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Whales and Whaling in the Caribbean Part 4

We’ve written much about the Humpback whales that come to the Caribbean to mate and calve during the winter months but, what other whale species reside in whole or part-time in the Caribbean? And, what cetacean species other than whales are hunted here? While there is still little known about the exact ranges and behaviors of many cetacean species other than Humpbacks, some female and juvenile Right whales move to warmer waters off Georgia and the Florida Keys during winter months and some of them venture even further south. Right whales are listed as endangered due to the massive killings during the days of commercial whaling.

Though they have been protected since 1937 reports indicate several have been taken illegally since that time. The most serious threat to the slow moving Right whales today is collision with boats and entanglement in fishing gear. Some 60% of today’s Right whale population sports scarring from collision and entanglement; and some Rights have been towing entangled fishing gear for two years or more. Others have died a slow and painful death over many months when the entangled gear and/or injuries from collisions kept them from diving and hunting food as massive infections from their injuries destroyed tissue and caused the loss of flukes and fins. Studies indicate that the North Atlantic population (approximately 300) has reached such low numbers that inbreeding may be taking place which will further damage their species’ chances of survival.

Some Minke whales are now thought to inhabit Caribbean waters during the winter months. Researchers “listening” to the sounds in the Caribbean believe they have heard the calls of Minke whales. Minkes are one of the smaller whales, reaching 15-25 feet in length and 5-8 tons in weight as adults. The Minke species is considered to be the most abundant species in the world today and they are still hunted by Norway in spite of world-wide protests. Because they are generally solitary and they are small making them more difficult to find, little else is known about them.

And, perhaps, the Caribbean is host to the occasional Sei whale although, again, little is known about their migratory patterns and behavior since, they, too, are generally solitary and difficult to track. Very similar to, and often mistaken for the Sei whale, is the Bryde’s whale. Both can reach lengths of 45-55 feet and weights of 13-18 tons as adults. While some scientists are quick to state that they do not venture below the 40 th latitude, others are equally quick to point out that nothing is known about where they go to mate and calve. Since an endangered Bryde’s whale was killed illegally in 2000 by whalers suspected to be from St. Vincent and the Grenadines as reported by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in London, we know that the Bryde’s whales frequent our waters.

Waters around the Bahamas host the Blue whale. Up to 120 feet in length, Blue whales are currently the largest mammal on earth and quite possibly the largest mammal ever to inhabit the earth. Their streamlined bodies gave them the speed needed to be safe from the early whalers but with the advent of harpoon guns in the mid-1800s the enormous Blue whale became whalers’ primary target. Approximately 99% of the world’s Blue whale population died by the whalers’ harpoon guns. Only recently has there been evidence, albeit very slight, that the severely endangered Blue whales are beginning to recover. Worldwide population estimates put them at only 8,000-13,000 in number.

The Moby Dick whale, the Sperm whale, is found in the Caribbean with females and juveniles suspected of spending most of their time here as the mature males travel back and forth from the cold waters of the northern U.S. and Canada. Sperm whale populations are 1/3 what they were before commercial whaling which did not end until the mid 1960s. Due to the selective killing of mature males the effects of the loss of so many breeding males is believed to account for the imbalance in the sex ratios of today’s Sperm whale population; one of the factors that has contributed to their very low reproductive numbers.

Short-finned Pilot whales also reside in the Caribbean. Known in the islands of the Lesser Antilles as Blackfish, they are small; no more than 15 feet in length. Because they travel in pods of up to 90, they’ve been easy targets for whalers here with reports of 35 from one pod alone being killed during just one hunt in 1999.

We also have Orcas, Killer whales, in the Caribbean. One of the few whale species whose travel is dictated by available food rather than mating and calving, Orcas freely move from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere. There are no population counts on Orcas but many believe their numbers are decreasing due to loss of natural prey from chemical pollution. Sadly, tourists reported seeing a struggling Killer whale being hauled aboard a trawler off St. Vincent and the Grenadines 3-4 years ago.

In addition to the Orcas, we have False Killer whales and Pygmy Killer whales, members of the dolphin family in reality; they reach 9 to18 feet respectively and travel in large pods. Called False Killer whales and Pygmy Killer whales because they sometimes eat other marine mammals like their larger cousins, the Orcas, they are not currently protected; however, a court ruling in 2004 mandated protective measures be put in place under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the False Killer whale. According to figures reported to the International Whaling Commission by St. Lucia, a member of the IWC, for the year 1999, three False Killer whales were taken with an additional 12 suspected killed.

Since the International Whaling Commission attempts only to regulate the killing of large whales and St. Vincent and the Grenadines hold the only permits, the killing of smaller whales and other cetaceans such as dolphin has occurred on a regular basis by other IWC member nations in the Caribbean.

Statistics submitted to the IWC by St. Lucia’s small cetacean fisheries indicated the following kills for the year 1999 while we found no statistics reported for subsequent years:

Short-finned Pilot whales-8, Pygmy Orcas-2, False Orcas-3, Bottlenose dolphins-2, Atlantic Spotted dolphins-12, Fraser’s dolphins-1, Common dolphins-1. While these numbers represent the “reported” kills, many in the scientific, environmental, tourism and governmental fields believe the actual number may have been 4 or 5 times those reported.

An official with the IWC stated that only St. Lucia reported its small cetacean kills for 1999 while Mark Palmer of the International Marine Mammal Project stated, “These IWC reported numbers represent the biggest intentional cetacean kill (as opposed to dolphins killed indirectly in the fishing industry) in North and South America that our organization knows of."

Mr. Palmer based his statement on the numbers reported by St. Lucia. The IWC has no statistics from its other Caribbean member nations of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, nor St. Vincent and the Grenadines (other than their “reported” whale kills which often were in violation of their aboriginal permit rules).

The marine mammals that frequent the Caribbean, both the large whales and the smaller cetaceans such as dolphin, do not belong to one nation. They travel thousands of miles past many countries’ borders. Some of the more forward thinking of those countries have or are in the process of developing venues of eco-tourism to show travelers from around the world these magnificent and ancient marine mammals. The money that is generated and the jobs created by promoting the conservation of marine mammals far outweigh the profits of the whalers and cetacean fishermen.

But, the most powerful whaling nation in the world will soon attend the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting in the Caribbean in June, and that nation is quietly laying the foundation for the return of commercial whaling here.

About Becky_Bauer

Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.