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Diógenes Pina* - Tierramérica

SAMANÁ, Dominican Republic, Apr 13 2007 (IPS) - In a rhythmic, coordinated underwater choreography, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and her calf rise to the surface off the Dominican Republic’s Atlantic coast, showing the mesmerised spectators just their dorsal fins and blow-holes.

In the space of 10 minutes, the whales repeat the movements four times, captivating the attention of the 67 passengers aboard the Victoria II who have made the whale-watching trip to the Samaná Marine Mammal Sanctuary, 250 km northwest of the Dominican Republic capital. The giant mammals then disappear into the waters of this 500 square-km protected area.

Rocking in the waves, the 18-metre boat turns so that the passengers can follow the spectacle, pursuing the whales that pass through these warm waters from January to early April to mate or give birth (the gestation period is nearly one year) before heading back north. This year, 40,000 tourists have come to watch whales in the Dominican Republic.

An estimated 2,000 whales reach the Caribbean coasts each year for the mating or birthing rituals, after swimming thousands of kilometres from the frigid waters of Iceland, Sweden, Greenland and the east coasts of Canada and the United States.

The five-hour tour aboard the Victoria II provides only a few glimpses – of the mother and the calf, as well as another whale that appeared suddenly and showed off its tail above water for just less than a minute. The scene provokes applause and oohs and aahs. When the whales submerge and disappear, the audience is disappointed.

“Yesterday the whales were very animated. The sea was choppy, and when the day is like that, they come out and play,” Pedro, a member of the Victoria II crew for the past five years, tells Tierramérica.

In addition to Samaná Bay, the Dominican Republic has another sea mammal sanctuary: Banco de la Plata, located 140 km north of the coast from Puerto Plata.

Both were granted government protection in 1986 because of the great number of whales that visit the two areas. Only artisanal fishing is allowed in the sanctuaries, and merchant ships and oil tankers are banned. Whale-based tourism began in 1994, and in 1998 the authorities established regulations for visitors and boats.

“This zone favours humpback whales. The warm and shallower waters of the Bay and Banco de la Plata are propitious and safe for their mating and for whale-watching,” Patricia Lamelas, of the Samaná research and conservation centre, CEBSE, told Tierramérica.

Kim Beddall, a Canadian, arrived in Samaná 24 years ago to work as a scuba-diving instructor. Now she operates the Victoria II, one of the 43 boats authorised for whale-watching tours.

“Instead of whale hunting, we promote observing them, responsibly,” she said.

The Caribbean doesn’t supply much food for the humpbacks, which normally feed on krill – a small crustacean that is abundant in cold ocean waters -, herring and tiny fish. During the approximately 90 days they spend in the Caribbean, the adults survive on their fat reserves, from what they ate during their northern sojourn.

A newborn whale calf can weigh one ton at birth, and gain 50 kg per day in early development, nursing as much as 200 litres of milk from its mother daily.

The humpback whale is an endangered species, protected from commercial hunting since 1955 under the International Whaling Commission. An estimated 10,000 live in the North Atlantic. They have been always protected along Dominican coasts, but in other regions they were hunted commercially in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The number of permits issued for whale-watching in the Dominican sanctuaries was frozen at 43, subject to an evaluation “to determine whether this will be expanded or reduced, depending on the impacts” of the activity, according to the norms drawn up in consultation with experts.

The rules establish that the distance between the boats and the whales spotted will be 80 metres in the case of a mother and calf. The boats can draw as close as 50 metres for adult male whales.

For each whale or group that is sighted, only one large boat (more than nine metres) or two small boats are permitted. Boats that are waiting their turn must keep a distance of 500 metres. Diving or swimming around the whales is prohibited.

In early April, the whales begin to leave, heading north. But in January 2008 they’ll be back with their underwater dances.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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