A Whale’s Tale

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mom-and-calf-2TCI’s whales offer valuable eco-tourism and research opportunities.
By Matthew Ashley and Steven Newman

It is October in the North Atlantic, and she circles the remaining school of krill. The small shrimp-like creatures have become few and far between in recent weeks, but after six months of feasting she feels satisfied and full of energy compared to her exhaustion back in May. With an almost playful twist of her tail she lunges for the surface, jaw agape, feeling the rush of salt water flowing past her thick, brush-like baleen.
As she swallows the filtered prey—a snack sized portion that was possibly not worth the effort—the water leaves a lingering icy bite that’s been increasing over the last weeks. The lunge, though, gave her a chance to glimpse the dry world beyond the surface. A moment’s image revealed a fresh extension to the solid, icy, dry land mass that stirs her growing desire for the warm waters in the south and her yearnings to find a mate.

Mystery surrounds the ability of humpback whales, one of the largest creatures on earth, to navigate between locations in freezing high latitude seas to distinct regions of warmer waters around the equator. Whether they feed in the northern or southern hemisphere, these magnificent creatures set off on their epic journey every year as winter closes in. The driving force behind these movements appears to be the “Catch 22” the whales face between foraging in productive high latitudes or seeking waters suitable for newborn calves who need to build up body weight before they, too, must migrate to productive feeding grounds in colder waters.
For our whale, a mature female, this means she faces a 3,000 mile swim to the beautiful, warm and calmer waters of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Humpback whales, just like many marine organisms, congregate within a small area to breed as if pre-arranged on a calendar. For scientists studying the subject this appears to provide one obvious, giant reward—bringing individuals together from distant locations within regions that offer newborn calves the optimum conditions for survival.
Through epic courtship battles of the giant bull males, the females will select and mate with only the fittest and strongest as a result of an annual migration pattern that has continued for millennia. The same seasonal movements are mirrored in each hemisphere; their opposing seasons, however, mean the two populations in one ocean rarely, if ever, cross paths.
The journey will obviously be long and tiring but other dangers lurk along the route, usually as a result of man. Our whale will cross busy shipping lanes, risk entanglement in fishing gear, be surrounded by large pleasure boats with eager whale watchers aboard and suffer the ear splitting noise of oil drilling platforms and surveys penetrating the sea floor with concentrated sound waves in the search for valuable fuel.
Only 30 years ago, she would have been hunted, chased and possibly harpooned with a six foot spear for the value of the oil rendered from her blubber, which kept city lamps burning.

Worldwide whaling and the TCI
For much of the last century, whaling decimated humpback populations around the world by up to 90%. Only a halt to commercial harvests brought about by the member nations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986 provided a small opportunity for whale stocks to recover. It would be a long haul though, as by 1986 a minimum of 200,000 humpback whales had been slaughtered worldwide and North Atlantic populations fell to critical levels with under 1,000 individuals.
For a short period in the 19th century, Turks & Caicos played an active part in whaling and the evidence remains in many place names. The highly valued perfume base ambergris lends its name to Ambergris Cay, originally a reliable lookout for the whaling station at Taylor’s Hill, Salt Cay and the aptly named Whale House Bay and Whale Island.
Today, since large scale whaling operations have ceased, there appears to be some hope. Currently one of the world’s largest breeding grounds remains in the Silver Bank between TCI and the Dominican Republic, while reports from fishers and yachtsmen reveal the possibility of further pockets of breeding activity within the network of shallow banks adjacent to deep water that stretch between these countries.
Worldwide populations of humpbacks are estimated to have risen to 70,000 with 11,000 in the North Atlantic alone. Pre-whaling populations can only be assumed from centuries-old stories and whaling logs, but where we see the occasional migrating whale there must have been a steady stream of hundreds of thousands of leaping, cavorting giants. The breeding and nursery grounds currently found in small areas of the Caribbean possibly covered entire systems of protected banks and islands such as the extensive Navidad, Silver, Mouchair and Caicos Banks between the Turks & Caicos Islands and Dominican Republic.

