And now to our final installment from Sue Rocca in our WDCS North America office as she trys to shed some light on where the humpbacks that spend their summer in the Gulf of Maine go when it comes to winter!
The bulk of North Atlantic humpbacks migrate to the West Indies for the winter breeding and calving season, particularly around the Dominican Republic. However, you can find humpbacks in the waters of other Caribbean nations; for example the people of the Turks and Caicos (TCI) have known there are humpbacks off their coast for generations. In fact there is evidence that a small and short-lived whaling industry took place on Salt Cay, a TCI island, in the 1870’s –80’s. But for much of the time it was thought the humpbacks sighted in TCI were only traveling by on their way to the Dominican Republic.
As the Caribbean is becoming ever more developed, we felt it was important to investigate how the whales are using the TCI waters. In 2007 and 2008 we conducted some preliminary studies on the humpbacks in TCI waters and found some amazing things.
First a little about TCI, the Turks and Caicos is named for two different underwater banks – made up of 8 large islands (40 if you count the small, uninhabited islands). The larger Caicos bank supports six islands, going west to east: West Caicos (semi-private island), Providenciales (largest population and where you will fly into when visiting the Turk and Caicos), North Caicos (the farming island), Middle Caicos (the largest island and least populated Caicos island), East Caicos (uninhabited), and South Caicos (conch, lobster and scale fish exportation and bone fishing destination).
The Turks bank supports two main islands, going north to south: Grand Turk and Salt Cay. Grand Turk is the governmental capital of the Turks and Caicos and a cruse ship destination. Salt Cay was the center of the Bermudan salt industry, the mainstay of the Turks and Caicos economy from the late 1600's until the early 1960's. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO
The cruise ship terminal (constructed in 2006) was an added reason for wanting to know how whales are using the area considering vessel strikes is one of the main threats to whales. This concern is always heightened in breeding and calving grounds. WDCS is also concerned over possible development on Salt Cay as the TCI government sold a substantial proportion of Salt Cay to build a proposed "Four Season’s resort and golf course". Salt Cay islanders’ opinions over this proposed project seem to be split: some believe it will be good for the local economy while others believe that outside labor will be brought in and locals will not benefit as they should. In any event, the resort can potentially poses very real threats to the whales that are sighted in the shallow waters off Salt Cay. These threats: increased pollution, acoustical disturbance, vessel strikes and harassment, could push whales away from these shallow, protected waters.
Our field time in TCI spans two years. In 2007 we were only able to be in TCI for 10 days and conducted research just out of Salt Cay. In 2008 we were able to expand our research to 2 months and more islands. What we have found so far leads us to believe that TCI is in fact part of the breeding, calving, nursing cycle. We recorded a few rowdy groups, where males try to get next to the female in hopes of being the male that she chooses to mate with. We recorded many mother and calf pairs in the waters as well. But by far the highlight for us was documenting a Gulf of Maine humpback in TCI waters in both years.
In 2008 we were with a mother and calf pair, the calf was being very active – tail breaching and flipper slapping. I was able to identify the mother of this active calf as Pinball. Pinball is the daughter of one of our old adoptable whales, Liner. Liner gave birth to Pinball in 1989 and in her 21 years of life Pinball has had 5 calves, including her 2008 calf. It is always wonderful to see whales you know, but even more wonderful to see them with their babies and know that the population is continuing to grow. Once I got a look at the tail fluke and realized the mother was Pinball, I had a look at the dorsal fins we had photographed. (humpbacks don’t fluke as consistently when they are in the Caribbean as they do in their Gulf of Maine summer feeding grounds) and found that we had seen Pinball and her calf the day before. Not only that but we had seen the pair 11 days before.
Looking at 2007 data we were able to say that Pinball was seen in the same general area as in 2008. However, in 2007 Pinball did not have a calf and was in an area with five to six other adult humpbacks right off Salt Cay.
We are looking forward to finding the funding to continue this very important work not just to find more whales setting up a level of residency in TCI but also because of the outreach and education opportunities. In 2008 we gave talks to children in schools about the importance to protect whales and the oceans.
The Turks and Caicos is an amazingly beautiful and diverse island chain, you could spend many years exploring the 40 different islands and cays. If you would like to stay a lifetime then come and get to know the people, an equally enjoyable endeavor.