At dawn she is cool and quiet, still holding the mysteries of the night reefs. As the sun rises, she spreads out like a glittering party dress, sequined in silver-white. In the heat of the summer day, she tries to merge with the sky, blurred and shifting at the edges. As the afternoon comes and with it the trade winds of summer, she becomes restless and foam-tipped. When evening comes, she sinks into the sunset, painting herself briefly with its colors. At night she reflects only starlight, and dreams while the sharks roam. This is our Caribbean Sea.
Our sea is a stone that changes color with the light, from opal to turquoise to indigo blue. But those colors are changing. The blood of its creatures that we humans kill is leaking into the blue, dark and stinking. The filth that we produce on our small islands is constantly seeping into its waters: garbage - plastic bags, plastic bottles, sanitary napkins, diapers, dead dogs, half-eaten burgers and beef patties, toothpaste tubes, beer cans and much more; poisonous chemicals that we spray onto our crops; half-treated or untreated sewage; all kinds of waste from factories and shops and the docks and the ships that pass through the harbors.
The blood. Dear reader, you may or may not be aware that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) recently met as it does regularly, to decide the fate of these unfathomably beautiful creatures around the world. As usual, it was politics and power play, and tiny nations such as ours in the Caribbean are caught in the middle of it all and used as pawns to be pushed this way and that. Our votes are important for those countries that persist in hunting whales. And so it came to pass that a presentation by Brazil, South Africa, Argentina and Uruguay to establish a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary was defeated at the IWC’s recent meeting. St. Kitts & Nevis, Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada and St. Lucia joined the whaling nations (Japan, Iceland, Norway) and some small Pacific islands in opposing the whale sanctuary; St. Vincent and the Grenadines (which already hunts whales) abstained from the vote.
They should be ashamed of themselves. As a resident of the Caribbean, I am ashamed of them.
Indeed, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (where the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films have been made) has asked the IWC if it can hunt down and kill 24 humpback whales over the next five years. This is on the basis of a “super-proposal” by St. Vincent, the United States and the Russian Federation for so-called “aboriginal” subsistence whaling. Yes, the aboriginal peoples of St. Vincent need to kill these humpback whales, for their own survival. And who are these aborigines of St. Vincent, you may well ask? Where are they? Well, you tell me. I thought (I could be wrong) that the Caribs had died out decades ago, although there may be some descendants left – a few.
By the way, according to environmental societies such as the American Cetacean Society and others, these “Vincentian aborigines” use speedboats to pursue the humpbacks, targeting calves that will lure them to their mothers, and using other illegal methods. They also allegedly hunt down and kill other marine mammals illegally – such as the orca (they may already have slaughtered a few orcas so far this year). They have reportedly not provided data or reported to the IWC on their whale-killing activities. According to an IWC Watch blog (link posted below), the St. Vincent Whaling Commissioner literally shouts down anyone who dares question their need for dead whales. In a somewhat hysterical speech (see link below for the full text), St. Kitt’s Commissioner accused those opposing the “aboriginal” proposal of racism and colonialism; while St. Lucia asserted that there are in fact many full-blooded indigenous peoples in the Eastern Caribbean. The Dominican Republic questioned this; and said it is making money taking tourists on whale-watching trips (so are the Turks and Caicos Islands, by the way). To which St. Lucia retorted, “I say to the Dominican Republic, you can conduct your whale watching while SVG (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) conducts its hunts.”
Wow. If I was a humpback whale, I know which part of the Caribbean I would rather hang out in.
And what of the tourists, by the way – since the Caribbean is undoubtedly very dependent on them? How delighted would they be to know that the residents of the idyllic island on which they spend their dream honeymoon are a little ways out from the shore, pursuing baby whales in speedboats, and filling the beautiful sea they love to splash about in with the blood of humpbacks? What if they were on a boat trip or cruise and actually witnessed such “aboriginal” activity for themselves? After all, these are small spaces we are talking about – it could happen… What if (as I intend to do) environmentally conscious tourists avoided these islands and visited eco-friendly islands instead?
