mammal scientists.
Without any independent research, Sakhalin Energy controls not only how research is conducted but also what information is released to the outside world. At the same time, the oil-company consortium can point to the ongoing research at Pil'tun and report that it is conducting serious scientific studies.
The strategy may prove fatal to the whales.
"We are actually enabling industry to move full steam [ahead], unintentionally, by being in this situation," Weller says.
The scientists realize they are in a quandary. Not only is their research allowing progress on a project that could cause the whale's extinction, but they also have been reluctant to speak out publicly -- until now -- about how the oil companies are compromising the science.
Despite the frustration and the ethical dilemma, Weller says it is worth continuing the fundamental, if compromised, research.
"As a scientist, I have to remind myself that whatever we can get out of the field season, we are learning a heck of a lot about this population," Weller says. "We are still coming away with more than has ever been learned about [the Western gray]."
It's not only the researchers who have been compromised by the oil companies: Three international lending agencies have played a crucial role by advancing $348 million to Sakhalin Energy Investment Corporation.
An official with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says the agency, which has lent $116 million to Sakhalin Energy, has accepted a series of environmental reports from the company even while recognizing that possible links between acoustics and behavioral changes are not being addressed.
With neither the scientists nor the lenders challenging the oil companies and the accuracy of their reports, it is unlikely the research at Pil'tun will lead to a suitable habitat-conservation plan as called for in the 1997 agreement.
The scale of the Sakhalin offshore oil development will transform a coastline that is largely devoid of industrial activity into one of the world's major oil and gas fields, on a par with Alaska's North Slope.
"When they start digging up oil, or gold mining or something else, it's too late," Burdin says. "The area will be destroyed."
The photo-ID work conducted during the past four years at Pil'tun has identified 94 Western Pacific gray whales among this population, which thirty years ago was thought to be extinct.
The data also indicate that fewer than fifty of the whales are mature enough to breed. This is a crucial benchmark that last year led the World Conservation Union, a Swiss-based international wildlife conservation agency, to designate the Western Pacific grays as "critically endangered." Researchers hope the designation, the first for any whale species, will attract more attention to the project -- and more funds independent of the oil companies.
The Pil'tun research has also determined that the Western Pacific grays and the more numerous Eastern Pacific grays differ genetically, even though they are considered the same species.
"I think this is very powerful information showing that, indeed, not only are [Western grays] few in numbers but the breeding populations are probably separate from each other," Weller says.
Researchers say the populations have been separate for as many as 10,000 to 15,000 years, perhaps drifting apart during the last ice age.
The separate populations mean the only chance for the Western gray whales to survive is for the remaining fifty or so mature animals to breed.
"If of those fifty, forty of them are males, then it is really a problem," Weller says.
So far, Weller says, researchers don't know the male-female breakdown. They do know that the same reproductive females are returning each year to Pil'tun. These whales require the most food because they are pregnant or nursing calves.
The Western grays arrive in Sakhalin in May and stay until November, when the sea begins to freeze. The whales then travel south, passing both the west and east coasts of Japan on the way to their mysterious breeding grounds.
"It's strange, actually, that they disappear," Burdin says. "They need to congregate to breed -- but where?"
The scientists want to attach satellite transmitters to several whales in hopes of tracking them to their breeding lagoons. The scientists have raised some funds and built transmitters, but so far the Russian government has refused to approve permits to bring the transmitters to Pil'tun.
Gray whales tend to calve every other year. In 1998, seven females returned to Pil'tun with calves. Researchers expected that at least some of the seven would arrive in 2000 with calves. All seven came back to Pil'tun, but they came without calves, preliminary reports indicate.
Four of the seven returning mothers also were tentatively identified as unusually thin in 2000.
"The lower-than-expected number of calves observed off Pil'tun in 2000 may be due to the poor physical condition (i.e., thinness) of some females, as 'skinny whales' are unlikely to become pregnant, carry a fetus to term or successfully suckle a newborn calf," says the preliminary report, which is subject to revision.
The four females were among as many as 27 "skinny" whales identified in 2000, up from a dozen in 1999.
"We are not exactly sure what's going on there," Weller says.
Scientists also began seeing undernourished Eastern Pacific gray whales in 1999 and 2000.
"The explanation for the Eastern group is, they are nearing carrying capacity [maximum population], and they are having a hard time finding food," Weller says. "But I don't think that really holds much weight right now because we are seeing the same thing on the other side of the Pacific, and that population is nowhere near carrying capacity.
