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: