February 1, 2001
Honorable Teburoro Tito,
President of Kiribati
c/o Private Secretary to the Berentitenti
Office of the Berentitenti
It is with great pleasure that I approach you on behalf of the Ocean Alliance and my institute's research vessel, Odyssey. First allow me to thank you and the generous people of Kiribati for allowing us the opportunity to study whales in the waters of your beautiful island nation over the last four months. It has proven to be an important part of our
around-the-world research expedition, The Voyage of the Odyssey. I am pleased to report that we have found an abundant number of sperm whales near Tarawa. A final report has been submitted via the two observers who joined us on board, from both the Ministry for the Environment and Social Development, and the Ministry of Natural Resources Development, Fisheries Division. Included in our report is data on the distribution of whale species around the Gilbert Islands.
In speaking to government ranking officials and various members of the I-Kiribati community, we have learned of the significance and cultural value of whales here. Interaction between humans and whales is thought to be new, though I know it has long been a part of the cultural history and mythology of many Micronesian peoples. For instance, friends or relatives who have long passed away may return one day in the form of a whale, protecting fisherman at sea.
As a species that captures the imagination, whales can be utilized as a valuable education tool, drawing attention to and changing attitudes towards marine mammals and encouraging lasting preservation of the ocean environment. They are a part of the natural beauty of Kiribati, and a clear indicator of a thriving ecosystem.
I believe that whales also represent a potential for considerable economic value to the people of Kiribati through whale watching, scientific research and as subjects of the roughly twenty films that are made each year about whales worldwide.
I understand this may be a consideration in your support of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and am most encouraged by your position. With conclusive scientific evidence showing the presence of whales here, it is now more important than ever that Kiribati continues to play a role in the further development and extension of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. My hope is that the scientific data we have collected in your waters, will assist
you and your government in the future protection of Kiribati's whales.
In the past 20 years, whale watching industries have started up in over 35 countries. In every case they have proven to be valuable incentives to tourism. Whale watching was, for several years, the fastest growing tourist industry in the United States-it still is in several South American nations. Whale watching also includes filmmakers some of whom have filming budgets large enough to pay top rates for the opportunity to film whales in the wild.
Before economic avenues could be pursued, it appears essential to the success of business, that laws to protect the whales are in place. I am aware of Kiribati's existing Wildlife Conservation Ordinance of 1975 protecting some species. There now appears to be an excellent opportunity for Kiribati to pass a law protecting whales in the 3.5 million square kilometers of Kiribati's Exclusive Economic Zone.
Of the many nations that now protect their whales, none allows contact between humans and whales-in particular between sport divers and whales without permits that are often withheld and which in every case take a long time to obtain. Once they have protected their whales the people of Kiribati might decide to take advantage of an opportunity that no other country has yet seized-by offering a place where scientists, filmmakers and divers can have the chance to swim with whales. Strange as it may seem, there is a huge
demand for such a place and there are many people who would be willing and able to pay premium prices for the opportunity to swim with whales. There are also many scientists who would be interested in a place where observing whales underwater and at close quarters is allowed, as it offers a unique opportunity to learn about whales.
As a biologist who has spent the last 35 years working in all of the world's oceans and studying all the great whale species, I have observed that if diving is done carefully and responsibly that it poses no threat to whales. That is because, once a whale decides to end an encounter with a diver, it simply swims off, or dives, and there is nothing the diver can do to keep up with the whale.
My suggestion is that Kiribati might offer a unique opportunity to scientists and film-makers for studying and filming whales at close quarters, and to divers for swimming with them. It is only through such work that we can find out just how far the interactions between people and whales can go. In addition to running a whale watch industry and chartering boats to scientists and film makers, the Kiribati government might charge such people and divers a fee for the privilege of working with whales in Kiribati waters. A necessary step for maximizing this opportunity would be the creation of national legislation drafted specifically for the protection of whales.
If any of these suggestions should prove to be of interest to you and your Government, I would be pleased to discuss any of them further with you or with anyone you designate.
With my warmest respect and gratitude, I would like to thank you once again for allowing our vessel to conduct research in the national waters of Kiribati. As guests, we have been kindly and patiently treated by all, and all of us feel honored to have spent time in your country. I have enjoyed praising the country and people of Kiribati to my friends and colleagues around the globe. It is a pleasure that has just begun. With best wishes, I
Roger Payne (Ph.D.),
President, Ocean Alliance