Jamie Aquino, WDCS’ Haiti and Pier2Pier coordinator, has just returned from Haiti where she continues developing our education and research programs and building relationships with the community of Petite Riviere de Nippes, and Grand Goave. In both villages, new connections were made with local fishermen who shared stories of whales and dolphins just off-shore, and with children - eager to help with beach clean-ups, and to learn about the ocean and its inhabitants. One goal of the program is to educate and empower children so they will become ambassadors for the protection of whales, dolphins, and their environment.
The devastation from the recent earthquake is still all around, but there is hope in the hillsides of Haiti, and interest in our project. We remain committed to this multi-faceted project, combining ecotourism, education and research in a region where little is known about whale and dolphin distribution. The prospects that may result from the partnerships are encouraging: building a marine discovery center where visiting scientists can conduct valuable research, while empowering a population facing many challenges. I think the moniker H.O.P.E (Haitian Oceanic Project for the Environment) chosen by Jamie and her students is a good one.
Jamie shares her experience from her recent trip below:
"On Tuesday, July 13th, I traveled to Haiti for a fourth time. My week-long trip included visits to the fishing villages of Petite Riviere de Nippes, Petite Trou de Nippes, Grand Goave and Leoganne, which are all located west of Port-au-prince on the southern peninsula. Haiti’s waters are filled with a variety of marine life, which I have discovered both this time and on a trip one year ago.
In June of 2009, I was fortunate to see two species of whale on consecutive days – the sperm whale and the dwarf sperm whale. On this trip, I spotted a green sea turtle, marlin, several bonita and lionfish. I spent two full days on the water, just off the coast of Petite Riviere de Nippes, Petite Trou de Nippes and Grand Goave.
I talked to the fishermen about the whales and they said they have recently seen the big sperm whales, just not today. They also said that sometimes when they are in the motor boat, these very large fish like to follow the boat. I told them that the only fish I could think of that would follow a boat are dolphins, who ride the waves. They didn't know for sure. They also said August and September was about the time that the whales are seen more frequently.
After I returned from the trip to sea, I met with eight of the kids in Petite Riviere de Nippes. I talked to them about my ideas, the ocean, the whales, etc. and they were so happy I was finally back. They are really excited and have some ideas of their own. I talked to them about cleaning up the local beaches and they said they would begin next week. I gave each kid a Dolphin Diploma (in French) and explained what they are and how we can use them for the project. When I took the picture, we hadn't written their names on the diplomas yet because they wanted to first think about what they were going to write on the back. These kids are really serious about this project and don't just want to write or say anything that they aren't going to commit to do! I also told them that in the future, they would give the Dolphin Diplomas to other kids that they talk to and teach them about the ocean and marine mammals. They really liked that idea because they ultimately want to be the "teachers"!!!
On Sunday, I spent the day with Michele Simon, a local Haitian businessman who is involved with the fishermen in many villages in Haiti. Michele is the director of an environmental non-profit in Haiti called Fondation Verde. He spends almost every day on the water, primarily in the Grand Goave area. He told me he has seen a variety of marine life and marine mammals in the waters off Grand Goave in the past few years.
Michele said he sees dolphin all the time, especially near Grand Goave. I showed him the marine mammal guide and he said he has seen bottlenose, spotted and spinner dolphins before. He also said there are slightly larger dark gray or black dolphins, but he couldn't identify them in the book. I showed him the pictures of the dwarf sperm whales, but he couldn't say for sure. He also said he sees the large sperm whales all the time, more frequently beginning in October through the fall and early spring. Michele said he sees whale sharks from time to time. And, in December of last year, he saw orcas right off of Grand Goave. He was really shocked to see them, but fascinated. Michele said the orcas were eating a shark and attacked it with ferocity. He said he remembers another time when a pod of orcas circled a wahoo and attacked it, ripping it apart.
Michele also said there has recently been an influx of barracudas and they are very aggressive. He said prior to the earthquake in January, he had never seen a barracuda in Haiti.. He also sees lionfish and sea turtles often.
In addition to dolphins and whales, Michele told me there are manatees in Haiti, specifically in the area from Jacmel to the Dominican Border. He said they migrate back and forth between the D.R. and Haiti, more frequently after a big storm. He said they are there year round and they are hunted for food. Michele said there are signs in the water for boaters and fishermen to watch out for the manatees. Michele said the fishermen harpoon the manatees and that his brother has eaten the meat before.
Our plan is to return to Haiti in late September, to again look for whales and dolphins and also investigate the southern part of the peninsula to search for manatees. I am encouraged by wealth of marine life that exists in a country where the ocean environment has not been made a priority."
