The Soufrière Bay, one of the best sites for cetacean watching
Caroline Aimable joined the Mystic Man Tours team in 1997 and now heads the company. According to her, the Soufrière Bay is one of the best sites for cetacean watching in St Lucia, mainly due to the depth of its seabed at more than 60 m close to the coast. Since the setting up of the company more than 20 years ago, the Mystic Man Tours team has identified off the west coast a resident group of some 300 pantropical spotted dolphins, a group of more than 500 Fraser’s dolphins as well as a resident population of dwarf and pygmy sperm whales at the foot of the Gros Piton. ‘There is a 90% chance of observing dolphins,’ says Caroline with a broad smile while casting off the mooring lines of the Natural Mystic, a comfortable Samson 42 boat that is perfectly adapted for the observation of cetaceans. We rush to the bow of the boat, ready to trigger our camera as soon as we see a sea mammal jumping out of the water, and admire the famous Soufrière Bay whose panorama from the sea alone is well worth the outing!
Our naturalist guide explains the configuration of the sea bottom and provides us with details on the cetacean species that can be spotted there. Dolphins are the ones that are most frequently spotted along the west coast of St Lucia, between 3 km and 5 km off the coast. Pilot whales can be seen between 5 km and 32 km while sperm whales and false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are regularly sighted off the north-west, west and south-west of the island. For their part, Bryde’s whales and humpback whales can be observed between January and April, during the breeding and whelping period.
A unique encounter with killer whales
The boat suddenly turns west. We scan the horizon and notice three dorsal fins ripping the clear blue sky: what species is it? Close to the drop-off of Soufrière Bay groups of pilot whales and sperm whales are often observed by the team. But the dominant fin that we better see now is impressive. The white spot above the eyes and the black and white coat of the animals show us clearly that it was a small group of KILLER WHALES! These are killer whales (Orcinus orca)! The excitement is growing on board the boat and the crew can’t believe their own eyes as it is extremely rare to see killer whales off the island of St Lucia. It is a family of migratory killer whales comprising a male and two females, including a younger one. The male can be distinguished by its triangle-shaped dorsal fin, which can measure up to 1m80, and by its massive and strong body measuring on average 9 m and weighing approximately 9 tonnes! The female’s dorsal fin is much shorter and rounded. According to our guide, migratory killer whales can travel more than 1,000 km in 3 months and don’t fear to attack sharks and other large sea mammals. We watch speechless the three killer whales feeding on a school of small skipjacks some 2 miles from the Pitons, then slowly heading towards the latter, diving into the water from time to time. The boat slowly approaches the animals while maintaining the required distance to allow us to capture the scene. The killer whales rise up to the water surface after a few minutes and we can see and hear their powerful blows. We are aware that this is a rare and precious encounter and enjoy each second of it.
Observing resident dolphins in Soufrière Bay
As we barely recover from our emotions, the boat is already heading for the open sea, where we can see a group of pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and Fraser’s dolphins (Lagenodelphis hosei) cavorting with each other. The latter species measures on average 2 m and their body is a variety of grey shades. This encounter seems fairly mundane compared with the previous one but the experience is as intense and pleasant. As soon as the boat approaches, the cetaceans swim faster to follow us; some of them come closer to the bow while others perform some stunts to the applause of passengers and cries of children. Capturing this spectacle is not an easy task as the dolphins are scattered in several small groups and it’s hard to know which way to look! While the excursion had taken place without a cloud or a breath of air, the sky suddenly grows darker as if to mark the end of the observation, which lasted 3 hours in all.
Sensitising the population to the protection of sea mammals
On returning in the village, we tell Caroline Aimable about this unique encounter and she provides us with some complementary information. Killer whales are strongly united, they live in the same family clan all their life and constantly communicate with one another; scientists have indeed observed a form of mutual support that is uncommon in the animal world, explains the young woman. She has never had the opportunity to encounter killer whales, but has seen an amazing gathering of some 500 pilot whales around a dying newborn! ‘It all happened close to the coast of Chastenet. The spectacle of this group of animals that appeared to be mourning around this small body floating in the water was impressive and tremendously moving. Given the extent of the group, there were fears of a mass stranding!’
A group of pilot whales’ mourning ceremony
Pilot whales can regularly be seen in groups of 20 to 100 specimens off the coast, but are unfortunately driven away by fishermen from tourist areas, mainly on the south-west and east coasts of St Lucia. According to Caroline Aimable, this is a traditional activity and specimens are often landed in the ports of Soufrière, Choisel, Laborie, Vieux Fort, Dennery, Micoud, or even Castries. Currently, there is no control by local authorities to prevent such fishing practices.
A daily commitment on all fronts
Born in Soufrière, Caroline Aimable firmly believes in sensitising children and students. She regularly organises dolphin and whale-watching trips as well as snorkelling or glass-bottom boat outings to discover the sea bottom. Last year, nearly 800 pupils have taken part in glass-bottom boat visits of the marine reserve in the context of a school programme and showed particular interest in the populations of dolphins and whales residing in the waters of St Lucia. ‘It is amazing to see the enjoyment of the children! They live so close to the sea but had neither ventured in the open sea nor seen dolphins or whales. It is important to raise their awareness of the riches of their natural marine heritage.’ The Mystic Man Tours team also organises observation outings for disadvantages families and fishermen to share with them the wonder of encounters with cetaceans and the need to protect the latter. The magic of these interactions often has a positive impact, like this fisherman who told Caroline he cried after his eyes crossed those of a pilot whale that he had just caught. Since then, the fisherman campaigns against cetacean hunting and tries to convince his colleagues not to kill these sensitive animals which play an important role in the marine ecosystem of the island.
The young woman has also implemented the ‘Live Free in the Sea’ programme in partnership with the Eastern Caribbean Cetacean Network (ECCN) in 2008. The aim of this programme is to raise awareness among young locals regarding the impact of their behaviour on the beaches, reefs and sea bottom of their island. Each environmental action and training is coupled with a form of artistic expression in order to make easier to convey the message. Caroline tries to work in the long term with the classes to maximise exchanges and understanding. When she asked them one day why we should care about cetaceans, a pupil replied, ‘Because they care for us.’ This kind of touching answers nurture the motivation of Caroline to take action daily with limited means!
The Mystic Man Tours team works closely with the SMMA and does not hesitate to meet pleasure boaters aboard boats that moor in the bay to inform theme of the cetacean species present and sensitise them to the conservation of these animals. ‘Pleasure boaters often have the opportunity to come across sea mammals and it is important for them to develop the right reflexes in order to enjoy the presence of these animals while causing the least possible disturbance and ensuring their own safety,’ explains Peter Butcher, the chief of the marine park’s rangers.
Sea mammal observation outings are among the most popular outdoor activities among tourists in St Lucia, according to Caroline Aimable, who is also the vice-president of the St Lucia Whale and Dolphin Watching Association. The aim of this organisation bringing together a dozen quality service providers involved in the observation of cetaceans is to promote quality service and offer technical and scientific support to its members. Its priorities include strengthening existing regulations regarding the approach of animals, training of naturalist guides on board boats and implementing an education programme to raise awareness among children about the conservation of marine fauna.