BEST FOR BLUE – ONE YEAR ON

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Best for Blue – One Year On. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. November – December 2009. Pages 50-53.

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“In May 2008, I began an aggressive publicity campaign to position the South of Sri Lanka as the best place in the world for seeing blue whales. In April 2009, Sri Lanka completed its first full fledged year of commercial whale watching. A year’s data has demonstrated unequivocally that Sri Lanka is unsurpassed for the both the ease and likelihood of seeing Blue Whales”. Two navy patrolmen interrupted the feature interview I was giving the BBC on a beach in Wellawatta, with the Indian Ocean as a backdrop. They were puzzled when we explained that we were talking about whales. But they were satisfied that we were not a security threat. We went indoors where I repeated the story for a BBC radio version.

It is quite fitting that I look back on the first year, in an article in Serendib, because my two articles in Serendib were hugely influential in establishing the story. My publicity blitz began in a lengthy, story first published in the May 2008 special edition of the Sri Lanka Wildlife eNewsletter. This was published in various forms in local and international print and electronic media. Steve Peaple who read it commissioned two articles for Serendib. The second was subsequently released as a pdf and travelled the world as it was mailed around by people in tourism as well as wildlife enthusiasts.

I did not discover that blue whales can be seen off Southern Sri Lanka. My claim to fame lies in my realization and efforts to position Sri Lanka as the best place in the world for seeing blue whales. This was based on extensive field work by me and others, the ability to build a credible and well researched story. A networking skill with local and international media matched by few helped greatly . One year on, so well has the story been seeded, that there are many claimants to have been the first to see the blue whales or to claim to have got the commercial whale watching off the ground.

But I know that the ‘new story’ began with a small coalition of people. For me it began on an English summer’s day during the British Birdwatching Fair in August 2003, when Dr Charles Anderson, a British marine biologist explained to me that Dondra Head, the southern-most of Sri Lanka, could be the best land based location for watching blue whales. His planned visit was postponed by the tragic Boxing Day Tsunami. But out of this tragedy was born a cooperative of eleven tsunami affected fishermen who were given a boat to start marine leisure activities. Two British volunteers, Sue Evans and Simon Scarff who were assisting the Mirissa Water Sports team stumbled across the whales in April 2006. Charles Anderson tested his theory of a migration of Blue Whales in April 2007 and I ventured from the fishery harbour of Mirissa in April 2008.

The first of April 2008, was a pivotal date. Within forty minutes we encountered our first whales and several more. So little was known by anyone at this stage that only I and my naturalists realised that we were looking at more than one species of whale. Back at Sue Evans’ house I processed my RAW files, consulted the four books I had brought with me and announced that we had both the largest baleen whale (blue whale) and the largest toothed whale (sperm whale) in the bag. I then realised without any doubt, that I was now on the biggest positive story for Sri Lanka. In fact in a literal sense, the biggest living story on the planet. I explained to the Mirissa Water Sports crew that I could take this story world-wide if they would run the boat for me at a special rate so that I could ground truth the story with more field data. I returned with my team of guides within two days, back from Yala, for more sightings of blue whales. Anoma Alagiyawadu, who became the principal collector of data and the naturalist of the Jetwing Lighthouse went on to clock twenty two whale watching days in April 2008, with a hundred percent record of seeing blue whales. In April 2009, the monsoon closed in early and out of fifteen sailings blue whales were seen on fourteen.

Anxious to gain a complete data history, as soon as the seas calmed again in October 2008, I resumed my search for whales. The burst of publicity resulted in Anoma Alagiyawadu being out on many whale watches supplemented by off season whale watches chartered by us. Thanks to this by April 2009, we had gathered a very comprehensive and compelling year round data history which showed that Sri Lanka is un-matched for the ease and likelihood of seeing blue whales. During the 2008/2009 season, Anoma clocked in an exhausting 75 whale watching trips. We collected data on 108 sailings by Mirissa Water Sports with blue whales seen on just over seventy percent of the sailings. The strike rate is higher when off season sailings are taken out.

On the first of April 2009, a year on from where it began for me, I was the first of two back to back whale watching groups with Dr Charles Anderson. My blue whale anniversary day passed without seeing a single whale. It could have been all so different, if this had happened exactly a year ago. I may not have returned to the southern seas on my way back from Yala. Sri Lanka could still be without a champion to publicize it as the best place for blue whales in the world. A few people, would be going out and seeing marine mammals. But there would have been no concerted and well researched burst of publicity. There would not have been a queue of people wanting to meet Dr Charles Anderson on his return in April 2009.

But fortunately it worked out on the 1st of April 2008. It was not bad in April 2009 either. The whales failed on my blue whale anniversary day denting my hundred per cent track record for April. But they made up for it on the 2nd of April. In the space of an hour we had a Bryde’s Whale, Blue Whale and six Sperm Whales. In those first two days of April we also had Spinner, Indo-Pacific Bottlenosed, Pantropical Spotted and Striped Dolphins. A total of eight species of cetaceans in two days. With us was artist Anoma Wijewardene who has been on one of Dr Anderson’s  Maldivian whale watching trips where they travelled on a live aboard for seven days. On that trip they had clocked nine species. We had managed eight species in two days, from two consecutive morning sailings. It showed how good Sri Lanka is for cetaceans.

