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WHALES AND DOLPHIN WATCHING IN THE TURKS & CAICOS ISLANDS


Turks & Caicos Islands (UK)
Population: 15,640.
Land area: 417 sq km.
Tourist arrivals by air: 92,076 (+6.4% on prev. yr.)
Tourist arrivals by cruise ship: None.
Total Tourist Expenditures: $112.9 million USD.
Tourism Budget: $1.3 million USD.
GDP at factor cost: $137.8 million USD (1996).
1994 figures on whale watching: >100 people a year with total revenues of $35,000 USD.
1998 figures on whale watching: 1,500 people a year with total revenues of $150,000 USD (prov.)
Whale-watching ports (current or potential): Cockburn Town on Grand Turk Island, Balfour Town and North Beach on Salt Cay, Cockburn Harbour on South Caicos, and Providenciales on 'Provo'.
Land-based viewing sites: Provo (dolphins), west coast Grand Turk and Salt Cay (especially north and west humpback whales).
Whale-watching potential: Outstanding.
(Figures above are latest figures for 1997, except as noted.)

Perennially 'off the beaten track' in the greater Caribbean, the Turks & Caicos Islands, due east of the Bahamas, are beginning to stir. The potential for all kinds of tourism, including whale watching, is only starting to be tapped. The Turks & Caicos (TCI) is a British crown colony (UK dependency) whose 40 islands and cays cover some 193 square miles (500 sq kms). The islands are surrounded by a long coral reef. The deep water Turks Island Passage, an important transit for migrating humpback and possibly other whales, divides the Turks from the Caicos islands. A small seasonal whale-watching industry, depending on wintering humpback whales, grew out of the diving industry in the early 1990s. The limited number of whale watchers have been mainly due to the total numbers of tourists available and lack of advertising for what are superb opportunities. Since 1992 when there were 52,000 visitors to the islands, visitor arrivals have almost doubled (92,000 in 1997). With steady increases each year, TCI has been one of the faster growing areas for tourist (not including cruise ship) arrivals in the Caribbean. Yet, TCI still gets only a tiny fraction of the numbers of tourists that come to the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, or Puerto Rico. At present, most TCI visitors arrive via the two international airports on Grand Turk and Provo. American Airlines, for example, currently has daily flights to Provo from Miami. Most of the other flights are Caribbean-based; there are no direct flights from Europe, except charters. The main cruise lines do not stop in the TCI (exceptions are the American Canadian Caribbean Line and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises). However, the planned cruise ship terminal on little-visited East Caicos could change all that. This proposed US $450 million project includes plans for a bridge link with South Caicos and other islands. This would expose many more visitors to the islands, even if most do not stay overnight. Bottlenose and other dolphins live around all the islands year-round and are often found inshore in particular spots. They are seen regularly by divers, other boaters, and tourists, but there is no dolphin tourism per se. By far, the most famous local dolphin is JoJo, a male who has hung around Provo's Grace Bay beach and Pine Cay since the early 1980s. In 1995 JoJo swam across the deep Turks Island Passage and spent a month off Grand Turk to the delight of visitors there. He regularly approaches the beaches and sometimes interacts with people. Unfortunately, carelessness has led to boat propeller and jet ski accidents with JoJo and he has been injured many times, including quite recently, despite the vigilance of JoJo's 'wildlife warden' and protector Dean Bernal who has helped look after him for about a decade as part of the 'JoJo Dolphin Project'. It is not known how long JoJo will stay; he has already stayed longer than most other lone, sociable dolphins. Declared a 'national treasure' by the Ministry of Natural Resources, JoJo provides a magnet for tourists and is a good ambassador for the excitement of dolphin watching, even for most who just hear about him or see him at a distance from the beach. In Ireland, where the dolphin Fungie, or the 'Dingle dolphin', as he is known locally, lives, more than 150,000 visitors a year watch from shore or take small boat excursions to see him in the harbour, creating a year-round local industry, and this has led to regular marine nature and dolphin tours in western Ireland. Although few would like to see as large a number of people descend on TCI, there is little doubt that dolphin tourism could be started with more land-based facilities, as well as short trips off the coast. First, however, it will be necessary to establish dolphin watching regulations and an enforcement programme. Whale watching has been pursued at a low level since the early 1990s with about a hundred or so whale watchers per year, mainly associated with diving tours. However, over the past two winters, humpback whales have been showing up in the waters off Salt Cay in some numbers, particularly in mid-season, with guaranteed sightings through February. The months of January, March and even April offer fewer sightings. Nearly a dozen operators from Grand Turk and Provo, most of them diving companies, have offered whale watching as part of their dive tours or on separate whale watch trips, although only three or four companies have bothered to advertise and focus on whale watching. The numbers have not been officially kept but are estimated to be at least 1,500 whale watchers in 1998 and 2,000 or more in 1999. Dean Bernal, who criticizes the boat operators for the aggressive, often too close approaches, prefers to operate mainly from a land base, offering week-long humpback swimming trips from the coast of Salt Cay (no boat necessary), and has also taken excursions from Provo by plane to outer islands for whale watching. Whales and dolphins are often seen from land, such as from the west side of Grand Turk, and north and west of picturesque Salt Cay, 8 miles (13 km) southwest of Grand Turk. Any spot with a good view out over Turks Island Passage offers a chance to see passing humpbacks in season. Humpbacks sometimes approach the bay on the north side of Salt Cay, and they can be seen from various other points around the island. Salt Cay clearly has the best potential for developing a full fledged land-based whale watch programme with solid educational and scientific dimensions, as well as commercial implications. Throughout the TCI, there are other sea lookouts and coastal nature trails, though nothing specifically for cetaceans. Some could certainly be adapted for cetaceans, with information boards and naturalists to show people how best to look from land. Many of the remoter cays can be visited though too many visitors would spoil the experience for others. The Turks & Caicos National Trust and TCI's Department of Environment & Coastal Resources have developed a management plan to try to minimise the impact of visitors. They would need to be brought in from the beginning on any plans to develop whale watching more intensively. At present the whale watch companies and dive operators urgently need to meet with local scientists, tourism and other appropriate government officials, to sort out and update the 1990 whale watch guidelines. Establishing regulations with enforcement provisions would be the best option. A whale watching workshop is currently being planned in the TCI for the year 2000, so hopefully this will put all the stakeholders together to address regulations as well as other matters. In terms of future development, most of the tours operate out of Provo and Grand Turk, and most are involved in diving, fishing and other marine tours around the relatively short winter whale watch season from January through April. Following the establishment of regulations, there may well be room for more expansion here, as well as diversity in the types of whale and dolphin trips offered (different size platforms, sailboats, kayaks, land-based, etc.) The humpback whale distribution and the inshore presence of bottlenose dolphins are fairly well known. However, a comprehensive detailed marine mammal survey of the waters around these islands might well turn up more cetacean species within acceptable reach of the main marinas on South Caicos (the Sea View Marina, Cockburn Harbour) and on Provo (the Leeward Marina, Turtle Cove Marine, Caicos Marina and the South Side Basin Marina). Unlike many other places with great natural splendours, TCI has already taken major steps to protect the native flora and fauna, both land and marine-based. It has one of the most advanced system of national parks, sanctuaries and protected areas in the Caribbean, with some 33 areas set aside in the past 10 years. This includes much of the bottlenose dolphin habitat around the islands as well as the humpback whale wintering grounds on Mouchoir Banks, which are administered by the Turks & Caicos Department of Environment & Coastal Resources. One NGO that has led the effort to protect the islands is the Society to Protect our Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation, founded by Chuck Hesse, a local conch farmer. As in other areas of the world, these marine protected areas will provide brand name recognition as well as some measure of protection for whales and dolphins. At present there are bans against spearfishing, jet-skiing, and diving for conch and lobster within marine reserves. It is encouraging to see such protection before it is needed rather than after severe problems develop, as is usually the case. However, as stated above, specific enforceable provisions need to be made for whale and dolphin watching, especially if it is to expand to the more remote parts of the Turks & Caicos Islands. In 1990, the first large hotel in the TCI, the Turquoise Reef Resort & Casino, opened at Grace Bay, Provo a turning point for tourism. Provo has continued to expand its tourism facilities with other resort hotels. Still, most of TCI income comes from a mix of finance, tourism, and fishing (conch and lobster) industries. The islands are comparatively dry with some water problems; farming is limited to small holdings. Thus, the islands depend on aid from Britain. The further development of whale watching and marine nature tourism will depend on conscious decisions being made by the Turks & Caicos government, as well as help from the outside. Although building large ports and resorts will encourage much larger numbers of tourists, this may well strain drinking water supplies as well as other infrastructure. There is also the consideration of what kind of tourism to promote. At the moment, the spectacular diving and potential whale watching have their own 'ecotouristic' character; but with many more large hotels and resorts, cruise ship ports, expanded airports, and too many visitors, that distinctive character could be lost. But there is still room for considerable expansion over the next few years before that level is reached. Although TCI is far behind the Dominican Republic in whale watch numbers, with care and planning, TCI could assume the top position for quality whale watching in the Caribbean, and could conceivably challenge the DR numbers.

