Flex, a Russian whale, swam from Russia, up to Canada, then down the coast to Mexico in about a month. His journey brings into question the relationship between eastern and western Pacific grey whales. Could they be closer than we thought? Discover the reason for Flex’s sprint across the ocean. — Global Animal

A grey whale surfaces for air near the Cambie Street Bridge in Vancouver, B.C. in this file photo. Photograph by: Ian Smith, PNG

The Province, Judith Lavoie

VICTORIA — A Russian whale that is been tracked by scientists up and down the North American coast was photographed swimming off Vancouver Island in 2008, meaning the relationship between eastern and western Pacific grey whales may be much closer than was believed.

“It is groundbreaking stuff,” said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, who, together with Russian scientists, tagged Flex last fall near Russia’s Sakhalin Island in an effort to identify where the whales go in winter. “This match means this is not the first time Flex has been to the eastern North Pacific. This says it’s not a fluke. He’s been on this side of the pond before.”

It was previously believed that the whales spent winter around the South China Sea. But Flex has amazed researchers with his 8,586-kilometre sprint — starting Jan. 3 — across the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, then down the coast.

Mate said Flex’s journey makes researchers want to “tag more animals to find out whether what Flex is doing is typical or whether there are other destinations.”

Flex’s tag fell off around California, but if he kept the same speed and trajectory, the endangered whale could have reached the breeding and calving lagoons in Baja, California or Mexico this weekend, Mate said.

Eastern and western Pacific grey whale populations are believed to be genetically distinct. Both populations were hunted to the edge of extinction, but the eastern whales, which migrate between Alaska and Mexico, rebounded and there are now between 18,000 and 20,000 animals.

Their western cousins — including Flex — did not fare so well and only 130 animals remain, making it the second-most endangered large whale populations in the world.

Mate said it is pure luck that there was a positive ID of Flex in April 2008, swimming in Barkley Sound near Ucluelet, B.C.

Scientists are now poring over photos from both the eastern and western populations to search for more matches which could show Russian whales taking winter trips to North America. The research, together with genetic work, will be presented to the International Whaling Commission scientific committee in June.