Bequia, the largest of St Vincent’s Grenadine islands, typifies tourist expectations of life in the Caribbean. Rather atypically, however, Bequia is also one of the few places in the world authorized by the International Whaling Commission to hunt humpback whales. But the question: “To whale or not to whale” is a contentious one.
Bequia, a Carib word meaning “Island of Clouds”, is an ideal Caribbean destination for independent travellers. Its size masks its richness; a mere seven square miles might not appear to warrant a long stay, yet the combination of breathtaking beaches, stunning scenery, friendly inhabitants, vibrant culture and a rich seafaring history make visitors reluctant to leave. Bequia is best approached from the sea, offering close-up views of the more inaccessible parts of the island. Between February and April ferries share the ocean with migrating humpback whales and all eyes turn seawards.
Bequia lies on the migration path of humpback whales and whaling was once big business on the island. Even as the sugar plantations were booming, American whaling ships were making regular trips to the waters around the island to harvest humpback and sperm whales. Many local men enlisted on these boats, in search of money and adventure. One such daring adventurer was William Thomas Wallace, a plantation owner who left Bequia in 1860 to become a whaler. On his return, Wallace bought two second-hand Yankee whaleboats and, in 1875, established the island’s first shore-based whaling station at Friendship Bay on Bequia’s north west coast.
Despite initial failings, and fierce rivalries between fisheries, whaling eventually thrived on the island and pumped essential funds into the economy as plantations dwindled after emancipation. By the mid 1920s, technologically advanced Norwegian whalers based in Grenada had initiated the large-scale slaughter of humpbacks, seriously depleting the whale population and causing the closure of many local fisheries.
Today, whaling on Bequia is preserved in recognition of its status as a subsistence fishery. Islanders are permitted to harvest two whales per year using time-honoured methods, such as handheld harpoons and wooden boats – which at 25ft long are less than half the size of an average humpback. Each February, the whaling season begins with the blessing of the boats in Friendship Bay and, while the fishermen are not successful every year, the landing of a whale is still cause for celebration.
However, not all islanders agree with continuing what many consider a cruel practice in the name of tradition. Handheld harpoons rarely kill instantly, with whales taking between half an hour and two hours to succumb to their wounds, all the time emitting a mournful cry.
The present debate notwithstanding, it’s worth taking time to explore the Athneal Petit Museum, on the north west tip of the island near the village of La Pompe. This celebration of Bequia’s whaling history is dedicated to local hero and whaler Athneal Olliverre, who once harpooned a whale directly in the heart, killing it instantly.
Now lovingly looked after by Athneal’s nephew Harold – a one time whaler himself – this small shrine-like museum contains a fascinating collection of artefacts, pictures, press cuttings and even a signed photograph of Clint Eastwood – one of Athneal’s biggest fans – all preserving this crucial part of Bequia’s history.
Yet, by far the best thing the museum offers is stunning views over the Grenadine waters which Harold, and many others, still scrutinize for signs of an animal that once put food on the islanders’ tables and today embodies a history that many Bequians are proud of.
A version of this article was published in Rough Guide’s Rough News in 2002.