One of Our Biggest Mammals Finally Gets a Sanctuary

Caribbean island of Dominica preserves about 300 square miles for nearly 3 dozen whale families
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 13, 2023 11:49 AM CST
One of Our Biggest Mammals Finally Gets a Sanctuary
People walk past a mural of a whale in Roseau, Dominica, on Sunday.   (AP Photo/Clyde K Jno-Baptiste)

The tiny Caribbean island of Dominica is creating the world's first marine-protected area for one of Earth's largest animals: the endangered sperm whale. Nearly 300 square miles of royal blue waters on the western side of the island nation that serve as key nursing and feeding grounds will be designated as a reserve, the government announced Monday. "We want to ensure these majestic and highly intelligent animals are safe from harm and continue keeping our waters and our climate healthy," said Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, per the AP. Fewer than 500 sperm whales are believed to live in the waters surrounding Dominica (an estimated 35 families), part of a population moving along the Lesser Antilles chain.

Unlike sperm whales elsewhere, the ones around the eastern Caribbean don't travel very far, said Shane Gero, a whale biologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, a research program. He noted that sperm whales are a matrilineal society, with young males leaving and switching oceans at some point in their lives. As a result, protecting the species is key, especially if few female calves are born, he said. "One calf being entangled can mean the end of a family," he said. Sperm whales can produce a single calf every five to seven years. In waters around Dominica and elsewhere, sperm whales have been hit by ships, entangled in fishing gear, and affected by agricultural runoff, limiting their survival.

In the pre-whaling days, an estimated 2 million sperm whales roamed Earth's deep waters before they were hunted relentlessly for oil. Now, some 800,000 are left, Gero said. The Dominica government said the reserve will delineate an international shipping lane to avoid more deaths of sperm whales, which have the largest brain in the world and can grow up to 50 feet. Visitors can still swim with sperm whales and see them from a boat, but in limited numbers. The move was praised by conservationists, including Enric Sala, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. "The government of Dominica has realized that the sperm whales, which were probably here before humans, are also citizens of Dominica," he said.

(More sperm whale stories.)

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