Caribbean Conservation: A WHALE OF A STORY

Filed Under: On Assignment
By AJ Goodwin, NBC News producer

SILVER BANKS, Caribbean Sea – Tail slapping, fin slapping, breaching, surfacing to breathe and diving again, it’s an incredible show of nature.

We are shooting a story on humpback whales, which will air on the Today Show and other NBC News outlets in the coming weeks.

To capture video of the whales in their natural habitat, we have come to the Silver Banks, a 40 square mile area about 80 miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic.

We’ve been out here for two days and at any time of the day, if you look out from the ships’ deck, the view is spotted with whales.

Ideal spot

This section of the Caribbean Sea, due to the incredible number of coral heads sprinkled throughout it, receives no through boat traffic. A couple of wrecked boats dotting the area demonstrate why any boat captain would give the Silver Banks a wide berth.

The absence of boat traffic, and waters too shallow for killer whales, creates an ideal spot for mating and calving humpback whales. In fact, at this of year, this area has the largest concentration of humpbacks anywhere in the world.

Atlantic humpbacks migrate to this area from their summer feeding grounds in the North Atlantic – in areas like Maine and Newfoundland. They are known to congregate in several areas in the Caribbean at this time of year, but the Silver Banks has the greatest concentration of whales.

Power of conservation efforts

It’s also an incredible show of what a little conservation can do. By the 1950’s, whales had been nearly hunted to extinction. So in the 1960’s the International Whaling Commission was formed, and banned hunting a number of endangered whale species – including the humpback. And the humpbacks have made an incredible comeback.

The Silver Banks are controlled by the Dominican Republic, and to its credi, the government has made it a conservation area. That means no long line or net fishing, and only a small number of private boats are allowed in the area by permit.

We are on one of those boats. We came here to meet a man named Tom Conlin. Eighteen years ago, he decided that he wanted to get people in the water with whales.

Now for the official "Don’t Try This At Home" warning: It is discouraged, and in some places I believe against the law, to chase down a whale and swim with it. But Conlin has spent nearly two decades perfecting a technique he calls "soft in-water encounters." The idea is to slowly approach a whale in a boat moving at very low speeds, so that the whale can get used to the boat, then, if the whale appears willing and doesn’t turn away, letting people quietly slip into the water and float with snorkel gear near the giant sea mammal.

Close up view of nature

Today we had a moment – actually two hours – that just blew everyone away. A mother humpback and calf allowed a group of about 13 awe-struck whale watchers to observe and follow them all afternoon.

I could see the characteristic grooves in the humpback’s head. A couple of times I looked her in the eye. The baby would hide under the mother’s tail, then pop up for air and return to roll around the mother. To say the whale is huge, a marvel of nature when it glides through the water, is an understatement.

It’s amazing to see the details of the humpback’s prehistoric head, followed by a body the size of a submarine. A "baby" probably less than a month old, is tiny compared to the mother, but it dwarfed the humans watching it. I’m not sure there are words for it. We’ll post pictures and video on msnbc.com when we return.

To think man almost hunted these gentle giants to extinction once, and there are those who would like to hunt them again, and then watch that mother and calf glide through the water, allowing all of us to watch in admiration, will make a conservationist out of just about anyone.

Conlin says part of the reason he wanted to introduce people to whales in this way was so that when they have the opportunity to contribute, to helping them, they will do so. I’d say its working.


Source http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/02/28/712961.aspx

Story posted by Miguel Sague, sobaokokoromo2@yahoogroups. com

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