WHALES AND DOLPHIN WATCHING IN DOMINICA
Dominica is centrally located at the northern end
of the Windward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean, surrounded by the French
overseas islands of Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south. Historically, France
and Britain fought over the island but Britain retained control. Since 1978, Dominica
has been an independent republic within the British Commonwealth. The official language
is English, but many inhabitants speak a French patois. Dominica is a verdant, fertile island containing
a mountainous central ridge with tropical rain forest. For the past decade,
Dominica has successfully marketed itself as the 'nature island' of the Caribbean with 'much more
than just beaches, blue sky and the blue sea'. This niche marketing has succeeded in
attracting tourists who are not deterred by the slightly less direct air connections. (Dominica
has two airports with direct connections to the Caribbean 'gateways' of Antigua, Puerto Rico,
Martinique, Barbados, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and St. Martin.) Still, the number of air
arrivals was the second lowest in the Eastern Caribbean. However, visitors to Dominica spend
more per capita and many are obviously choosing a different kind of holiday, wanting to
avoid the huge numbers of tourists found on some of the other islands. Dominica has also
received substantial increases in the numbers of cruise ship arrivals to the island's
deepwater port at Roseau, the capital. In 1997, the number of cruise passengers was 229,914
(up 18.8 % on the previous year). In Dominica, cruise ship passengers find something
different from the high power shopping ports and an increasing number stay long enough
to visit the accessible rain forest or go diving. With Dominica's nature emphasis, whale watching
effectively adds another jewel to the crown. The whale watching has developed
hand in hand with the diving industry. The two main operators both have dive companies
and hotels. According to Fielding's Caribbean guide, Dominica has emerged as one of
the four or five best dive locales in the Eastern Caribbean. It has also, in less than a
decade, become the undisputed centre for whale watching in the Eastern Caribbean. Whale watching first got started in 1988 when
Fitzroy Armour, a native Dominican running dive charters for the Anchorage Hotel,
began to get interested in the sperm whales he saw regularly on the trips. Soon he was
offering whale watch tours. His skills as a naturalist, diver and photographer, and his
ability to find the whales and to be sensitive about their behaviour, made these early trips
successful. Word spread and international US groups began offering tours through the Anchorage
Hotel. In 1993, Derek Perryman from the nearby Castle Comfort Lodge, using two
catamarans and a fibreglass diesel boat, began steering some of his diving clients toward
whale watching, including it in some of the diving packages. Both operators soon began
using hydrophones to help find the sperm whales and to allow their customers to listen to
them. The sperm whales are found all along the lee
(western) shore of Dominica from just beyond the 50 fathom (100 m) depth contour
up to 15 miles (24 km) offshore. In 1998, Jonathan Gordon and his colleagues found
some evidence that more sperm whales are actually in northern offshore waters. Still,
the promontory at Scotts Head, which juts out into the Caribbean and overlooks both
Soufriθre Bay and Martinique Passage is often mentioned as a good land-base for watching sperm
whales and dolphins, as well as whale watching boats, from November through April.
Another good spot, half way between Roseau and Scotts Head, is Pointe Michel.
Additional potential lookouts include Pte. Ronde, near Barbers Block, Colihaut, and
Salisbury. These and other land-based whale watch sites might be adapted for studying whales
and whale watching using theodolites, binoculars and hydrophones mounted just off the
coast. Besides sperm whales, the following cetacean
species may be seen, roughly in order of how often. Most common are spinner and
pantropical spotted dolphins which are seen on almost all the trips. Other species seen
are short-finned pilot whales, false killer whales, pygmy sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins,
Risso's dolphins, Fraser's dolphins, orcas, dwarf sperm whales and melon-headed
whales. Other species less often encountered include Bryde's whales, humpback whales, and
Cuvier's beaked whales. By the end of 1998, whale watching in Dominica
became a million dollar a year business. There are now four operators offering
whale watch tours from Dominica. One of them has started offering whale watching through
the visiting cruise ships. For the year 1998, there were at least 5,000 whale and dolphin
watchers from all four companies spending from $40 to $50 USD on the tickets, and
an estimated $75 USD per day for other expenses related to whale watching, plus an
additional $75 for a mid-range hotel room. Totals for Dominica for 1998 were therefore 5,000
whale watchers spending an estimated $220,000 USD for the trips and $750,000 USD in
indirect revenues, for total revenues of $970,000 USD. Whale and dolphin watching has attained a new
high profile on the islands with three full pages devoted to it in the 1999
edition of the official visitor magazine from the Dominica Hotel & Tourism Association:
Destination Dominica. This compares to one page devoted to fishing and half a page to
boating and cruising. Seven pages are devoted to diving. The local sperm whales feature as one
of the mentioned attractions in the introductory message from the Hon. Norris Prevost,
the Minister of Tourism, Ports and Employment.
