Now that I have had a few weeks to reflect upon my recent trip to Haiti, I can begin to make sense of my time there, while reconciling all of the conflicting emotions that I have confronted in evaluating the purpose and scope of my trip. I traveled to Haiti in late September to spend time with some individuals that have shown early interest and dedication to our fledgling project spearheaded by Jamie Aquino under our Pier2Pier initiative. Currently, we refer to the project as the Haiti Ocean Project, but as the project grows and evolves into a coalition of experts and individuals committed to a program of education, field research and exploration of ecotourism initiatives (such as whale and dolphin watching), we may find a more perfect name for our program.
While the newspaper over the past week has detailed the cholera outbreak in Haiti, where nearly 300 people have been killed, the statistics remain daunting as Haiti faces humanitarian challenges too numerous to count or detail here. And it was only last January that the news washed over us, that another natural disaster, a massive earthquake, had hit Haiti: 250,000 Haitians dead, millions homeless, most government buildings completely demolished. With no emergency vehicles and few healthcare workers to treat the wounded, the world responded, and it continues to try to address the staggering crisis that lives and breathes in Haiti.
The statistics that describe conditions in Haiti are almost unbelievable for a country so proximate to ours: Even before the earthquake, more than 70 percent of the population lived on less than $2 per day. Life expectancy remains low at sixty-one years. HIV/AIDS rates are the highest in the hemisphere. There are only three doctors per 10,000 people in Haiti. One in twelve children dies before reaching her fifth birthday. Only 35 percent of Haitian children are able to finish elementary school. Compounding these statistics is the fact that there is widespread unemployment and underemployment; more than two-thirds of the labor force does not have formal jobs. In addition to its long and painful history of poverty and political turmoil, Haiti suffered four devastating tropical storms in 2008, bringing floods that killed more than 800 people and caused nearly $1 billion in damage.
And I was confronted with this suffering in Port-Au-Prince with my arrival to the country. But beyond the tent cities and the masses that lined the streets with their goods and wares, the color, beauty and resilience of Haiti was all around and revealed itself in so many ways: in the colorful overloaded tap-tap buses that were adorned with vibrant images and messages, in the smartly dressed young men on their way to unknown destinations dressed in their suits, in the smiles of the children in the fishing villages, and the marketplaces that swarmed with organized chaos, bringing humanity together amidst the rubble.
And I want to be very honest about my feelings and conflicting emotions before my trip to Haiti. I had many people, including my daughter, ask me how I could go to Haiti and be concerned with whales and dolphins in the midst of such human suffering. Even those around me with an understanding of how interconnected the protection of the environment is to human welfare couldn’t quite grasp the importance of this type of project to Haiti, especially now. Even though my heart and mind had already reconciled our focus on whale and dolphin protection in the midst of the humanitarian tragedy, understanding at the most elemental level that protection of the marine environment ultimately means the protection and welfare of human beings, being a strong advocate for this program took my journeying to Haiti and discovering the enduring spirit of my Haitian friends, and finding out how important this project is to them.
The extent of linkages between the ecosystem services provided by the protection of biodiversity and goals of ending poverty, hunger and disease and improving the health of children and mothers is deep and broad. For example, Haiti, a country that was once fully forested, has lost 97% of its forest cover. It is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and has the highest rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality in the Western hemisphere (with diahrrea as one of the leading causes of death), and 90% of its children chronically infected with intestinal parasites, which they acquire from the water they drink. This tragic situation is linked to the loss of ecosystem services (rainfall, prevention of soil erosion, water purification) provided by forests. Charcoal from once-living trees is one of the main sources of energy in Haiti, and I witnessed bags and bags of it being transported on boats and dumped in the streets for trade or purchase.
The primary cause of Haiti’s environmental degradation has been caused by its need for energy. With an electricity sector that only covered 10% of Haiti’s population in 2006, chronic energy shortages have contributed to the search for alternative sources of energy. Unfortunately for Haiti’s natural environment, wood became and continues to be the principal energy source in Haiti, accounting for 70 percent of energy consumption in 2006. This resulted in the steady deforestation of Haiti, with an estimated 6,000 hectares of soil lost each year to erosion. Ultimately, there is a growing recognition that community livelihoods and well-being are intimately linked to the state of the environment, and that they have a mutual impact on each other.
As I was confronted by these realities upon my arrival and stay there, I had to reaffirm the reason that this type of project is important to Haiti, especially now. And I thank the team of committed individuals in Haiti who hosted my stay there, and the passion of a Florida teacher, who reminded me of the value of this project through their continuing belief in the project. Specifically, Max Bordey and his wife, Elizabeth Tovar, and Michele Simon, leaders in the community that have dedicated decades to improving the lives of fishermen in Haiti helped me see the importance of the project as a means to restore the vision for a hopeful future for Haiti, through the possibility of enhanced livelihoods for the local communities through the development of whale and dolphin watching and other tourist initiatives that will bring visitors back to Haiti.
And we found dolphins, hundreds of them, not too far from shore. The fishermen we spent time with told us that they encounter them all of the time. We were in the middle of a teaming pod of spotted dolphins, but also encountered the elusive dwarf sperm whale on two occasions. On past trips, we encountered sperm whales, and with the deeply sloping underwater topography of Haiti’s coastline, I am hopeful that there are deep-diving resident sperm whales here. As a result of preliminary field trips, we are confident that whales and dolphins can be readily encountered along the coastline of Haiti, but specifically off Grand Goave and Petite Riviere de Nippes where we have focused our initial surveys.
Haiti was once a thriving tourist destination, and as such, is still named the ‘Pearl of the Antilles’. Decades of political and financial instability have wrought havoc on the country, and literally wiped out any semblance of tourism, unlike its neighbor in the Dominican Republic, where tourism is a thriving and primary industry. Hispaniola, the second largest island in all the Antilles, is shared by the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with the Dominican Republic occupying the eastern two thirds. Tourists and honeymooners are drawn to the Dominican Republic and its beautiful beaches and diving and snorkeling destinations. Many travel to Samana Bay and the Silver Banks just to see the humpback whales during their annual stay on their breeding and calving grounds. Just west on the Island of Hispaniola lies Haiti, and it is natural to wonder in disbelief at the extreme disparities between the two countries that share a common island.
I was forced to confront my hopes for a project that might serve as some glimmer of hope, that might serve as a reminder of the beauty and spirit of Haiti, of its people and its natural heritage, and that might serve to move the focus of its people from day to day survival to a future where there are sustainable job opportunities built upon the protection and promotion of the environment and marine life.
And even at the most basic level, there is an even simpler reason: whales and dolphins are beautiful and awe-inspiring. This alone might be a reason to pursue the project-- to bring a smile of joy to the children of Haiti as they experience the magnificent natural wonders of their country, ones that leap and jump alongside the boat, and that represent a world of freedom, imagination and mystery. This project will hopefully draw researchers and international students to Haiti, dispelling the fear and stigma that surrounds travel to the country, and little by little the world will open up to the possibilities, and the beauty.
And maybe this is just one step to provide an alternative vision, which may in turn provide the tools by which individuals within Haiti can step outside of their condition, and focus on a brighter future for Haiti. And it is through the discovery of whales and dolphins in the unexplored waters of Haiti that might just serve as inspiration for the protection of the marine environment, respect for the natural beauty that makes Haiti so unique, and ultimately breathe life into its people searching for something positive and hopeful. Looking for whales and dolphins in Haiti is more than just a research or education project, and has revealed a precious resource that may just move Haiti, into a new era of discovery, hope and pride. And whales and dolphins will show us the way.
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!