We have some wonderful news to share! The magnificent humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have returned for their four-to five-month long stay in the waters of Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten, which are located in a key humpback breeding area. After feeding in the cold Artic waters throughout summer, humpback whales migrate south to the Caribbean each winter to breed and give birth. They populate the waters of our windward islands each year from around January to May. Occasionally (sub-adult) Humpbacks are also spotted off the coast of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, but much less frequently (Aruba Marine Mammal Foundation, STINAPA Bonaire, Southern Caribbean Cetacean Network Foundation).
Humpback whales have made their presence known on Saba and St. Eustatius for several weeks now – they’ve been heard and a few quick sightings have been made – but legitimate proof was only just recently obtained. On St. Eustatius, Scubaqua Dive Center got some great footage of several humpbacks while on a rest stop. On Saba, Candice Volney and Saba Marine Park Ranger Jelle van der Velde were lucky enough to photograph a humpback’s fluke (tail) at the dive site Tent Reef. Each humpback has its own unique markings on their fluke, making it possible to identify and track individual whales throughout the Caribbean. In fact, after submission of the photograph to CARIB tails, the whale was identified within the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog as number na2599. This humpback was first spotted in the Dominican Republic in 1980, then again in 2004, and now in Saba in 2016!
As for St. Maarten, it’s only a matter of time before the first sighting is made. Each February to May, St. Maarten Nature Foundation conducts a census of marine mammals in the island’s waters through the Marine Mammal Monitoring project and conducts acoustic surveys in collaboration with IMARES. In 2014, together with La Réserve Naturelle de St. Martin and la Réserve Naturelle de St Barthélemy, St. Maarten Nature Foundation placed satellite-tracking tags and took DNA biopsies of some eight whales in the waters surrounding Sint Maarten, Saint Martin, Saint Barts and Anguilla to determine their migration patterns. A total of 33 humpbacks whales were recorded that year.
On Saba, a project to gather information on whale distribution patterns was recently commissioned to IMARES by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and is being conducted in partnership with the Saba Conservation Foundation. Acoustic loggers were placed in November 2015 at two different locations on the Saba Bank to gather information on the spatial and temporal distribution of whales, in particular humpback whales migrating in the winter months from the Gulf of Maine southward towards the Caribbean. The loggers will also collect information on longstanding background noise and the contribution of anthropogenic noise such as shipping. The acoustic loggers have been configured to capture data for a 5-month period and will be recovered in April 2016. After refreshment and data transfer the loggers will be re-deployed to cover the summer period. The long-term goal of this project is to place more acoustic loggers in larger areas around Saba. The hope for the future is that alliances will be developed with other Caribbean Isles such as Agoa and Guadeloupe so that this research on whale distribution patterns can be expanded to a much wider area of the windward Caribbean islands.