BLUE WHALE OF MIRISSA
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2011). Blue Whale of Mirissa. July – August 2011. Living. Pages 42-43. Volume 6, Issue 6. ISSN 1800-0746.
It has gone quiet and we are chatting. Suddenly a loud exhalation of air has all us scrambling to view from the port side of the boat. Another whoosh and another jet of steam rushes out three storeys out into the air. But the tall white column is ephemeral and dematerialises in a fraction of a second. Just from the whoosh we knew a Blue Whale had surfaced near the boat. The giant of the ocean had chosen to emerge less than 100 feet from the boat. It was totally relaxed and unconcerned at our presence. We had spent the last two hours watching one Blue Whale after another. But this was the closest we had been to one on that day. Another loud exhalation on the starboard side announced the presence of yet another Blue Whale on the other side of the boat, about 150 feet away. Another two Blue Whales joined each of them. We now had four Blue Whales within two hundred feet of the boat. I don’t think they were pairs as such, probably adults who were feeding on their own but bunched together by their food, krill, being concentrated into one area.
Dutchman Jaap Plugge drew my attention to the blows of three other Blue Whales in the distance. I could be dead certain now that there were at least 7 Blue Whales within sight of the boat. At the edge of the horizon, where the sea curved away, we could see at least three other whale watching boats watching whales which we could not see. I would guess that all of the boats were simultaneously watching at least 10 different Blue Whales. On another boat, the Spirit of Dondra was Dr. Charles Anderson, whose hypothesis had been the basis for my own fieldwork and subsequent publicity in May 2008 that Sri Lanka was Best for Blue, the best place in the world for watching Blue Whales. Later over lunch, Anderson said he believed that on that day, his boat had observed seventeen different individual Blue Whales. They were feeding in an area of approximately a 5 kilometer quadrat. A week earlier, he had estimated that they had seen 16 different Blue Whales. Because it is so easy to double count Blue Whales, most reports I hear of 16 plus Blue Whales probably relate to the same five or six Blue Whales surfacing repeatedly at different places. With an experienced observer like Anderson and the fact that I could see at least seven simultaneously, I know the number being reported was credible. It was reassuring that the claim I had made for Sri Lanka was increasingly gaining credibility which each whale watching session. 2010/2011 marked only the third full whale watching season and already Jetwing Lighthouse Naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu who was with me was on his 340th whale watch.
The whale watch on Sunday 24th April was the stuff of dreams. I had driven South on a Saturday with Riaz Cader through unrelenting rain. We had resigned ourselves to a Sunday probabably spent on shore chatting to Dr. Anderson and his group on a rain and wind swept day. Instead the Sunday opened gloriously with flat seas. We sailed with a hint of monsoonal mist shrouding the fishing boats etched against the horizon as we headed due South to around ten nautical miles. A school of around 1,000 Spinner Dolphins burst upon us breaking the sea with white splashes. They cavorted and played as they bow rode fishing boats. Pod after pod of Spinners swirled around us rising in cetacean waves that sped around us. After nearly forty minutes of distraction we continued further south to easily pick up blow after blow of feeding Blue Whales.
The four Blue Whales around use were beginning to drift away when a phone call came through that another boat was watching Sperm Whales. I had also publicised the claim that the South of Sri Lanka was also the best place in the world for seeing Blue and Sperm Whales on the same sailing. At times, both species can be in the field of view at the same time, as happened on that day. The Sperm Whales were logging, travelling on the surface. The experienced boat crews kept their distance and before long four rather relaxed Sperm Whales chose to swim between our boat and another. Spinners, Blues, now Sperm Whales, surely it could not get any better. Well it did. A White-tailed Tropicbird flew past and landed on the water allowing us to photograph it. Soon after two bulky chested Pomarine Skuas flew over the boats. Both of these are scarce pelagic seabirds seldom seen by landlubbers. Plugge a keen wildlife traveller said that this was the best wildlife trip he had ever experienced. Megha from India, was so glad that she flown in for five nights at the Jetwing lighthouse having noticed a reference to Sri Lanka’s Blue Whales in an airline magazine. I could not have had a better way to finish my fourth season at sea, consolidating Sri Lanka’s biggest positive story.