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Whales and Whaling in the Caribbean - Ongoing Saga

As I write this, Humpback cows and calves are swimming near the island of Hans Lolick in the U.S. Virgin Islands on their way north to summer feeding grounds off the coasts of New England and Canada. Two weeks ago while having dinner at a restaurant overlooking Hull Bay on St. Thomas I was more than excited to see two dark shapes underwater, one quite large and the second rather small, moving slowly inside the bay. The larger shape seemed to be “hanging out” as the smaller shape explored areas around coral heads and rocks. At first unsure as to what I was seeing it quickly became evident as they reached deeper water and the large shape blew a spume of water into the air before she dove and led her calf northward out to sea.

Those shapes I saw were Humpbacks; two of only 15,000 or so remaining in the Atlantic, down from an estimated 150,000 before whaling nearly caused their extinction. These remaining 15,000 Atlantic Humpbacks do not have a secure future, however. Still hunted today although at this point only by aboriginal hunters, they also face death from collisions with boats, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, poisoning from pollution, damage to their intricate internal navigational organs from military low frequency sonar testing, and loss of habitat.

The Humpback whale is a magnificent animal but by far not the largest of whales. At approximately 40 feet in length and 35-40 tons, a large adult Humpback is merely in the middle of the size range for all species of whales. As whales go the Humpback is a short, heavy bodied whale; however, because they are the most acrobatic and the most communicative, it is the Humpback most of us picture when we think of whales.

Their stout, black upper bodies are accentuated by slender, graceful pectoral fins that can reach 13-15 feet each in length. Their large flukes or tails can span a distance of 15-18 feet while the ventral, under side, of both their tails and pectoral fins are white. It is these white undersides and the Humpbacks’ propensity for acrobatics that give whale researchers and observers easily recognizable markings with which they can identify individuals. The patterns of spots, lines, and scars on the underside of each Humpback’s fluke and pectoral fins are unique and unchanging, and often lead to a name for the whale. One large Humpback was named Cat’s Paw after the very distinct cat paw print on the white underside of his fluke.

Humpbacks are one of the rorqual whales as are the Blue, Fin, Bryde’s, Sei, and Minke. Characteristics common to rorqual whales include a dorsal fin and throat grooves, or ventral pleats, that run from the end of their lower jaws to their bellies. Humpbacks feed upon krill, tiny crustaceans floating in the water, as well as small fish such as herring which are found in the colder waters of the northern hemisphere. Humpbacks are baleen whales or “filter feeders”; they feed by scooping up huge amounts of water expanding their ventrals to full capacity. After filling their mouths they force the water through 250-400 overlapping strips of baleen, some as much as 13 feet long and 6-8 inches wide that hang from their upper jaws. The tiny hairs on the strips of baleen catch the food source which the whale then compresses into balls and swallows.

Humpbacks do not eat when they come to the Caribbean to mate and calve since their food sources do not exist here. During their time in Caribbean waters they can lose more than a ton of weight before heading back north to feed and build up their blubber reserves in preparation for their next trip to the Caribbean.

Females reach maturity around 8 years of age and breed only once every two or three years. After a gestational period of 11-12 months they deliver one calf which is 10-15 feet in length and weighs about 1 ton. Immediately upon birth, the cow nudges the calf to the surface for his first breath and she nurses him with extremely fat-rich milk for a year before weaning him. Humpbacks can live to be about 50 years old; one of the shorter lived whales while other species are known to live up to 100 years and possibly beyond.

During the heyday of commercial whaling back in the 18th and 19th centuries an adult whale would yield approximately 20 tons of whale oil which sold for about 10 British pounds per ton; an equivalent of about $26,000 per whale today. Multiplied by the 50, 60, or more whales taken on a whaling trip, profits were extraordinary for the times. Although most of that profit went to the whaling ships’ owners and captains who became very wealthy indeed; considering the average annual farm wage during the 18th and 19th centuries was about $70 in a good year, it isn’t difficult to understand why so many left farms and shops and signed on with whaling vessels.

But those days are gone. Electricity has eliminated the need for vast quantities of whale oil, ladies no longer wear corsets and bustles staved with baleen, synthetics and rubber replaced animal skin machinery belts, plant oils have replaced animal oils in cosmetics and soaps. And, yet, the call to resume commercial whaling continues. Why and by whom? And, for what purpose?

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