Monday, 21 April 2014

Last of the whalers

A painting of one of the revered whalers at the Bequia Whalers and Maritime Museum. - Charles Trainor Jr/Miami Herald/MCT

A painting of one of the revered whalers at the Bequia Whalers and Maritime Museum. - Charles Trainor Jr/Miami Herald/MCT

Bequia islanders in the eastern Caribbean are the only whalers in the Americas still allowed to hunt Moby Dick style. But keeping tradition and pursuing conservation is tough business.

Standing on the rocky shore of Bequia Island, the tall, greying man looks pensively through drizzling rain at the dark clouds, listens to the angry sea and wonders if nature will deny him a whale yet another day. Don’t call him Ishmael. Call him Kingsley. Kingsley Stowe is among what could be the last in a long line of whalers from this tiny island.

It’s whale-hunting season, and islanders are hungry for the savoury meat they say tastes like beef, and the oil used in a variety of homemade remedies. But there have been only sparse sightings of the breaching humpbacks that routinely migrate south from their northern feeding grounds – and no captures.

“I don’t think we’re going to go out today,” says Stowe, 54, a harpooner and proud defender of an ancient, daring trade on the verge of disappearing.

LEAD PIX, PLACE AT BOTTOM LEFT OF SPREAD, ETCH OUT AND WRAP TEXT AROUND HIM: Keeper of the flame: Kingsley Stowe, harpoon at the ready, as he waits for a whale sighting. Whalers use the traditional harpoon to kill humpbacks off the island of Baquia. -- MCT photos
Kingsley Stowe, harpoon at the ready, waits for a whale sighting. Bequia whalers use the traditional harpoon to kill humpbacks.

Whaling was once a big and profitable business in Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) supporting at least a dozen whale boats. But that was before quotas and broad bans on commercial whaling made this hilly outpost off St Vincent in the Grenadines the only place in the Americas to still allow Moby Dick style harpooning.

Now, islanders work under a quota that caps the take at no more than four whales during the four-month season from February to May – and so far this year, they’ve struck out, with the only humpback spotted and harpooned managing to escape.

“It’s like carnival when you catch a whale,” says Stowe, standing next to his beached 8m whale sailboat Persecution, inspecting the brass tip of a hand-thrown wooden harpoon. “But we don’t kill whales for joke. We kill whales for food.”

Even before this season’s so-far failed hunt, whalers like Stowe were fighting an increasing tide of resistance to Bequia’s 139-year tradition – including from fellow islanders who once were some of its strongest advocates of the hunt.

Retired whaler Orson Ollivierre holds up a jawbone of a humpback whale he harpooned in his 'backyard' off Bequia Island. Ollivierre, 58, comes from a long line of whalers in the community and aftfer years of criticism over whaling, and changes in the hunt, he said, he retired this year.
Retired whaler Orson Ollivierre holds up a jawbone of a humpback whale he harpooned in his ‘backyard’ off Bequia. Ollivierre comes from a long line of whalers in the community, and after years of criticism over whaling and changes in the hunt, he retired this year.

A former prime minister and one of the island’s whalers are among those who have joined environmentalists and marine mammal scientists pushing for St Vincent to replace whale hunting with whale watching.

“Harpooning whales in St Vincent and the Grenadines should be a thing of the past. It doesn’t add anything to our economy,” says Gaston Bess, who after 20 successful whale hunts over the course of his more than three-decade-long career called it quits last year. “People should get excited and get their children excited in watching the whales in their natural environment and protecting them.”

Bess decided to retire from harpooning during a whale watching expedition to the Dominican Republic last year. “Watching them took my breath away,” says Bess, 50, recalling the joy of seeing a whale for the first time as something other than prey. “Even though I had been around them, struck them and watched them die, now I was watching them ballet, caressing their young.”

Jaw bones from the humpback whale are used as rails on the stairs in Bequia.

