Humpback whale research and conservation, Salt Cay, Turks and Caicos Islands
The study so far.......
The Behavioral Response of Humpback Whales to snorkeler project was a 2 year collaboration between OTIONOS, Salt Cay Divers (SCD) and the Department of Environmental and Maritime Affairs (DEMA) of the Turks and Caicos Islands. This project began in 2012 and has received funding support from Salt Cay Divers, the Turks and Caicos Reef Fund and Caicu Naniki. There is much controversy surrounding the ethics of approaching whales in the water and what is considered harassment. Currently this practice is unregulated in the TCIs, and more data is needed to determine the human impact on these animals and the safety for snorkelers. Further response data includes the effect an approaching boat has on these animals and how the whale’s behavior changes during a typical encounter. This data is vital in supporting a necessary code of conduct for whale watching operators that depend on the income of this incredible yet sensitive resource. Preliminary findings suggest that if approached in the right way, it is possible to achieve a very neutral response before, during and after an in-water encounter with these animals.
The Turks bank has been deemed a suspected breeding ground. Data recorded in the 2013 season also focused on the behavior of males as well as snorkeling with primarily mother and calf pairs. Singing males, surface active displays, male competitive groups, mother calf and escorts, singing escorts and even yearlings were observed on the bank. Our 2014 humpback whale strategy will extend our research interest to measure this breeding population and begin to identify whether select males stay in a particular area during and between seasons. We will also build upon our acoustic recordings and delve deeper into the behavior of the singing males and inter-male competition on the bank. Site residency of individuals is highly suggestive of a breeding ground as well as the recognition of new born calves in the area. Photogrammetry techniques used to size other marine mega fauna such as Whale Sharks and Manta Rays will be employed to determine calves born on the Turks Bank. Once a viable humpback whale breeding ground is determined, including population size and extent of habitat needed, we can initiate the designation of the area as a seasonal reserve for these animals.
Research conservation and sustainability
OTIONOS research is critical for management to initiate responsible tourism guidelines especially in light of expanding tourism in the area. The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable, educational, respectful and high quality standard of whale tourism in the area where guests learn about the humpbacks and the whales undergo no unnecessary stress. The spill-over emotion of observing such a majestic animal in the wild can have a huge conservation effect. There is no doubt our oceans are suffering from human influence; by realizing that whales' survival depends on the quality of this habitat, people can make a change.