WDCS is heartbroken by the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti and its capital city Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, January 12. A second major earthquake was reported today, the strongest of nearly 40 aftershocks that have panicked the nation and further crippled efforts to reach the injured. As a nation, Haiti is the poorest in our hemisphere, where many people were homeless and barely subsisting prior to this tragedy. Now, with its largest city in ruins and with the increased threat of disease and an inability to care for the injured, the magnitude of devastation in Haiti will only increase in the coming months.
Our outreach in Haiti began in 2008, well before the earthquake struck last Tuesday. As the images flood the media, and the horrible realities facing a nation in crisis continue to dominate our hearts and minds, it is difficult to find perspective on the importance of our fledgling project in Haiti. We are challenged by continuing to believe in the long-term vision and value of a program whose primary focus is the protection of whales, dolphins and their environment, requiring us to acknowledge that the human element is not only a critical stressor in the complex ecosystem of cause and effect, but also a beneficiary, in our quest to raise awareness to the synergistic threats and choices facing all life on this planet.
Our Caribbean program has recently focused on education and outreach initiatives on the Island of Hispaniola, both within the Dominican Republic and Haiti. We have been working with Haitian representatives to bring positive programs of field research, education and whale and dolphin ecotourism to the country. Most of the colleagues and friends that we have made over the past several years appear to be alive and unharmed at this time. However, we have not heard from a few. We are grateful for the information that brings us news of the survivors, while acknowledging the staggering level of loss and grief among all in that country, and among the Haitian Diaspora in the United States that has been working to bring security and hope back to its families and homeland.
Almost nothing is known about marine mammals in Haitian waters. A review of scientific literature reveals scant information regarding marine mammal populations there. However, anecdotal information from local fishermen and several scoping trips off Petite Riviere de Nippes have revealed the presence of sperm whales and other whale and dolphin species. This information, coupled with the migratory nature of marine mammals, provide good reasons for assessing Haitian marine mammal populations with a goal of fostering appreciation and protection. And with the additional goal of promoting sustainable and positive activities that will benefit local communities, we have proposed a pilot whale and dolphin watching program to be located at Petite Riviere de Nippes to assess the potential of responsible whale and dolphin viewing as a positive tourism draw for this locale, and others, in Haiti.
Decades of research in the Dominican Republic has been focused on manatees, humpback whales and various dolphin species, resulting in significant protections for these species. Our project proposes to expand marine mammal research and education to the entire Island of Hispaniola, while bringing together the political, research and popular communities of both countries under the common interest of the conservation of marine mammals. The project will draw upon the considerable expertise that already exists within the Dominican Republic and other WDCS educational initiatives [‘Live Free in the Sea’ and ‘Pier2Pier’ ] to develop a network of research, education and cooperation in Haiti.
Tourism is the main industry throughout most of the Greater Caribbean region, and it is timely that Haiti look to benefit from this reality. Caribbean destinations received a total of nearly 40 million people last year. Gross expenditure by all visitors reaches in the billions of dollars. Whale watching is a comparatively small though growing part of this, and it is arguably a crucial aspect of image making. For those countries that have successful whale watching tours, the presence of whales and dolphins and the possibility of seeing them can lend a natural allure which can feed into existing national images, or help create new ones.
For too long, Haiti has suffered from the stigma of a negative public image, one associated with the destructive aspects of a country fraught with political, economic and environmental strife. Warnings about traveling to Haiti were focused mainly on the risks associated with travel to Port-Au-Prince, a city befallen by many of the risks inherent in any large city, even in the United States. Before this tragedy struck, Haiti was poised and on the verge of turning a corner in attracting and enlisting the investment and confidence of national and foreign interests ready to boost the quality of life and provide a positive outlook for investing in the tourism potential of Haiti. Former President Clinton and his initiatives made recent and great strides in assembling a massive vote of confidence in the growing political stability and tourism offerings that could define a brighter future for Haiti.
If tourism is largely about selling an image, whales and dolphins offer considerable possibilities. For this to be successful, however, attention must be paid to the educational, scientific, conservation, as well as to the commercial aspects of these initiatives. The protection of whales and dolphins in their natural environment has driven a secondary benefit of significant economic activity in thousands of communities around the world. The establishment of long-term, sustainable and financially valuable whale watching there is just one step towards the development of similar activities to serve as both an incentive and a reward for protecting marine mammals in Haiti.
