Eastern Caribbean whalers follow a 139-year-old tradition, now under siege

Standing on the rocky shore, the tall, graying man looks pensively through drizzling rain at the dark clouds, listens to the angry sea and wonders if nature will deny him a whale yet another day.

Don’t call him Ishmael. Call him Kingsley. Kingsley Stowe is among what could be the last in a long line of whalers from this tiny island.

It’s whale-hunting season, and islanders are hungry for the savory meat they say tastes like beef, and the oil used in a variety of homemade remedies. But there have been only sparse sightings of the breaching humpbacks that routinely migrate south from their northern feeding grounds — and no captures.

“I don’t think we’re going to go out today,” says Stowe, 54, a harpooner and proud defender of an ancient, daring trade on the verge of disappearing.

Whaling was once a big and profitable business in Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) supporting at least a dozen whale boats. But that was before quotas and broad bans on commercial whaling made this hilly outpost off St. Vincent in the Grenadines the only place in the Americas to still allow Moby-Dick style harpooning.

Now, islanders work under a quota that caps the take at no more than four whales during the four-month season from February to May — and so far this year, they’ve struck out, with the only humpback spotted and harpooned managing to escape.

“It’s like carnival when you catch a whale,” says Stowe, standing next to his beached 28-foot whale sailboat Persecution, inspecting the brass tip of a hand-thrown wooden harpoon. “But we don’t kill whales for joke. We kill whales for food.”

Long tradition

Even before this season’s so-far failed hunt, whalers like Stowe were fighting an increasing tide of resistance to Bequia’s 139-year tradition — including from fellow islanders who once were some of its strongest advocates of the hunt.

A former prime minister and one of the island’s whalers are among those who have joined environmentalists and marine mammal scientists pushing for St. Vincent to replace whale hunting with whale watching.

“Harpooning whales in St. Vincent and the Grenadines should be a thing of the past. It doesn’t add anything to our economy,” says Gaston Bess, who after 20 successful whale hunts over the course of his more than three decades long career called it quits last year. “People should get excited and get their children excited in watching the whales in their natural environment and protecting them.”

Bess decided to retire from harpooning during a whale watching expedition to the Dominican Republic last year.

“Watching them took my breath away,” says Bess, 50, recalling the joy of seeing a whale for the first time as something other than prey. “Even though I had been around them, struck them and watched them die, now I was watching them ballet, caressing their young.”

It was a far different experience from what usually happens here on this island in the eastern Caribbean when residents, from their front porches or a hilltop, spot a whale’s 10- to 15-foot water spout.

After jumping in a boat and closing in on the whale, the harpooner would ready his position while the captain finessed the sails to bring the boat between the whale’s head and tail. Then, the harpooner, standing six to eight feet away, would make his throw.

If it struck true, the whale would be hauled back to the whaling station on nearby Love Island and butchered.

After years of being a second harpooner, Stowe purchased his own whale boat and recruited his own crew of young seamen to train this season. He is determined to keep up the chase.

“Whaling is a tradition around Bequia,” he says. “We will continue to whale, and we’ll continue the tradition.”

Comrades who once shared one of only three remaining authorized whale boats, Bess and Stowe personify the tensions in Bequia — a tiny part of a whaling industry that is under mounting worldwide pressure.

Antartic ban

Earlier this month, the International Court of Justice, banned Japan from hunting whales in the icy waters of the Antarctic, while Japanese online retailer Rakuten, under fire from conservationists, announced it would end all online sales of whale and dolphin meat by the end of April.

Australia had led a four-year legal campaign against Japan’s slaughter of about 1,000 whales a year in the southern ocean under the guise of scientific research. The court ruling, however, doesn’t ban Japan’s in-country sales of whale meat or its hunting of whales in the northwest Pacific and its own coastal waters.

Still, some view the Antarctic decision as a victory for anti-whaling advocates, who for years have argued that there is nothing scientific about Japan’s hunts. They also argue that nothing supports continued whaling in Bequia, where it was introduced in 1875 by a Scottish settler, William Wallace, who had worked on American whaling ships.

Though it’s old, it is not an indigenous or subsistence industry, said Louise Mitchell, chairwoman of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines National Trust, which has taken up the anti-whaling crusade.

“It was Yankee whalers who taught us and it was the European settlers who were here who took it up,” says Mitchell. Today, she says, the few remaining whalers “are holding onto it because it is a tradition. It’s a passion that they have; it’s something they are used to doing and people don’t like change.”

A native of Bequia, Mitchell is the daughter of former Prime Minister James Mitchell, whose government in the 1980s was the first to vote with pro-whaling Japan at the International Whaling Commission. Environmental groups have long accused St. Vincent and other eastern Caribbean nations of throwing their support behind Japan in exchange for substantial sums of development aid. Tokyo and the cash-strapped island governments have always denied the claims.

“St. Vincent had an inconsistent position. We were whaling and yet we were voting against whaling,” said the former prime minister, who led the country from 1984 to 2001. “I decided to reconcile the position and got involved with Japan, and a lot of financing of the development of our fishery infrastructure, which had been terribly neglected.”

Change of heart

But three decades and technological advances later — and after a whale-watching expedition of his own to Nova Scotia — he, too, has had a change of heart. Like ex-whaler Bess, Mitchell thinks it’s time for the island’s 5,000 residents to transition from killing to conservation.

“The situation has changed. We no longer go out with the sailing boats to go after the whales. We no longer use pieces of mirror to signal where the whales were from hill to hill,” Mitchell says about time-honored techniques.

“We’re using cell phones to locate where the whales are, and we’re using speedboats to go up to the whale and strike the whale,” he says. “We are no longer involved in the indigenous craftsmanship of whale hunting Moby-Dick style.”

Mitchell, who welcomes her father’s transformation, is hopeful the island will lose its taste for whaling and whale meat.

“Whaling did have its place in history and it was important; like in the time when we didn’t have electricity. But we have moved beyond that,” she says. “I do not support it at this time in our history because it is not meeting a subsistence need anymore.”

In her youth, Mitchell says, whaling was as much part of Bequia’s unique identity as the camaraderie it fostered. Today, it sparks fierce rivalries as disputes emerge over claims to the kill, and chaos erupts at the whaling station where the meat is no longer given away but sold.

“When you go there, all it is is men cutting up this whale, blood everywhere, a lot of arguments, a lot of fighting, a lot of stealing of the whale,” she says.

In 2012, the whaling commission renewed Bequia’s whaling quota for six years — despite concerns about inhumane killing techniques, use of speedboats, the targeting of baby whales to lure their mothers and commercialization of the whale meat. The pro-whaling vote was part of a deal to preserve similar hunts in Russia and Alaska, and was supported by the United States.

Sue Fisher, an animal advocate with the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute, hopes St. Vincent’s license won’t be renewed again.

“This category of whaling is an exemption to the commercial whaling moratorium that has been in existence since the 1980s and by some awkward quirk, the St. Vincent hunt got included,” Fisher says. “They are not able to demonstrate a long-standing need for whale meat. They like it, they eat it, but it’s not meeting any nutritional subsistence needs. They are not struggling for protein.”

Many islanders still embrace whaling history.

The Iron Duke, the model on which all whale boats in Bequia were built, still sails today — 137 years after it was purchased by Wallace, the father of the island industry. Retrofitted through the years, the boat is used to teach youngsters traditional sailing techniques at a boat-building and sailing academy on the island.

The first locally built whale boat, Trouble, is also still on the island.

But increasingly it appears that those old boats may outlast the industry.

Retired whaler

By the time Orson Ollivierre harpooned his final whale last year, a 40-foot humpback, behind the celebrity hideaway Mustique just off Bequia, he was already considering retirement. One of the island’s finest harpooners, he is a descendant of one of the families who worked for commercial “Yankee” whaling operations and last year killed three of the four whales allowed.

“My grandfather was a whaler, my father was a whaler, and I am a whaler. But now I am retired, so I am not a whaler anymore,” says Ollivierre, who in February sold his boat Rescue, harpoon and other supplies to the National Trust.

Ollivierre, 58, says his children have no interest in carrying on a dangerous trade. Once, a harpooned whale took down his boat and left him and the crew in the waters for 15 minutes before it floated back up, without the whale. He also has tired of the anti-whaling backlash.

“I had my share of criticism out there on the water about whaling,” he says. “Those who are doing the whaling, they can have it. I am not against them.”

Ollivierre doesn’t fully buy the whale-watching pitch. He recalls the island going four years without killing one whale.

“We do have whales around, but whale watching needs a certain amount of whales to attract the business,” he says. “But we can try it and see how it works.”

Back at the beach, where mammoth whale jawbones serve as stair rails leading to the bay, the diehard harpooner Stowe dismisses talk of taking visitors on sight-seeing excursions.

“There are no whales here to watch,” he says, scanning the rough and empty sea. “You see any whales to watch?”

He does believe there will again be whales in his waters to kill and to support his family.

“If we don’t have whaling, what else is there to do?” he says. “We gotta go in the bush and plant. As my son said the other day, the only whale I want to watch is the one on my plate.”