"We are not ready to point the finger at anything in particular until we can get a better handle on what's happening with both populations," Weller continues.
"It could be that the food resources are truly poor for them," Weller says. "And it could be a cyclic and natural type of thing where those food resources are really great for some years and for some years they are really quite diminished."
Or the food supply for both Eastern and Western Pacific populations could be crashing because of global warming.
"It could be," Weller says, "or it also could just be coincidence."
Scientists need to learn more not only about the whales' feeding grounds in Sakhalin but also about their migratory route and the locations of their winter lagoons. That information is important because besides threats from oil drilling, the whales face danger from being struck by ships, entangled in fishing gear and illegally hunted.
The Western Pacific gray whale, once at a population of 15,000, has been one of the most intensely harvested whale populations in the world. Unlike the Eastern Pacific gray whales, whose numbers rebounded to 26,000 from a low of 3,000 before their hunting was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1946, the Western Pacific grays continued to be exploited into the 1960s by commercial whalers off the Korean coast.
Despite the 1986 moratorium on the commercial hunting of almost all whale species, Japanese fishermen continue to hunt the Western Pacific grays.
Brownell documented one illegal take of a Western Pacific gray by Japanese porpoise fishermen in May 1996. He confronted the Japanese in 1997 and 1998 at the annual IWC meetings.
"Their reaction is sort of the usual," Brownell says. "They said maybe it was killed by some people someplace else and floated down. They always make up stories for trying to explain it."
More evidence has turned up in recent months showing that the Japanese are selling meat from Western Pacific grays as well as other endangered whales in commercial fish markets.
Researchers from the University of Auckland have been conducting DNA tests on meat sold in Japanese and South Korean fish markets since 1993. The Japanese are allowed to hunt several hundred minke whales, which are relatively abundant, under a "scientific" exception to the IWC's 1986 commercial-whaling moratorium.
But the DNA records from two 1999 fish market surveys show the Japanese selling far more than minkes.
Baker says he has found seven gray whale samples from Japanese markets.
"We cannot yet determine, however, if these are from one or several individuals," he says.
Whether Weller and his team will get a chance to work on any of the puzzles surrounding the Western Pacific gray whale, and especially the phenomenon of the "skinny whale," appears to be up to the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company. A spokeswoman for Sakhalin Energy says the company intends to continue funding whale research at Pil'tun but hasn't yet selected the contractors for the 2001 season.
The offices of the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company are in a new six-story, earthquake-proof building in downtown Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the province's capital and largest city.
Security is tight -- television monitors, fortified entryways and guards greet visitors. The imposing entrance stands in sharp contrast to fading chalk drawings etched on the street in front of the building pleading with the company to protect the Western Pacific gray whales. The art protest last August was arranged by a local environmental group, Sakhalin Environment Watch.
Dennis Royal, Sakhalin Energy's health, environmental and safety manager at the time, sets a strident tone for the interview.
"When journalists call and want to talk to us about environmental issues, I'm not always happy to do so," says Royal, who has since left the company. "It always surprises me that you don't pay as much attention to the impact we have on the people or the lifestyle on this island.
"It's always the environment," he continues. "It's very important. But it always seems to be one-sided."
It's nearly impossible to overstate the magnitude of the potential economic impact of Sakhalin's offshore oil and gas reserves. This Russian outpost, seven time zones away from Moscow, is now the country's second-largest region for foreign investment, trailing only Moscow.
Sakhalin Energy is the largest foreign investment in the Russian Far East.
So far there is little indication that the average Russian is benefiting directly from the offshore oil bonanza. Many of the skilled laborers working on the Molikpaq are foreigners, and Sakhalin has had difficulty producing qualified companies to bid for highly technical oil-industry contracts.
While the agreements signed between the United States and Russia stipulate that Russian contractors should get 70 percent of the work, so far Russian companies have been awarded less than 20 percent because they lack expertise.
Royal says oil revenues helped fund significant highway improvements on the island in the past few years. But there is no stipulation that the Sakhalin government or the Russian federal government must spend its share of oil revenue on the people who live there.
And the economic and environmental conditions on the island are dreadful by Western standards.
Tap water is undrinkable, even when boiled. Viruses such as hepatitis A have been found in the city's water. Air pollution is worsening as coal-fired electricity plants blanket the city with a fine, black dust. Automobiles spew uncontrolled emissions. The only type of waste disposal for Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is periodic burning in the huge dump at the edge of the city. The sewage system fails during the frequent power outages.
