Some of the loudest and largest predators in the world are living just 525 kilometres (bird's fly) off the coast of T&T and most citizens have never ventured to see them although the opportunity exists.
The predators are sperm whales which grow up to 70 feet long and weigh about 60 tonnes. They live just three miles off the coast of Dominica, one of the most untouched islands of the Caribbean.
While male whales (bull) migrate from the area, mainly juveniles and females have become resident whales of Dominica. Their magnificent presence makes the mountainous island the only country in the world where the whales can be sighted year round.
During a tour of Dominica earlier this month, Guardian Media got the chance to see a pod of whales as they lounged in the deep blue waters on Dominica's western coasts.
The ocean floor in this region drops steeply to several thousand feet very close to shore and this provides a calm and sheltered area for the whales to feed, mate, and socialise. Having been studied extensively for over 12 years, the whale pod is very friendly and some daring divers (not us) have been given the opportunity to swim with them. During socialising sessions when the whales rub on each other, the divers get the unique experience of getting up close and personal with the sea mammals which have the biggest brains in the world.
The whale expedition was among the most exciting adventures we experienced on the nature isle. Our captain Dave Fabien and his crew Nigel Seraphine and Brenton Daisy met us at our hotel Ocean's Edge Lodge at 8 am and we set off.
Sharing fascinating intimate details about the whale family, all of whom have been named based on the shape of their tails, Fabien told us it was not always a guarantee that whales will be spotted. If the whales are absent, we were likely to see other types of sea mammals (cetaceans) including dolphins and porpoises frolicking in the waters.
Fabien said the deep coastal waters off Dominica provide ample feeding grounds for at least six different species of cetaceans including whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
The waters are so rich in aquatic life that 22 of the 33 species found in the Caribbean live off the coast of Dominica.
He said the family dynamics of the whale family were admirable with one baby calf having several "mothers".
"We have seen baby whales suckling from one female to another female in the family pod. When a female dies, there is always another female to take care of the calf," Fabien said.
He said the whale's diet is squid and this was abundant in Dominica's waters.
"A full grown whale needs to eat a tonne of squid per day to survive. In Dominica, we are known for the diamondback squid and I have seen them grow big to almost 60 to 70 pounds," Fabien added.
Throwing a hydrophone down the depths of the ocean, Brenton Daisy said they use this underwater microphone device to track whales. The periodic spouting of water from the whale's blowhole as they exhale is the first indication I got of their appearance as they were partially hidden among the waves.
"Our sperm whales are known and thousands of photos have been taken. We were lucky to work with many researchers tagging whales. Most of the researchers come from Canada, Halifax in Nova Scotia," Fabien said.
Watching the whales take deep dives as they searched for food, sparked excitement and wonder that a creature so big could exist off such a small island.
Protecting the whales
Whales throughout the world are vulnerable to the mass expanse of plastic debris that floats out in the Caribbean Sea. In a bid to protect its whale population, Dominica's Minister of the Environment, Climate Resilience, Disaster Management and Urban Renewal Joseph Isaac said they had banned the use and importation of non-biodegradable single-use plastics including lids, cups, single-use styrofoam, plastic containers, disposable plastic cutlery, and drinking straws. This ban took effect from January 1.
The Government also approved the application of zero per cent duty on the importation of alternative authenticated biodegradable products (lids, cups, single use containers, cutlery, and drinking straws) and zero per cent duty on the importation of reusable shopping bags with immediate effect.
The six-month phase-out period, for the distribution and use of non-biodegradable products imported prior to the ban, will end on June 31.
Seraphine, who has been doing whale tours for more than a decade, said he was proud of his country's initiatives to end the use of plastic. He said Dominicans were fortunate that the whale family had chosen Dominica as their home.
"Many whales have died from eating plastic across the world and those whales which live off Dominica's coast are precious to us so we must save them," he said.
Having the largest brain in the animal kingdom, Seraphine said the whales have two-pound teeth yet there have been no mishaps with whales and humans in Dominica.
"These whales are highly intelligent creatures and they can dive over 4,000 feet deep. We have researchers swimming very close to them as they chomp down on squid but they do not attack anyone," Seraphine said.
Now considered national treasures, Seraphine said over the past few years, Dominica's government has been issuing a few carefully controlled numbers of in-water permits to select individuals—researchers, reputable underwater expedition leaders, documentary film crews.
Tourism in T&T
Kevon Wilson, senior tourism analyst for Tourism Intelligence International said Dominica has maximised on the tourist potential of the whales. He said even though T&T did not have a whale watching industry there were many aspects of our tourism that can be marketed abroad.
"T&T has a fantastic eco-tourism product, we have wildlife and rainforest. There is a mix of eco-tourism products that we can market and promote to the rest of the world. We need to balance this with other elements of tourism which no other Caribbean island can offer. When you marry ecotourism with our cuisines, our culture and vibrancy we can market this to the world. People don't understand and appreciate what tourism can do for the country. We have to get the product right and our mindset right," he said.
How to get to Dominica
Dominica is serviced by two airports. Douglas Charles airport (DOM) and Canefield (DCF). International flights from the US and Europe connect through hubs in Antigua, Barbados, St Marteen, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, and St Lucia.
Catamarans operated by L`Express des IIles ferry 300 to 400 passengers between Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St Lucia. Cruiseliners can also utilise three main berths on Dominica; the Rosea cruise ship berth, Woodbridge Bay Deep Water Harbour and the Cabrits cruise ship berth.