SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The small Caribbean island of Dominica is creating the world’s first marine protected area for one of the largest animals on earth: the endangered sperm whale.
Nearly 300 square miles (800 square kilometers) of royal blue waters in the western part of the island nation that serve as prime nursing and feeding grounds will be designated as a reserve, the government announced Monday.
“We want to ensure that these majestic and highly intelligent animals are safe from harm and continue to keep our waters and climate healthy,” Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a statement.
Scientists say that the reserve will not only protect animals, but it will also help fight climate change.
Sperm whales defecate near the surface because they shut down non-essential functions when they dive to depths of up to 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). As a result, the nutrient-rich poop stays at the surface of the ocean and creates plankton blooms, which capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and drag it to the ocean floor when they die. And Dominica’s sperm whales are thought to pollute more than whales elsewhere, says Shane Gero, a whale biologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, a research program focused on sperm whales in the eastern Pacific. Caribbean.
It’s not clear why sperm whales seem to pollute Dominica so much. Gero said that they may be eating twice as much, or maybe there is a particular type of squid that they are eating.
“In some respects, sperm whales are fighting climate change for us,” Gero said in an interview.
Fewer than 500 sperm whales are estimated to live in the waters surrounding Dominica, part of the population moving along the Lesser Antilles chain, swimming as far south as St. Vincent and north of Guadeloupe. Unlike sperm whales elsewhere in the world, whales around the eastern Caribbean don’t go far, Gero said.
He noted that sperm whales are a matrilineal society, with young males leaving and migrating across the oceans at some point in their lives. As a result, protecting the species is key, especially when so few female calves are born, he said.
“A calving calf can mean the end of a family,” he said.
A sperm whale can produce one calf every five to seven years.
In the waters around Dominica and elsewhere, sperm whales have been hit by ships, entangled in fishing gear and affected by agricultural runoff, limiting their survival. In pre-whaling days, an estimated 2 million sperm whales roamed the Earth’s deep waters before they were hunted for the oil used to light lamps and lubricate machinery. Now, only about 800,000 are left, Gero said.
Dominica’s government said the reserve would allow sustainable artisanal fishing and delineate an international shipping route to prevent mass deaths of sperm whales, which have the largest brains in the world and can grow up to 50 feet ( 15 meters).
Once the reserve is created, the prime minister said his administration will appoint an official and observers to ensure the area is respected and that whale tourism regulations are enforced. Visitors can still swim with sperm whales and see them from a boat, but in limited numbers.
The move was praised by scientists and conservationists including Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic.
“The government of Dominica has realized that sperm whales, which may have been here before humans, are also citizens of Dominica,” he said. “These whales spend most of the year on the coast of the island. Therefore, they take care of some of their citizens in a way that few countries have ever done.”
An estimated 35 families of sperm whales spend most of their time in the waters surrounding Dominica. Gero said some were probably over 60 years old, and they communicated by clicking sounds in a vocalization known as codas.
“That’s like asking, ‘I’m from Dominica, are you?'” said Gero. “It’s a symbolic sign.”
Gero and his team of researchers also named individual whales. One is called “Snow” because a scientist reads a Margaret Atwood book with a character named “Snowman.” Another sperm whale was nicknamed “Fruit Salad” because a researcher was snacking on it at the time. The whale calf is named. “Soursop,” according to the theme.