By Jim Covel, senior manager of guest experience
An evolving news story over the past few weeks involves “Flex,” a 13-year old male gray whale. What makes Flex special is that he’s a bit lost you might say. Flex is one of only 130 gray whales surviving in the Western Pacific, wintering off Korea and Japan, spending the summer in feeding grounds off Russia. However, it seems that Flex took a wrong turn this fall when he left Russian waters. Instead of heading southwest toward Korea, he headed southeast toward Alaska, British Columbia and the Eastern Pacific shore. We know this because Flex is the first of his kind to wear a satellite tag that allows us to track his position. Reports in mid-February put him off the central California coast. (Gray whales are now heading north past Monterey.) It appears that he is joining the Western Pacific gray whale population that migrates between Alaska and Baja California. Whether he’ll return to his native population across the Pacific next summer is anyone’s guess at this point.
The Western Pacific gray whales are critically endangered, with only 130 individuals altogether. There are perhaps 33 reproductive females in that population, so the ability to build their numbers back up is in question, even if they are completely protected. Despite the current dire situation, this population is better off now than it was a century ago.
By 1900 the Western Pacific gray whales were thought to be extinct. No documented sightings had been made in over 50 years. Gray whales are a coastal species, so they’re easy to keep track of--and they’re also very easy to hunt with shore whaling operations along their migratory routes. Humans had wiped out the Atlantic population of gray whales in the 1700s, and it was presumed we had done the same thing with the population off Japan and Korea. That’s where Roy Chapman Andrews comes into the picture.
An Inspiration for Indiana Jones
Roy left his native Wisconsin and headed for New York in 1906, bent on working at the American Museum of Natural History. There were no jobs available on the curatorial staff, so he took a job as a janitor in the Taxidermy Department and began collecting and preparing specimens in his spare time. Eventually he was hired on the scientific staff and began a career as one of the outstanding field scientists and adventurers of the 20th century.
In 1911 Roy traveled to Korea to investigate rumors of “devilfish” that sounded very similar to the gray whales that were thought to be extinct. He ensconced himself at the Ulsan whaling station in Korea and within a few months he had not only documented the existence of gray whales, but also sent back a collection of photographs and skeletal materials to the American Museum of Natural History. In the intervening 100 years the population has come back from that point to 130 animals, but it’s still in a precarious state.
Roy Chapman Andrews went on to become a recognized authority on whales and his work developed one of the largest marine mammal collections in the world at the American Museum of Natural History. Ever in search of new adventures, he next set out to conduct the first American scientific expeditions into Mongolia and the Gobi Desert from 1922-1925. There he made the world’s first discovery of dinosaur eggs in 1923, as well as finding the first fossil remains of Velociraptor, Oviraptor, Protoceratops and several other species of dinosaurs as well as some of the earliest Mastodon fossils. Roy’s work made him a celebrity around the world, landing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1923 and 10 years later becoming the president of the Explorers Club in New York. It has been rumored that Roy Chapman Andrews was the real life inspiration for Indiana Jones. Neither George Lucas nor the other screenwriters for the Indiana Jones movies will confirm or deny this—so that is left up to our imagination.
As for Flex the gray whale, perhaps he’ll return to his native group with tales of foreign places and other cultures of gray whales. Flex may just become the cetacean equivalent of Roy Chapman Andrews.