Smart! This newly announced reserve for the animals with the largest brains on the planet and with … let’s call it their exceptional digestion practices … should be beneficial to not just the whales but to whale watchers and for combatting climate change too.
World’s first sperm whale reserve
The government of Dominica announced November 13, 2023, that it is establishing the world’s first sperm whale reserve. The new 300-square-mile reserve will be off the western side of Dominica in its Caribbean (as opposed to Atlantic) waters.
While protecting endangered and vulnerable species is laudable in and of itself, the nation of Dominica hopes to benefit in other ways too.
Sightings of animals are more likely in areas where the creatures feel safe, so the new reserve should help boost Dominica’s tourism economy. Enhanced regulations, such as those banning commercial fishing and large ships in the reserve, will help ensure that sustainable fishing and whale watching trips have minimal effects on the sperm whales and on the other whales and dolphins that frequent the island’s waters. And thanks to Dominica’s sperm whales’ remarkable pooping capacity, the new reserve should also enhance Dominica’s contributions to combatting climate change.
Dominica’s sperm whales
About 500 sperm whales live in the Eastern Caribbean, with more than 200 swimming in Dominica’s waters year round. Sperm whales are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The animals are bigger than buses, about 49 to 59 feet long, and they’re easy to identify due to their massive heads with large rounded foreheads. Those heads hold the largest brains of any animal ever known to have lived on the planet. The whales dive extremely deep—as deep as 3,280 feet which requires them to hold their breath for 90 minutes—to find their preferred prey of squid.
The population of sperm whales that favors Dominica has been declining about three percent per year, according to The Dominica Sperm Whale Project. There are concerns that, without intervention, the population could be all but gone within a decade. The threats—and solutions— are human-generated. The program’s founder, Canadian whale biologist Dr. Shane Gero, said in a statement, “These ‘island whales’ live alongside humans, preferring this island over others, making our actions in their ocean home their biggest threat.”
Protecting Dominica’s sperm whales should help protect the entire planet too, thanks to the whales’ champion pooping capabilities.
Whale poop to the rescue
The feces of Dominica’s sperm whales play an important role in mitigating the effects of global warming.
Enric Sala is the founder and executive director of National Geographic Pristine Seas, an organization that helps protect the world’s oceans. In a press release about Dominica’s new marine reserve, he explained how sperm whales’ nutrient-rich feces boost plankton blooms and explained plankton’s effectiveness at capturing the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. When the plankton dies, it falls to the sea bottom with the carbon dioxide contained within it, where it can stay stored for hundreds of years.
According to reporting by The Guardian, sperm whales off Dominica defecate twice as much as other sperm whales. Scientists aren’t sure why, but Gero of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project said it might be because of the type of squid found off Dominica or because the whales eat so much of it. Regardless, Dominica’s new sperm whale reserve might have an even larger effect on reducing global warming than other protected marine areas. Experts estimate that 250 sperm whales living off Dominica could sequester the equivalent amount of carbon produced annually by 5,000 cars.
As Sala of Pristine Seas explained, “Protecting these whales offers an incredible, cost-effective climate solution that has been overlooked by policymakers. By protecting sperm whales, Dominica is bolstering its climate resilience. The more sperm whales in Dominica’s waters, the more carbon sequestered in the deep sea, thus helping to mitigate global warming.”
See Dominica’s whales for yourself
A visit to Dominica means a good chance of seeing its sperm whales, regardless of the time of year you visit. Insider tip: the country’s name is pronounced “Dom-in-ee-ka” (not at all similar to “Dominican Republic”).
Called the Nature Isle, Dominica is known for some of the Caribbean’s best snorkeling and scuba diving, beautiful beaches and for forested volcanic peaks that are peppered with waterfalls. The island’s volcanic origins also give Dominica unusual sites like the world’s second largest boiling lake, a reef that bubbles like Champagne, plus a natural hot water pool right in the ocean.
One of the most eco-friendly places to stay is Coulibri Ridge, an off-the-grid 14-unit resort that’s high on the hills in southern Dominica. In addition to being built and running as environmentally as possible, the resort founded two non-profit organizations: the Humane Society of Dominica and Resilient Dominica (REZDM) which supports local and self-sustainable projects, initially in response to the category five hurricane that caused severe damage to the island in 2017.