Friday, March 1, 2024
HomeLifeWhales and Whaling in the Caribbean - Part 2

Whales and Whaling in the Caribbean – Part 2

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Mocka Jumbies and Rum...

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According to the World Council of Whalers, “The United
Voice of Whaling Peoples”, representing whaling countries around the
world, whaling by islands in the Caribbean
began in 1875. For over 130 years prior to 1875, American whaling ships plied
the waters of the Caribbean killing hundreds
of whales each year.

The first
Caribbean whaling station was established by a
Bequian named Bill Wallace who left the island at the
age of 15 and returned 20 years later bringing along dozens of harpoons used
during his years at sea. Shore whaling, another name for island whaling, took
hold about the same time in Barbados,
Trinidad, Grenada,
Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and other islands in the
Lesser and Greater Antillean chain. As the American whaling fleets began to
decline, former whalers from those fleets migrated to the Caribbean
bringing along their ‘expertise’ in various methods of killing
which they passed along to island peoples.

There is some evidence that the early
inhabitants of the Caribbean islands incorporated whale meat in their diets as
demonstrated by whale bones found in Amerindian middens
on Barbados and on Tortola
in the British Virgin Islands. However,
anthropologists believe that the Amerindians, the Caribs
and Arawaks, simply availed themselves of dead and
dying whales washed ashore since they did not have the equipment necessary to
hunt whales at sea.

the heyday of whaling in the Caribbean by
American whaling fleets from the mid 1700s followed by the appearance of shore
whaling in the mid to late 1800s, Humpbacks and Sperm whales were the prized
catches. Early ship logs report that both species were quite plentiful in the
waters of the Lesser Antilles with one account
of a very large Sperm whale bull taken in a bay filled with ships docked for reprovisioning. Based on logs, correspondence, and journals
kept by those early sailors, the Lesser Antilles were so ripe with whales that
large whale populations in the Greater Antilles
were passed by in the rush to more fertile hunting grounds further south.

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in the Lesser Antilles reached its peak before
the turn of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1927 the
islands’ whale processing plants were forced to close due to the
depletion of Humpbacks and Sperm whales caused by both the American whaling
fleets and the shore whaling industries. Interviews with elderly former whalers
on Caribbean islands in the early 1940s
confirm the demise of the whaling industry due to the depletion and resultant
disappearance of whales. Scientists believe that more numerous populations of
whales in the Greater Antilles today is a direct result of the early whalers
ignoring those populations as they sailed to the Lesser Antilles where almost 2
centuries of rampant hunting decimated Humpback and Sperm whale populations.

killed by an American whaling ship or taken by islanders during hunting
expeditions, and although equipment varied from island to island, processing
generally began with the whale’s beheading. Once the head was removed,
the whale’s body was “flensed” by huge saws that stripped off
the fatty tissue or blubber which was then boiled to produce oil. The oil was
used to fuel lamps and to make machinery lubricants, ink, makeup and lotions,
soaps, conditioners for wool products, detergents, and tanning fluids for
leather. Spermaceti, found only in Sperm whales and thusly named for its
resemblance to sperm, was used to make candles as well as lamp oil. Having attended
school for several summers on Penobscot
Bay in
Maine I spent many hours traveling the back
roads and perusing out of the way antique shops. In a small shop in a very old
home along the coast I found a hand blown brown glass medicine bottle still
filled with whale oil and decorated with an aged, crumbling paper label touting
the contents as a cure-all for most any human ailment.

Sperm whales were so widely sought by the early whalers, they did keep
rudimentary population records based on sightings during their far ranging
hunting trips that carried them from the eastern shores of Canada and the U.S.
to the coasts of South America, being at sea sometimes for 2-3 years. Reviewing
those early records, scientists believe that the Atlantic Sperm whale
population numbered over 330,000 at the beginning of the 19th

whales range throughout the world’s oceans and the total global
population today is estimated to be approximately 300,000, down from some
2,000,000 worldwide before whaling took its toll; and globally less than what
was once the Atlantic population alone. Whaling between the 1740s and 1880s in
the Atlantic killed some 1,000,000 Sperm whales and current estimates of both
the North and South Atlantic population puts them at less than 5,000
individuals. Humpback whales have faired little better with pre-whaling
Atlantic population estimates ranging about 150,000 to fewer than 15,000
remaining today.

Some of
those remaining Humpbacks whales will soon be traveling from their winter
calving and mating grounds in the Caribbean to their feeding grounds off the
coasts of the United States and Canada. While we cannot fault those early ship
and island whalers for their belief that our oceans were endlessly bountiful,
we now know otherwise. The numbers do not lie and what one dead whale will
bring in revenue is far exceeded by the dollars generated by protecting them
and developing tourism based on watching them as they ever so gracefully swim
through the seas and nurture their young.

whaling does continue in the Caribbean though through limited, aboriginal
permits granted by the International Whaling Commission while the world’s
most powerful and moneyed whaling nation pushes to return commercial whaling to
our waters.

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

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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