American Oceans

Very First Sperm Whale Sanctuary Created in the Caribbean

a pod of sperm whales in the ocean

Dominica, a small Caribbean island, is creating the world’s first marine protected area for the endangered sperm whale. The reserve will cover nearly 300 square miles (800 sq km) of waters on the western side of the island that serve as key nursing and feeding grounds for the species. The government of Dominica hopes to protect these highly intelligent animals from harm and help fight the climate crisis by designating this area as a reserve.

Scientists believe that the reserve will not only protect the whales but also help capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as the sperm whales defecate near the surface, which creates plankton blooms. These blooms capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and drag it to the ocean floor when they die. Sperm whales in Dominica are believed to defecate more than whales elsewhere, which is why the reserve will be crucial in fighting climate change.

The sperm whales in Dominica are part of a population that moves along the Lesser Antilles chain, swimming as far south as St Vincent and north into Guadeloupe. Unlike sperm whales elsewhere in the world, the ones around the eastern Caribbean do not travel very far. Fewer than 500 sperm whales are estimated to live in the waters surrounding Dominica.

Sperm whales are a matrilineal society, with young males leaving and switching oceans at some point in their lives. Protecting the species is key, especially if few female calves are born, as one calf being entangled can mean the end of a family. Sperm whales can produce a single calf every five to seven years.

The government of Dominica said the reserve would allow sustainable artisanal fishing and delineate an international shipping lane to avoid more deaths of sperm whales. The reserve will also appoint an officer and observers to ensure the area is respected, and whale tourism regulations are enforced. Visitors can still swim with sperm whales and see them from a boat, but in limited numbers.

In the pre-whaling days, an estimated 2 million sperm whales roamed the Earth’s deep waters before they were hunted for oil used to burn lamps and lubricate machinery. Now, some 800,000 are left. Sperm whales in waters around Dominica and elsewhere have been hit by ships, entangled in fishing gear, and affected by agricultural runoff, limiting their survival.

The move to create a marine protected area for sperm whales in Dominica was praised by scientists and conservationists, including Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic. He said that the government of Dominica has realized that the sperm whales, which were probably there before humans, are also citizens of Dominica. The whales will spend most of the year offshore the island, and the government is taking care of some of its citizens in a way that few nations have ever done before.

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