Compounding the problems are geography and the weather. The region is dotted with active volcanoes and is frequently rocked by major earthquakes. The island is slammed by powerful winter storms that paralyze the region's few roads.
As bad as the environment is, the economy is worse.
Schoolteachers go unpaid for months. The military frequently fails to pay its bills to local suppliers, as well as its soldiers. Dodging taxes is a national pastime, leaving governments strapped.
The Sakhalin economy is based on fishing, logging and oil and gas. The island is the third-largest producer of fish products in the Russian Far East. Seafood and timber are exported mostly to Japan. The island's onshore oil industry is nearly depleted, leaving in its wake a mess of ruptured pipelines and contaminated lakes and rivers.
Illegal fishing and logging extract untold amounts of the island's resources. Many raw materials are sold on the black market, which hinders the region's attempt to create processing industries that will bring higher-paying jobs.
Residents of Sakhalin need a minimum of about $55 a month to get by, but one out of three inhabitants of Sakhalin and the adjacent Kuril Islands lives on less than that. By comparison, Mexican workers in U.S.-owned factories earn about $120 a month.
The housing in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk consists primarily of dreary five-story apartments that haven't had a coat of paint since they were built thirty or more years ago.
The only recent economic development -- a couple of upscale hotels -- is a result of Sakhalin's offshore oil investments. The oil and gas fields clearly offer the most promising economic engine.
Offshore oil reserves are roughly estimated at 3.5 billion barrels of oil and 18 trillion cubic feet of gas for the first two production-sharing agreements alone -- Sakhalin I, controlled by an ExxonMobil-Russian joint venture, and Sakhalin II, controlled by Sakhalin Energy.
These, plus at least five more offshore oil and gas fields off the east coast of Sakhalin, are projected to become strategic energy sources for booming northeast Asia. Japan, South Korea and China are expected to buy much of the oil and gas.
In the next twenty years, $25 billion to $45 billion could be spent to develop the production and transportation infrastructure. Shell expects to invest $5 billion over the next five years for oil and gas pipelines from just south of Pil'tun to the southern end of the island, as well as an export terminal for liquefied natural gas. The pipeline could revitalize many Sakhalin industries and create 14,000 jobs on this island of 670,000.
The pipeline is crucial. Currently, the Molikpaq is the only drilling rig, and tankers can reach it only six months a year. The rest of the time, the rig is encased in ice.
The United States is closely monitoring the oil and gas projects, and the State Department is helping American businesses looking for trade there.
The United States also has pumped money into Sakhalin Energy to begin exploration. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation's $116 million loan to the consortium in 1997 matched investments from Japanese lenders and from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. OPIC also provides political-risk insurance to Sakhalin Energy.
While investment in Sakhalin is massive, the actual oil production from the Molikpaq rig is projected to be about 22 million barrels a year, less than 5 percent of the oil produced annually in Alaska. Royalties of about $75 million a year will be divided between Russia (40 percent) and the Sakhalin provincial government (60 percent). The proceeds locally are being spent on roads, schools and hospitals, according to Sakhalin news reports.
While rivers of money flow into Sakhalin's oil and gas reserves, only a trickle goes toward a protection plan for the Western Pacific gray whales.
Despite environmental stipulations in the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and the OPIC and European bank loans, no whale-conservation plan exists.
The lack of data collected by the biologists is one reason, Weller says.
When asked about the biologists' concerns that reducing funds to $99,000 a year has severely hampered their research, Sakhalin Energy's David Royal bristles. He implies that the Pil'tun team working under the auspices of Texas A&M is greedy and unwilling to share research dollars with Russians.
"There is one thing you have to understand," he says. "The Texas A&M people would like to do everything. We have to provide the opportunities to Russian scientists to participate in this and every other work that we do."
Royal says Sakhalin Energy is under no legal obligation to continue paying for whale research. He says the company has fulfilled its obligations under the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement but will keep funding research because it wants to know how the whales are being affected.
When pressed on the Pil'tun biologists' complaints that research, limited as it is, is being censored, Royal becomes angry.
"Quite frankly, the people who are working there are properly financed by us. When they have complaints of that nature, they should bring it to us. They shouldn't feed it to a newspaper reporter. I don't feel it is good information. I would have to hear that direct from them before commenting on it."
Sakhalin Energy is taking the official position that the oil development has had no impact on the whales -- despite the scientists' data from the first two years showing possible behavior changes from noise and, more recently, the appearance of "skinny" whales.
