Green Pages

Helping the Humpback

Protecting one of the Islands’ biggest natural wonders.

By Katharine Hart and Cathy Bacon, Turks & Caicos Islands Whale Project
Photos By Katharine Hart, Deep Blue Charters

Each winter, hundreds of North Atlantic Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) travel thousands of kilometers from their summer feeding grounds in colder waters to the turquoise shallows surrounding the Turks & Caicos Islands. It is here, along the Islands’ extensive stretch of underwater banks, that the animals come to find a mate or give birth to their calves, making it one of the world’s premiere locations for whale watching.

This is one of the few places in the world where you can get in the water and snorkel eye-to-eye with one of the planet’s largest mammals. It is also one of the few places in the world where you can have such an up-close encounter with marine wildlife without any regulations in place to ensure the safety of both the animals and curious observers.

The underside of a humpback whale’s tail is like a fingerprint and can be used to identify individual whales between feeding and breeding grounds.

Currently, tour operators are not required to have any specific license or training to facilitate whale watching activities. There are no limits as to how many tour operators can approach the whales at one time, or how close they can get. And with the pressure from guests to capture selfies and other Instagram-worthy photos of themselves swimming with whales, some operators can be tempted to get as close to the animals as possible. The Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR) has issued a voluntary code of ethics for whale watching to discourage such behavior, but there are no legal ramifications for those who do not follow these guidelines. 

As whale watching tourism continues to increase in Turks & Caicos, it is vital to implement laws that protect this species from behavior that can stress them at a time in their lives when they are particularly vulnerable after just having given birth.

The newly formed Turks & Caicos Islands Whale Project is a collaborative project between researchers, the DECR and watersports operators, including Deep Blue Charters, to collect data on the local humpback whale population that will be used to inform the development of protective legislation in the near future.

Over the next year, private whale watching operators will be encouraged to document whale sightings during their daily excursions using photography and video at the surface and underwater cameras for in-water encounters. Hydrophones may also be used to collect acoustic samples from singing male humpback whales or groups of males competing for a female mate. 

Pectoral fin slapping is a frequently seen behaviour when whale watching in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Photographing individual whales—specifically the underside of their flukes, which have unique fingerprint-like patterns—will allow researchers to track the whales’ migratory routes between feeding and breeding grounds. By partnering with both local and international whale watching companies, researchers, and non-governmental organizations, photographic matches can be made, which can tell us where humpback whales have migrated from and if the same ones continue to return to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Already this season, at least one mother whale has been identified as one who has given birth several times in the region over the last few years. Others have been tracked to Maine, New York, Virginia Beach, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Samaná Bay (Dominican Republic). Monitoring and assessment of humpback whale behavior in response to boat vessels on the surface and interaction with humans in the water will also be used to inform future proposed legislation that will enforce safe and conservation-focused interactions with these beautiful giants once pushed to the brink of extinction by whaling.

Our hope is that this research will allow us to better understand these creatures and how we as humans can support them while continuing to have safe interactions with them for generations to come.

All members of the public can support marine mammal conservation in the Turks & Caicos Islands and be part of this collaborative conservation effort by adhering to the Fisheries Protection and the National Parks Ordinances and by submitting photographs and videos taken while out on the water in the Turks & Caicos Islands. If the TCI Whale Project is able to match your image, the information about that whale will be shared with you and credit given for the images. Submissions are welcomed by email at tciwhaleproject@gmail.com or via Facebook.com/tciwhaleproject or Instagram @TCIWhaleProject. 

Fisheries Protection Ordinance (5 of 1941) as amended, Regulations Part III Conservation Provisions:

Restrictions on means of taking marine product and harmful activities:

9. (1) No person shall —

(g) engage in the practice of throwing any food into the water for the purposes of feeding or attracting or harvesting any species of marine life unless authorized to do so by the Director;

Restrictions relating to marine mammals

18. No person shall engage in fishing for, molest or otherwise interfere with any marine mammal.

Similarly, the following activities are prohibited within all national parks, nature reserves and sanctuaries, and will not be tolerated:

National Parks Ordinance (11 of 1975) as amended, Regulations on Prohibitions and Permitted Activities:

3(1),(2),(3):

(a) The taking of any animal or plant by any method on land or at sea except to the extent permitted in any fishing zone;

(c) The destruction of, or damage or injury to, any animal or plant;

(d) The removal of sand, rock, coral, coral-rag or any calcareous substance;

(e) Anchor damage to coral reef structures living or dead and associated marine plant and animal life.

As per the regulations, any person who contravenes any provision of these regulations commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of $50,000 or to a term of imprisonment of twelve months or to both such fine and imprisonment.

Katharine Hart is a marine biologist and co-owner of Deep Blue Charters on Grand Turk. Cathy Bacon is a marine biologist based in the United States. Both are  lead researchers for the Turks & Caicos Islands Whale Project.  



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