Current debates
Now that many whale populations are beginning to recover, there is even greater pressure from the whaling countries of Japan, Norway and Iceland to resume the commercial hunting of whaltes. These countries, which continue to conduct large-scale hunting either under the guise of science (Japan and Iceland) or simply because they do not belong to the IWC (Norway), claim whales are significantly reducing stocks of commercial fish.
This stance has been met with fierce environmental activism and media battles. An important counter argument is that despite increasing whale numbers in recent years, most populations are still only a fraction of their pre-whaling stock size. We still know very little about the general life history and ability of whale populations to recover from over-harvesting.
Knowledge is so poor that many specific calving grounds and even migration routes are currently unknown. In addition to understanding distribution, it is essential that genetic diversity is monitored to understand the link between breeding and feeding areas and species’ abilities to resist disease.
Present studies show genetic diversity is high in humpbacks, offering hope for the future, but genetic analysis is only in its early stages and this high diversity may simply be lagging from the huge pre-whaling populations. Without comprehensive monitoring of diversity during population recovery, the reintroduction of harvesting may cause detrimental effects before the full consequences of these actions are realized.
The fate of whale populations (and even individuals such as the female humpback we encountered at the start of this article) doesn’t necessarily lie in the hands of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), as the commission is essentially an umbrella organization within which the member states can vote. It is therefore the states that currently hold votes within the IWC that can dictate the future of whaling.
Japan in particular has called for the IWC to reintroduce harvesting beyond the current scientific quota and include species of particular conservation concern including humpbacks and rare giants such as brydes, fin and sei whales.
The Caribbean vote
The well publicized arguments of Norway and Japan have often overshadowed the participation of the Caribbean states that represent the region at IWC meetings. Holding a powerful hand as voters, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines—the sole voices for the Caribbean in the IWC—have historically all voted in favor of Japan’s lead that harvesting needs to be expanded to protect fisheries and, therefore, local resources.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines have previously been granted an indigenous subsistence fisheries quota of 20 humpback whales between 2002 and 2007, a significant event that is often overshadowed by the greater quota allowances and debates of Japan and Norway.
Currently, the whale watching industry brings over $10 million to the Caribbean annually while research on whether feeding activity actually occurs when whales are resident in breeding grounds is in its infancy, raising the question of whether the common vote for the expansion of whaling from Caribbean nations is in the best interest of the region.
Essentially this appears as a contentious situation for a region that as a whole prides itself in displaying the unique beauty of abundant natural resources. What, then, for the TCI that quietly observes this debate, recognizing her beautiful-by-nature reputation with a fleet of experienced boatmen that know every inch of the surrounding waters, visitors who return to enjoy life on the Islands and an as-yet relatively unmolested population of visiting humpback whales?

The importance of the TCI
Protecting migration routes and breeding grounds such as TCI waters allows populations to recover and provides researchers with the opportunity to fully understand the importance of the region to whale populations. Current questions include: Which feeding groups contribute to the numbers seen in TCI waters? What would the impacts of a potentially growing whaling industry be on these populations?
A study by Dr. Peter Stevick and associates in 2003 recorded whales from different feeding areas in the North Atlantic arriving and departing specific Caribbean breeding grounds at different times, suggesting little mixing of populations. This latest study is an example of how much there is yet to discover. Prior to Stevick’s 2003 study, scientists believed distinct northern feeding stocks of humpbacks would mix in the Caribbean breeding grounds. The jury is therefore still out on these behaviors and the accessible banks of the central Caribbean are important research sites that may answer these questions.
The Turks & Caicos offer vital insight into this struggle for survival and the Islands have already begun to lead the way in responsible care and environmental education for this resource. Local representatives led the TCI Marine Mammals Conference in 2000, aptly named “Flukes happen—Seen any lately?,” an international meeting attended by a panel of global experts aimed at addressing the potential of research and ecotourism related to whales in the Caribbean.
The conference recognized the great opportunities that exist in TCI waters to view whales and the possibility that whales traveling to the TCI actually breed and nurse newborn calves in the region.
The humpback whales that visit these shores currently support a growing whale watching industry that provides the opportunity to hunt not for meat and oil, but for pictures and the unique experience of seeing these giants at close range.
Grand Turk started the trend with dive operations incorporating the opportunity to get up-close and personal with visiting whales. The first operations began on an occasional basis in the 1990s and have developed since into a regular occurrence. Tour operators in Providenciales and Salt Cay have also made use of this resource and advertise the opportunity each winter to spend a day with the region’s whales.