And talking of environmentally conscious tourists, another apparent disaster occurred last week which shows the combination of carelessness and ignorance which typifies much of the Caribbean people‘s (and governments’) approach to the environment. First reports suggested that thousands of eggs and hatchlings of the highly endangered leatherback turtle were reportedly crushed and destroyed by government bulldozer that were attempting to divert a river that was apparently causing problems for the Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel in Trinidad and nearby homes. Later, we were told it was merely hundreds of leatherbacks, and that the river diversion was necessary to save millions of turtles in the future. Ironically and very sadly, thousands of tourists stay at the hotel every year just to see the baby turtles hatch on this famous nesting beach.
There is a postscript to this – a comment on the Washington Post website “from Steven Greenleaf – President of the Caribbean Institute of Sustainability. I was there at the event today in Grand Rivere. I have years of training and experience as an ecologist and natural resource conservationist. NOT ONE person that I spoke to or heard speak who is actually involved in turtle conservation there, including biologists, conservationists, scientists, guides, or commmunity members was critical of the project to re-direct the river. NOT ONE. Thousands of turtles dead from the project……..not true. Did not happen. The river’s new course meant that the nests were being innundated by fresh water, preventing incubation. The turtles were dead before they were dug up. The fact is that the intervention will save thousands of turtle hatchlings, and the properties which were being eroded. Certainly the project could have been handled far better in terms of communication and planning. However completely non-factual and sensationalised reporting and outright fabrication of “facts,” achieves nothing of value and is counter productive in terms of improving environmental management in T&T.” Not all environmentalists appear to agree with him. The Ministry of Tourism also put out a statement and held a press conference, noting, “We are deeply saddened by the unfortunate statements circulating in the media on the “assumed” destruction of the turtle nesting ground at the Grande Riviere Beach in Trinidad.” Assumed. OK.
I feel really sorry for the hotel owners and do hope that their efforts to attract tourists will not be ruined by this. They have a beautiful website and obviously care deeply for the environment.
After all that….Thankfully Jamaica does not have a “whaling tradition” and is not a member of the IWC. However, we are playing our part in damaging our marine eco-systems. We are busy over-fishing our waters; and in an act of desperation – or sheer laziness – some fishermen are still blowing the fish out of the sea with dynamite, causing untold damage. A few days ago, a truck driver (possibly speeding, though we don’t know the cause yet) had an accident “negotiating a corner” on the road that sweeps round downtown Kingston by the sea. The truck tipped over, spilling oil into the ocean and causing a “minor fish kill.” I was actually surprised that there were any fish still living in Kingston Harbour (the eighth largest natural harbor in the world) – which has often been described as a “cesspool.” A friend told me that she had personally witnessed effluent of various kinds (I won’t go into detail) pouring from a cruise ship into the sea at Ocho Rios, St. Ann; others have seen human faces floating past them while bathing in other resorts.
When will we start respecting our beautiful Caribbean Sea? For how much longer can our sea, and its creatures, endure this abuse?
Please support local non-governmental organizations like the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM) which has established fishing sanctuaries off the south coast; and the Jamaica Environment Trust, which has conducted sea turtle workshops and numerous other programs and environmental campaigns – including a protracted but highly successful legal battle that finally stopped sewage from being poured into the sea at Harbour View, near Kingston. C-CAM can be contacted at (876) 986-3344; (876) 289-8253; Fax: (876) 986-3956; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; street address: Bustamante Drive, Lionel Town, Clarendon; mailing address: P.O. Box 33, Lionel Town, Clarendon, Jamaica, W.I. The Jamaica Environment Trust is at (876) 960-3693; (876) 906-9783; (876) 906-9385; Fax: (876) 926-0212; email: Address: Earth House, 11B Waterloo Road, Kingston 10, Jamaica Their website links are below. There are many other community-based, local environmental groups that also deserve our support. Do what you can.
- Caribbean Scuba Spotlight on diving in the TURKS AND CAICOS (turkscaicosluxuryvillas.com)
- http://iwcblogger.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/south-atlantic-whale-sanctuary-fails-to-pass-iwc-vote/#comment-347 (South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary fails to pass IWC vote)
- http://iwcblogger.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/is-that-rain-or-just-st-vincent-the-grenadines/ (Is that rain, or just St. Vincent and the Grenadines?)