"There is no evidence that our operations have had any effect on the gray whales that summer near Pil'tun," says Sakhalin Energy spokeswoman Yelena Uspenskaya. She says whatever is causing the recent increase in malnourished Eastern Pacific gray whales may also be affecting the whales near Sakhalin.
But at least one of the joint-venture partners apparently is willing to listen to the scientists. Mitsubishi officials in New York say they were unaware of concerns raised by whale biologists until contacted for this story and will take the scientists seriously.
"There are very few gray whales. They are endangered. It is critical that nothing be done to harm them," says Mitsubishi executive vice president and legal counsel James E. Brumm. "I agree that certainly people need to study and know a lot more about them to make sure they are protected."
Mitsubishi is sensitive to complaints over the gray whale, having endured a worldwide environmental campaign that focused on perceived threats to the Eastern Pacific gray whale from a planned salt-evaporation plant the company wanted to build in Mexico. The Mexican government last year canceled plans to build the plant.
Stephen Wechselblatt, Mitsubishi's vice president of public affairs, says there is no reason to skimp on research if it can help prevent the Western Pacific gray whale from becoming extinct.
The Pil'tun team estimates that $500,000 a year would pay for the baseline studies needed to develop a habitat-protection plan.
"If it is a couple of hundred thousand dollars for fundamental research on a species that may become extinct, you gotta do the research," Wechselblatt says.
At least one of the three major international lending agencies financing Sakhalin Energy is also expressing concern over the company's statements on a whale-protection plan.
Sakhalin Energy officials say the plan will remain secret once it is completed next year. "This document will be an internal document also containing commercial information, and we do not plan to make it a public document," says Sakhalin Energy's Uspenskaya.
That secrecy took Liz Smith by surprise. She is the senior environmental official for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. She says the bank met with the company in early April to discuss the habitat-protection plan and talked specifically about "a wider circulation" of the draft document.
"This is of international interest, and there are quite a few people who would be interested in the results," she says. "It would surprise me if it was not [public]."
Just before press time, Uspenskaya sent an e-mail saying that even though the detailed study would not be released, "the public will be advised upon request about the scientific results obtained from this program."
A few blocks away from Sakhalin Energy headquarters, Dimitri Lisitsyn and Natasha Barannikova direct operations of the island's only environmental group, Sakhalin Environment Watch.
On the second floor of an old apartment complex, the group's office is filled with plants and decorated with Greenpeace posters of whales and dolphins. Maps of Sakhalin line the wall.
The office looks like something out of Greenwich Village circa the 1970s, and so do its director, Lisitsyn, a geologist, and Barannikova, an economist specializing in energy development. The group has four full-time employees and about twenty volunteers tracking the rapid destruction of Sakhalin's forests, rivers, fisheries and, now, its seas.
Called "the Watch" for short, the group is despised by the government and has found little public support for its campaign to protect the Western Pacific gray whales' habitat.
The reason is simple.
"People are very poor. Life is so hard," Barannikova says. "They don't think about whales because it is too far from their real lives."
Lisitsyn predicts that the perception will change, but only at a very high cost.
"The main reason people's minds will change will be from a huge oil spill," he says.
The group argues that Sakhalin is entitled to oil-related environmental standards no lower than those in the United States and Western Europe. So far, Lisitsyn says, Sakhalin doesn't have them.
As with any offshore oil project, there is always the possibility of a massive oil spill. In this case, the risks appear high. Less than two months after it began operating, the Molikpaq platform dumped about 3,000 pounds of crude into the sea. Although the volume wasn't great, the spill attracted attention from fishermen and environmentalists worldwide.
Sakhalin Environment Watch, with the help of funding from Pacific Environment, brought in three oil-spill-prevention experts to review Sakhalin Energy's offshore oil-spill contingency plans. The assessment concluded that the protections were inadequate.
The three men who wrote it -- Dan Lawn, Rich Steiner and Jonathan Wills -- have extensive backgrounds in the oil industry.
Law, of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, works for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and was the first state official aboard the Exxon Valdez the night it ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989.
Steiner is a former commercial fisherman who responded to the Valdez spill and is now a professor in the Marine Advisory Program at the University of Alaska. Wills, an environmental consultant from the Shetland Islands, has written extensively on oil-field development in the North Sea and monitored the cleanup of major oil spills in 1978 and 1993.
