You’ll sometimes hear apologists suggest that whaling is compatible with whale watching, and that the two can flourish together. But the fact is, they really can’t, as a staggering incident last week, off the coast of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, made plain. There, according to local media reports, tourists on a whale-watching expedition were following a pod of four orcas when fishermen in speed boats chased down the animals and harpooned two of them right in front of the excursion group of some 40 tourists. A more horrifying, shocking assault on animals, in open view of people enjoying the splendor of the whales, you will not find.
This sort of thing has happened before, as I’ve pointed out, with the same ghastly and revolting result. A few years ago, in northern Norway, tourists on a whale-watching boat reacted in horror as whalers harpooned a minke whale they were admiring. As one tourist soberly said: “The blood flowed and it wasn’t a pretty sight. This really wasn’t what we came to see.”
According to the media reports, the cruise operator involved in this latest incident, Thomson Cruises, announced that it would end all whale- and dolphin-watching tours during its calls in St. Vincent. Orcas are complex creatures with strong family bonds, and killing even one member of a pod can have devastating effects on the others.
Whaling in St. Vincent is hardly a tradition, originating instead with a single Scottish immigrant who co-established a whaling station in the 1880s. It’s pursued by a small number of people in the Caribbean nation, and is essentially a commercial hunting operation masquerading as subsistence. It’s worth noting that many of those folks recognize that the world is moving away from them. Gaston Bess, one of the last remaining harpooners there, participated in 20 successful whale hunts over the course of his 30-plus years at sea. When he retired in 2013, he declared that whaling, once a productive industry in St. Vincent, “should be a thing of the past. It doesn’t add anything to our economy.” He now advocates replacing whaling with whale watching.
And so do we. The decision by Thomson Cruises makes pretty clear what is at stake for all parties involved – be they Vincentians or visitors. Many scenes from “Pirates of the Caribbean” were filmed on the island, it is a stable and inviting nation, and its tourism potential is high. Whaling as practiced there is a horrifying and unjustified remnant of its longer colonial history, not a culturally resonant or meaningful activity for the majority of its citizens. Their future, like the future of the whales, belongs to non-consumptive tourism and the satisfaction and opportunities that come with whale and dolphin watching, and the enjoyment of nature and hospitality in a beautiful island nation.
Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, announced on radio today that his government plans to introduce legislation outlawing the killing of orcas, in the wake of this latest incident. That should happen with all due haste. Until things change, and this sort of assault and killing stops, stay away from St. Vincent.