Whale Watching

whale1A New Lease on Life for the Magical Mystics of the Sea
By Marsha Pardee Woodring

There she blows! The oft heard cry in days of old now heralds a new era in whaling, but one that hopes to conserve, rather than exterminate, the remaining whale populations of the world.

What is it about those massive marine creatures, once thought to be the monsters of the ocean world, that now seems to evoke an almost primordial passion in much of the human populace? In little more than the passing of a generation, marine mammals have evolved from monstrous meaty morsels to the magical mystics of the sea.

Why? Maybe because we no longer depend on whales to provide the light we read by, meat for our plates, or cartilage to make those corsets and hoops for the fashions of yonder years (thank heavens for that!). Yet, as the human race speeds off into techno-future and cyberspace, there seems to be an ever increasing urge to connect with an earthly, yet more spiritual realm. As our native ancestors before us, we are once again feeling the need to pay homage to the life forces that surround us. Only this time, we realize that not only have we forsaken other earthly benevolent beings, but have nearly obliterated them in the process.

Dolphins and whales have been an inspiration to mankind throughout much of our recorded history. The hieroglyphs of the great Egyptian pyramids are adorned with sculpted dolphins while the Ancient Greeks immortalized them in golden coin. Tales from these long gone civilizations imply that there was nothing more divine than the dolphin and that killing one should carry the penalty of death. Similarly and to this day, whales and dolphins have evoked a certain reverence in native indigenous populations, especially when it was necessary to kill them for human use. For instance, the Nootka tribe believes that the whale allows his death to spare people from hunger, and that therefore they must be worthy of it. (Williams, 1988)

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick reigned at a time when whaling was the life’s blood of many a harbor town. Every last morsel of whale served a purpose in the everyday life of those who lived in that era. Whaling was an arduous means of work in those days, filled with danger and risk. And many lost their lives or loved ones to the sea on these whaling expeditions. No wonder so many fantastic tales were woven to inspire awe, fear and horror of these monstrous creatures.

But then technology took off, decreasing the life-defying risks and increasing the efficiency of whaling operations. And somewhere along the line even the awe for whales was lost. Man began to view the whale as merely an essential element of an ever expanding economy.

For the Turks & Caicos, the history of whaling is not quite so heartless. On February 4, 1846, the first whale was caught off the shores of Grand Turk. This initial capture gave rise to the opening of whale companies on that island and Salt Cay. The records that exist don’t detail the total number of whales captured yearly, but imply that there were relatively few. (Salt CayƑ–one whale caught in March 1864 and another in April 1865) and remark that “a single whale of ordinary size being sufficient for the entire population to share in the delicacy of its flesh.” (Pusey, 1897). There was even a hint of respect and awe in the annual takings of whales. It is said that all of the children born since the killing of the last whale would be dipped in the blood of the new. This practice was said to infuse the strength of the great whale into the children. (Josiah Marvel, personal communication.) In 1883, the last whale was taken in the Turks & Caicos.

In the case of the ocean’s gentle giants, time has reversed upon itself, reflecting a history that began with reverence, reverted to need followed by greed, and is now re-emerging in a more respectful realm. But still, few present day humans have relinquished the idea that all marine mammals are no more than a mere resource for our use. Albeit, the evolution of this “resource use” from whaling to whale watching, may be the only means by which these wondrous creatures have a chance to survive in this all too human dominated world.

Whale watching is defined as tours by boat, air or from land, formal or informal, with at least some commercial aspect, to see, swim with, and/or listen to any of the some 83 species of whales, dolphins or porpoises (Hoyt, 2001). (Dolphins and porpoises are actually considered small whales.)

whale2On the one hand, whale watching offers many whale loving enthusiasts the otherwise-rare opportunity to interact at some level with the most majestic mammalian creations that have ever, and still are, roaming this planet. On the opposite end, there are those that would use the cleverly disguising cloak of what can be coined as a conservation minded industry to cover for their own personal financial gains. But, by combining the good with the bad, a new industry has been created that no longer needs to destroy the resource it relies upon. Although this still sounds somewhat cold and calculating, it is unfortunately the reality of the world we humans have created for ourselves.

