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  • Writer's pictureNikola Simpson

Humpback whale match: Barbados - Iceland

Each year between February and April, Barbados is visited by gentle giants of the sea - humpback whales.  Glimpsed at a distance, and often only the “blow” seen as they breathe out at the surface, they seem particularly mysterious creatures of the deep.  However, each year we are understanding more about who these humpbacks are and why they visit. Let us introduce you to “Copyright”. This adult female feeds in the waters of Iceland in the far north and has been seen regularly there since 2006.  We know that she is Copyright because each individual whale has white patterning on its tail fluke that is as good as a human fingerprint.  Being warm-blooded, adult humpbacks leave the freezing northern feeding grounds as the winter approaches and head to the warmth of the Caribbean, to mate and have their young. 


In March 2022, Copyright was sighted with her young calf in Barbados, a straight-line migration distance of 6,500 km.  As recently reported by Basran et al (2023), Copyright was seen in Iceland in August 2022, just 169 days after her sighting in Barbados. This was the first photographic match and documented within-year migration of a humpback between Barbados and Iceland, and the most southerly confirmed match of an individual identified in Icelandic waters on a West Indies breeding ground.  


Figure Source: C.J Basran et al. 2023

Figure 1. Map and photographs showing the sighting locations, dates and photographic evidence of ISMN0028 and her calf. Dates in red text, denoted with *, indicate the within‐year migration of the mother‐calf pair between Barbados and Iceland.

Humpback whales undergo one of the longest mammal seasonal migrations on the planet. From low-latitude warm breeding grounds in the West Indies to high- latitude cold feeding grounds in the Eastern USA and Eastern Canada, Greenland, Norway and Iceland, humpback whales have amazing navigation skills. These marvelous migrators do so with extraordinary accuracy, rarely veering off course. 


In another year, things may go very differently for Copyright and her calf.  Like other humpbacks, she faces a multitude of threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, underwater noise from oil exploration, climate change including warmer ocean temperatures, and in the case of the Caribbean, the risk of being hunted down by whalers in Bequia. One whale from the quota of four per year permitted by the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) Bequia Aboriginal Subsistence Hunt was killed in April 2024.  So long as the whale is dead within 30 minutes of the first strike, whether it takes just a few strikes or many, the hunting down and killing of a large-brained, sentient mammal in this inhumane manner is sanctioned, the kill celebrated and the meat shared out.  Often the tail pattern indicating the identity of the dead whale will go unrecorded, and with no reported sightings of Copyright for the year, this could be how she has met her fate. The submission of tail fluke photographs for all landed whales, past and present, in Bequia – as requested by the Scientific Committee in 2017 – at the very least would be a significant contribution to our understanding of the migratory movements of this likely distinct sub‐population of breeding humpback whales at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles.


As a large ocean state that recognises the value of whales to the marine ecosystem and to tourism, as well as their vulnerability to anthropogenic threats, Barbados has begun to take whales into consideration in their marine spatial plan, and offshore oil exploration activities.  


As Caribbean Small Island Developing States (SIDS) continue to realize the full potential of the Blue Economy and the role of healthy marine ecosystems in climate action, could the valuation of whales - talking in dollars and cents and the regeneration of nature be one solution to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss? Could translating the value of what nature does for us be further justification for additional research including mapping of cetacean (marine mammal) sightings and protection of whales such as the commitments by the Government of the Commonwealth of Dominica late last year for sperm whales?


Written by: Nikola Simpson and Julia Horrocks

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