GETTING CLOSE TO WHALES
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Getting close to whales. Living. May – June 2009. Pages 32-33. Volume 4, Issue 5. ISSN 1800-0746.
An encounter with Sperm Whales with Germaine Greer.
One evening, I promised some of the members of the Galle Literary Festival Committee that I would not take Germaine Greer whale watching. It would be a bad idea to take an author out of the festival for so many hours and deprive literary festival attendees of time with an author. Especially one with star billing such as Germaine Greer. I had stumbled across a discussion between the General Manager Wester Feltham and naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu of the Jetwing Lighthouse hotel and some of the members of the Literary Festival Committee. Greer was being hosted by the hotel and had seen some of the literature on whale watching. In 2007, the literature had been placed in all of the rooms at as part of a cunning plan to capture data on the strike rate of seeing whales. With Sri Lanka’s pre-eminence for Blue and Sperm Whales being in an international publicity burst starting in May 2008, the hotel had further enhanced the material on display in the public areas.
My promise was on a Tuesday evening, the day before the official opening of the third Galle Literary Festival. On a Saturday afternoon I found myself heading out to sea on a whale watch with Germaine Greer. Oops! Had I reneged on my word? Not really. I was totally blameless as I subsequently explained to some of the Literary Festival Committee. Germaine Greer was a keen whale watcher and had whale watched around the world from the Bay of Biscay to Australia. As she told me later, she was determined to go whale watching at some point during the Literary Festival. I did not know she had signed up when I returned to Galle on the Saturday. I had even turned up without my video camera as my plan was to attend the talks in the Hall de Galle. Quite by chance I ran into Bindiya Vij who had run Kiplings Camp in India for four years. After listening to my whale tales she had signed up for a whale watch. Naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu confirmed that he was on that afternoon sailing. “Are any of the Literary Festival authors on the boat?” I asked. “Germaine Greer” came the reply. I decided I needed to be on the boat as well.
When Germaine Greer arrived to board the van which was to take us to the Mirissa Harbour I introduced myself. “You better show me a whale” she said “Because you are the man who has publicized this”. I was quite taken aback at how quickly she had made the connection. Two days earlier I had taken Lewis Borge-Cardona to whale watch for a recording for the Sri Lankan Airlines in-flight radio program. Germaine Greer had come up in discussion and Lewis described her as a person with a formidable intellect. I could see how switched on she was. There was a media related chat on board, in between sightings of Blue Whales. A few media feelings had been ruffled (but not Lewis) over Germaine’s reluctance to grant interviews with press. Before Germaine arrived I carefully put away my media pass. I was not here to interview her, but a few shots of Germaine on the boat would help. Besides, I was going through a whale watching publicity obsession and Germaine was a good excuse to go and look for more whales.
I had read articles on the environment by a Germaine Greer. I had always wondered whether this was the same Germaine who was a feminist and the author of the ‘Female Eunuch’. It turned the two were the same and I had her for a quality forty minutes, all to myself. It turned out we had a lot in common. I had a private nature reserve (albeit tiny). She had hers. Hers was much bigger than mine. She had 65 hectares of rainforest she was re-generating in Australia. She had to keep working she explained to ensure that the wages for five people could be paid. She talked of how quickly the wildlife re-colonised. Her land had been scarred by quarrying for rocks. But tens of thousand of trees had been planted and were healing the landscape.
She worried that it was too late to turn back the effects of global warming. The recession could make matters worse for the environment she warned. She cited the recycling for cardboard in the UK becoming un-economical. Anoma had warned me that she was a dab hand with botanical names or Latin names. She talked of how botanists had muddled some of the Latin. She mentioned a species she had seen here which she thought was also found in Australia. From the description I thought it was a Kenda plant in the genus Macaranga. Germaine thought she was describing a member of the Euphorbiaceae found in Australia. Out came Anoma’s copy of A Field Guide to the Trees and Shrubs of Sri Lanka. We checked the book, our Macaranga peltata was indeed in the Euphorbiaceae. So it must be a similar species she was familiar with from Australia.
The talk switched to the work of Rohan Pethiyagoda and his team at the Wildlife Heritage Trust (the publisher of the field guide) who have described many new species of vertebrate animals. Germaine enquired whether they were accessing international collections before describing new species to avoid the same species being described twice (known as a synonym in taxonomic circles). It turned out that she was on the committee of Bug Life, a conservation trust. Bug Life campaigns to protect the habitats of insect species.
By the time we boarded the board I had been impressed by the extraordinary intellect depth and breadth of activities with which Germaine Greer fills her life. We headed out into a choppy sea with spray drenching us. I did not fail her. We showed her whales in plenty. Sperm Whales had arrived for the Galle Literary Festival. The choppy sea had us holding on to the whatever we could and we the boat bounced over the waves. We watched the sleek torpedo shapes of Sperm Whales cutting through the waves. Their short, bushy blows decorated the sea for miles around us. “There are hundreds of whales” exclaimed Greer in a voice filled with enthusiasm and high in pitch with excitement.
They were travelling fast. We followed the Sperm Whales for a while before I asked the crew to break away. The whales are used to a wide variety of fishing boats and enormous ships in the shipping lane. But these boats don’t follow them. I was wary of creating any stress with our boat following them. As we prepared to turn around, a Sperm Whale leapt out of the water (a breach). There were to be more sightings. A Whale Shark near the harbour entrance marked the end of Greer’s first whale watch in Sri Lanka.