SAMANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC—Kim Beddall left her hometown of Pickering, Canada, in 1983 after answering a newspaper ad looking for someone to teach scuba diving in the Dominican Republic.
“I wanted to live where it was warm and go on ski vacations, instead of doing it in reverse,” she says with a grin.
But Beddall soon found that while the weather was wonderful on the peninsula at the north-eastern end of this popular Canadian destination, the diving was hardly spectacular. It was only in talking to local fishermen that she discovered something else.
“We have whales here,” they told her. “We don’t know why they come or what they are doing here, but we have whales.”
In fact, as Beddall was to discover later, the Dominican Republic is home to a huge number of North Atlantic humpback whales that arrive in late December and leave in mid-March each year, mating and calving in the wide, sheltered bay.
So, after watching and studying the whales for a few years, Beddall bought herself a little fishing boat and started taking tourists out in the bay. There they heard the humpback’s solitary courting song and saw a dramatic display of whales breaching, diving, lob-tailing (smacking the surface of the water with their tail) and flippering (rolling and hitting the water with their flippers).
These days, Beddall’s boat is the 50-foot fibreglass Victoria II which can hold 60 people.
“Over the years the boats got a little bit bigger and better,” Beddall says. “This one is very comfortable and you have 360-degree viewing from both decks.”
An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 whales visit Samana Bay throughout the season, alone or in pairs.
“They are eating one ton of small fish in the North Atlantic on a daily basis, so you don’t want to hang out with many friends,” Beddall notes with typical dry humour.
“They maintain that loose social structure, except when there’s fertile female. Then you can get anytwhere from two to 20 males, fighting it out for the right to escort the female.”
And thanks to her pioneering work, whale-watching is now big business in Samana, with eight established companies and about a dozen “independents,” as Beddall calls them. Some of her employees have been with her for 14 years, she says, and others have gone on to found whale-watching companies of their own.
“Technically I suppose I would be considered the founder of whalewatching in Samana,” she say. “It’s been really exciting to see it develop and to see the economic impact on the area.”
Beddall estimates that whalewatching along the whole north coast of the Dominican Republic generates about $8 million (U.S.) a year.
And it is the economic benefits that she stresses in her fight to enforce whale-watching regulations, such as how many boats can watch whales at any one time and how close they can get.
“In developing countries you need to give your resource an economic value — I can buy clothes for my kids, I can fix my roof. And if the whales don’t come back, you lose your income.”
The rate of compliance is about 70 to 75 per cent rate, she says. “Some people are a little less disciplined than others.”
But she’s satisfied with what’s been achieved so far. “Samana Bay is the third most important reproductive area for whales in the North Atlantic and we are considered one of the top ten places in the world to watch whales,” she says with pride in her voice.
But one small regret remains.
“I have taken people from all over the world whale-watching, but very few Canadians,” she says. “I am crazy to have Canadians on board.”
by Robert Crew / Toronto Star
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