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WHALES AND DOLPHIN WATCHING IN THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS


British Virgin Islands (UK), including the islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Great Tobago Island, and Jost Van Dyke.
Population: 19,030.
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 million USD.
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: Limited information.
Whale-watching potential: Moderate.
(Figures above are latest figures for 1997, except as noted.)

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 Virgin Islands.
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.


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