(1) a workshop on how to conduct good whale watch tours, with background on cetaceans, conservation, education, and preparing guidelines and regulations. Funded by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, this pioneer workshop was presented by Mark Carwardine in November 1994. Prospective whale watch operators from Dominica were invited to come to the three-day workshop and funding was provided for travel and accommodation in some cases.
(2) an international workshop on sperm whale watching. In January 1996, Dominica hosted a scientific workshop to review sperm whale biology and its relevance to the conduct and management of whale watching. During this workshop, suggested codes of conduct for operators, as well as associated management and scientific concerns, were discussed and agreed upon. This workshop was held at the invitation of the Minister of Tourism in Dominica and the observers to the meeting included various existing and prospective operators. This workshop effectively helped launch regulations for watching sperm whales not only internationally, but in Dominica.
(3) a detailed study of the sperm whales. Although Dominica's sperm whales had been noted in the surveys of Turuski and Winn (1976), Watkins and his research team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were the first to spend considerable time with sperm whales in the lee of the islands from Guadeloupe to the southern Grenadines. They estimated the population to be around 200 sperm whales which included large and small adults and calves of different sizes. In 1995, Jonathan Gordon began a two-year detailed winter study off Dominica aboard RV Song of the Whale for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Results were followed up with sightings from another boat in 1997. This study, published in 1998, found that the composition and structure of the sperm whale population off Dominica, and the usage patterns within the area, make the population vulnerable to disturbance. Appropriate management, regulations and monitoring are necessary to ensure that critical activities such as breeding and social organisation, are not disrupted. From these and other data, the sperm whales appear to be most accessible during the prime whale watching season of November to April. Due to poor weather (hurricane season) and lack of effort, there is not much information on the distribution and abundance of sperm whales and dolphins outside these months. However, it may well be possible to expand the whale watch business in the 'shoulder' seasons. Another expansion could be to the north-western part of the island. Although more remote from the main port of Roseau, there appear to be just as many whales and dolphins. There is also ample room for expanding whale watching through land-based visitor centres which could charge admission. Quιbec, South Africa and South Australia provide some examples of the possibilities. These land-based centres can serve as 'advertising' for the boat tours, as well as help educate and entertain visitors regarding the amazing diversity of cetaceans found in Dominican waters. It is possible for such centres to be developed into mini-museums and gift shops which can provide more employment as well as encourage local interest in the cetacean behaviour happening all the time just offshore. The emphasis in Dominica on studying and getting to know 'the resource' is itself a valuable model to copy in other Caribbean islands. The impetus in Dominica was provided largely by scientists and NGOs, but it could equally be provided by government, as it is in New Zealand, or by the whale watch operators themselves, as it has been in parts of the US and Canada. The regulations for whale watching in Dominica are some of the most carefully considered and scientifically supported, since they grew out of workshops in Dominica in the mid 1990s. To date they are not incorporated into law. However, the two main operators are very familiar with them and have attempted to be self-regulating. With two additional operators now working, it may become necessary for more formal adoption of the regulations and monitoring and enforcement. In 1997, Prime Minister Edison James declared Dominica's support for Japan's prowhaling position, surprising many who had followed the country's successful development as a prime ecotourism destination, with high quality whale watching. Only time will tell if this affects the willingness of visitors to come and spend money in Dominica. It may depend on how widely this information is known, how much Dominica's visitors value whales and dolphins in general, and many other factors. For now, whale watching has arrived in Dominica as a key visitor attraction, as well as a powerful image-maker, and Dominican operators and hotels are reaping the benefits of almost ten years of steady learning curve. Best of all, in Dominica, whale watching has been put on a positive footing in terms of education and science, partly due to the international workshops. The challenge now will be to grow sensibly, to manage any boat traffic problems that develop, and to continue to invest more and more in education which will entertain the visitor and improve the business while benefiting the whales.
Dominica: Draft Codes of Conduct for Whale Watching in Dominica
The following codes of conduct are under review; though some points are already partly adhered to at present as guidelines (Carlson 1998). The Marine Mammal Codes of Conduct are a compilation of existing international guidelines and regulations for watching whales that may be applicable to commercial operations in Dominica. These codes of conduct suggest permits for commercial operations and define the criteria for issuing permits, requirements to be satisfied before issuing permits for commercial vessels, land-based operations, commercial aircraft operations and behaviour around marine mammals. These include:
Before issuing a permit, the governing authorities shall be satisfied that there is substantial compliance with the following criteria:
1. That the commercial operation should not have any significant adverse effect on the behavioural patterns of the marine mammals to which the application refers.
2. That it should be in the interests of the conservation, management, or protection of the marine mammals that a permit be issued.
3. That the proposed operator, and the operator's staff who may come in contact with marine mammals, should have sufficient experience with marine mammals.
4. That the proposed operator, and the operator's staff who may come into contact with marine mammals, should have sufficient knowledge of the local area and of the sea and weather conditions.
5. That the commercial operation should have sufficient educational value to participants or to the public. Education can be enhanced by a talk on whales, natural history, geology or a comprehensive leaflet.
6. That the commercial vessel meet appropriate safety standards (for example, US Coast Guard or British Department of Commerce).
7. That the appropriate vessel be insured for the passengers that it carries.
8. That the vessel be judged appropriate for whale watching.
Permits for commercial operations should be issued by area, with no more than three commercial vessels operating in any given area on a given day.
SUGGESTED CONDITIONS GOVERNING ALL COMMERCIAL OPERATIONS AND BEHAVIOUR OF ALL INDIVIDUALS AROUND WHALES AND DOLPHINS
We suggest that every commercial operation and every person coming into contact with any class of marine mammals comply with the following conditions:
1. Persons shall use their best endeavours to operate vessels, and aircraft, so as not to disrupt the normal movement or behaviour of any marine mammal.
2. Contact with any marine mammal shall be abandoned at any stage if it becomes disturbed or alarmed.
3. No person shall cause any marine mammal to be separated from a group of marine mammals or cause any members of such a group to be scattered.
4. No rubbish or food shall be thrown in the water near marine mammals.
5. No sudden or repeated change in the speed or direction of any vessel or aircraft shall be made except in the case of an emergency.
6. Where a vessel stops to enable the passengers to watch any marine mammal, the engines shall either be placed in neutral or allow engines to idle for one minute before turning off.
7. When operating at an altitude of less than 600 meters, no aircraft shall be closer than 500 m horizontally from a point above any marine mammal unless in the process of taking off or landing.
8. No person or vessel shall approach within 50 m of any marine mammal or group of marine mammals.
9. No person or vessel shall cut off the path of a marine mammal or prevent a marine mammal from leaving the vicinity of any person or vessel.
10. The master of any vessel less than 400 m from any marine mammal shall use their best endeavours to move the vessel at a constant, slow speed, no faster than the slowest marine mammal in the vicinity, or at an idle, no wake speed.
11. Vessel departing from the vicinity of any marine mammal shall proceed slowly at idle or no wake speed until at least 400 m from the nearest marine mammal.
12. No aircraft shall be used to watch whales.
13. No swimmer or diver shall enter the water in the vicinity of marine mammals.
14. Do not approach animals that appear to be resting or continually avoiding the vessel.
15. A log of daily activities including cases of infractions should be recorded. Any infractions should be reported immediately to the Department of Fisheries.
SUGGESTED CONDITIONS APPLYING TO SPERM WHALES
1. No swimmer or diver shall enter the water in the vicinity of sperm whales.
2. No vessel shall approach within 50 m of a sperm whale or a group of sperm whales.
3. If a whale or group of whales approaches a vessel, the master of the vessel shall put the vessel in neutral and turn off the engine.
4. No vessel shall approach within 300 m of any whale or group of whales for the purpose of enabling passengers to watch the whale, if two vessels are already positioned to watch the whale or group of whales.
5. Where 2 vessels approach an unaccompanied whale, the masters concerned shall coordinate their approach and manoeuvres in compliance with existing regulations.
6. When within 100 m of a whale, slowly approach at idle or no wake speed.
7. When within 100 m of sperm whales, approach the whales very slowly and cautiously from behind or from an angle. Do not approach sperm whales from the front or closely parallel whales; they will invariably take avoiding action.
8. Where a sperm whale abruptly changes its orientation or starts to make short dives of about 1 to 5 minute duration without showing its tail flukes, all vessels shall abandon contact with the whale.
9. Do not suddenly accelerate, go into reverse or use outboard motors near whales as they are extremely sensitive to sudden noises and sights.
