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Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter - ORES

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Caribbean whaler turns whale watcher

WDC warmly welcomes the news that Orson ‘Balaam’ Ollivierre, regarded as the chief whaler on the island of Bequia (‘bek-way’) – the second largest island of the Grenadines in the Eastern Caribbean – has abandoned whaling in favour of whale watching.

Adopt a humpback whale

Since 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has awarded St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) an annual subsistence quota, currently four humpback whales. The hunts have long been the subject of controversy since SVG fails to meet the criteria for nations wishing to hunt for subsistence purposes. Whaling is not a cultural tradition for Bequia but rather was introduced in the late 19th Century by Scottish settler, William Wallace, who later teamed up with French settler, Joseph Ollivierre, an ancestor of Orson. Orson himself learned whaling techniques from his uncle Athneal, around a quarter of a century ago.

Until recent years, the hunts were notorious for targeting mother/calf pairs, striking the calf first in the knowledge that the mother would remain close by to aid her dying calf: a technique forbidden under IWC regulations. Hunting methods were particularly brutal involving the use of speed boats, harpoons and exploding projectiles.

Last year, Orson killed three humpback whales. Renouncing the harpoon then, is a brave and much appreciated gesture from Orson and comes after the National Trust of St Vincent and the Grenadines mounted a campaign urging a move to watching – rather than killing – humpback whales.

In mid-February, Orson handed over his whaling boat, Rescue, and whaling equipment to the Trust and these will be displayed at the Bequia Boat Museum. He feels that the time has come for a change and hopes that whale watching will be more lucrative than whaling – as has proved the case time and again in other parts of the world. Doubtless, like other whalers turned whale watchers before him, his local knowledge of whales and their movements will prove invaluable.

 He joins another local whaler, Gaston Bess, who gave up whaling last year after more than three decades, following a whale watching trip to the Dominican Republic.  “Watching them took my breath away,” Bess said at the time. “Even though I had been around them, struck them and watched them die, now I was watching them ballet, caressing their young. Harpooning whales in St. Vincent and the Grenadines should be a thing of the past. It doesn’t add anything to our economy. People should get excited and get their children excited in watching the whales in their natural environment and protecting them.”

I congratulate Orson and Gaston for having the courage to change their relationship with whales. My hope now is that another whaler, slaughtering fin whales thousands of miles away in Iceland as his father did before him, may one day experience a similar epiphany.