Jamie Aquino, a teacher from south Florida that has spearheaded the development of WDCS’ Pier2Pier initiative and serves as the Island Coordinator for Haiti, adds: "Long before the earthquake hit, I took a trip to Haiti, to explore the potential and see the possibilities of developing a marine conservation and education project. At the time, I was horrified at the level of widespread poverty and environmental degradation in the country. At the same time, I was in awe of the beautiful blue waters and magnificent whales and genuine people. I have chosen to focus on what Haiti could be, rather than what Haiti is right now. I believe that there is hope for this country and I am so thankful for the support of Courtney Vail and WDCS for their long-term commitment to the project."
Yes, the challenges in Haiti are huge, where priorities such as the provisioning of clean drinking water are still paramount. And now, the immediate focus must be on the saving of lives as the country faces yet another natural disaster. But there will be a future for Haiti, and we maintain our optimism that a focus on the protection of a life-sustaining marine environment, and the whales and dolphins in it, will lend purpose and hope to communities in Haiti looking for a better future. The children at the Petite Riviere de Nippes school with whom we have met coined our project “HOPE—Haiti Oceanic Project for the Environment. We will continue to work towards a program of positive education and outreach that may enrich and embolden the lives of many in Haiti. Please send your warm thoughts, and of course your prayers, to all effected by this tragedy in Haiti, and here at home.
Some links provided below reveal the extent of the devastation:
The Humpback are being sighted on a regular basis down in the Turk and Caicos. I suggest we all take a break from the cold and go visit.
Our work in the Caribbean extends beyond the Turks and Caicos and eastern Caribbean. In Haiti, on the island of Hispaniola, WDCS is partnering to extend our “Live Free in the Sea" and “Pier2Pier"campaigns. Our island coordinator Jamie Aquino is currently in Petite Riviere de Nippes, a rural fishing village approximately 80 miles southwest of the capital of Port Au Prince.
WDCS’ “Live Free in the Sea" Campaign builds knowledge and awareness of the coastal and marine environment, the theme being “What we do on land affects the sea", and with a focus on keeping whales and dolphins wild in their natural environments. The Pier2Pier campaign links students in Florida with their Haitian peers. Most recently, we have enlisted the interest and participation of international marine mammal scientists, local fishermen, government ministries from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the American Haitian Foundation, a local marine conservation organization and a non-profit dedicated to bringing laptops and a marine-curricula to students in the Caribbean.
In Haiti, we are conducting awareness-raising activities with the students at the Petite Riviere School, including presentations, beach-cleans and other activities to highlight the importance of a clean ocean. Oswaldo Vasquez from the Dominican Republic is in Haiti now with Jamie conducting preliminary water surveys to assess the potential for a longer term marine mammal survey, while extending goodwill, technical assistance and political commitment from Haiti’s neighboring country. A building has been donated for our use and for the eventual development of a marine sciences discovery center. We are also exploring the potential for ecotourism activities, such as whale and dolphin watching, that might bring real income to the community.
As the most poverty-stricken country in the Caribbean, we are excited about the prospects that may result from the partnerships that are converging in Haiti to build not only a marine sciences center, where visiting marine mammal scientists might come to conduct valuable research, but a source of empowerment and hope for a population facing many environmental, social and political challenges. I think the moniker H.O.P.E (Haitian Oceanic Project for the Environment) chosen by Jamie and her students is a good one. The projects and positive focus on the potential of the region may provide hope for the Haitian children and fishing community that they can play a part in changing the environment around them, while contributing to the protection of the fascinating marine mammals in their backyards that they are coming to know through our outreach.
Jamie’s account from her first few days in Haiti is provided below:
I arrived in Petite Riviere de Nippes, Haiti on Tuesday evening. Yesterday was my first full day in the village. With the cooperative weather, I decided it was best to get out on the water and explore the area for dolphins and whales. I was accompanied by Oswaldo Vasquez, who works for the
Before venturing out on a boat, Oswaldo and I spent at least one hour talking to a young teacher from La Gonave, a small island situated 25 miles northwest of
We went out on the water in a small, unstable motor boat operated by two local fishermen. The first task was to check the coral formations. In the two areas that we researched, there was approximately 30 percent of live coral existing and some small reef fish including clownfish. Oswaldo then used a hydrophone to listen for sounds of dolphins and whales in the area. At the last of five listening stations, Oswaldo and I heard some distant clicking sounds which needed to be further evaluated back on land.
We will return to the sea today with Haitian maritime expert Max Bordey, who will take us to an uninhabited bay where mangroves exist. We will not only be searching for dolphins and whales, but also investigate the possibility of manatees in the area. Tomorrow, Oswaldo and I will conduct a marine mammal presentation for the select group of schoolchildren who are going to be involved in this project.
On Thursday, we encountered two sperm whales approximately two miles from shore! A third whale was seen breaching in the distance, and our hydrophone picked up the underwater clicking sounds of multiple whales. On Friday, we left shore at 5:30AM, and encountered a small group of pilot whales! Two species on two separate days…we are excited what else we might find in this area, and look forward to officially documenting the marine mammals in these waters with future surveys!
