While sailing around the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, a group of whale-watching tourists were treated to a rare sight: a pod of four orcas, breaching the surface of the ocean. For a few moments, the tourists delighted as they watched the sea creatures splash through the waters. Then it all went wrong.
As the group looked on, three fishermen sped towards the orcas in a small boat mounted with a modified harpoon, reports Caribbean 360. One of the crew’s tour members, Ken Issacs, tells the publication that he shouted at the fishermen to leave the animals alone. They ignored him. With a loud bang, the harpoon hit one of the orcas. Soon after, they killed another.
Many guests were crying as they returned to shore, according to Caribbean 360. But the incident has spun out beyond nightmarish experience of a single group of visitors. Thomson Cruises, which brought the tourists to St. Vincent, has canceled all of its future bookings with the local whale-watching company that ran the unfortunate excursion, reports The Antigua Observer. And a thorny debate over conservation, commerce, and culture has now erupted on the island.
As Sarah Gibbens reports for National Geographic, St. Vincent—known officially as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines—is a voluntary member of the International Whaling Commission. Under the agency’s guidelines, which stipulate that controlled whaling can be carried out by “certain indigenous people to satisfy subsistence needs,” St. Vincent is permitted to kill four whales every year. Since 2015, fishermen have killed six whales there.
St. Vincent’s native groups have reportedly been whaling since the late 1800s, when the Scottish settler William Wallace established a whaling company on Bequia, one of the islands in the Grenadines. Before quotas imposed restrictions on hunting, the whale meat trade boomed on the island, Jacqueline Charles writes for the Miami Herald. Indigenous groups still hunt whales for their meat and oils, which are eaten and used in homemade remedies.
But some have argued that this practice should not be allowed to continue. Ralph Gonsalves, St. Vincent’s prime minister, tells the The Antigua Observer that the whaler who killed two orcas in front of horrified tourists was “a hard-working fisherman” but “what he did was plain wrong.”
“I want to emphasize this,” Gonsalves adds, “what he did was plain wrong. Not just because it happened in front of tourists, but [because] he must not kill the orcas.”
Now, Gonsalves says, he plans to introduce legislation to ban orca hunting. “It is important for us to say that we have our traditions and we need to keep traditions,” he notes, “but we can’t keep traditions out of sync with the rest of the world or have those traditions continue in a manner which is injurious to us.”
Gonsalves isn’t the only one to question the value of whaling traditions on St. Vincent. Some activists say that the practice shouldn’t be considered a tradition at all. Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society, writes in a blog post that “[w]haling in St. Vincent is hardly a tradition,” since it stems from the business ventures of a foreign immigrant. “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,” Pacelle writes.
Sue Fisher, a consultant with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, echoed this sentiment during an interview with Gibbens. St. Vincent, Fisher explained, initially acted as an outpost for American whaling companies. "Yankee whaling was a commercial operation," she says. "The understanding by the commissioners [of the International Whaling Commission] was that whaling would provide nutritional subsistence."
If St. Vincent wants to continue its legal whaling practices, it is required to present “a statement of need” to the International Whaling Commission in 2018. But Fisher says she doesn’t think the country will bother. St. Vincent derives more benefits from tourism than it does from whaling—and as the recent orca debacle made clear, tourism and whaling can’t always co-exist.