- http://iwcblogger.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/a-majority-of-iwc-commissioners-agree-one-out-of-three-asw-quotas-sucks/ (A majority of IWC Commissioners agree one out of three ASW quotas sucks)
- Whale sanctuary bid falls short (bbc.co.uk)
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18693753 (Indigenous whaling bids granted after “racism” claim)
- http://www.greenerideal.com/science/0618-aboriginal-whale-hunting/ (Aboriginal whale hunting: Does it make a difference to the whale?)
- Protect whales from new oil industry threat, warns WWF (guardian.co.uk)
- Indigenous whaling bids granted (bbc.co.uk)
- Memories of a moratorium: Rundown of the 64th International Whaling Commission meeting (greenerideal.com)
- Meeting Results In ‘Mixed Bag For Whales’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Don’t miss whale watching while you’re here! (turkscaicosluxuryvillas.com)
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/whales-and-such/ (Whales and such – Monterey)
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/protecting-our-fish-earth-day-part-1/ (Protecting our Fish: Earth Day, part 1- C-CAM)
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/non-human-persons/ (Non-human persons – dolphins)
- http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/total-destruction/ (Total destruction – Kingston’s Palisadoes)
- http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/trinidad-crews-crush-thousands-of-leatherback-turtle-eggs-hatchlings-while-redirecting-river/2012/07/09/gJQA87tyYW_story.html (Turtle Tragedy: Work crews crush thousands of leatherback eggs, hatchlings on Trinidad beach… washingtonpost.com)
- http://www.bradenton.com/2012/07/10/4109984/activists-seek-answers-in-trinidad.html (Work on turtle nesting beach was crucial)
- http://www.stabroeknews.com/2012/news/breaking-news/07/10/tt-environment-authority-only-a-few-100-turtles-lost/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+stabroeknewsguyana+%28Stabroek+News%29 (T&T Environment Authority: “Only a few hundred” turtles lost)
- http://rjrnewsonline.com/news/local/tanker-overturns-oil-spills-vicinity-kingston-harbour (Tanker overturns oil spills in Kingston Harbour)
- http://www.ccam.org.jm/ (Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, C-CAM/Jamaica)
- http://www.jamentrust.org/ (Jamaica Environment Trust)
- US Objects to SKorean Whaling Plan (abcnews.go.com)
Albinos are of course rare in any animal, but this is apparently the only completely white Humpback on this planet. I would love to see this beautiful sight for myself. Stunning, shining, and with its very own “exclusion zone.”
- Mystery Humpback Whale Breeding Ground Discovered? (livescience.com)
- The Albino, Vampiric Redwood Tree (neatorama.com)
- Albino beluga whale’s squashed nose as he takes closer look at aquarium visitors (dailymail.co.uk)
The shore was dank with the sour, fishy scent of the sea lions and the retreating tide. The water was smooth and steel grey. The fog elevated every sound across the water. Monterey’s shore was still steeped in the night. Large gulls flapped slowly into the mist that clung to the masts and hulls of yachts and fishing boats.
The Sea Wolf II, named after the orcas – intrepid hunters of the ocean – was resting beside the slick wooden pier, its engine turning over comfortably. The skipper had a lined face and deep-set eyes, his skin dark brown and slightly dirty. A battered baseball cap covered large tufts of grey-white hair. Our guide, Kate, was a smiling, attractive woman with bronze skin, wispy hair tucked into her cap, and a quietly focused air. She is not only an expert naturalist/biologist, but she also created some beautiful prints of whales that were for sale in the Monterey Whale Watch’s offices. (A plug here for montereybaywhalewatch.com. The Petchary would really recommend this as the best whale-watching tour in Monterey. Kate was incredibly nice and knowledgeable). Kate told us about the whales with teeth, and those that have a kind of filter in their huge mouths, “like a kind of mustache,” called a baleen (similar to the French name for whale, “baleine”). The more she spoke, the more information she provided in considerable detail – what the whales eat, how they migrate along the coast, and how the deep swell of the ocean scoops all the food (krill) up from the bottom of the Monterey Canyon for the whales and dolphins to feed on. Krill (those tiny shrimp-like creatures that in turn feed on zoooplankton and phytoplankton – wonderful names) has been bountiful in Monterey Bay this summer, attracting hundreds of whales.