Guidelines and discoveries
If respectful of the animals, whale watching tours offer a perfect opportunity to show off the resources of Turks & Caicos. The Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR) has provided guidelines for both the growing whale watching industry and all other boat traffic to allow encounters that will not disturb natural behavior:
• Single vessels should carry no more than 20 passengers.
• Boats should keep to a speed that produces no wake, with engines put in neutral when in the presence of whales and no loud noises such as whistles or horns.
• Boats should not approach within 100 meters of whales and swimmers or divers should not enter water.
• Approach parallel or from the rear to cause the least stress and do not come between a mother and calf.
• If ahead of whales, stop at least 300 meters from approaching whales and disengage engine. Never approach whales head on, allow the whales to choose to approach you.
• Avoid making sudden changes in speed or direction if this is necessary; it usually means the whales are stressed and want to avoid you.
• When leaving whales after an encounter, move off away from their direction of travel at a slow speed that produces no wake, do not pick up speed until over 300 meters from the nearest whale.
• No more than three vessels should attempt to watch a whale or group of whales at one time. If several vessels in an area wish to watch the whales, limit your time with the whales so that others may see them.
If followed, these guidelines give visitors and residents alike a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view these charismatic creatures, while providing income for the locals who know the waters well—without disturbing the natural behavior of the whales that visit TCI waters. The opportunity that Turks & Caicos provides to view whales without the congestion of an irresponsible whale watching industry offers benefits to tourists and researchers alike.
For Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) scientists Sue Rocca and Vale Vivaldelli, Oasis Divers’ and Salt Cay Divers’ daily whale watching trips have provided a platform to conduct valuable research on Grand Turk and Salt Cay’s visiting whales. For Sue, these whales have special interest and could represent an undiscovered breeding population.
Sue explains, “It has always been thought that humpbacks are traveling by on their way to their Dominican Republic breeding grounds. Yet we know of many populations of migrating whales in which a subset of the population will not make the entire migration, so the area around Salt Cay could be an important breeding and calving ground. In fact, one of the older fishermen in Salt Cay has been reported to witness a birthing—which has never been documented in the wild.”
Each humpback whale has a unique black and white pattern on the underside of its tail fluke, a pattern as unique as a fingerprint. By photographing this pattern, you can track humpbacks through entire ocean basins. WDCS has used this method of photo-identification to reveal some interesting results.
Sue reports that WDCS’s fieldwork around Salt Cay and Grand Turk has produced two exciting results. First, three humpbacks documented in Grand Turk and Salt Cay waters during the winter are also seen regularly feeding in the Gulf of Maine in the summer. Secondly, one female named Pinball was documented around Salt Cay for two years in a row; in the second year (2008) Pinball had a new calf with her and was re-sighted over a 12 day period.
These results provide vital information on the link between feeding and breeding grounds and validate the local knowledge that the area may be an important calving ground. For many years, researchers in the northern feeding grounds have wondered where the whales go to breed and if they continue to feed during migrations—questions which the Turks & Caicos are starting to answer.

The next step
This birthing whale witnessed near Salt Cay could well be the same whale that started our tale and the cruise ship developments on Grand Turk and the possible increase in tourist boats offer as many obstacles as they do benefits to her and the North Atlantic whale population’s survival. Properly managed, though, tour activities can create a living resource that will delight visitors for decades to come. On the other hand, irresponsible interaction and little protection from ship traffic has the potential to irrevocably damage this population.
The Turks & Caicos Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) Scientific Officer Kathy Lockhart hopes for a bright future for TCI’s visiting whale populations and is keen that tour operators work with the DECR to establish a leading sustainable attraction and set the benchmark for Caribbean ecotourism. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society will be continuing their research, working with tour operations in Grand Turk and Salt Cay over upcoming winters, and aim to extend their work throughout the Turks & Caicos.
With international experience of responsible interaction with whales, one major aim for future work in the Turks & Caicos will be to provide information and training for local tour operations from all the islands who wish to include whale watching activities. With training from an internationally respected conservation organization, tour operators can incorporate best practices from around the world and customers will benefit from the expertise of local boatmen who understand the global importance of TCI’s whales and their behavior—all the while being assured a responsible and enjoyable encounter.
Ultimately, local boatmen and water users will have the opportunity to gather sightings data and record whale behavior independently, taking a leading role in the research process and the management of whale watching activities.
Recent tourists and visiting researchers are not the first to share stories of memorable encounters with inquisitive and curious whales. Mr. James Bassett, a familiar face on South Caicos, remembers that whales have been an attraction on the island for many years and their curiosity and interaction with residents has always been a source of interest even amidst the island’s lively salt trade. He explains, “I remember the whales coming right up to the boats loading salt, even rubbing themselves alongside. They were often near the harbour and seemed curious about what was there.” Many of South’s well known fishers tell more recent stories of even closer encounters, regularly being passed by migrating whales when free-diving during lobster season.
For the largest creatures that have ever lived on the planet and a group that was nearly rendered extinct by the lucrative whaling industry, incredibly little is known about the great whales. Scientists still argue over the level of intelligence whales possess without successful explanations for the haunting humpback songs regularly heard by divers that suggest complicated vocabulary and communication.
The huge breeding groups on the Silver Banks and Semana Bay in the Dominican Republic appear to have distracted attention from the whales of Turks & Caicos, but whether it is to provide worldwide firsts for researchers such as Sue and Vale or the opportunity for residents such as Mr. Bassett to continue enjoying the annual tradition, responsible interaction appears to be the key for ensuring the future of these whales.
The vision of the DECR to establish internationally leading conservation practices is central in allowing the annual migration to continue unhindered. This will allow time for secrets to be unlocked by research teams while long-standing income can be generated year by year and lifelong memories can be created for those witnessing these incredible creatures in their natural environment.

Useful related information
DECR whale watching regulations and guidelines:


Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society’s Grand Turk research field diary:

Matt Ashley is a marine biologist who has been working at the School for Field Studies (SFS) on South Caicos. As a keen traveler with a background in journalism, Matt has worked internationally in marine conservation projects, especially on humpback whale research. He and SFS’s Center for Marine Resource Studies former director Dr. Steve Newman wrote this article with input from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the DECR.

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