The Gulf of Shame?
by René Bermudez N.
In 1498 when Columbus discovered Trinidad and the mainland (later to be called Venezuela by Alonso de Ojeda) he named the peninsula, Paria and the gulf, Golfo de la Ballena (the Gulf of the Whale). The reason for this name was the presence of abundant quantities of razor-back whales (Fin whales), over 80 feet in length, with dark tops and white underbellies. The gulf was the razor-back's calving ground until the nineteenth century.
In 1827 Trinidad's colonial government authorized Captain C.A. White (from Bermuda) to establish a whaling industry. Whaling stations were established, two on Gasparee (operated by the Tardieus) one on Monos (monos: the Spanish name for monkeys, the island was at one time densely populated by howler monkeys/araguatos now totally depleted) which was operated by the Gerold family and one on Chacachacare.
The Gerolds brought to the island an expert harpooner from Germany. The whales were harpooned in the Gulf and then the carcasses were towed into Jenny Point (Copperhole). In 1834 they requested of the Governor Sir George Hill the refusal of authorization to the American schooner Harmony out of Nantucket to whale in the Gulf. This German firm operated in the Gulf until approximately 1880.
- "The whales were harpooned and towed into Copperhole. Once killed, the towing of the whale to the station was a tedious business and often occupied twenty-four hours should the wind and tide be against the boatmen. On arrival, the whale was flensed as near to the shore as possible and the long slices of blubber carried to the huge sugar coppers, for boiling to extract the oil, the carnage attracting in an incredibly short space of time 1, 500 to 3,000 sharks, so that some of the men had to be employed killing them with harpoons and hatchets. The whales arrived in December but were then so wild that they could not be easily approached; the hunting season was from February to May. The number of whales caught annually was only twenty-five to thirty, the oil (about 20,000 gallons) being brought to Port of Spain to export or local use, as lamp oil or medicine - whale oil and honey being supposedly an infallible cure for flu." - 'The Germans in Trinidad' by Anthony de Verteuil
Not many Trinidadians know that there had been an abundance of whales in the gulf until the late nineteenth century and have always known this body of water by its face saving name, Gulf of Paria. The country on a whole should feel the terrible shame of being passive observers of this crime against nature, the extinction of the gulf's razor-back whales.
"The number of whales caught annually was only twenty-five to thirty"
Only 1,325 -1,590 whales over a 53 year period!
I write this note about the Gulf of Paria's whales out of concern for the breeding grounds (the brackish waters of the Orinoco river) of our marvelous gulf shrimp. Regardless of all the recent incidents with our Venezuelan neighbors, our fishermen stubbornly continue to fish and shrimp in these forbidden waters. I know for fact that Venezuelan fishermen in these areas are severely punished, more so than our own fishermen, but this is obviously changing. I agree with S.A. Johnson's (Secretary of TT's Game Fishing Association) recent letter that states, "The decision to stop the fishing in these areas is not a political one but a common sense conservation one... Our country would do well to follow Venezuela's example and demarcate some breeding and spawning areas to rejuvenate our once bountiful fishery"
We still have time to save the bountiful riches of the whole gulf and not repeat the shameful acts that eliminated the whales. I disagree with the use of violence, but I must be grateful that someone has taken up the fight to save the gulf from depletion. It is time to stop the unscrupulous grandstanding and assume our responsibility for this sea surrounded by land.
If not we may have to change its name to the Gulf of Shame.
René Bermudez N.
Port of Spain, Trinidad
Whales in Danger Information Service