British Virgin Islands (UK), including the
islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Great Tobago Island, and Jost Van Dyke.
(Figures above are latest figures for 1997, except as noted.)
Land area: 150 sq km.
Tourist arrivals by air:
244,318 (+0.3% on prev. yr.)
Tourist arrivals by cruise ship:
104,864 (-34.3% on prev. yr.)
Total Tourist Expenditures:
$210.2 million USD.
Tourism Budget: $5.3
GDP at factor cost:
$274.9 million USD (1995).
1994 figures on whale watching:
300+ and total revenues of $35,000 USD.
1998 figures on whale watching:
200 and total revenues of $14,000 USD.
Whale-watching ports (current or potential):
Brewer's Bay and Beef Island Airport on Tortola; Little Harbour on Jost Van Dyke; and
the north and west side of Virgin Gorda.
Land-based viewing sites:
The British Virgin Islands, a largely
self-governing British dependent territory, include about 60 islands, islets and cays, 16 of
which are inhabited. They are situated at the eastern end of the Greater Antilles, a few
miles west of the northern end of the Lesser Antilles, or Eastern Caribbean. The main islands
of Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke are covered in steep, thickly
wooded hills, surrounded by coves and beaches. Compared to the US Virgin Islands, the BVIs are a
little off the beaten track for international visitors, with less direct
transport and one quarter the number of hotel rooms and only 15% the number of total visitors found
on the American islands. BVI numbers are more in line with those in the eastern
Caribbean. Nevertheless, tourism represents about 75% of the gross domestic product of the
BVIs. Financial services, fishing and rum distilling are secondary industries.
Humpback mothers and calves, as well as singing
males and potential mating groups, come to Virgin Bank which is located
within a long barrier reef that surrounds the British Virgin Islands and part of the American
Virgin Islands. The season is late December to March. The main area where the whales
are found is 3 to 12 miles (5 to 19 km) north of Tortola and Virgin Gorda. According
to David Mattila and Steven Katona, who studied and mapped the area for humpback
whales in the mid-1980s, about 60 to 100 humpbacks come to the waters of the British
In the past, a limited amount of whale watching,
aboard charter boats from Tortola and by air charter out of Beef Island Airport has
occurred most winters. Close to 100 people a year, about 15 of them per year by air,
had been going whale watching from the BVIs in the early 1990s, but this had mostly
dried up by the late 1990s. Still, every year for the past 15 years, Paul
Knapp Jr. has been taking whale watchers out to listen to humpback whales
from late December through March. Using a 13-foot inflatable as well as a 30-foot
fibreglass sloop, he invites people to venture out a few miles in the bay from Brewer's Bay on the
north side of Tortola. Once offshore, he drops a hydrophone overboard, not even bothering
to look for whales. His superb sound system allows him to hear and record the
singing of male humpback whales up to 10 miles away (16 km). For the past eight years, he has
taken about 200 people a winter. He doesn't charge, but accepts donations for fuel and sells
superb cassettes and CDs of the whales singing. This form of 'whale watching' expands
the possibilities as it is much easier to find a whale using hydrophones and to appreciate it
sonically, than it is to get close enough to see them. Also, this way, whales can be enjoyed
for hours without encroaching on them at all — and even on days when rough seas or wind
make whale watching difficult. This idea has yet to be copied in other parts of the world,
but might well expand the possibilities in other corners of the Caribbean. With their
detailed, changing songs, humpbacks offer the best opportunity for whale listening tours,
though orcas, sperm whales and a number of other whale species also have intriguing sounds.
As word of Paul Knapp's 'listening tours' has spread, he has found that a few people every
year travel to the BVIs specifically to go 'whale listening'. With demand for the tours
starting to increase in 1999, he may start charging for the trips. Despite the smaller numbers of tourists and
facilities available, the BVIs offer a world class destination with numerous boats and
charters and sizeable diving and fishing charter companies that could expand into whale or
dolphin watching. For humpbacks, these might have to be full day trips to the
wintering grounds north of Tortola. At present, there is no perception that the market for such
tours exist. Such a market might well have to be tested and even created. First of all, more
work would need to be done to determine if the humpback whale sightings are regular enough
in winter, or if dolphins or other marine nature features might serve to help build the
tours. One problem may be simply that the open waters around the islands are a little too
exposed for mass tourism; it may still be of interest to keen whale watchers. The fact that
listening tours were created in the BVIs, even though these are only modestly commercial,
shows that there are possibilities. Potential ports for getting to the humpbacks
include Brewer's Bay, from the north side of Tortola, and from the north and west side
of Virgin Gorda, as well as Little Harbour on Jost Van Dyke. The capital and
business centre of the territory, Road Town, located on the south side of Tortola, has the
largest harbour and number of boats, although the sailing/ motoring time would be considerably
longer since most of the humpbacks are off the north side of the islands. However,
dolphins may be able to be seen enroute. Whale watching might also be combined with diving or
sightseeing trips to Horseshoe Reef, a massive reef system on the south side of Angegada
Island. Meantime, since 1992, the BVI Conservation and
Fisheries Department has asked residents and visitors to report all humpback and
other whale sightings as part of a proposal to set up a marine conservation area
north of the islands. The department has also set up a network to help stranded cetaceans and
offered a training course is rescue. The National Parks Trust, based in Road Town, Tortola,
has collected documentation on humpback whales. It has contributed background
information, including the printing of valuable educational materials, to help boaters
watch whales more responsibly. And then there is Paul Knapp, the 'whale listening guru',
who has become a superb naturalist on his own kind of tours, and is even now, as I write
this, planning his 16th whale listening season in Tortola.
British Virgin Islands: Whale watching guidelines
The National Parks Trust in the BVIs distributes a brochure
which explains that special rules exist for anyone seeing whales in the BVI 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.' Vessels should observe the following restrictions
(Anon. 1990, Carlson 1998):
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: Robert L. Norton (National Parks
Trust), Bertrand Lettsome (Chief Conservation & Fisheries Officer, BVIs), Overing
1992, Overing and Lettsome 1993, Paul Knapp, Jr., David Mattila, CTO 1997.