Their 48-page report concluded that Sakhalin Energy was failing to use the best-available technology to respond to a possible spill. They said the Russian government needed improved laws to protect its resources, including requiring double-hulled tankers and greater financial liability for companies in the event of a spill.
"We have found serious environmental concerns about how the development is proceeding," the authors stated in the 1999 report.
The primary problems are at the Molikpaq, the oil-production rig about twenty kilometers southeast of the Pil'tun lighthouse and the entrance into the critical Pil'tun Lagoon.
The Molikpaq is an ice-resistant structure built for Canada's Beaufort Sea but mothballed in 1990. In 1995, Sakhalin Energy towed the rig more than 3,000 miles and had it overhauled in South Korea. The platform operates in thirty meters of water and has been reinforced to protect it from harsh storms and ice floes.
The Molikpaq pumps oil from beneath the sea floor and transfers it via a flexible hose to a nearby 140,000-ton storage tanker. The double-hulled tanker is temporarily anchored to the sea floor but must be able to leave the area when the winter ice forms. The oil is transferred through another flexible hose to 80,000-ton shuttle tankers.
The weather in the Sea of Okhotsk changes quickly, and powerful storms accompanied by dangerous winds, high waves and intense snow can occur. A sudden storm in September 1999 caused the connection between the Molikpaq and the storage tanker to snap, spilling about 1.5 tons of oil into the sea. Sakhalin Energy's emergency response vessel Agat scooped up less than 10 percent of the slick. The company was fined $17,710.
Wills says the spill raised serious questions about what would happen if a shuttle or a storage tanker broke loose. High winds and strong seas could leave as little as three hours before a disabled tanker ran aground. If oil entered the lagoons, it could do incalculable damage to fish spawning grounds, wildfowl habitat and local commercial and subsistence enterprises.
"What they are doing at present is dirty, uneconomic and potentially disastrous," Wills says.
Sakhalin Energy's Dennis Royal acknowledges that a spill that moved onshore in the lagoons could be catastrophic, but he emphasizes that the company is taking precautions to minimize that possibility.
"We think we have a pretty good oil-spill response setup there," Royal says. "We got the equipment, we got the boats, we got the booms. We have got the personnel, which is the most important thing."
Nevertheless, Royal appears willing to sacrifice the beaches in the event of a major spill and implies the company will focus on protecting the lagoon entrances.
"The lagoons are the most sensitive area along the coastline," he says. "The rest of the coastline is very sandy shore and relatively environmentally inactive."
Royal says oil coming up on a sandy beach "usually doesn't do much damage."
"It's a mess; it looks horrible, but you can clean it up," he says, "so we concentrated on the entrances to the lagoon as far as protection is concerned."
Whether the lagoon protection measures would work is in doubt. Oil-spill response equipment will be difficult to deliver to Pil'tun and other coastal lagoons because of the near absence of roads.
Wills says the company's equipment is insufficient "to mount more than an initial defense of a single lagoon entrance."
In the event of a spill that heads toward shore, Sakhalin Energy's first line of defense will be the use of dispersing chemicals that cause oil to break up and often sink to the sea floor.
That would damage the whales' benthic food supply.
"Using dispersants, at least in that area, wouldn't be a good idea," says marine biologist Brownell.
Despite the inherent dangers of offshore oil production, Sakhalin Energy is apparently promoting the Molikpaq as a benefit to the local marine environment.
"We were told that the Molikpaq will actually increase and enrich the environment," says Masha Vorontsova, the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's office in Moscow.
Vorontsova dismisses such claims as propaganda. Instead, she says, there is widespread concern about oil-drilling wastes being dumped onto the sea floor. The muddy wastes could increase sediments and chemical contamination in the whales' food supply.
"Normally, these muddy waters get pumped back into the hole and covered. But in the situation of Sakhalin, it all goes into the water," she says.
Liz Smith of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says drilling wastes appear to be confined to within 200 meters of the Molikpaq.
The unknown impact of drilling wastes, along with an increase in malnourished whales, makes it imperative that proper benthic studies be done, says Vorontsova.
Bob Brownell keeps his passport in his shirt pocket.
Brownell's job -- as director of the Protected Resources Division at the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, California -- keeps him constantly on the move trying to protect marine mammals around the world.
From Sakhalin to Australia to London to Alaska, Brownell is a man on a mission to save the world's remaining whales.
