60 Minutes photographers were surprised when a sperm whale defecated in the waters off the Caribbean island of Dominica. However, Enric Sala, a National Geographic resident explorer, explained that whale droppings are nutrient-rich and help nourish shallow waters. In addition, research shows that whales feed on phytoplankton which produces at least 50% of the world’s oxygen. Despite the fortunate sighting, Cecilia Vega and Sarah spent several days searching for more sperm whales before finally encountering a young female whale who communicated with them using specific clicking patterns called codas.
Sarah, a former professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, felt driven to create a marine reserve instead of merely documenting the decline of the oceans. He founded the Pristine Seas project in 2008, working with 17 countries to transform vast oceans into marine reserves. Sarah and his team hope to create a sanctuary in Dominica to protect sperm whales from their biggest threats, including plastic waste, noise pollution, and ship collisions.
Dominica’s tourism industry could benefit greatly from the creation of a whale sanctuary, similar to how Rwanda’s mountain gorillas were protected to promote tourism-based local economies. Captain Kurt Benoit has been in the whale tourism business for over 20 years, using a homemade device to pick up the ticking sound of sperm whales up to 11 miles away. Many sperm whales live year-round off the coast of Dominica, with families consisting of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters who live and raise their children together for life.
Despite their reputation as aggressive animals, Sarah notes that sperm whales are curious and gentle creatures that have never attacked humans. Encountering them in the water is a magical experience and protecting them benefits both the whales and local communities.