It was a far different experience from what usually happens here on this island in the eastern Caribbean when residents, from their front porches or a hilltop, spot a whale’s 3m to 4m water spout.

After jumping in a boat and closing in on the whale, the harpooner would ready his position while the captain finessed the sails to bring the boat between the whale’s head and tail. Then, the harpooner, by this time standing just one or two metres from the whale, would make his throw. If it struck true, the whale would be hauled back to the whaling station on nearby Love Island and butchered.

After years of being a second harpooner, Stowe purchased his own whale boat and recruited his own crew of young seamen to train this season. He is determined to keep up the chase. “Whaling is a tradition around Bequia,” he says. “We will continue to whale, and we’ll continue the tradition.”

Comrades who once shared one of only three remaining authorised whale boats, Bess and Stowe personify the tensions in Bequia – a tiny part of a whaling industry that is under mounting worldwide pressure.

MUST USE: Necklaces made from whale teeth are a popular item with tourists visiting St Vincent and the Grenadines in the eastern Caribbean.
Necklaces made from whale teeth are popular with tourists visiting St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Earlier this month, the International Court of Justice banned Japan from hunting whales in the icy waters of the Antarctic, while Japanese online retailer Rakuten, under fire from conservationists, announced it would end all online sales of whale and dolphin meat by the end of April.

Australia had led a four-year legal campaign against Japan’s slaughter of about 1,000 whales a year in the southern ocean under the guise of scientific research. The court ruling, however, doesn’t ban Japan’s in-country sales of whale meat or its hunting of whales in the north-west Pacific and its own coastal waters.

Still, some view the Antarctic decision as a victory for anti-whaling advocates, who for years have argued that there is nothing scientific about Japan’s hunts. They also argue that nothing supports continued whaling in Bequia, where it was introduced in 1875 by a Scottish settler, William Wallace, who had worked on American whaling ships.

Though it’s old, it is not an indigenous or subsistence industry, says Louise Mitchell, chairwoman of the St Vincent and the Grenadines National Trust, which has taken up the anti-whaling crusade.

“It was Yankee whalers who taught us and it was the European settlers who were here who took it up,” says Mitchell. Today, she says, the few remaining whalers “are holding onto it because it is a tradition. It’s a passion that they have; it’s something they are used to doing and people don’t like change.”

Love Island off Bequia's Friendship Bay is where the whalers process the killed humpback whales; locals take boats out to the island where the whale meat is cut up and then sold along with its oil.
Love Island, off Bequia’s Friendship Bay, is where whalers process killed humpback whales. Locals take boats out to the island where the whale meat is cut up and sold along with its oil.

A native of Bequia, Mitchell is the daughter of former Prime Minister James Mitchell, whose government in the 1980s was the first to vote with pro-whaling Japan at the International Whaling Commission. Environmental groups have long accused St Vincent and other eastern Caribbean nations of throwing their support behind Japan in exchange for substantial sums of development aid. Tokyo and the cash-strapped island governments have always denied the claims.

“St Vincent had an inconsistent position. We were whaling and yet we were voting against whaling,” says the former PM, who led the country from 1984 to 2001. “I decided to reconcile the position and got involved with Japan, and a lot of financing of the development of our fishery infrastructure, which had been terribly neglected.”

But three decades and technological advances later – and after a whale-watching expedition of his own to Nova Scotia – he, too, has had a change of heart. Like ex-whaler Bess, Mitchell thinks it’s time for the island’s 5,000 residents to transition from killing to conservation.

“The situation has changed. We no longer go out with the sailing boats to go after the whales. We no longer use pieces of mirror to signal where the whales were from hill to hill,” Mitchell says about time-honoured techniques.

“We’re using cellphones to locate where the whales are, and we’re using speedboats to go up to the whale and strike the whale,” he says. “We are no longer involved in the indigenous craftsmanship of whale hunting Moby Dick style.” – The Miami Herald/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Whaling , traditional lifestyle


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