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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Whale Watching in Sao Tome

Since 2011, Sao Tome has pursued a policy to implement concrete projects to promote whale conservation and domestic eco-tourism

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: Sao Tome’s biosphere reserve is home to great biodiversity in terrestrial as well as in marine ecosystems. Sao Tome and Principe archipelago seems to be an important marine area for cetaceans. The reasons could be probably due to abundance of prey (fish and marine life) and the existence of shallow and protected bays.

In the southern part of the island, near the warm waters of Ilhéu das Rolas, it is common to see small groups of whales with their calves.

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In the Bom Bom Island Resort of Principe, local fishermen and community area residents routinely report sightings of humpback whales.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

The best time to see humpback whales around Sao Tome and Principe is between July and October. During this period, these whales come to breed and nurse in these warm shallow waters before they get on to their migratory routes. 

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In Sao Tome, one can watch the whales from vantage points above the blue lagoon. If one is lucky, it is possible to see the whales from close to the shore –particularly from Roca Belo Monte and Bom Bom Eco Lodge in Principe, and Mucumbli in Sao Tome.  

Divers and swimmers can see humpbacks and dolphins and hear them frolicking, communicating and singing !

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Experienced divers with snorkeling equipment dive underwater and enjoy watching and eavesdropping on dolphin chatter.

Conservation and management of whaling

The Gulf of Guinea used to be dangerous waters for whales. The area was subjected to heavy whaling from the 18th to the 20th century.

Though commercial whaling was banned in 1959, there has not been a coherent marine protection policy in Sao Tome and Principe. In 1999, the Government of Sao Tome passed a law to protect the marine wealth of the islands. But the law was vague and general.

In 2001, a law regulating the use of marine resources i.e. fishing was passed. In 2003, a law was passed to regulate petroleum exploration activities. 

But no marine protection areas have been established in the country, despite the fact that these islands and its waters are  important habitats to many species. Humpback whales use these calm, warm waters as a nursery for their calves and the spotted and bottlenose dolphins call these waters their home.

The enormous marine potential of Sao Tome and Principe soon became apparent to many countries. In 2007, Japanese companies approached the Government of Sao Tome and Principe, inviting them to join the International Whaling Commission (IMC) and permit commercial and licensed whaling in these waters.

To their credit, the Government of Sao Tome resisted the temptation of foreign exchange and rejected commercial whaling as a viable option. Instead, they chose to heed the arguments of national and international NGOs such as Greenpeace and Global Ocean and wisely pursued a policy of eco-tourism based on these beautiful mammals. 

Marine mammal conservation

Since 2011, Sao Tome has pursued a policy to implement concrete projects to promote whale conservation and domestic eco-tourism.

However, a major stumbling block is the lack of maritime or coastal monitoring of its exclusive economic zone to halt illegal fishing by foreign trawlers. Secondly, no research has been undertaken towards a scientific study of the whale migration, especially in Principe.

Nevertheless, local tourism operators are very interested in investing in eco-tourism ventures, based on whales and turtles. During the season, many private foreign tour companies organize 2 to 3 hours whale watching trips between July and October.

However, tourism and eco-tourism in the islands continue to be limited due to structural and economic constraints.

Even during normal times, Sao Tome was among the least visited countries. Despite being one of the most enchanting places on earth, Sao Tome is still too remote, thanks to poor physical connectivity. 

Photo Credit: traveltours

The last two pandemic-ravaged years have seen the number of tourists to Sao Tome and Principe plummet to under 6000 per year, which is five times less the number before.

But what cannot be doubted is the deep empathy and concern shown by the average person on these islands for the well-being of the whales and the turtles.

The average person in the island is convinced that the humpbacks, the bottle-nosed dolphins and the Olive Ridleys are very much part of their marine heritage. This realization among the younger generation is enough to promote eco-tourism based on these wonderful animals on these blessed islands.

Also Read: The Majestic Turtles of Sao Tome and Principe


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