In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an island strives to preserve its controversial customs in the face of absent whales, international pressure, and disagreements over the definition of ‘tradition.’

Whalebones are large enough to hide in plain sight, which occasionally makes for unsettling revelations. At Toko’s Stepdown Bar, for example, several whales’ ribs discreetly serve as handrails down the length of the outdoor staircase leading to the venue’s entrance. They are a somewhat morbid reminder of the continued existence of a controversial practice outlawed throughout most of the world thirty years ago.

Toko’s is the local pub in Paget Farm, a small village on the south shore of Bequia (pronounced BECK-way), the largest ‘Grenadine’ in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an archipelago nation of just over 100,000 inhabitants on the eastern rim of the Caribbean Sea. Like any great pub, Toko’s is a community hub. What makes it unique, however, is its role as the unofficial headquarters of Caribbean whaling. It assumes this mantle proudly: above a table on the eastern wall is a portrait of the owner’s father, himself a whaler, etched onto a whale’s shoulder blade.

The bar is an idyllic place. Armed with spear-guns and snorkels, teenagers hunt for lobsters near the stone breakwater in the bay by the back garden, close to where many Bequian whale hunts begin. Two other islands are visible to south and southeast, one of which is occasionally pressed into service as an amateur abattoir after a successful hunt. To the west lies the open Caribbean Sea, uninterrupted by land until it hits Nicaragua 1500 miles away. Seated against this backdrop on a painted picnic table is fourth-generation Bequian whaler Eustace Kydd.

Whaling was introduced to the island in the 1870s by a Bequian returning home from a career as a New England ‘Yankee whaler.’ In the ensuing decades, the practice has become an important part of local culture, unique in the Caribbean. But today, a combination of changing international laws, depleted whale populations, and unregulated marine life hunting in other areas could conspire to end the tradition.

Whaler Eustace Kydd. Photo by: Joseph Palmer

Due in large part to their portrayal in classic fiction, one imagines whalers to be grizzled, weathered men bundled up against the whipping wind, burdened by personal vendettas against the sea. Kydd is none of these things. He is athletically built, confident, and accommodating. He looks at least ten years younger than the 40-something he later reveals himself to be. But he does know everything worth knowing about whaling. He grew up listening to his father and grandfather’s whale stories, and Kydd himself has been actively involved in hunts for more than 25 years.

Although the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted in favor of a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982, it continues to tolerate whaling in two non-industrial forms: whaling for the purpose of scientific research and traditional whaling, the latter officially deemed ‘aboriginal subsistence whaling’ in IWC parlance. Per IWC regulations, aboriginal whaling is legally permitted in just four places in the world. Three of these are in the Arctic. The fourth feels about as far from the Arctic as possible: tropical Bequia, 13° north of the equator.

Under IWC regulations, the island’s whalers can hunt an average of four humpback whales per year, yet they have hit this target only once in the past two decades. In fact, in the previous two years, the islanders have caught only a single whale. Many Bequians blame the lack of successful whale hunts on an absence of whales in general. Detractors attribute this shortage to the whaling itself. Bequian whalermen argue that such lulls are cyclical, citing a previous four-year absence of whales from 1989 to 1992. Whale population figures are difficult to measure, making it almost impossible to gather concrete evidence in support of either claim. Given the lack of data, Bequians feel that the IWC should rely on their local expertise when determining rules for whaling, rather than outsider estimates. As one whaler puts it, “There is a balance here, and they”—i.e., international scientists—“don’t always understand this local balance.”

A whale shoulder blade at Toko’s, with an etching of the bar owner’s father, also a whaler. Photo by: Joseph Palmer

This “local balance” seems to extend to areas of life outside of whaling. Despite its Photoshop-blue water and pastoral countryside, Bequia has thus far resisted the kind of tourism that has colonized other islands in the region. There is a noticeable lack of all-inclusive resorts, high-security fences, and the uncomfortable social bubbles that they create. As the northernmost of the Grenadines, Bequia’s bays are peppered with a manageable number of moored sailboats bobbing in gentle surf as their owners restock supplies and contribute to the island’s foreign currency reserves at bars where sunburned yachties drink alongside Bequian builders watching the NBA.

In Bequia, however, a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ defines the island’s relationship with the national government on ‘mainland St. Vincent,’ the phrase used to describe the country’s largest island. This divide becomes especially apparent when discussions turn toward whaling.

On mainland St. Vincent, for example, fishermen hunt “black fish,” the local name for the short-finned pilot whale, a species of dolphin commonly eaten there. Recently, this practice has expanded to include orcas. The killing of two orcas (which are technically large dolphins) by mainland Vincentian fishermen in front of a boat carrying tourists led the government to reconsider the nation’s relationship with whaling altogether.

Such a response risks conflating two unrelated practices: although the IWC would like to, it does not currently regulate the killing of dolphins and porpoises. Additionally, “black fish” hunters use harpoon guns, while Kydd clarifies that Bequians chase their prey with sailboats and hand-thrown harpoons, as they have done for more than 130 years. He also notes that Bequians have a history of altering their techniques in coordination with international wildlife activists, having abandoned more controversial practices like hunting calves, among other changes.