10. Do not approach calves when alone on the surface.
11. Do not stay with a whale or group of whales for more than 3 of the whales' dive sequences.
12. Vessels should behave so that no whale or group of whales are visited for more than 3 of the whales' dive sequences per day.
13. Do not stay with a social group of sperm whales for more than 15 minutes.
14. Do not go upwind of the whales and drift down on them.
15. Do not use helicopters to watch the whales.
16. When departing from the vicinity of the whales, proceed slowly or at no wake speed until at least 400 m from the nearest whale.
SUGGESTED CONDITIONS APPLYING TO DOLPHINS
1. No swimmer or diver shall enter the water in the vicinity of dolphins.
2. No vessel shall proceed through a pod of dolphins.
3. Do not chase dolphins; whenever possible, let them approach you.
4. No vessel shall approach within 50 m of a pod of dolphins.
5. No vessel shall approach within 300 m of a pod of dolphins, for the purpose of enabling passengers to watch the dolphins, if two vessels are already positioned to enable the passengers to watch the dolphins.
6. Where 2 vessels approach an unaccompanied pod of dolphins, the masters concerned shall co-ordinate their approach and manoeuvres in compliance with existing regulations.
7. Vessels shall approach dolphins from a direction that is parallel to the dolphin and slightly to the rear of the dolphin.
8. Do not separate dolphins in a pod from one another.
9. Do not stay with a pod of dolphins for more than 20 minutes.
On occasion, activities such as research or media coverage may require individuals or vessels to approach whales or dolphins at a distance closer than 50 m. In such cases, we suggest that special permits, issued by the Department of Fisheries, be required. Criteria for the evaluation of such permits should be drafted by a special 'task force'. Members of the task force should include representatives from the Department of Fisheries, Department of Tourism, Dominica Conservation Association, National Development Corporation, Dominica Water Sports Association and marine mammal specialists.
Special recommendations for sperm whales
The following guidelines for whale watch operators were drawn up by a group of experts at an international workshop in Dominica in 1996 on the 'Special Aspects of Watching Sperm Whales' (IFAW 1996a). These guidelines were used as part of the source material for the suggested Dominica guidelines. They may also be useful for other Caribbean islands which are contemplating sperm whale watching.
Swimming with sperm whales is not recommended. It disturbs whales and is dangerous for people.
A good lookout should me maintained at all times when in the vicinity of whales.
Boat speed should be reduced to 6 knots or less to minimise noise and assure manoeuvrability.
When within 400 metres of a whale:
Whales should be approached with extreme caution
Noise should be reduced to a minimum
There should be no sudden changes in speed or direction
Reverse gear should not be employed except in an emergency
Boats should not move more than 2 knots faster than the whales
When within 100 metres of whales:
Stay behind the whale
Do not exceed the speed of the whale
Vessels should never, under any circumstances, approach closer than 50 m
With foraging groups, generally maintain a minimum distance of 100 m
Never approach closer than 100 m to a socialising group
Do not approach unaccompanied calves
No more than two vessels should be within 400 m of whales
Boat skippers should coordinate approaches from the same direction to ensure that the whales are not trapped by approaching boats and can swim away at the surface
If whales approach the boat, the vessel should stop, with the engine in neutral
If the whales show any sign of disturbance, move away slowly
When departing the area/whales or after the whale dives:
If engine is idling or switched off, wait 5 minutes before restarting the engine or engaging gear
Proceed slowly and cautiously for 400 m
If underway, continue cautiously for 400 m
Never approach a whale under sail
Do not drift towards whales with engine switched off
Keep engine running at idle
GUIDELINES FOR YACHTS
Never approach whale watching vessels
If you encounter whales at sea:
put your engine at low revs so that the whales know you are there and to provide manoeuvrability. NEVER sail up to whales
move slowly away from whales, or stop, and let them move away from you
never approach closer than 100 m
avoid making sudden changes in engine revs or going into reverse
if whales approach you, either maintain a speed and heading parallel to their direction of movement, or turn away
DON'T PANIC! Unprovoked, whales do not harm yachts!
Acknowledgments: Stanton Carter (Director of Tourism, NDC, Dominica), Derek Perryman (Dive Dominica), Andrew Armour (Anchorage Dive Centre); Gordon et al. 1998; Jeanillia Rose Valerie De Smet (Dominica Association of Industry & Commerce), Carole Carlson (IFAW), Swanson and Garrett 1998, CTO 1997.
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