The marine mammals in Dutch Caribbean waters, from the smaller dolphin species to the larger Humpback Whales, have always received a lot of attention. Not so long ago the plan to designate the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) around Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten as a marine mammal sanctuary was set in motion. However, little is still known about the exact migratory routes species like the Humpback Whale use, or where these whales that frequent the waters of the northern Lesser Antilles from January to June migrate to, or even why they come to our waters. Other species, like the Sperm Whale, also frequent our waters, but are they the same individuals that are seen in Guadeloupe and Dominica? And are these waters also used as a nursery by Sperm Whales? These are some of the questions a ten-day scientific mission baptised the “Megara Project” hopes to answer.
In 2008, the Regional Activity Centre of the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol (SPAW-RAC) adopted a Marine Mammal Action Plan at their Conference of Parties, which recommends the implementation of a cooperative strategy for conservation and management of marine mammals in the Caribbean. The aim of this plan is to facilitate the management of marine mammal migration corridors and protected areas for marine wildlife populations common to several countries.
At the Second International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas (ICMMPA) in 2011, the Dominican Republic, France for the Agoa Sanctuary, covering Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy, the Netherlands for the Dutch Caribbean islands, and the U.S.A. for the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary, demonstrated their commitment to this initiative, by establishing “twinning” partnerships. In 2012 regional parties adopted a standardised scientific protocol on observation and identification of marine mammals in the EEZ of the French Antillean islands, the Dutch Caribbean islands and the British island of Anguilla. The sanctuaries of these collaborating governments together make up an enormous area designated for the conservation and protection of marine mammals (see map below – the white areas are dedicated marine mammal sanctuaries).
The first phase of the “Megara Project” took place between 24 March and 3 April 2014 in the waters of Saint-Martin, Saint-Barthélemy and Anguilla. The St. Maarten Nature Foundation joined La Résèrve Naturelle de Saint-Martin, the conservation organisation for the Agoa Sanctuary, and its marine conservation partners for the duration of the project. Argos marine transmitters were implanted into the fatty tissue of seven Humpback Whales which will allow scientists to follow their journey via satellite tracking. Led by Mads Peter Heide-Jørgenson of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, the project also included taking skin samples of the tagged Humpback Whales for DNA analysis. These samples will be analysed by Dr. Per J. Palsbøll at the Dutch University of Groningen to determine the sex and origin of each individual. The samples will be compared to a database of over 8,500 samples collected from animals in the Northern Atlantic. This may help to resolve speculation within the scientific community that local Humpback Whales migrate to Greenland or the coast of Norway.
The project also includes an exciting educational component. The deployed satellite tags transmit real-time information on their location via satellites, so the public can follow the migratory path of the whales ‘live’ on the internet. At the time of writing, one Humpback Whale is travelling in northeastern direction towards the open Atlantic Ocean, one is travelling in northwestern direction towards Florida and one is currently residing in Barbudan waters. The remaining four stopped transmitting several days after deployment.
With the information from this project, the Nature Foundation and its partners will lobby for a whale sanctuary to be established in local waters. The research also suggests that whale-watching activities done under proper guidelines may be a beneficial activity and help to boost the economy of St. Maarten.