Whale and dolphin watching

Whale and dolphin watching, long popular around North America, is starting to take off in the Caribbean too. There are three main attractions: the
humpback whales
, who come to the Caribbean during the winter to mate, raise their calves and sing;
sperm whales
, which are resident in various spots around the
Caribbean but are easiest to see along the west coast of Dominica; spotted and other
dolphin
species, which travel in large herds and are resident around many of the reefs, mangrove forests and offshore fishing banks. It is possible to see whales and dolphins from land and on some regular ferries, and even on air flights between the islands, but the best way to encounter them close-up is on boat tours. Some of these are general marine nature or even birding tours that include whales and dolphins. Others are specialized tours offered by diving, sportfishing or new eco-tourism ventures. Following is a guide to the best of whale and dolphin watching in the waters covered by this book.

Dominica

Eight to 12 resident sperm whales delight visitors. You can also see spinner and spotted dolphins, pilot whales, false killer whales, and pygmy sperm whales. Occasional sightings are made of bottlenose, Risso's and Fraser's dolphins, orcas, dwarf sperm whales and melon-headed whales.

Dominican Republic

The most popular and most established whale watching in the Caribbean is found here. The industry is centred on humpback whales but pilot whales and spotted dolphins can also be seen in Samaná Bay, and bottlenose, spinner, and spotted dolphins, Bryde's and other whales on Silver Bank. The season for both locales is January to March, with whale-watching tours in Samaná Bay from 15 Jan to 15 Mar. For whale watching from land from January to March, but especially in Feb, try Cabo Francés Viejo, east along the coast from Puerto Plata, near Cabrera, as well as Punta Balandra light and Cabo Samaná (near Samaná). At Cueva de Agua there is a volunteer land-based whale-watching project.

In recent years, more than 32,000 people a year have gone whale watching in the 20,000-sq-km marine sanctuary, most of them to
Samaná Bay
where the trips last two to four hours. There are about 40 registered boats; some specialize in speed, some in mass tourism and some in education and information. You will get a better view of the whales from a big boat, as the smaller ones can get dwarfed by the waves.

Grenada

Humpbacks are often sighted from Jan to Mar. Other whales in the area from Nov to Mar include Cuvier's beaked whale, killer whales and the dwarf sperm whale, amongst others. The rest of the year you can see sperm whales, pigmy right whales, long and shortfinned pilot whales and others, as well as various dolphins.

Petit Nevis

Off Bequia, 9 miles (15 km) south of St Vincent is the site of the old whaling station, once the hub of Caribbean whaling in this century. Access can only be arranged locally.

Puerto Rico

Humpbacks and dolphins can be seen from land and on occasional tours, particularly out of Rincón on the west coast of the island. Best lookouts are Aguadilla and from an old lighthouse near Punta Higuera, outside Rincón.

St Kitts and Nevis

From the island of Nevis, trips to see bottlenose dolphins and sometimes humpback whales can be arranged.

St Lucia

Sperm whales and various dolphins can be seen, as well as humpback, pilot and Bryde's whales and orcas, on occasion

St Vincent

Off the west coast, large herds of spinner and spotted dolphins are seen regularly. Sometimes bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales are also found and, sporadically, sperm and humpback whales. Snorkelling and a trip to Baleine Falls can also be included. Tours are almost year-round but are best Apr to Sep when there is an 80% success rate; avoid windy weather months of mid-Dec to mid-Feb.

Turks and Caicos Islands

Humpbacks can be found offshore late Jan to early Apr with bottlenose and other dolphins sometimes seen close to shore.

US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands

There are periodic trips to see the 60 to 100 humpback whales that winter north of the islands, from January to March. There are also spinner and other dolphins to be seen.

Conservation

By watching whales and dolphins in the Caribbean, you can actually contribute to saving them. Many dolphins are still killed, mainly by fishermen, for food or fish bait, while pilot whales and even rare beaked whales are commonly harpooned, particularly in the eastern Caribbean. Almost every winter, over the past few years, two humpbacks have been killed off Bequia, nearly always a precious mother and calf, who have very high site fidelity to their mating and calving grounds; local whalers are effectively removing what could be a healthy whale-watching industry.

Dolphins (and orcas) are also being captured for use in dolphinariums, where they are isolated from their pods (families), fed a diet of frozen fish and antibiotics and taught to perform tricks for tourists. This is big business, despite the advertising literature in which the owners allege they are carrying out scientific research into 'understanding' dolphins. There is a high mortality rate and captive dolphins suffer mental and physical stress, often with behavioural problems. However, there are more entertainment facilities opening all the time, with governments bowing to pressure for attractions to pull in the cruise ships. Whale and dolphin watching out at sea provides local people with another way to look at these intriguing animals - as well as a potentially more sustainable source of income.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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