A gray whale has set a new distance record, swimming alone for 14,000 miles around the Pacific Ocean. The female cetacean traveled from the northwestern corner of the world's largest ocean to the northeastern region, off the Canadian coast. She then traveled south to waters off the coast of Baja, California, where her species meets to mate.

Varvara, as the whale is known, spent 69 days covering the journey of 6,800 miles, the greatest distance ever recorded for a migration by a mammal. The previous record-holder was a humpback whale seen traveling 6,125 miles in a journey studied by researchers in a journal article from 2010. Following the end of her meeting, Varvara returned home via a longer southerly route that carried the animal 14,069 miles, breaking the previous world record for a round-trip migration by a mammal.

Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are highly-endangered animals that migrate annually between feeding and breeding locations. The majestic animals, which can live to be 55 to 70 years old, can grow to be 50 feet long and weigh 40 tons.

"Usually calves follow their mothers from breeding areas to foraging grounds," Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute managed by Oregon State University, said.

Young whales learn these migration patterns, which they follow when they grow older, as part of the mating ritual.

Commercial whaling once decimated gray whale populations, leaving the animals on the verge of extinction. Populations currently exist in the waters of both the eastern and western halves of the Pacific Ocean, although biologists believe the groups remain separated from one another. Researchers estimate there may be only 130 of the highly-intelligent creatures left in the western Pacific, classifying the animals as critically endangered. At one time, this group of cetaceans was thought to be completely wiped out.

The marathon migration of Varvara shows that whales from each end of the ocean can meet, and perhaps mate, which suggests the two populations are not as isolated from one another as once believed. Two other gray whales, a six-year-old female named Agent, and Flex, a 13-year-old male, also joined Varvara in waters normally populated by eastern whales. Agent traveled more than 3,400 miles on her migration, compared with a journey of 4,750 miles completed by Flex.

Researchers attempted to track seven whales, but four of the tags quickly malfunctioned, leaving just three animals in the study.

"The population identity of whales off Sakhalin Island needs further evaluation," Ladd Irvine of Oregon State University and other researchers concluded.

Analysis of this world record-setting mammal migration was published in the journal Biology Letters.

Photo: Charlie Stinchcomb | Flickr

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