Monday, 15 October 2007 00:00


By Scott Neil, Royal Gazette, 15 Oct 2007

Bermudian Lisa Vickers, who has helped co-ordinate Greenpeace's Great Whale Trail campaign.

Humpback whales on the other side of the world have a new reason to mention Bermuda in the haunting songs they send echoing thousands of miles across the ocean.

It is almost half-a-century since Bermudian sonar monitor Frank Watlington was instrumental in bringing global attention to the underwater "singing" of humpbacks as they swam past the Island, now endangered humpbacks half the world away are being given a gift of hope from Bermuda.

From her home on the Island, Lisa Vickers is playing a pivotal role in co-ordinating Greenpeace's collaboration with a pioneering project to track the whales across the Pacific and Southern oceans.

She wants others in Bermuda to know about the Island's part in the initiative and to encourage them to support the campaign, watch the progress of satellite-tracked humpbacks as they swim through the oceans, and even come up with names for the whales involved.

"I want every Bermudian to get involved because we are lucky - the humpback whales that come here are protected. But how would Bermudians feel if the whales coming past Bermuda were going to the Southern Ocean and being harpooned by the Japanese fleet?" explained Bermudian Ms Vickers, who earlier this year successfully lobbied internet retailer Amazon to stop it selling shark fin soup.

Up for air: A humpback whale sticks its head out of the water. The whales can hold their breath for up to 30 minutes as they swim underwater.
Photo Operation Cetaces

Her focus is now on whales. The southern humpbacks are related to, but distinct from, the humpbacks that migrate past Bermuda each spring.

While the North Atlantic humpbacks are recovering after being decimated by the whaling fleets of yesteryear, and enjoy extra protection as they swim through the marine sanctuary of Bermuda's 200 square miles of designated ocean zone each year, their distant cousins in the Pacific Ocean are not so fortunate.

Up to 50 of those far rarer humpbacks face being harpooned and killed by Japanese boats in the name of scientific research. The Japanese are legally allowed to kill up to 50 of the whales, as well as 50 fin whales and 935 minkie whales every year for research purposes. But this killing of whales is hampering the ability of the already endangered humpbacks from recovering to anything like their pre-whaling industry numbers.

Highlighting the plight of the far rarer Pacific/Southern Ocean humpbacks is the aim of Greenpeace International's Great Whale Trail, which is picking up media attention around the world.

The project intends to prove that all the scientific research data needed can be gleaned by placing satellite tracking tags on a selection of the whales.

"We will show that whales do not have to die for scientific research," said Ms Vickers.

The tracking project will gather data on little-known migration routes of the whales, where and how they feed, their habitats and how they use them and how their population is structured.

Since January, Bermudian Ms Vickers has been assisting with co-ordinating Greenpeace's participation in the tracking project. The worldwide conservation organisation is providing funding, support and publicity for the initiative.

A group of scientists in the Cook Islands and New Caledonia were already working to track the migration of the humpbacks from near the remote Pacific Ocean islands to the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica. Unaided they managed to satellite-track a single whale. But this year, with the extra assistance and resources of Greenpeace, the project has taken on a whole new dimension with 20 whales being tagged (10 of the tags are successfully sending back data).

Ms Vickers has been involved for a number of years with Greenpeace, firstly as a volunteer and lately as worker. Her experience working alongside scientists on a right whale tracking project in 2000 proved useful when she took up the challenge of linking Greenpeace with the scientists studying the endangered humpbacks.

The result is the Great Whale Trail. The progress of the tagged whales can be followed daily via the Greenpeace International website, and included are maps, pictures, and videos. There is also an opportunity to help name the whales.

Ms Vickers said the humpbacks are famed for their whale songs that contain what appear to be distinctive melodies and phrasing, albeit in 'whale-speak.'

The songs are a form of communication and can echo thousands of miles through the oceans.

The value of the whales alive far outweighs their value dead, particularly for the island nations of the Cook Islands and New Caledonia which have created whale-watching tourism sectors, according to Ms Vickers who said:

"We estimate one whale is worth $1 million through its lifetime to the Tongo economy."

She was involved in funding proposals for the project and creating a memorandum of understanding with the Pacific Ocean-based scientists to link up Greenpeace with their research programme. Now she hopes fellow Bermudians will support the project.

If successful, the Great Whale Trail is likely to bring a step nearer the outlawing "scientific research" whale killing.

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