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When the captain brought the journalist along on the whale hunt, the elders predicted trouble. The elders were right. The whale tried to kill them all.

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001

Page 6 of 9

Researcher Gennady Zelensky braces against the whale's ribs at the fore of the crush, frantically trying to collect and bag scientific samples. "You have to watch your fingers," he cries to an observer while looking up, grinning, and absolutely not watching his fingers. "Ow!" Zelensky yells, jerking a hand clear. A woman just nicked three of his knuckles. She is wearing a puffy blue jacket spattered with crimson, and she is nudging Zelensky to one side. The woman is going after the whale's liver. But so is Zelensky. His research protocol requires he take pieces of the whale's liver, heart, and kidney as well as muscle tissue and blubber from five different places. He stands his ground, deploying his elbows like a basketball player protecting a rebound.

Zelensky must work fast. In two hours, the whale's carcass will be skeletonized, as if consumed by piranhas.

"My work is a little more difficult because many of the people do not understand what it is I am doing," he says later. "I try to explain to them, I am helping to make sure their food is safe, but still, no way. When it is time to cut the whale, I am just another guy in there with a knife."

The Chukotka Science Support Group sampling is the first phase of a study of contaminants in the Eastern North Pacific Stock of gray whales. The study was funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service to investigate the causes and potential human health effects of stinky whales.

In August, a few days after O'Hara and the Coast Guard icebreaker were barred from entering Chukotka to retrieve the gray whale samples, Zelensky said that he had gone ahead and tested for phenol in extra samples he had taken from five whales.

"All of them have it," he said at the time.

But O'Hara says Zelensky received no instructions or equipment to perform preliminary tests in Chukotka. "That's not part of the study," he says. Asked to evaluate Zelensky's phenol hypothesis, O'Hara answers, "Well, phenol is volatile and smells like medicine, so we'll certainly be looking for it. But it could be a thousand other chemicals. It's really premature for me to comment. Our priority now is just to get the samples out."

Last month, Zelensky edged away from the comments he made earlier in the summer. Speaking over the phone from Lavrentiya, Zelensky would not provide more details on his findings. In fact, he denied he had run any tests. He stood by his phenol prediction. But he said it was based only on a recent flurry of studies showing widespread phenol contamination in Siberia's waterways, and on the striking similarity in smell between the phenol-ridden fish of the Amur and the stinky whales of Chukotka.

"Just the smell," he said. "That is the only evidence."

Considering the current state of environmental regulation in the former Soviet Union -- and especially in Russia's Far East -- tracking down the source of any dangerous contaminant in gray whales that feed off the bottom in coastal waters could be like tracking down the source of tarnished coins in a wishing well.

"The situation is quite severe," says Dr. Vladimir Orlov, the Russian Federation's minister of natural resources. "This is the region [Siberia and the Far East] where our industrial development is the heaviest. Sixty-nine percent of Russian oil exploration is being conducted in this region, along with 78 percent of natural gas exploration, and 90 percent of our natural gas extraction efforts. There is also heavy mining, timber, and other chemical waste-producing activities. Unfortunately, there are no special sites for hazardous-chemical storage in this region that are well-equipped. The very few that are being used may not be assessed as satisfactory."

The seeds for environmental catastrophe have been planted between the cracks of a failed system. They have been dutifully watered with a witch's brew of industrial poisons. And they are now beginning to bear their venomous fruit.

"You look at the level of chemicals in most of our rivers in Siberia, and it can seem there are more toxins in the rivers than water," says Mikhail Krykhitin of the Amur Inland Basin Laboratory, an affiliate of the Russian Federation's Pacific Fishery and Oceanography Institute. "Most of the rivers [in the Russian Far East] that we are testing now carry so much phenol they cannot naturally rid themselves of the toxin, so it is just building up and up."

Krykhitin and a group of scientists from the Siberian Fish Research and Development Institute recently tested for industrial-waste contamination in fish from four different rivers in eastern Siberia. They found that the levels of phenol in the fish ranged between 16 and 70 times the maximum allowable level set by the Russian Federation's Department of Public Health.

None of those rivers empties directly into the Bering Strait, where the gray whales hunted by the natives of Chukotka come to feed every summer, though one, the Amur, flows into the Tatar Strait.

"How could contaminants be reaching the marine life in the Bering Strait? How many ways can you think of? That is how many ways," says Yuri Shiokov, director of Siberia-ISAR (Institute for Social Action and Renewal), the Far East branch of the leading environmental organization in the former Soviet Union. "Hundreds of rivers flow through the Chukotka peninsula that have never been tested. There are many rivers we know are badly contaminated that empty into the seas on the north coast of Siberia, where the currents hug the coast and funnel directly into the Bering Strait. And we are sure there is massive dumping off of boats, directly into the oceans, including the Bering Sea. We have photographs, but nothing is done. When a nation's economy is in so much trouble as in Russia, the environment is no priority at all compared to industry. This is simple to understand, but we must not accept it."

About The Author

David Holthouse


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