OIsn’t there a benefit to realizing that we are treating our oceans like an oversized landfill? The popularity of programs designed to protect their inhabitants continues to grow, whether it is national marine parks such as Plymouth Sound in the UK or the UNESCO World Heritage Marine Programme, which protects areas such as Shark Bay in Western Australia.
The Whale Heritage Site program is the latest example. Created in 2015 by the Global Cetacean Alliance, its goal is to identify remarkable habitats for cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), protect these species by raising awareness, encouraging community engagement and promoting whale watching. responsible for whales and dolphins as an ethical alternative to watching cetaceans in captivity. The first two beneficiaries of the program were The Bluff in South Africa, an area off Durban, and Hervey Bay in Australia, a key stopover for migrating whales. In January 2021, it was announced that Europe’s first whaling heritage site is the Tenerife-La Gomera Marine Area, off Tenerife.
So what is the appeal of the Canary Islands? It turns out cetaceans go there for the same reason sun-hungry tourists do (though the whales’ indulgence of choice is admittedly shellfish, not cocktails). There is year-round sunshine and warm, clear water and in some areas the ocean is 2,000m deep allowing cetaceans to feast on a variety of species, ranging from plankton to squid. This staggering depth also provides protection from the cold currents sweeping across the Atlantic – a major advantage for creatures that can’t just jump onto dry land and collapse on a deckchair.
The area is home to 28 species of cetaceans, although it is the short-finned pilot whale that most visitors are desperate to spot. “Tenerife has one of the few resident populations of short-finned pilot whales in the world,” says Katheryn Wise, wildlife campaign manager at World Animal Protection, which is partnering with the Global Cetacean Alliance to deploy the Whale Heritage Site program. “The pilot whales here have unique hunting behaviors that have not been observed elsewhere. An example is their high speed deep dives to hunt and capture squid.
By highlighting areas such as the Tenerife-La Gomera Marine Area, it is hoped that more people will understand the significance of these creatures. “Cetaceans are excellent indicators of ecosystem health,” says Jacobo Marrero, a cetacean expert based in Tenerife. “They alert us to imbalances and play a vital role in maintaining balance. Without these apex predators, the natural balance is easily upset.
South Africa’s Whale Heritage Site – known as The Bluff – is a prime example of one that has come full circle. In the early 1900s, it was home to the largest land-based whaling operation in the world. Each year, the crew of South African Whaling Company ships in Durban harpooned around 100 whales between March and September, and black and white footage shows huge carcasses being transported along a railway built in this effect. A century later, in 2019, The Bluff became the world’s first Whale Heritage Site. Today, an annual whale-welcoming festival, along with guided walks and tours of the old whaling station, allow locals to learn about cetaceans. Only two closely watched whale-watching operations can operate, which brings us to another advantage of whale-watching heritage sites: to be eligible, judges require proof that there are mechanisms in place to protect the well-being cetaceans and reduce threats.
“In Tenerife, for example, stakeholder groups have pledged to reduce the number of illegal whale-watching operators and to encourage tourists to use responsible and sustainable operators,” says Elizabeth Cuevas, site manager of the Whale Heritage at the Global Cetacean Alliance. “Meanwhile, at California’s Dana Point Whale Heritage Site, the panel has identified plastic pollution as a major threat, so there is a focus on initiatives that reduce plastic pollution. At future sites, the collisions with ships could be of concern, so the conservation measures could again be different.”
At a time of growing pressure on organizations like SeaWorld to drop shows featuring cetaceans, whale heritage sites don’t just highlight areas where these creatures can be found. seen in the wild, but ensure that there are measures in place to protect them. “By increasing their prominence, we hope to reduce the demand to see these creatures in tanks and get closer to our vision of making them the last generation of cetaceans in captivity,” says Wise.
In a nutshell, it’s about making cetaceans the stars of the show, but in a very different way. It’s about involving communities and convincing people to care about these wonderful creatures. And not a moment too soon. “The status of many cetacean species is vulnerable to critical,” says Dylan Walker, chief executive of the World Cetacean Alliance. “Extinction is imminent for some, and whale heritage sites are an essential tool that allows us to prioritize their protection in the places where they cling.”