The upside of the story is that many people are now more willing to stick their necks out, even if it is just craning to see a living whale or dolphin. They empty their pockets a bit in the process, which in many cases, goes to help save the whales. At least for the whale, this evolution of the whaling industry is far more preferable than the alternatives of being sliced and diced for a thousand sundry human uses.

But the war on commercial whaling has still not ended. Since 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has met yearly to debate the issues of whales. To date, Japan and Norway are still lobbying against the 15 year old ban on commercial whaling. Although that particular issue has yet to resurface on the table, they were successful in garnering a vote against two proposed whale sanctuaries in this year’s IWC meeting. To do so, several Caribbean nations in their own economic turmoil received large amounts of aid to side with the Japanese vote.

Where does whale watching fit into the picture? Simply as an alternative economic resource. But the utilization of this resource can benefit not only man and his need for economy, but the whales and dolphins that will be protected to sustain the industry in the process.

From a strictly economic viewpoint, where whale watching is just another commercial endeavor, the industry generates now at least $1 billion USD, with over 9 million people participating annually in 87 countries and territories (Hoyt, 2001). In the Caribbean, an estimated 39,000 people a year go whale watching (Hoyt, 1999) with expenditures for 1998 nearing $10 million (Hoyt, 2000). Between 1994 and 1998, the average annual rate of increase in whale watching tourism was 20.2% (Hoyt, 1999). The Turks & Caicos have noted an even greater increase–in 1991 there was minimal whale watching activity, by 1994 this number had risen to 100+ visitors, generating $10,000 in direct income and $35,000 in total expenditures.
By 1998, these stats had risen to 1,500 whale watching visitors, increasing direct expenditures to $43,000 and total expenditures to $150,000 (Hoyt, 2001). Not bad for a barely emerging industry in terms of simple economics, but we must remember the industry also has important educational, environmental, scientific and other socioeconomic benefits.

One of the most positive aspects in terms of the economics of the whale watching industry is that it often provides the financial resources or means to help sustain the well being of the “resource” it relies upon. In a perfect whale watching world, the animals are not harassed by curious observers and scientists are able to collect needed data to better understand the needs of the species. The added bonus is that the research endeavors are paid for by the tourists that board the boats. In reality, it’s not quite so clear cut and simple, but the whale lover world is steadily working towards that more utopian state.

“Whale watching has now grown from humble beginnings in the 1950s to become an almost universal human passion. Whale watching educates children and adults about our ocean planet, the magnificent creatures that share our world, and the importance of maintaining their habitat. It also provides a method for scientists to gain substantial information and monitoring capability and thereby contributing to their conservation.” (O’Regan in Hoyt, 2001)

The challenge lies in developing sustainable management practices within the whale watching industry. Without that, whale watching becomes a free-for-all that results in undesirable impacts for everyone involved: the operators, the tourists and most importantly, the whales and dolphins.

It was no fluke that the Department of Coastal and Environmental Resources (DECR) decided it was time for TCI to start planning for the future by protecting the marine mammals that pass through these waters. Neighboring countries have succumbed to somewhat reckless advances and haphazard controls in the emerging whale watching industry without proper planning in place. With this in mind, TCI hopes to make a smooth and deliberated approach to its potential in the industry, whilst creating an oceanic ambiance that the whales will want to return to.


The first plunge into charting the waters began at the 1999 International Whaling Commission in Grenada, when the Turks & Caicos (represented by DECR Acting Director Michelle Fulford) indicated interest in hosting a workshop in the Caribbean on behalf of the British Overseas Territories. The outcome was the Turks & Caicos Marine Mammals Conference held March 21-23, 2000 at Beaches Resort on Providenciales. With its cleverly coined logo “Flukes Happen–Seen Any Lately?,” the conference proceedings echoed its motto of “Building a Sustainable Whale Watching Industry in the Wider Caribbean.” Although primarily focused on delineating regulations, guidelines, protocols and materials for the TCI, the effort put forward sets a precedent for other small Caribbean nations to follow.

Over 50 participants attended the 2 1/2 day workshop that was designed to incorporate the expertise and ideas of professionals and enthusiasts in the marine mammal arena. The conference was hosted by the DECR with funding assistance from the TCI Government Development Aid Fund, the British Foreign Commonwealth Office and the Tourist Board. Michelle Fulford (now Gardiner) coordinated the proceedings, assisted by her staff as well as that of the Tourist Board.

There were several foreign speakers in attendance including representatives from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (Dr. Erich Hoyt), the International Wildlife Coalition (Heather Rockwell), the British Foreign Commonwealth Office (Kirsty Paton), Island Expeditions (Nicolas Popov) and the Dominica Ministry of Fisheries (Sebastian Riviera). Local speakers included our own experts in the field, Everett Freites of Oasis Divers, Dean Bernal of the JoJo Project, and historian Josiah Marvel. Among the participants were local dive/watersports operators and other representatives from the tourism industry, environmental educators, representatives from local government, researchers and local marine mammal enthusiasts.

The objectives of the conference were four-fold:
* To harmonize and standardize guidelines for marine mammal interactions;
* To develop environmental education materials for island residents and visitors;
* To develop research protocols and
* To assess initiatives for establishing a Humpback Whale Sanctuary.

The conference was designed in a working group format, wherein specific topics were broached and discussed in an open forum. Each session began with a few relative remarks on the subject at hand and then the floor opened for comments and questions. All participants with expertise or interest were given opportunity to voice their thoughts on a given topic. This information was then compiled by the rapporteurs and returned to the chairperson to prepare a summarization for the wrap up session and presentation of working group reports.

During the conference, working groups were established utilizing the roles of the regulators, watersports operators, environmental educators and researchers. The first group discussed the revision of whale watching guidelines in which local codes of conduct and experiences were reviewed. The next group included codes of conduct for small cetaceans (most specifically JoJo) and discussed revisions of regulations and sanctuary status. The third topic concerned the development of environmental education programs and materials, while the last group discussed research protocol for marine mammals in the southeastern Caribbean. In most cases, all attendees, no matter their specific role, participated in every discussion. This aspect of the conference planning was deemed most useful in terms of integrating the various programs being developed.

As with most conferences of this nature, success is measured in terms of its ability to establish a framework of ideals and a networking base through which the objectives can move forward. In this respect, the first Turks & Caicos Marine Mammals Conference can be viewed as a success in defining the stepping stones to future endeavors.

Whilst laying out a path for the future, tons of information was exchanged and deliberated over. Current whale watching guidelines and dolphin interaction etiquette, including those used by other countries, were bantered about in regards to their usefulness here. Regulatory needs in terms of existing legislation, permitting requirements and changes to be made were debated. The advantages of requiring permitted naturalists and researchers on board all whale watching vessels were looked into. Environmental education materials developed around the world were perused and ideas of how to revamp and utilize these efforts were discussed. Scientific protocols used elsewhere were noted and ways to fund research and equipment needs were reviewed.

A decision to pursue the development of a Marine Biosphere Reserve was made. Specifics for determining the area’s extent were discussed, along with what activities should be allowed within the area. Experiential information, statistical figures, historical endeavors, marketing concepts, anecdotes and advice were exchanged while contacts and networking arrangements were made. All of the information was recorded and will be published for public access in a Proceedings format in 2002.

In reward for all the effort and commitment made to develop a sustainable whale watching industry in the Turks & Caicos, the International Wildlife Coalition presented an Award of Merit from their Compassionate Traveler’s Program. This award is in recognition that the Turks & Caicos Government is committed to “promoting safe and protective whale watching practices . . . (with the) goal of developing ethical and operational guidelines for whale watching and small cetacean interaction in the coastal waters of the Turks & Caicos and wider Caribbean.” (Rockwell, 2000)

The TCI was applauded for its efforts in an even larger forum at the International Whaling Commission (2000) in Aidelaide, Australia and sponsored again to attend the IWC 2001 meeting in Hammersmith, London. This type of international exposure lends well to promotion of whale watching tourism for these islands.

Since the conference in March 2000, a number of initiatives have been activated:
*The whale watching guidelines that were suggested at the conference have been reviewed and are being put to use by watersports operators currently engaging in tours. Regulations are being addressed to accommodate the guidelines imposed so that grounds for enforcement are applicable if the need arises as the industry expands.

* Training for whale watching guides should begin during the season 2002. This training will incorporate some relevant research data collection while educating those on the tours.

* Tourist statistics are being collected from the local operators to update the existing user database.

* A TCI Stranding Network to deal with incidents of entangled and dead marine mammals is being organized in collaboration with a stranding team and NOAA, based on a contingency plan developed and managed by the DECR.

Michele Fulford Gardiner, now the DECR Chief Scientific Officer, is responsible for mobilizing most of the efforts thus far, and has undertaken several roles within the IWC’s Correspondence Groups. As a member of the Whale Watching Data Collection Group and Whale Watching Management Group, the Turks & Caicos will remain up-to-date and in keeping with the latest advances in marine mammal science and management for the region.

Several proposals have been submitted in terms of collecting the needed research data, and collaboration with other scientists should commence during the whale season 2002. One such proposal, funded through the Dolphin, Whale and Marine Wildlife Foundation and coordinated by Dean Bernal, endeavors to collect identification and behavior data around Salt Cay, Grand Turk and West Caicos. All data will be recorded in photo and video format that will be made available via live Internet feed for interested parties. Aside from providing information to scientists worldwide, it is an excellent opportunity for local schools to integrate into their environmental education curriculums. Ultimately, the grant hopes to document areas of special concern for preservation, in particular, the inclination that humpbacks calve in the waters near Salt Cay. With that information, plans for the TCI Marine Biosphere Reserve can move forward.

whale3So, as promised, the Turks & Caicos are leaping into the new millennium in a way that, hopefully, the whales appreciate and therefore will continue to grace us with their gentle presence. Long gone are the days that we need to depend upon their flesh and fat for food and staples, but the time is right to appreciate them for the even rarer resource that they can now provide. In economic terms, the whale watching industry offers much to those who are banking on the tourist dollar. But for many, the value of the whales goes far beyond any material-like means. Whales, the living leviathans of earth”s watery realms, seem to inspire an age-old instinct to respect, love and protect all that surrounds us. We have much yet to learn from these gentle giants.

Humans, with their unaccountable ego and apparent need to conquer all, have once again proven that they can exterminate the earth’s largest organisms. And this action continues without even needing a reason to do so. Whales, on the other hand, have become the dominant species of their realm without killing their own kind to do so, whilst allowing their resources to renew themselves. Maybe it’s time we took advice from the masters of the sea.

And for those still not humbled by what can be seen as an inhumane past, then maybe they should consider turning towards the more god-like and daring challenge of finding out how to recreate the whales and the world that we have managed to destroy so thoughtlessly.

Developing a sustainable whale watching industry is a positive step towards a more harmonious existence for all. If managed appropriately, the industry will not only become a valuable economic resource for the TCI, but one that also provides a means for the preservation of these invaluable and wondrous beings. I think the whales and dolphins will be pleased with this new twist on their fate and commend mankind for this attempt at living in harmony. Maybe we are starting to learn a few things from our friends, the magical mystics of the sea.


Hoyt, Eric. 1999. The Potential of Whale Watching in the Caribbean: 1999+. Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Bath, UK. 80 pages.

Hoyt, Eric. 2000. The Status and Potential of Whale Watching in the Caribbean. The Turks and Caicos Marine Mammal Workshop Plenary Session. Unpublished. 12 pages.

Hoyt, Eric. 2001. Whale Watching 2001. Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures, and expanding socioeconomic benefits. International Fund for Animal Welfare, Yarmouth Port, MA, USA. 158 pages.

Pusey, J. Henry. 1897. Handbook of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Mortimer C. DeSouza, Jamaica.

Rockwell, Heather. 2000. The Turks and Caicos receives Award of Merit for whale watching initiatives. International Wildlife Coalition, MA, USA. News release publication. 2 pages.

Williams, Heathcote. 1988. Whale Nation. Jonathon Cape Ltd., London, UK. 190 pages.

Wyland. 2000. Ocean Wisdom. Health Communications, Inc., FL, USA. 263 pages.

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