When I was researching my book, Eye of the Whale in 1999, I traveled to one of the most remote places on earth: Piltun Lagoon, off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. This is the feeding ground for the Western gray whale, a critically endangered species with a population now under 100. It’s also the site of the largest oil and gas project ever undertaken.
These whales are in such jeopardy that the loss of a single breeding-age female could drive them to extinction. Yet Sakhalin Energy, a consortium led by Shell, plans $12 bilion worth of offshore drilling platforms and a nearly 500-mile long pipeline snaking across a highly earthquake-prone land – threatening not only the whales, but more than 1,000 rivers and streams with subsistence fisheries.
Protests began on a small-scale, through a devoted band of young people calling themselves Sakhalin Environment Watch. Now, finally, big environmental groups worldwide are taking notice. In late June, while Sakhalin’s indigenous people conducted a peaceful road blockade to temporarily halt development, simultaneous protest rallies were held in Moscow, London, and New York. Letters from 3,000 kids called upon Credit Suisse First Boston to withdraw its financial support from Sakhalin-II, whose partners include Japan’s Mitsubishi and Mitsui corporations.
So far, Shell has refused to move its offshore platform further away from the gray whale habitat. An oil spill, of course, would be disastrous. Concerns about noise, and the platform’s installation burying the whales’ food under sedimentation, are apparently of no concern to the company.
To learn more about what’s happening, check out these websites: