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WHALES AND DOLPHIN WATCHING IN US VIRGIN ISLANDS


US Virgin Islands (USA), including the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.
Population: 116,820.
Land area: 342 sq km.
Tourist arrivals by air: 411,400 (-10.4% on prev. yr.)
Tourist arrivals by cruise ship: 1,618,956 (+23.0% on prev. yr.)
Total Tourist Expenditures: $601.2 million USD.
Tourism Budget: $11.9 million USD.
GDP at factor cost: Not reported.
1994 figures on whale watching: 500 people and total revenues of $80,000 USD.
1998 figures on whale watching: 75 people and total revenues of $7,500 USD (prov.)
Whale-watching ports (current or potential): Coki Bay and Red Hook on St.Thomas; Cruz Bay, Trunk Bay, and Cinnamon Bay on St. John.
Land-based viewing sites: Along high ridge on north side of St. Thomas.
Whale-watching potential: Moderate.
(Figures above are latest figures for 1997, except as noted.)

The U.S. Virgin Islands, a territory of the USA, consists of three main islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Each operates its own brand of very successful Caribbean tourism: St. Thomas, the urban, shopping, and Carnival experience; St. Croix, the modest, laid back historical and authentically Caribbean experience; St. John, for the nature lover with everything from camping to exclusive resorts. All have great beaches and diving and yachting opportunities, although St. Croix has the diving edge with its superb underwater marine park around Buck Island. The U.S. Virgin Islands, mainly St. Thomas, are awash with cruise ship passengers, some 1.6 million of them a year, the second highest number in the Caribbean. This is four times the number of tourist arrivals, some 411,400 in 1997 still a substantial number. Spinner, bottlenose and other dolphins are seen at times by diving operations and yachtsmen, including fairly often from the trip between St. Thomas and St. Croix. There are some reports that bottlenose dolphins are more common in summer and are seen inshore. Nevertheless, the main potential attraction here to date has been the wintering humpback whales from January to March. For nearly 10 years, whale watching tours have been offered by the Environmental Association of St. Thomas and St. John (EAST), based in St. Thomas. This nonprofit organisation coordinates whale watching between January and March, offering several trips a year aboard a catamaran to see humpback whales north of St. Thomas, especially in the areas of the North Drop, Congo and Lovango Cays where most of the sightings have occurred.
In the early 1990s, a local yacht based out of the Frenchman's Reef Hotel, regularly took people whale watching, but the trips are no longer offered. Several other St. Thomas companies also offered infrequent tours which have been discontinued. St. Thomas is one island in the Caribbean that has been well surveyed for cetacean sightings at least during the winter when the humpbacks are around. Rafe Boulon, Chief of Environmental Education for the Division of Fish and Wildlife, has managed this as a volunteer effort and has detailed records from 1981 to 1996. In 1997 and 98, he was unable to do the surveys, but the whale activity has continued fairly steadily. Besides humpback whales, Boulon reports occasional pilot whales (especially in October- November) and, once in a while, sperm whales.
Some of Boulon's work has taken place from land, and the vistas from the ridge along the high cliffs on the north side of St. Thomas remain a good place to spot humpbacks on a clear day.
On St. Croix, which is 37 miles (60 km) south of St. Thomas and St. Vincent, there have been boat tours including dolphins offered by Big Beard Charters and others. These are marine nature tours set up mainly around the Buck Island marine sanctuary but which also visit other areas around the island, seeing sharks and other marine fauna. The best season for these trips appears to be early spring to late summer.
Expansion based on marine ecotourism which includes cetaceans but does not entirely rely on them may well be possible. The tourism infrastructure is large and well developed on all three islands, and there are numerous boats of all sizes available for charter. If more cetaceans can be seen in future, this would be one of the best places to advertise tours. However, at present, whale watching is too seasonal and sightings may be a little bit too sporadic to support a full-time operation.

Acknowledgments: Rafe Boulon (Division of Fish & Wildlife, St. Thomas), A. Levy (Coral World), Gloria Gumbs (USVI Dept. of Tourism), Grethelyne Piper (Executive Director, EAST), Erdman 1970, CTO 1997.


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