A Bequian whale hunt goes like this: a scout on one of Bequia’s hillsides spots a whale in the sea below. Historically, this resulted in shouts of “blows!” (i.e., the sighting of a whale’s blowhole) to ring out over the island, after which observers on land would shine mirrors to direct the waiting whaling party toward the whale’s location. In the 21st century, much of this communication happens via mobile phones.

Harpoons are hand-thrown, so sailors must pull up directly alongside the pod to have any chance of success. This can be difficult on a vessel powered solely by wind and oars. Weather conditions need to be perfect and, even then, the boat must be handled expertly. Kydd estimates that crews gets close enough to throw the harpoon just once out of every five attempts.

If done correctly, the whale dies almost instantly

Should the boat pull within range, the crew unsheathes the harpoons, each several feet long and housed within wooden grips that look every bit like a tool from the 19th century. Bequian whalers use two types of harpoons to catch a whale. The first is tipped with a barbed point housed on a hinge, which is turn held down against the harpoon’s shaft by a small wooden pin. If the throw is successful, the pin snaps as the whale pulls away, opening the barbed hinge so that the harpoon lodges itself within the whale. The harpoon is connected to a rope, which is in turn tied to the boat. The vessel’s movement now relies entirely upon the actions of the whale, zipping around in its prey’s wake like a chariot. The crew takes down the sails and holds on.

If the first harpoon acts like an extra-large, javelin-shaped fishhook, then the second harpoon resembles a spear from an ancient war. Its tip is diamond-shaped, razor sharp, and about the size of man’s palm. Kydd says an accurate throw requires absolute concentration and perfect timing, as the harpooner must wait until the whale’s pre-dive crest for air before trying to slip the harpoon behind the whale’s ribcage and directly into the heart.

If done correctly, the whale dies almost instantly. If timed poorly, the boat risks damage and the crew’s lives may be in jeopardy. Kydd shares a story in which a misjudged second harpoon caused the boat to be dragged under the waves while sailing miles from Bequia, out of sight of land. The crew would have been stranded at sea had the harpooner, as he was being dragged to the ocean’s depths, not cut the rope connecting the diving whale to the small boat.

At Toko’s, a painting of a successful Bequia whale hunt. Photo by: Joseph Palmer

Kydd grows increasingly animated with every additional hunting tale, his eyes occasionally glazing over with the far-off fog of vivid memories relived. When his hands are not emphasizing his tales, they are grasped around a harpoon, illustrating a technique in detail. Standing on the boat, he demonstrates how energetically perched one must remain when waiting for the ideal moment to deliver the second harpoon. Despite the harpoons’ deadly, rugged appearance, Kydd re-sheathes them with great care, like the fragile heirlooms that, in many ways, they are. “I have to be a whalerman,” he says as he finishes. As if in anticipation of a common criticism, he adds, “I understand that it bothers some, but I never feel bad about killing something I’m going to eat.”

If a hunt is successful, the whale is quickly butchered, and little goes to waste. The meat feeds the island and bones are repurposed as canvases for art or materials for home improvement, like those found at Toko’s.

“I’ll be whaling until I can’t no more,” Kydd says. What is not clear is what will prevent him from whaling first—old age or changes to the law. International lobbying, along with domestic concerns about harpoon-gunned orcas on other islands, may prove too much for Bequia’s whalers to weather. If traditional whaling were to be outlawed, it would a psychological blow, if nothing else, to a community like Paget Farm.

“[Whales] give us some sort of economy,” Kydd explains. Although whale hunts do not generate much revenue, they are a source of sustenance for Bequians, both nutritionally and communally. In the words of another Toko’s patron, “I wish everyone could see a whale hunt… [it is] bigger than Easter!” Easter is the most widely and enthusiastically celebrated holiday in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

One whale may not seem like a lot, but Bequians make it last

Bequia’s legal status as an aboriginal whaling site is up for reevaluation in 2018. Critics of Bequian whaling say its 19th-century introduction means that it should not be considered an ‘aboriginal tradition’ in the same vein as the other admittedly older traditions at the three Arctic locations.

“How long is long enough?” Kydd responds, with the exasperation of having heard the same accusation countless times before. “Whaling’s been in Bequia for more than 100 years. My father, my grandfather, his father—how many generations is enough?”

After meeting Bequia’s whalers, it is difficult not to view the potential outlawing of their tradition as an example of a small, less-wealthy country paying the costs for the environmental damage caused by rich nations. Japan, Iceland, and Norway have together killed more than 1,000 whales per year for the last ten years (Norway and Iceland refuse to recognize the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, while Japan controversially interprets the IWC’s ‘scientific whaling’ loophole). Since the moratorium began in 1986, Bequia’s whalers have killed approximately one humpback whale annually on average.

One whale may not seem like a lot, but Bequians make it last. One of the favorite local methods for preparing whale meat is to ‘dove’ it (pronounced like the past tense of ‘dive’). After cooking in its own blubber, whale meat can keep for months. “Sometimes, when it’s not whaling season, and the weather is too rough for fishing, it’s real nice to know that you can just take a piece of whale and feed your family,” says Kydd. Although the community’s occasional catch of a single whale with a hand-thrown harpoon is probably not an existential threat for the global whale population, they may lose this small peace of mind nonetheless.

Top image: Simons Images