Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Whaling in Barbados
A few weeks ago I found a new book in the book store. It was new to me but it was published in 1910
One of the pictures and stories that caught my eye was about Whaling Barbados. Now let me say right off the bat that I am grateful that this is no longer taking place as I am strongly against it
Under British rule, Bridgetown became a busy port and Barbados a regular stop on the routes of many cargo, passenger, and whale ships. At the peak of the shipping industry, several ships were arriving at and departing from Bridgetown every day. Although the whaling vessels’ purpose in going to Barbados was to replenish supplies and recruit crew members, and was not specifically to look for whales, humpbacks are described by the ships’ record keepers as “plentiful,” just outside Bridgetown Harbor. Thus whales were often taken in Barbados waters. There is even a record of a bull humpback whale being taken in Carlisle Bay
Yankee whalers were present in the area as early as 1765, and a shore whaling industry developed in 1867, relying heavily on Yankee influences. The success of the shore whaling industry peaked around the turn of the 20th century with catches as high as 36 whales per year, but the population crashed shortly after that, and the industry shut down in 1920.
There is no historical or current record of dolphin exploitation, although several different species are present in the area. There is no reliable evidence than manatees were ever present in the area, due mainly to the island’s outlying position from the arc of southeast Caribbean islands.
There is archaeological evidence of prehistoric sperm whale and dolphin presence in Barbados, but none of humpback whales. Humpbacks are mentioned in the earliest accounts of whaling around the island, however, showing that a population existed prior to the beginning of human exploitation. Like any marine species, a humpback remains have to be deposited on shore in order for them to be easily accessible to archaeologists. Thus the lack of archaeological records for humpbacks is most likely the result of a low stranding rate.
Humpback whales migrate to the Caribbean in the late winter and spring months from their northern feeding grounds. They spend their time in the Caribbean breeding and calving.
Humpbacks reproduce at a low rate, with females giving birth to only one calf at a time and with an inter-birth interval of 2 years, on average. They also exhibit a strong mother-calf bond, something which was easy for whalers to exploit. If a humpback calf is struck or injured, its mother will stay with it as long as it is alive. Likewise, the calf will not abandon a wounded mother. This means that, in most cases, when either member of a mother-calf pair was attacked, usually both were killed. Species exhibiting this trait are more susceptible to hunting pressures than others for this reason.
Sperm whales, like humpbacks, have low fecundity, with females not reaching sexual maturity until age nine, and with a gestation period of 14-16 months. Calves are born singly. Sperm whales also exhibit a strong mother-calf bond, such that the pair will stay close together even if one is struck by whalers. Thus, like humpbacks, when one member of a sperm whale mother-calf pair is killed, the other is usually killed also. The combined result of these characteristics is a low rate of recovery from hunting pressures, like humpbacks.
Unlike whales and dolphins, there is no evidence that manatees ever inhabited Barbados.
The first record of a whale being taken in Barbados by a shore-based whaler is from 1813, and the whale is described as a “Grampus,” more commonly known as Risso’s Dolphin Based on its dimensions, however, Mitchell and Reeves (1983) believe it to be a young humpback. Regardless, however, this date marks the beginning of shore whaling in Barbados, although a commercial whaling industry did not begin operation until 1867
Barbados’ shore whaling industry was started by former crew members of Yankee whaling ships. Ever since 1765, when the first New England whaling ships visited the West Indies and the Caribbean, whalers would recruit Barbadians to join their crews when they stopped at Bridgetown. These Yankee Whalers frequented Barbados, which was the central supply port to ships in the West Indies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Death and desertion of crew members was not uncommon on whaling ships, so there was often a need to recruit locals when the ships stopped for supplies. Some of these Barbadians who had worked on whaling ships returned home after the voyages, having gained the necessary skills to hunt whales, and started their own operations.
There were three shore whaling stations in Barbados. The first, which operated from 1867 to 1920, was in Speightstown. The second was also in Speightstown, located immediately next to the first. The third was in Holetown and began operation in 1869
Barbadian shore whaling, unlike Yankee ship-based whaling, was largely opportunistic. The shore whalers set out to capture a whale only after it had been spotted from shore first, as opposed to the American whaling ships, which sailed all over the world in search of whales. When a whale was spotted, the whaling crew would set out in boats to pursue it. The boats used were 7.62 to 9.14 m (25 to 30 ft.) long, rigged with sails as well as oars, and each had a crew of 14. The oars were used for maximum steering and control when pursuing a whale, and the sails at other times. They would use a harpoon to capture the whale and an explosive lance, known as the bomb lance, to kill it. They would then jump into the water and sew its mouth shut, to prevent it from filling with water and sinking. Rather than hauling it aboard a ship at this point, they would drag it ashore, alongside the Speightstown jetty in Speightstown or on the beach in Holetown, for flensing. The whale would be flensed on the beach and the blubber would then be boiled in copper kettles, of the same design as those used to boil sugar cane juice in the production of sugar. Indeed, the boilers used by the Jordan whaling station in Speightstown were sold to a sugar factory after the station closed.
There was often significant competition between the stations in Speightstown over whales. Because the stations were next to each other, they both saw whales at essentially the same time and would race to be the first one to strike it. In 1904, the government passed the Fisheries Regulation Act, updating all of Barbados’ fishing regulations and consolidating them into a single bill This included laws governing competition between whaling boats from different operations, probably as a response to quarrels between the two stations. These laws include provisions that establish ownership of a whale by the first boat that strikes it and the ownership of a mother by a boat that strikes her calf, and vice versa. They even detail how profits and expenses are to be split if two boats happen to strike the same whale.