She also had an extraordinary grasp of the details of the many seabirds, large and small, scattered across the waves, fluttering across the water, diving into the waves, flying calmly across our bow. Kate pointed out an albatross, the first one the Petchary had ever seen. The albatross soared over the restless waves, his pointed wings shaped like an airplane, curved slightly, perfect. He tipped gently sideways, banking off into the fog, which gradually engulfed him. He faded from sight, like an old photograph where only the imprint of a shape remains.
Then there were the dark, smudgy black Sooty Shearwaters, who like the albatross breed in the Hawaiian islands and end up on this side of the vast Pacific Ocean. One of these birds, in an effort to escape from the wake of our boat, squawked suddenly and regurgitated a slimy mess of squid and other food.
Kate was very successful in giving us a sense, an almost visceral feel of the ocean. Like the land, it is not a monotone landscape, although we land-dwellers tend to think of it that way. In one area, Kate pointed to the oily texture of the water, where orcas had killed a sea lion and its fat and blubber lay in the water in viscous globules. Elsewhere, she pointed out the dirty reddish tinge in the water – the color of krill, whale food. She also excitedly showed us “whale tracks” – large, smoothed-out patches of water where whales had just passed.
But the fog stayed with us throughout the morning, limited our ability to spot the animals from a distance. At times it closed in tightly, muffling the sound of the boat engine and smothering our voices. At times it lifted, so that we could see the beautiful horizon, and stretches of silvery water glittering in the sunlight miles away. Mostly, the sun was a blur in the sky. When we pulled out of Monterey, a pure arc of white stretched across the sky and into the sea like a colorless rainbow, reflecting itself on the polished surface of the water.
Orcas are the supreme oceanic predators, hunting in packs like “wolves of the sea.” Their communication is so sophisticated and complex that it is on a par with humans communicating in their various languages, scientists say. It was an honor and a tremendous thrill to find a group of them, which we pursued at full speed in the fog, our bow slapping against the waves. Their sharp fins cut thought the water as they hunted, each individual playing its part. Like lions, the hunting parties are headed by a female – usually one past her menopause (yes, orcas have menopauses). We also saw humpback whales – one covered with barnacles that created a mottled pattern on its sides. We also saw a fin whale, whose elegantly shaped dorsal fin emerged from the waves. Kate became excited – her love and awe of the creatures was never far beneath the surface for her – saying it was hard to tell the difference between this species and the sei whale, which is much rarer and has an estimated population of only 55 in California waters. The name “sei” is Norwegian and it has suffered so much from hunting that its population in 2006 was only one-fifth of what it was before it began to be hunted down by humans – by the Japanese, Norwegians and Icelanders primarily.
The Petchary did not mention Everett. A young man in his mid-twenties with steady blue eyes and a strong arm to support passengers on and off the boat, Everett was working the whale watch boat as a summer job, confessing he never stayed in one place for too long. He was born in Hawaii, and like the albatross had moved across the Pacific ocean. He loves the sea. Who could not? As the ship chugged gently back towards the town, past buoys adorned with sea lions and rocks covered in cormorants and pelicans, the Petchary remembered her father’s love of the sea – the tides and the currents, the squalling winds and the sudden calm. He was never happier than when he was out of sight of the land – alone, in the yellow-painted boat, the “Fancy,” that he built himself in the garage one winter. It was a single-handed boat, that he knew every inch of. The little twists and turns of the wind and sea were less predictable, but Daddy loved them even more. I remember standing on the shore, watching him disappear from view, leaning back comfortably and looking up at the sail. Happy.
Sometimes the Petchary believes – she knows – he is out there still.
- Where do killer whales breed? (greenanswers.com)
- Whale watching is an amazing adventure at the Gold Coast, find out when and where to go for the best sightings (goldcoast.mydestinationinfo.com)