Rolling in the deep: whale-watching in Dominica

Paul Crask has a whale of a time whale watching off the coast of Dominica

  • A sperm whale takes to the deep. Photograph by Paul Crask
  • Cruising along Dominica’s west coast, where whales can be seen all year round. Photograph by Paul Crask
  • Scanning the horizon for whales. Photograph by Paul Crask
  • Spotted dolphins. Photograph by Paul Crask
  • Photograph by Paul Crask

All eyes are glued on the captain as he begins his briefing. We’re bobbing quietly on gentle waves, about a mile off Dominica’s west coast. Everyone is excited, the anticipation of seeing whales palpable.

“The first thing I would like to make very clear about our whale-watching safari today is that there are absolutely no guarantees of sightings,” he booms.

The pale faces of 50 passengers turn in dismay to the captain, now gatekeeper of our happiness.

“But we’ll do our best, of course,” he continues. “And we almost always succeed,” he grins.

“The species of whale we are looking for is Moby Dick, the sperm whale,” he says, pointing to illustrations on a rather worn-out chart. “And we have a very good chance of seeing some. Sightings along Dominica’s coastline are common, they breed here, and so far this week we have already seen five of them.”

Briefing over, he guns the engines and we head west into the Caribbean, full of hope.

This is my tenth whale-watching trip off Dominica. I have seen whales on eight occasions: sperm whales on six trips, pilot whales on one, and humpback whales on the other. This would seem to bear out operator claims of an 80 per cent success rate. I have seen dolphins every time; usually Atlantic spotted, spinner and bottlenose. Whales can be encountered anywhere off Dominica’s coasts, sometimes as far as 40 miles out, other times much closer to the shoreline. The sea gets deep very quickly here, as scuba divers will attest. It makes for a dramatic underwater environment of drop-offs, volcanic pinnacles, and a deep blue abyss that attracts a mesmerising array of marine life.

Five miles out, the captain cuts the engines. “The crew will now perform a hydrophone check,” he announces. “This is a device that helps us listen to sounds beneath the waves. Some of those sounds are made by whales and dolphins. That’s what we hope to hear, and if we do, we can tell which direction they are coming from. Whales make a very distinctive clicking sound. If you are quiet, you can listen to the hydrophone speaker with the crew.” With collectively bated breath, the passengers watch the device being submerged beneath the waves. A curious bubbling noise breaks the silence as the hydrophone is slowly turned 360 degrees in the hope of picking up whale sound. All I hear is a garbled mess which I hope means something to someone.

The crew members shrug and the captain restarts the engines. “Nothing yet,” he announces. “We’re going to head north to the area we saw them yesterday.” And so we all sit admiring Dominica’s coastline and trying to remain upbeat. But I can sense deflation; the body language and grumbling of some suggesting they have already resigned themselves to a no-show. An enthusiastic few pan the horizon with binoculars, zoom lenses, and strained expressions; the rest get comfortable and begin to snooze.

“Dolphins at twelve o’clock!” declares the captain and in unison we all spring to our feet. “A very large pod. Maybe 1,000. Atlantic spotted by the looks of it,” he continues as I strain my eyes to see them.

At first I see nothing, but then there they are; hundreds and hundreds, breaking the surface in huge leaps. We catch up and they zoom alongside the boat with unfathomable power and tear up into the air in twos and threes as if they had been practising this routine just for us. Everyone is joyous, including the crew, who hand out rum punch to celebrate. The dolphins take their leave almost as quickly and silently as they arrived and we are sad to see them go. A second hydrophone test offers nothing and the captain continues north with gritted teeth.

A combination of sunshine, rum punch, and an encounter with dolphins has made everything seem okay again and I hear people saying it was worth coming even if we don’t get to see any whales. I smile, wondering if they mean it.

And then the captain yells excitedly, “Breaching at three o’clock!” The boat thunders into a hard turn and we begin a pursuit. “Dead ahead of us, two of them, maybe a mother and calf,” he says. “Look, see the spray?”

No one does, then yes, there, a fine plume and dark shapes on the surface. “They only stay up for about 15 minutes, then they go down for about 45,” the captain tells us as we draw nearer.

And we see them. Sperm whales, a mother and her calf, playing on the surface. Unlike the dolphin encounter, everyone falls silent, seemingly in awe of these magnificent creatures. For ten minutes we follow at a respectful distance before the captain warns us they are about to submerge again. “Get ready for it!” he shouts. And there it is. The calf disappears in a shallow dive without a fuss, but her mother seems to give us a nod and a wink before nose-diving in spectacular fashion with an unforgettable wave of her tail fin.

The rum punch makes a second round and the captain receives several hearty pats on the back. We sink into our seats, smiling, and watch the nature island drift by, waiting for our new friends to surface again.


Saving the whales

Not so long ago Dominica was in the rather incongruous position of promoting itself as the “whale-watching capital of the Caribbean” while at the same time supporting Japan’s pro-whaling lobby at International Whaling Committee (IWC) meetings.

Critics of the pro-whaling lobby, notably Greenpeace, pointed to the fact that many small and poor Caribbean island nations had decided to back Japan in exchange for substantial aid packages, grant funding and fisheries development. The suggestion that votes were being “bought” has always been denied by Japan and the countries involved: Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, and St Kitts-Nevis. From 1992 Dominica consistently voted with Japan on commercial whaling, but in 2008 changed its stance, with Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit declaring the country would no longer support Japan’s whale-killing and would instead vote in its own national interest. Between 1992 and 2008 Dominica received hundreds of millions of yen for the development of fishing ports, facilities and fish markets in Roseau, Marigot, and Portsmouth.

Nevertheless, it decided to break the mould and became the first eastern Caribbean nation to stop supporting Japan’s drive to resume commercial whaling. To date it remains the only one to have done so. Greenpeace was so happy that a promotional film was made about it.