A sperm whale surprised a 60 Minutes photographer by defecating in the sea off the Caribbean island of Dominica.
That’s actually a good thing, explains National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enrique Sala. Whale feces are full of nutrients, which fertilize the shallow waters. It also feeds phytoplankton, which make up at least 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere, according to scientists.
So it was a spot of luck to see a whale go to the bathroom on the second day of 60 minutes of a six-day official permit to swim with whales. That luck didn’t last. Cecilia Vega, along with Sala, spent the next day looking for sperm whales, and the next and the next and the next. And then, in the last hour on the last day of the 60-minute trip, there they were.
A young, female whale came up to Vega and Sala in the water. He made a sound like a door hinge; It is one of the ways whales communicate and socialize. He had squid in his mouth, the remains of lunch thousands of feet below. He stopped and rolled with his jaws open. The whale was using echolocation, the clicks bouncing off the swimmers, trying to figure out what everyone was up to.
“It was a very friendly whale,” Sala said. “They’re huge. And, you know, you have to respect them.”
Sala, a former professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, quit his job in academia, feeling he was “writing the death knell of the ocean” when he could instead be working to save it.
“I felt like a doctor telling you how you’re going to die, in excruciating detail, but not offering a cure,” Sala said.
Sala instead focused on the idea of building marine reserves. He founded the Pristine Seas Project in 2008 to combine ocean exploration, scientific research and public policy. Sala and his team have worked with 17 countries to turn large swathes of the ocean into marine protected areas – almost twice the size of India. He says a reserve in Dominica will protect the whales from their biggest threat: Plastic wasteNoise pollution and ship strikes.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 14 million tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. Plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris.
“Sperm whale populations have been in steady decline for the past 20 years because of human threats affecting whales not only here in Dominica, but around the world,” Sala said. “If nothing is done, the population will likely continue to decline, so reducing these threats will hopefully allow the sperm whale population to rebuild. And the more whales there are, the more benefits Dominica and local communities will have.”
Hurricane Maria devastated those communities in 2017 Today, the island continues to rebuild, even as it prepares for a future of climate change-driven storms Francine Baron heads the organization in charge of that effort.
“We see whale-watching as an important part of our tourism product, and it’s something that needs to be protected,” Baron said. “And the idea of creating greater protection for whales is something that Dominica is very open to. And we were very pleased with the suggestion that Enrique made to create a recognized sanctuary for whales.”
This is a model that has worked well in protecting Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. The famous “gorillas in the mist” had their habitat protected by the government so that a local economy based on tourism could grow in nearby local towns.
“Tourism in Dominica can be regulated in the same way as Rwanda’s iconic gorillas, where people spend a lot of money to come see these epic animals that live in families and interact with each other,” Christine Rechtberger, CEO of Dynamic Planet told 60 Minutes. “This tourism money can support animals, habitats and local communities that are providing tourism services.”
Rechberger works directly with Enric Sala and Pristine Seas to develop economic plans that support marine protected areas and their surrounding communities.
“Whaling is an opportunity that Dominica has that most other countries don’t have,” Rechberger said. “When you save whales, you’re also saving humans because we’re interdependent. And when whales are protected, humans are protected and resilient.”
In Dominica, Captain Curt Benoit has been in the whaling tourism business for over two decades. We embark on his 38ft Lady Rose from a small fishing village on the west coast.
Captain Benoit uses a homemade device that picks up the distinct clicks of sperm whales 11 miles away. He built the device by combining a salad bowl in his house with an underwater microphone so he could listen to the whales.
“It’s like a galloping horse on a hard surface,” he said of their sound. “So if you hear several of them, that means there are a lot of whales.”
Male whales stay with their families off Dominica until they are teenagers. Then they travel mostly alone, swimming thousands of miles. Caribbean men have been found in Norway. They live solitary lives, often growing to the size of two school buses, and return to tropical waters only to mate.
hundreds of Sperm whales Live in Dominica all year round. They are mostly families consisting of women, grandmothers, mothers and daughters who stay together all their lives, raising and raising their children.
National Geographic Explorer Shane Gero started the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and over the past 18 years he has identified more than 35 families in the region. Whales identify themselves by producing specific patterns of clicks, called codas.
“It’s part of who they are, where their grandmother grew up,” Gero said. “And so it really brings together animals and places.”
When Sala visited Dominica in December, his National Geographic team filmed something rarely seen: a pod of sleeping sperm whales. The vertical giants were suspended near the surface for a brief nap. He said being in the water with them was magical.
Courtesy National Geographic
“In our minds, we have the legend of Moby Dick: these vicious, aggressive creatures. But you jump into the water and they’re very gentle and docile,” Sala said. “They have never attacked humans, and they are very curious, especially children. So it can be one of the most amazing wildlife encounters on Earth.”