Turks & Caicos Islands: Whale watching guidelines

According to a government pamphlet on the humpback whale, published in 1990, special rules exist for anyone seeing whales in the Turks and Caicos Islands because this is a breeding ground and the young calves and mothers are particularly sensitive to disturbance. The rules are designed to protect this endangered species and to ensure that people watch whales in safety (Carlson 1998). Vessels should observe the following restrictions:
1. Boats should not approach nearer than 100 yards of a whale. This also applies to swimmers and divers who should not get into the water with whales (being so close can disturb whales and may be dangerous).

2. If whales approach within 100 yards of your vessel, put engine in neutral until whales are observed at the surface, clear of the vessel. (This avoids the risk of injury to the whale or of damage to the vessel by a frightened whale.)

3. Avoid speeds over 10 knots or sudden changes in speed or direction within 1500 feet of a whale; do not travel faster than the slowest whale when paralleling or following them. (Whales are easily startled by unfamiliar objects, many have come from areas where contact with boats is rare and some may even have been hunted).

4. Do not allow your vessel to cause the whale to change direction. (Disturbance has driven whales away from critical habitats.)

5. Do not call other boats to a whale and if more than one boat is present ensure that the whale is free to move in any direction. (Too many boats confuse whales; an arc of 180 degrees should always remain open in front of the whales.)

6. Never allow a boat or person to come between a mother and a calf. (Disruption of parental care may reduce a calf's chance of survival and mothers may be aggressive).

7. In all cases, do not change the normal behaviour or movement of whales and always avoid physical contact.

Acknowledgments: Baker 1998, Dean Bernal, CTO 1997.


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