Lesley Anne Rose

Writer & Artistic Producer


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Bequia – a whaler’s legacy

Princess Margaret beach, Bequia

Princess Margaret beach, Bequia

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.

Image provided by Natural World Safaris

Image provided by Natural World Safaris
www.naturalworldsafaris.com

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.

old whaling boats, Bequia

old whaling boats, Bequia

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.

Harold at the Athneal Petit Museum, Bequia

Harold at the Athneal Petit Museum, Bequia

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.

 

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one turtle at a time

sea turtle hatchlings, Old Hegg, Bequia

sea turtle hatchlings, Old Hegg, Bequia

Sea turtles have been swimming the world’s oceans since dinosaurs walked the land. Now all seven species of these ancient and enduring creatures are endangered, some critically. As threats to their survival increase – such as pollution, poaching, fishing, and coastal development – so turtle numbers have decreased by an alarming ninety per cent over the past decade.

The vast distances turtles migrate complicate their conservation at an international level. Leatherbacks, for example, swim the waters of the Caribbean, Newfoundland, and the British Isles. However, attempts to save them at a local level are increasing, and visitors to the Grenadine islands in the southern Caribbean have several opportunities to witness and participate in their conservation at a grassroots level.

Although they spend vast amounts of time in water, the behaviour of turtles while at sea is the least understood of all marine animals. Capable of great longevity, turtles are in no hurry to reproduce. When, after many years of floating in the sea, a female does come ashore to nest, each egg she lays has a one-in-a-thousand chance of reaching maturity.

Old Hegg  turtle sanctuary on Bequia, the largest of St Vincent’s Grenadine islands, works to increase these odds by helping the hatchlings through their early vulnerable years. Situated on the stunning Park Beach on the north east coast of Bequia, Old Hegg was founded in 1995 by Orton “Brother” King, a retired professional skin diver, whose dedication and passion over the years has saved the lives of countless hawksbill turtles – distinguished by their beak-like mouths.

growing turtles, Old Hegg, Bequia

growing turtles, Old Hegg, Bequia

Turtles usually nest at night, laying around a hundred eggs at a time. Many are dug up by dogs or poachers and many more destroyed by eroding sand. Those that do survive take 50 to 70 days to hatch. Baby turtles always emerge at night when there are less predators around and, guided by the light of the moon, they head for the sea.

It is at this critical point that Old Hegg staff step in to carefully collect the hatchlings as they emerge. They will then feed and protect them at the sanctuary for three years before releasing them into sea, by which time their chances of survival are significantly increased. Year round, visitors to Old Hegg can see around two hundred turtles of various sizes and ages at any one time. Visit during the winter and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see big bowls filled with recent hatchlings – so tiny they fit into the palm of your hand.

Even if a turtle reaches maturity, its struggle for survival is far from over. Kido Ecological Research Station, on the north west coast of Carriacou – a Grenadine that forms part of the nation of Grenada – works with schools, local communities, and visitors to conserve turtles of all ages in this region.

From March to September, visitors and Kido volunteers patrol Carriacou’s beaches at night to measure and tag female turtles, conceal and mark their nests, and simply watch these amazing creatures while they are out of the sea.

Kido’s commitment to protecting turtles does not end there. They save countless from the cooking pot by buying them at local markets. After tagging, the saved turtles they are released back into the ocean, with the understanding of local fisherman that if caught again they will be recorded and released.

turtles saved from the cooking pot by Kido staff

turtles saved from the cooking pot by Kido staff

The work of organisations such as Kido and Old Hegg is helping to stabilise turtle populations. Visiting Bequia and Carriacou and getting up close to these ancient creatures, whether they are nesting or resting, is a rewarding and fascinating experience. And each visit, through support and the injection of tourist money, contributes and supports local efforts to create a future for sea turtles, rather than condemning them to follow the dinosaurs into extinction.

A version of this article was first published in Caribbean Beat  in 2006

There are a number of ways to help save sea turtles:

  • Don’t buy products made from turtle shells.
  • Avoid eating dishes containing turtle meat or buying it.
  • When visiting beaches where turtles nest, walk close to the sea to prevent the sand above their nests from compacting and making it hard for new born baby turtles to dig their way out.
  • Turtles mistake plastic bags for jelly fish and try to eat them, don’t throw any into the sea or leave them on the beach.
  • If you come across a turtle while it’s nesting, don’t approach it.  Keep a distance of 15 metres and don’t shine any bright lights at it.  If disturbed or disorientated the female will return to the sea before she has laid and dump all of her eggs into the ocean.
    The seven species of sea turtle are:

  • Loggerhead
  • Green
  • Hawksbill
  • Kemp Ridley
  • Olive Ridley
  • Flatback
  • Leatherback