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Humpback Whales and Community Tales

The Humpback whales journey every year from the cold waters of the north Atlantic to the Caribbean. They return to the waters of their birth in search of some respite, many of them to the Bay of Samaná in the Dominican Republic. They frolic, find a mate or give birth during the months of mid January to April. The Humpbacks have been part of the landscape of Samaná for a long time, many returning every year for over 30 year periods. From their vantage point in the water, they are witnesses to the historical transformations taking place on land and the increased usage of the waterways.

During the months of January to March the whales are the biggest attraction in the bay of Samana¡. Touted as an economic resource for the community, the whales attract thousands of tourists from all over the world. It is during these months that the local economy is significantly boosted when the whales and their visitors arrive. During the three months that the whales visit the Bay of Samaná more than 40,000 visitors arrive to catch a glimpse of these majestic mammals.

The whales are now at the center of discussions of local management of tourism. Trying to create a niche and distinguish itself from other destinations within the DR and the Caribbean. Samana¡ has embraced the visits of the humpback whales. Through their protection and management and increased income produced through visitors to the region, a relationship has been forged with the community. This relationship has been used to breathe new life into the local economy of Samana¡ through the development of the whale watching industry.

The whale watching industry has the economic potential to provide incentive for the community to come together to develop the local space, but as presently managed by the state. The effects of local development are limited to certain segments of Samana¡ society and to foreign capital. Dominican nationals own the majority of the tour boats, but this money rarely trickles down to the workers and others involved in the industry. As a result of the high cost of a whale watching trip, the majority of the local population has never had the opportunity to see the whales up close. In addition, the increased vessels in the bay including cruise ships and the continuous harassment by whale watching boats have affected whale behavior within the Samaná Bay and may impact the number of whales visiting the bay.

The growth of the whale watching industry in Samaná has been subsidized and promoted by the Dominican state. For example, the Dominican Republic has become the most popular travel destination in the Caribbean and the fourth largest market for tourism in all of Latin America. In 2013 alone, visitors numbers increased by 3.6% with hotel occupancy around the island reaching 87.3%.(Dominican Central Bank). The increase in visitors to the country has been significant going from 1.75 million in 1993 o 5.1 million in 2013. The largest number of these visitors to the DR are arriving from the US, Canada, Germany and France with the largest increase in visitors emanating from Russia, Argentina and Brazil.

Economic emphasis on tourism driven by the Dominican state has precipitated extreme shifts in the coastal maritime community of Samaná and other tourism areas in the country. Since the early 1970’s the Dominican state has forcefully intervened with the spatial layout of Samaná through infrastructural efforts that have centered on tourism. Tourism is promoted by the Dominican state as the only solution to the economic woes of the national population, but a closer examination reveals dwindling economic returns to the local population.

Today, Samaná and the whales are being marketed across the globe. This advertising image is devoid of local peoples, and centers on the pristine natural areas of the peninsula, projecting it as an open territory for tourist exploration. If constructed and organized differently, tourism in Samaná could have multiple positive effects on the community. For instance, many visitors are intrigued by the history of the community and this attention has energized community efforts to reclaim their stories and insert their voices in the Dominican tourism landscape.

In attempts to change the relation of the whale watching industry and the tourist activities with the community, the Municipal government alongside the Ministry of the Environment have developed a brand for Samaná linked to the arrival of the whales. With the support of the local tour operators and tourism business owners, the Whale Museum, CEBSE and other conservation organizations they organized the Humpback Whale Festival to inaugurate the annual whale season. The 4th iteration of this festival will happen from January 15th until the 23rd, 2015.

The Humpback Festival is meant to promote the beginning of the whale-watching season and to attempt to establish a relationship between the community and the yearly arrival of the whales.[1] Additional educational projects with the local youth were created to provide opportunities to connect with the whales. During the first iteration of the festival, a short film was shown about the conservation of coral reefs and their ecological importance, followed by a live band composed of musicians from the Diaspora who embraced the African rhythms of Haiti and the DR in their presentation. For the first festival in 2012 a small number of people turned out, most in some way related to the conservation efforts. The carnival held in early February was revived after renewed economic support from the municipality and has incorporated the whales' imagery into the carnival costumes. The carnival theme is linked to oceanic creatures like the dolphin, turtle, shark and whale. Despite these efforts participation by locals is still limited. Most come as onlookers, still unsure of how to engage, but it is an attempt to link conservation and tourism efforts to the perspectives of the community.


[1] The relationship to the sea is not only manifested through material means. The sea is expressed and represented by the community through various religious rituals, musical variations, visually inspired paintings and culinary inflections. The sea is seen as an entity to be respected, revered and one to which blessings must be given. The sea as a force of destruction and unpredictability

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