2011 Travel News ArchiveTravel

Protecting the ‘showy’ whales of the region

Since 2006 the Dominican Republic has had a sister sanctuary agreement to work closely with the US to protect the popular humpback whales in the North Atlantic. The success of the agreement is now leading to others as a way of protecting the showman whales of the region.

The “sister sanctuary” agreement states that marine mammal professionals who are members of the pact will exchange what they know and help each other in research and education to manage the same animals, said Craig MacDonald, superintendent of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

No money is exchanged in the agreements, said MacDonald. One example of the partnership is joint applications for grant money for new technology for the Caribbean partner, he said. A second example is inviting student interns from the Caribbean to study with US organizations, according to researcher Jooke Robbins of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.

The Gulf of Maine in the US supports about 847 humpbacks each feeding season in the North Atlantic, said Robbins. The humpbacks in this region typically feed in the spring and summer before heading south in late fall to the Caribbean Sea to mate and give birth, primarily in the northeastern waters of Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic, off the coast of the Samana peninsula. The whales travel about 1,500 miles one-way.

“They travel great distances and important parts of their life cycles occur in places far away,” said Daniel Basta, director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “You really can’t think you can sustain them by only looking at them in one place. You have to try to influence their success across their entire life cycle, across their entire range. That’s good science.”

Humpback whales, also known as “humpies,” face many threats throughout the world, such as ship strikes, fishing gear entanglement, whale-watch company harassment, hunting proposals, loss of habitat and noise pollution, according to US government records.

In September 2011, the US signed a new sister sanctuary agreement with France, creating a partnership between Stellwagen Bank and Agoa Marine Mammal Sanctuary in the French Antilles. Earlier this year in June, Stellwagen Bank sanctuary officials signed a letter of intent with Bermuda, which is about 650 miles east of the North Carolina coast and in the humpbacks’ migration path. This builds on the oldest of the agreements, the 2006 one signed between the US and the Dominican Republic that paired Stellwagen Bank with the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic.

All three pacts follow United Nations guidelines, which have recommended the sister sanctuary concept, MacDonald said.

The US is working now with Dutch Caribbean authorities to come to a similar agreement, he said.

The Center for Coastal Studies hosts at least one intern from the Dominican Republic each year, in cooperation with the Dolphin Fleet of Provincetown whale-watch company in Provincetown, Robbins said.

One intern, Peter Sanchez, has held two internships and upon his return to the Dominican Republic was tapped to be coordinator of operations for the Marine Mammal Sanctuary.

That job included evaluating whale-watch boat permits and monitoring scientific research on the boats, as well as organizing volunteers to collect data about humpbacks seen on the trips, according to records from the Cetacean Society International, which helped fund Sanchez’s internships.