By Karen Erens
Position: anchored in front of Cayo Vigia, Santa Barbara de Samana
As captain Jean-Marc is busy with other things se con d captain in command, Karen is writing the logbook of the sailing yacht Blowing Bubbles.
We are already a few weeks in the Samana Bay area. It has stunning nature not only is the big nature reserve Los Haitises worth visiting. Each year from January to the end of March, the bay is visited by hundreds of humpback whales who congregate her e to find a mating partner.
The time we’ve spent at sea with Blowing Bubbles was very rewarding as we saw many tails of humpbacks diving down in the deep blue, we saw them breaching high up in the sky causing big splashes when they fall down again and we saw their long white fins sticking up above the surface as if they were calling us. We had whales swimming right next to the boat while floating at sea. We were listening to their singing in the water but we could even hear the singing inside our boat, their powerful sound penetrating our hull… what an amazing experience.
During our stay in Samana, by a matter of c oincidence, we ran into José Herrero, a researcher at CEBSE (Centro para la Conservación y Ecodesarrollo de la Bahía de Samaná y su Entorno), an NGO which is performing all kinds of nature conservation projects. As he was dressed in his wetsuit and mask, ready to jump in the water to do some research on the corals of the bay while snorkelling, we arranged for a meeting with him the next morning in the whale museum of Samana, just next to the office where he works.
José started his career in nature conservation when he was 16 years old as one of the volunteers to do research from the tourist whale watch boats. The NGO made a deal with the private whale watch companies to take volunteers on their boats in order to do research by taking detailed pictures of humpback whale tails. These pictures are gathered in one big database which is by now the biggest tail collection in the Caribbean. Each whale tail is unique so researchers know the number of humpbacks coming to the bay every season they even mark returning whales in the database. Sometimes they only return after 5 or 10 years.
There are laws in place to regulate whale watching and the industry surrounding the a ctivities on the water Unfortunately, tourist boats often come too close to the whales or there are too many boats with one group of whales. The issue here is tha t monitoring is very difficult. Nothing will change as long as tourists keep giving tips for the best up close and personal pictur e. Every tourist is here for that one special moment and is very happy with a close up picture of a whale. The world expects to see the best pictures on their social media and with a smartphone, there is only so much you can do! Before people used to have powerful tele lenses, so the best pictures were taken from a larger distance. Now, as soon as one boat gets closer, the next boat will even get close r to the whale, resulting in a real chase on the whale.
The research center discovered that during Covid years the presence of whales in the bay was significantly higher than in other years. At that time almost no (tourist) boats went out at sea, so those boats did impact the whale population in the bay although the companies state they respect all the rules of distance towards the whales. So one can wonder how many more years the whales will keep visiting to the bay?!
Since 2020, José has been an CEBSE employee working on three different projects. Each project with its own challenges:
- a coral project
- the evolution of coastal plants.
Project 1: The coral project:
Coral research and restoration is not an easy job. If they are studied in the sea, in water researchers are required at least on a regular bases (every day) to be able to follow up on a certain colony of corals. The centre is building a complete lab with four aquariums to make the research a bit easier In this way, it is possible to research the spawning and reproduction of baby corals. If they can be grown in the aquariums, the organization has the possibility to restore coral colonies that have been damaged by hurricanes or by the SCTLD (Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease) This disease is a real threat and is going all around the Caribbean islands as we speak.
The lab is currently under construction but we were invited to look. Four big aquariums are being built, and the whole room is full of connections and valves It will be finished very soon so they can start using it and monitor the local coral colonies even better.
We were happy that we could see all of this and we wish José and his team a lot of success with this coral research.
Project 2: Education of local fishermen
Many of the local people depend on fishing to supplement their food. There are about 3500 fishermen on the Samana peninsula. We already saw fishermen in small boats at sunset just fishing with one fishing line. This kind of fishing means no threat to the fish population in the bay But many of the fishermen use several very controversial ways of fishing!
Some of them use poison to paralyze and kill the fish. Another harmful way of fishing is with big fishing nets trawled over the sea bottom, destroying all reefs and catching every living fish down there They are called Licuadora which means blender in English
A more sustainable net, the “Suripera”, does exist. It has bigger holes so the small fish can get away grow into their normal size, and reproduce before being caught. The substitution of the nets is very difficult, just because the Licuadora catches more fish. So it is still a huge job to substitute the big destroyers with sustainable nets.
Hookah diving (diving with a long hose from a support boat, breathing compressed air) while using spearguns is also a favourite fishing method. However, as divers we do understand that this is not a n “honest way of fishing, having too much of an advantage to stay underwater with the speargun to catch fish.
And then there’s “the thing” with the colourful parrot fish. For some reason, people in the Dominican Republic really like to eat parrot fish. Most people don’t know that those fish keep corals clean by eating algae and removing dust from corals. So if too many parrot fish are eaten by humans, algae are growing faster and might take over some corals which lose their colour and die.
Another interesting detail is that parrot fish are responsible for all those nice white, perfect beaches everybody loves. How? Well, by eating corals and digesting, didn’t you know that the beautiful white sand is actually their ‘poo?
Changing the local fishing habits will not be easy. First, the fishermen need to be educated so they realize that the ways they are using now are not at all long term thinking So if they continue like they are doing now, only some small non edible reef fish will last.
And that s exactly what we saw while diving the Dominican reefs. There is a lack of bigger fish we were not even able to spot a parrot fish bigger than 15 cm.
This we have already experienced in so many parts of the world I t will be the same here, ending in empty reefs with little coral that will survive.
In collaboration with other researchers, the organization had the idea to build artificial reefs in dedicated locations. As a result of those reefs, fish will be attracted because they can hide in and behind the structures. This will enhance the reproduction of the fish and fishermen could fish in those dedicated places. But this is a process of years Organization and education are keywords. José will have a tough job ahead of him.
Project 3: Protection of coastal plants
The shores of the inner part of the Bay of Samana consist mainly of mangroves with only a few white beaches in the external part of the bay. These mangroves are very important for bird and marine life as they are the nursery for many kinds of fish. The small fish can hide easily between the plants’ roots until they grow bigger. Also the people in the bay area benefit from mangroves they protect the shores from erosion when a storm or hurricane passes by and make sure the water stays clear and healthy. That That’s why the mangroves are protected in the nature park of Los Haitises and Bajo Yuna. These parks are much bigger than just the shoreline, and it has a rainforest as well.
But in the Dominican Republic, agriculture is big business! So many parts of the mangroves are destroyed in order to gain land and plant coco palms for the coconut business. We witnessed parts of Los Haitises being burned down to make space for other crops to be grown. This destroys the original jungle vegetation which is why Los Haitises and Bajo Yuna have become protect ed nature reserves
All these activities are illegal, but monitoring them in those remote places is difficult.
If you ever pass Santa Barbara de Samana, go and visit the Whale Museum the entry you pay 3 is used by the CEBSE NGO for all the projects they are involved with. They can use all the help they can get.
Check out their website if you want to know more:
Maybe your scuba related NGO is in need of some promotion? We are Scubabiz.Help, so reach out to us and you might receive a publication about your marine conservation project in one of the next editions.
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