I joined Charles again in the second week of April for two more sailings with his second group. On one of their trips they had recorded what they believed were ten individual Blue Whales. This is having discounted possible repeat sightings. I also found Dr Anderson’s groups very useful for collecting a different type of data. His clients were people who had gone in search of blue whales elsewhere in the world and were able to provide first hand comparative information. One Swiss national had taken ten zodiac trips into the Gulf of Lawrence from British Columbia in Canada for Blue Whales. He had seen none. Another couple had sailed along California on a ten day whale watching trip and had just three blue whale sightings. The previous year I had been introduced to Alastair Fothergill who had produced the episode on blue whales for David Attenborough. He too had confirmed that it was not so easy. In August 2008 at the British Birdwatching Fair I spoke to whale watching tour leaders and picked their brains on their encounter rates in other parts of the world which are listed for blue whales. It was overwhelmingly clear that Sri Lanka was pre-eminent. When the next season began, I was could approach my story with even more confidence.

I had taken a gamble in 2008. I had placed a lot of faith in the work of Dr Charles Anderson and run my story on one month’s data, that of April 2008. But in that month, I once had 8 blue whales spouting, simultaneously in view. Having extensively reviewed the literature, I knew that in the space of a few seconds of viewing time, I was seeing more blue whales than people in other blue whale watching sites in the world may see on a ten day live-aboard trip. I decided to take a risk and go public with the story. I was helped by a receptive local and international media. Two magazines helped in particular. Firstly, Serendib and the subsequent pdf of my second article in it. Secondly, the Sri Lankan society magazine Hi and the interest in wildlife by its editor Shyamalee Tudawe. Hi magazine is seen by an influential and affluent audience and the whale article created a storm. Anyone who was anyone in Sri Lankan society circles decided that they had to go whale watching. The most significant on-going contribution came from a young and passionate team of the then recently formed Sri Lankan Tourism Promotion Bureau headed by Dillep Mudadeniya. Dileep had assembled a team of people who had backgrounds in media and advertising. This young team more than anyone else understood that the blue whale story was an effective media hook for positive publicity. They began to facilitate visits for media, diplomats and a host of other people, assisted by media briefs which I had put together for them.

Another key entrant was the tie up between the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation with Walkers Tours. This provided more boats. Walkers Tours will ensure that whale watching is on the itineraries of large tour operators many of which are handled by them. The media end and the commercial end have become connected and commercial whale watching is here to stay in Sri Lanka after a relative brief birthing period.

Sri Lanka’s first full fledged year of commercial whale watching had many pleasant highlights for me. Germaine Greer the acclaimed feminist and author exclaiming that the sea was dotted with Sperm Whales, is one. During the Galle Literary Festival in January 2009, we had headed out in drizzle and stiff wind. As the boat rocked in the swell, over twenty Sperm Whales logged past us, with one group of seven tightly packed against each other. A few days earlier, with Steve White, the Editor of Action Asia, we watched two Humpback Whales creating arcs of white foam as they breached. They cavorted in the water and at times used their long white pectoral fins to slap the water. We also had five Blue Whales spouting simultaneously around the boat.

With Lewis Borge-Cardona I narrated for the Sri Lankan Airlines in-flight radio program the story of ‘Best for Blue’, whilst blue whales whooshed and blew towering white spouts near the boat. At the same time, Shyamalee Tudawe the editor of Hi Magazine screamed with joy as one blue whale after another came into view. On another trip artist Anoma Wijewardene watched silently and wistfully, close to tears as she encountered her first blue whale. My at time controversial marketing tactics saw me on board with Shyamalee Tudawe for the Amangalla Celebrity Whale Watch where over twenty people from eight nationalities gave three cheers for the blue whales. As the whale watching season drew to an end, the Jetwing Lighthouse finally began the first whale watch sightings newboard at a hotel, creating a buzz amongst clients and staff. The on-line newsboard at www.jetwingeco.com had already become a point of reference for media.

The periods I spent on the boat Charles are times I will always treasure. His wit is as sharp as his mind and he sees things which we would have missed. With his trained eye he would point out a species which we could have been easily overlooked. I remember Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins bow-riding whilst a mixed age and sex group of Short-finned Pilot Whales swam close to the boat. This was the second sight record since commercial whale watching began. On my trips to sea with him I had some magical moments with Pantropical Spotted Dolphins bow riding, Shearwaters skimming the waves, Striped Dolphins leaping in the distance and a school of five hundred  Spinner Dolphins playing with us.

The year also saw me with Chitral Jayatilake attending meetings called by the National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) and the Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority (SLTDA) to discuss legislation drafted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DLWC). Intelligent and practical legislation which ensures the welfare of marine wildlife and client safety whilst allowing the poor south to develop an economic resource, will be important. It will be necessary before long to introduce licensing for accredited whale watching boat providers. One hopes that the legislation will be intelligent, practical and enforceable.

As commercial whale watching becomes a success, the debate will become more heated with claims as to who began it first. There have been a few research vessels which conducted surveys on Sri Lankan waters since the 1980s. There had also been more than one attempt to start commercial whale watching from Trincomalee. But the credit for the first truly successful and sustained effort for commercial whale watching in Sri Lanka must go to a small group of tsunami affected fishing youth from the poor fishing communities of the south assisted by the Build a Future Foundation. The man who unlocked it for me and laid the scientific foundation for my press blitz is undoubtedly Dr Charles Anderson.  Without him, we would still be waiting for the seas off Trincomalee to be de-regulated for leisure pursuits in a post war environment. My role as always has been to act as a catalyst and publicist at the interface between science and commerce. The story I took to the world, that Sri Lanka is Best for Blue, is only the ‘new story’. It is really an old story which we had forgotten. Long before any modern cetacean researchers visited, Sri Lanka’s south coast was known to the whalers. Architect and historian Ismeth Raheem drew my attention to a map drawn in the second century AD by Ptolemy. The area around Kumana was known as the Cape of Whales. Two thousand years ago, people knew what we know now.  They came and hunted our whales. More recently, in the 19th century, the Boston Whalers came to Sri Lanka to catch whales and details of their catches are recorded in shipping intelligence registers. So my story, is an old story, once which we had forgotten, about a century or more ago.