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Whales and Whaling in the Caribbean – Ongoing Saga

As I write this, Humpback cows and calves are swimming near
the island of Hans Lolick in the U.S. Virgin Islands
on their way north to summer feeding grounds off the coasts of New England and
Canada. Two weeks ago while having dinner at a restaurant overlooking Hull Bay
on St. Thomas I was more than excited to see two dark shapes underwater, one
quite large and the second rather small, moving slowly inside the bay. The
larger shape seemed to be “hanging out” as the smaller shape
explored areas around coral heads and rocks. At first unsure as to what I was
seeing it quickly became evident as they reached deeper water and the large
shape blew a spume of water into the air before she dove and led her calf
northward out to sea.

Those
shapes I saw were Humpbacks; two of only 15,000 or so remaining in the
Atlantic, down from an estimated 150,000 before whaling nearly caused their
extinction. These remaining 15,000 Atlantic Humpbacks do not have a secure
future, however. Still hunted today although at this point only by aboriginal
hunters, they also face death from collisions with boats, entanglement in
commercial fishing gear, poisoning from pollution, damage to their intricate
internal navigational organs from military low frequency sonar testing, and
loss of habitat.

The
Humpback whale is a magnificent animal but by far not the largest of whales. At
approximately 40 feet in length and 35-40 tons, a large adult Humpback is
merely in the middle of the size range for all species of whales. As whales go
the Humpback is a short, heavy bodied whale; however, because they are the most
acrobatic and the most communicative, it is the Humpback most of us picture
when we think of whales.

Their
stout, black upper bodies are accentuated by slender, graceful pectoral fins
that can reach 13-15 feet each in length. Their large flukes or tails can span
a distance of 15-18 feet while the ventral, under side, of both their tails and
pectoral fins are white. It is these white undersides and the Humpbacks’
propensity for acrobatics that give whale researchers and observers easily
recognizable markings with which they can identify individuals. The patterns of
spots, lines, and scars on the underside of each Humpback’s fluke and
pectoral fins are unique and unchanging, and often lead to a name for the
whale. One large Humpback was named Cat’s Paw after the very distinct cat
paw print on the white underside of his fluke.

Humpbacks
are one of the rorqual whales as are the Blue, Fin, Bryde’s, Sei, and
Minke. Characteristics common to rorqual
whales include a dorsal fin and throat grooves, or ventral pleats, that run
from the end of their lower jaws to their bellies. Humpbacks feed upon krill,
tiny crustaceans floating in the water, as well as small fish such as herring
which are found in the colder waters of the northern hemisphere. Humpbacks are
baleen whales or “filter feeders”; they feed by scooping up huge
amounts of water expanding their ventrals to full
capacity. After filling their mouths they force the water through 250-400
overlapping strips of baleen, some as much as 13 feet long and 6-8 inches wide
that hang from their upper jaws. The tiny hairs on the strips of baleen catch
the food source which the whale then compresses into balls and swallows.

Humpbacks
do not eat when they come to the Caribbean to mate and calve since their food
sources do not exist here. During their time in Caribbean waters they can lose
more than a ton of weight before heading back north to feed and build up their
blubber reserves in preparation for their next trip to the Caribbean.

Females
reach maturity around 8 years of age and breed only once every two or three
years. After a gestational period of 11-12 months they deliver one calf which
is 10-15 feet in length and weighs about 1 ton. Immediately upon birth, the cow
nudges the calf to the surface for his first breath and she nurses him with
extremely fat-rich milk for a year before weaning him. Humpbacks can live to be
about 50 years old; one of the shorter lived whales while other species are
known to live up to 100 years and possibly beyond.

During
the heyday of commercial whaling back in the 18th and 19th
centuries an adult whale would yield approximately 20 tons of whale oil which
sold for about 10 British pounds per ton; an equivalent of about $26,000 per
whale today. Multiplied by the 50, 60, or more whales taken on a whaling trip,
profits were extraordinary for the times. Although most of that profit went to
the whaling ships’ owners and captains who became very wealthy indeed;
considering the average annual farm wage during the 18th and 19th
centuries was about $70 in a good year, it isn’t difficult to understand
why so many left farms and shops and signed on with whaling vessels.

But those
days are gone. Electricity has eliminated the need for vast quantities of whale
oil, ladies no longer wear corsets and bustles staved with baleen, synthetics
and rubber replaced animal skin machinery belts, plant oils have replaced
animal oils in cosmetics and soaps. And, yet, the call to resume commercial
whaling continues. Why and by whom? And, for what purpose?

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