The fact that there were two whaling stations in one place, scouting and competing for the same whales, probably means that a relatively high percentage of the whales that passed Speightstown during the years of the stations’ operation were taken. If a whale were passing along the west coast, heading south, the chances of it making it past the two stations and Speightstown and another at Holetown, 7 km south (Figure 1), would have been slim. This intensity of whaling is probably the most important contributor to the vast reduction in humpback whale populations passing along Barbados’ west coast.
The blubber oil and spermaceti brought in by the whaling industry was in high demand for a number of uses. Blubber oil was yielded by both sperm whales and humpbacks, but spermaceti was only found in sperm whales, and indeed, the name “sperm whale” is shortened from its earlier name, “spermaceti whale.” Spermaceti was thus named because of the resemblance it bears to semen, its roots being sperma, Latin for sperm, and ceti, Latin for whale. The primary use of the blubber oil and spermaceti was as lamp fuel. Spermaceti was also used to make candles. Other uses included high-pressure lubricant, an ingredient in hydraulic fluid, ink, detergent, cosmetics, as a tanning agent for leather, and a degreaser for wool. By the time the whaling industry was in decline, several substitutes for whale oil had been developed, the most popular of which were petroleum products and jojoba oil
Once the blubber had been boiled down, the oil was put in barrels, it was exported to England and Canada. The bones were ground and used to make fertilizer. The meat was sold locally for consumption, and was reportedly very nourishing and preferred to beef, and was “used as a food by the African decendants” The baleen plates were used to make brooms. In these different ways, the entire whale carcass was used, although the main generator of profit for the whaling operation was the oil.
The boats used in Barbados are different from those used anywhere else in the southeastern Caribbean. Trinidad used pirogues, small, wooden fishing boats, which were oar-powered. These had a crew of six rowers and one harpooner in the bow. Bequia used 7.62-7.92 m (25-26 ft.) open sailing boats, modeled after those built in Nantucket. These had a crew of six, including the harpooner and the captain. The boats in Grenada were modern Norwegian whaling ships, which were steam-powered, unlike the oar-powered boats of the neighboring countries, cruised at a speed of 11 knots, and could tow up to five whales. They could be operated by a relatively small crew, as they did not need rowers. The large crew and medium size of the Barbadian boats makes them substantially different from any others in the area, demonstrating that the whaling industries of many neighboring southeast Caribbean countries had little contact with each other.
The whaling stations in Barbados are also different from those in other Caribbean countries. The Barbadian stations consisted of a shack in which whaling gear was stored. There were no permanent buildings. All of the operations of the whaling industry that took place on shore were carried out on the beach. Thus the Barbadian stations were the most primitive of the three types found in the southeastern Caribbean.
In Trinidad’s and Bequia’s whaling industries, there are reports of sharks attacking whale carcasses and eating the blubber. The economic losses due to sharks were significant enough that Trinidadian whaling stations employed men with axes to kill sharks and Bequia whalers would lance sharks from the whale boats while whales were being brought ashore. Although there are similar reports of sharks attacking whale carcasses in Barbados the Barbadian operations never employed anyone to kill the sharks. In fact, the whalers could reportedly walk through the water in the midst of the frenzied sharks and not be harmed.
There were wide fluctuations in oil production over the duration of the industry, however, the average annual production between 1889, the first year production rose about 100 barrels, and 1902, described as the last successful season, was 289 barrels per year.
The most common explanation for the end of the Barbadian whaling industry is related to the intensity of the whaling on the west coast. The argument is simply that the whale stock was depleted and did not recover. This is the explanation given by Earnest Greaves, the “last survivor” of the Speightstown whaling industry. He remembers 1902 to be the last really successful whaling season. Elmer Jordan agrees that whaling stopped because the whales were depleted.
Another explanation as to why fewer and fewer whales were returning to Barbados had to do with a structural change in the sugar industry. In the late 19th century, when shore whaling began, there were 200-300 sugarcane-grinding windmills and boiling houses around the island, one at each plantation. In the early 20th century, those windmills and boiling houses closed down as growers began sending their cane to factories to be processed. When boiling houses were numerous, many people claimed that the sweet smell of cane juice could be smelled 20 miles out at sea. They believed that this smell brought the whales close to shore, and that once the factories were built, the smell was no longer strong enough to attract the whales, which is why they stopped coming. This explanation is unlikely, due to the fact that both toothed and baleen whales, such as the sperm and the humpback, respectively, have an underdeveloped and probably nonfunctional sense of smell.
Marine mammals are not a common sight in the waters around Barbados. This is evidenced by the fact that there are no dolphin and whale watching operations for tourists, despite the fact that tourism is the largest contributor to the national economy Many Barbadians are not aware that there are whales and dolphins in their waters. According to reports from fishers, however, dolphins and whales, mostly bottlenose and humpback, are present. The bottlenose dolphins are present year-round, but do not often get closer to shore than a few miles. The humpbacks go close to land, sometimes as close as 200 or 300 m, but are a seasonal presence, with most of them passing Barbados from March through May. There are also occasional reports from fishers of sightings of other species, such as sperm whales, killer whales, and pygmy sperm whales. There are literature records for Cuvier’s beaked whale, short-finned pilot whale, bottlenose dolphin, spotted dolphin, Stenella spp., sperm whales, humpback whales, bowhead whales, Risso’s dolphin, and common dolphin in Barbados.
On a personal note, I have many fond memories of seeing whales off the East Coast of Barbados as a child, These wonderful and majestic creatures are always wonderful to see and there is much excitement surrounding their sighting :)
While I personally was unable to see any of the reported sightings this year I was still delighted to hear that there were many many sightings this year, much more than more recent years. Hopefully these wonderful creatures can once again find the peace that they once found here way before men hunted them.