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WHALES AND DOLPHIN WATCHING IN JAMAICA


Jamaica
Population: 2,553,400.
Land area: 11,424 sq km.
Tourist arrivals by air: 1,192,194 (+2.6% on prev. yr.)
Tourist arrivals by cruise ship: 711,699 (+8.2% on prev. yr.)
Total Tourist Expenditures: $1,131.0 million USD.
Tourism Budget: $33.9 million USD.
GDP at factor cost: $6,221.0 million USD.
1994 figures on whale watching: Nil.
1998 figures on whale watching: Nil.
Whale-watching ports (current or potential): Negril, Port Antonio, Black River, Montego Bay Marine Park.
Land-based viewing sites: Limited information.
Whale-watching potential: Moderate.
(Figures above are latest figures for 1997, except as noted.)

Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean, after Cuba and Hispaniola. It measures approximately 150 miles from east to west and is 20-50 miles wide. An independent country with a distinctive character and flavour all its own, Jamaica has made major contributions to world music (reggae), food (Blue Mountain coffee), and many other aspects of culture. It also has many endemic animal and plant species including 27 unique birds, 20 lizards, and more than 784 flowering plants, but it has been slow to declare protected areas and address environmental problems (World Resources Institute 1993). The tourism industry, the largest industry and main source of foreign exchange, is well established and extremely large the Caribbean's fifth largest in total expenditures, with the fourth largest number of tourist arrivals and the sixth highest number of visiting cruise passengers. Most of the tourism development has been aimed at the upper end of the market, but there is growing support and recognition of the importance of ecotourism, particularly through lodges and facilities for hikers and backpackers such as in the Blue Mountains. In June 1992, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act established a regulatory body for practical environmental management in Jamaica. The regulatory body's mandate is to promote public awareness of Jamaica's ecological systems; to manage the national parks, marine parks and protected areas; and to promote public awareness of Jamaica's natural wonders and its ecological systems. The establishment of the 10-square-mile (26 sq km) Montego Bay Marine Park in 1990 has been a significant first step for marine ecotourism. The park supports outstanding mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs. In this marine protected area located adjacent to the most popular area of Jamaica (40% of visitors stay in Montego Bay), diving is encouraged but fishing, boating and other water sports are restricted to certain areas. Bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales are sometimes seen within the park and also in the surrounding areas, especially late in the year when seawater temperatures drop a little. There are marine nature cruises in the park, but cetaceans are not thought to be predictable enough for dedicated dolphin-watch tours. In the early 1990s, Hal Whitehead found sperm whales and various dolphins in waters close to the western end of the island in May. He had suggested the possibility of whale watch day tours out of Negril, but stressed that more research needed to be done to determine the regularity of sightings. In February 1995, Jenny Lonsdale heard reports of whale and dolphin sightings off the west coast from Negril. At the Paradise Beach Hotel, where she was staying, the hotel owner said that he saw sperm whales when taking people out sport fishing. Other fishermen and marine tour boat owners also commonly saw the whales. On a pilot trip, she and a group of family and friends found sperm whales just beyond the main reef west of Negril, less than a mile (a half hour) from port and still within sight of the shore. The whales were mothers and calves. In an hour and a half of whale watching, nine sperm whales were seen.
There are certainly other potential areas around Jamaica that could be investigated for whale and dolphin watching possibilities. In the southwest, from Black River, South Coast Safaris Ltd. operates Black River cruises and boat tours along the coast which include guided flora and fauna trips. Better scuba diving in Jamaica is generally found off the north coast from Negril east to Ocho Rios; the operators range from those associated with the luxury all-inclusive hotels to small local diving operations. In the northeast, Port Antonio offers a good diving and sailing base as well as probably the best place for deep sea fishing off Jamaica, according to guidebook author Steve Cohen. Only a half mile from shore (1 km), the sea drops off more than 600 feet (183 m). The tourism infrastructure is much less developed here than in the rest of the island, so there are fewer people on the water, and facilities are reasonable. However, there are few reports of cetaceans it would be necessary to do a year-round cetacean survey to see what is available and feasible in terms of distance, weather and water conditions. Negril, with its long emphasis on boating and its fortunate proximity to the sperm whales, is probably best suited to future whale and dolphin watching consideration. As Negril has developed, it has metamorphosed from rows of dugout canoes along the coast to runabouts, trolling canoes and, more recently, the larger sports fishing vessels more suitable to whale watching. The smaller boats are still around, however, and any whale watch proposal would need to consider the implications of allowing too many boats on the water out with the whales both from the human safety point of view as well as the potential for harassing the whales. To develop whale or dolphin watching in Jamaica, it will be absolutely necessary to put in place a restricted permit system for operators and regulations, perhaps modelled after New Zealand, where the government has been able to keep the growing industry from harming whale or dolphin populations (see Constantine 1999). Without advance thought of some of the potential problems, serious difficulties or even disasters could result. The long-term tourism prospects for Jamaica are almost aggressively rosy, as predicted by the government. As of January 1999, a 3-4 percent a year increase in visitor arrivals is being predicted up to the year 2002 which would produce industry earnings of $1.5 billion USD. Building projects during that period should produce another 2,750 hotel rooms. The US is Jamaica's main tourism market. In a press conference, Francis Tulloch, Jamaica's Tourism Minister, said that the growth could be even greater 'if we are able to fix the problems now facing us.' Problems include harassment of visitors, product development and improved marketing. It will also be crucial to get more visitors staying overnight or for several days. As of 1997, 37% arrived on cruise ships, not staying over night. Those that stay over night spend much more on hotel rooms, restaurants, entertainment, souvenirs, and other activities. Whether whale and dolphin watching will be even a small part of this rosy future remains to be seen.

Acknowledgments: Hal Whitehead (Dalhousie University), Leslie Walling (Montego Bay Marine Park), Jennifer Lonsdale, Kate O'Connell, World Resources Institute 1993, Cohen 1997, CTO 1997. Francis Tulloch comments were reported in the Observer, Jan. 18, 1999. Economic data partly from Omri Evans article 'The economic significance of tourism in Jamaica.'


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