Brownell's office is filled floor-to-ceiling with books, papers, maps and articles, mostly on whales and dolphins clinging to survival in various spots around the globe. It was Brownell who brought the plight of the Western Pacific grays to the attention of Al Gore's oblivious staff.
"I told them, 'Look, we are pushing this as a big development program for the Far East to help the Russians. There is also U.S. involvement,'" Brownell says. "'Gore needs to be concerned about the environment.' After I explained it to them, they said it was an important issue."
The result was the one-page Gore-Chernomyrdin statement that recognized the need to develop "environmentally sound exploration and production practices" that will mitigate disturbances to the whales.
Despite the agreement, the United States has given only token financial support -- about $20,000 -- to make sure such practices are adopted. Meanwhile, production has begun, oil has been spilled and expansion plans are proceeding.
One reason for the lack of U.S. support is that the previous administration took a "half-assed" approach to the problem, says a federal official familiar with the situation.
"The environmental components to these offshore Sakhalin investments were afterthoughts," the official says. "Afterthoughts, you know, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."
David Gordon, director of Pacific Environment, says America's lackadaisical approach is not surprising. U.S. foreign policy in the Russian Far East, Gordon says, is based on energy development.
"If oil goes forward, then U.S. interests advance," he says.
Brownell takes a matter-of-fact approach to the oil developments and political realities. He hopes to minimize disturbances, such as low-flying helicopters over the feeding grounds, and develop the best oil-spill contingency plan possible.
"After that, there's not much you can do," he says.
The Western Pacific grays have attracted little interest from such well-funded environmental groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council. The international media, too, have ignored the situation, with only brief reports in a few environmental journals.
But others are getting worked up over the Western grays. The increasing number of skinny whales turning up off of Sakhalin is beginning to spur several major environmental groups, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, to take more active roles.
The three groups are beginning to pressure Russian leaders to become more aggressive in protecting the whales. Masha Vorontsova of the International Fund for Animal Welfare says Russian wildlife officials believe the Western Pacific grays could become extinct within three years unless immediate steps are taken to protect their habitat.
She says Russian officials intend to highlight the Western Pacific gray whale at the upcoming International Whaling Commission meetings in London in July.
IFAW is also considering an international campaign to create a whale sanctuary off of Sakhalin. The proposed sanctuary would prohibit oil exploration, extraction or transportation when gray whales are there.
Such a proposal seems a bit optimistic, given the huge amount of exploration and production already taking place there, nearly all of it during the warm months, when the sea ice has melted and the whales return to feed.
As forces slowly mobilize to protect the Western Pacific grays, no one really knows whether this tribe can rebound from such low numbers, regardless of the oil fields.
Sasha Burdin sets the tone for dinner at the Pil'tun camp.
As the most experienced biologist present at the camp, he sits at the head of the table and oversees the proceedings with grace and humor.
He has a broad background and provides perspective -- both from a scientific view and a political one. This is important because it is obvious the researchers are intensely focused on their work.
So much so that it is easy to get lost in the project.
"It's typical of scientists when they are performing research," says IFAW's Vorontsova, a marine biologist. "They get so interested in what they are doing they forget that something is endangered. By the end of monitoring, you find out, 'Wow, they are not here.' I'm afraid that is what is happening [in Pil'tun]."
The scientists' failure to publicly complain about censorship and funding cuts when they began several years ago has contributed to the perception that they are more interested in conducting research than developing a plan to save the whales. At the same time, the scientists knew the only way they could continue any research on one of the world's least understood populations of whales was to compromise. If these whales become extinct, and it is highly likely they will, at least scientists will have closely observed their final days.
But there is a more overarching reason for studying the Western Pacific grays than simply documenting their tentative hold on life after millions of years of existence, says Burdin.
The Sea of Okhotsk is one of the last major productive seas in the world. Many of the world's great fishing fleets are extracting pollock, salmon, crabs and other shellfish at a tremendous rate. Worldwide demand for seafood is huge, particularly in Asia.
Burdin foresees a day when the world is engulfed by protein wars. He worries that Sakhalin's offshore oil and gas developments threaten not only the whales but the food supply for millions of people as well.
"It's not just this crazy ideal, 'Let's save the whales,'" Burdin says. "Let's save the sea. The whales are just one very nice indicator of how the whole sea is working."
It's a simple relationship, he says: "The more whales, the more clean seas, the more food for people."
The Western Pacific gray whales are now swimming north from their winter breeding grounds -- back to Pil'tun.
Scientists wait to see how many will make it back this summer.