Protecting ocean ecosystems is a big job - one in which we all should feel that we have some part in. There are those lucky and dedicated enough that they get to blend their passion and their career. WDCS works on behalf of whales, dolphins and the oceans - pretty big scope and this brings us into contact with other great organizations and people who are likewise doing amazing work. I was fortunate enough to met one of those people in Lucy Wells.
Lucy wrote a blog for us so that you will know about the other on-going projects in TCI to protect our vulnerable oceans. Lucy's contract with the TCI government is now over and she's on to her next adventure, but we plan to keep up with her and keep you informed about her future projects in ocean conservation.
Here's Lucy's blog:
Since the age of 8 I have wanted to be a Marine Biologist, I’m pretty sure that Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ inspired me and I have not looked back! I graduated from the University of Southampton, England after 3 years of study and was keen to travel and do my part in marine conservation. I first came to Grand Turk in 2008 to work with cruise ship tourists taking them on tours on a semi-submarine. Fresh out of university I was keen to share my passion for the ocean and everything in it with as many people as possible. After a year of this, I moved on to work with the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) as Reef Restoration Project Manager. My main responsibility was to manage the two artificial reef projects in place and install a new one after careful research and monitoring.
The main project I worked on in Grand Turk utilized Biorock technology, a cheap and innovative way to increase coral growth rates in areas where corals are in danger of declining. The system works by first deploying underwater, a framework structure made up of construction grade steel to which a negatively charged cathode and a positively charged anode are attached. A low voltage direct electric current, which is safe for swimmers, runs between them causing a composition of limestone and brucite, to precipitate from seawater and adhere to the framework. It is similar to the composition of natural coral reefs and tropical white sand but has a mechanical strength akin to concrete. The current provides calcareous substrate for corals to settle on and gives the corals additional energy to grow its skeleton, leaving the coral with more metabolic energy for growth, reproduction and resisting environmental stress. These reefs have been shown to increase coral growth to 3-5 times faster in a natural setting and also heal up to 20 times faster from stress and bleaching. Another implication that is important if sea temperatures rise from global warming, is that the corals on the Biorock can survive temperatures 16-50 times higher than current temperatures.
These projects have been immensely successful and are now one of the biggest and best of their kind in the Caribbean. My goal during my 15 month contract was to bring the reefs up to a point where they were fully operational and finished so that they could just be monitored and maintained on a quarterly basis. As well as increase the awareness of the reefs to the local children in schools, tourist visiting the island and residents, I wrote articles which were published in newspapers worldwide and online. Just before my departure, I organized the installation of a new artificial reef to enable more corals to be salvaged and improve the snorkeling in the area too. The project is funded by the DECR, and supported Carnival Cruise Line, Oasis Divers, Bluewater Divers and Grand Turk Diving and of course all the volunteers.
I first came into contact with the WDCS through the department and met Sue Rocca. Together we did educational presentations in the schools (see previous blogs) and I accompanied her on my first whale watch in the area. We saw a few tail flukes and backs but learnt a lot more from her experiences and learnt the all important chant to summon the whales “Owa tagu sayem"?. Sue and Vale Vivaldelli also joined the volunteer divers to assist with coral rescue and were a huge asset to the team whilst on Grand Turk – Thanks guys!!
One of the most fantastic days I experienced was when I had just co-ordinated a coral salvage operation to relocate stressed corals to one of the Biorock reefs and we were just finishing when the ‘Prince of Whales’ whale watching boat came past and pointed out a couple of whales a short distance away from us. Many of the volunteer divers from the coral move were on the boat along with Sue and we all watched the whales surface and dive down, then the whale watchers went off to Salt Cay for the rest of their tours. We with the whales for a while and they seemed to not care we were there so we gently slipped into the water, just 4 of us. The whales came so close and even mimicked the movements of my fiance as he free dived. We do not believe it is right to intrude on them, but they stayed so long that we eventually climbed back on board leaving. They still came alongside after we got out and the spray from their blowholes was sprinkling us. It was a truly unforgettable experience, i think it was a little thanks from mother nature for helping out with the corals.
I loved my time in grand Turk, I met some amazing people and made great friends, I had some truly memorable underwater experiences and enjoyed my job, but eventually I had to move on. So the next time you are visiting the Caribbean, stop by this tiny island and see the amazing migrating humpbacks, dive one of the amazing wall dives just offshore and snorkel over these amazing feats of coral conservation. Photos can be seen http://www.flickr.com/photos/22251472@N04/