WHY KALPITIYA IS SRI LANKA’S TOP SPOT FOR PELAGIC SEABIRDS

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). Why Kalpitiya is Sri Lanka’s top spot for pelagic seabirds. Hi Magazine. Series 8, Volume 1. Pages 228-231.
An explanation as to why Kalpitiya is so good for pelagic seabirds and a clarification that the depths off the Kalpitiya Peninsula were not mapped until October 2009. Kalpitya is also probably the top spot in South Asia for pelaigic seabirds.

On Sunday 2nd May 2010, in the Sunday Times (the Sri Lankan newspaper) I broke the story that the Kalpitiya Peninsula is the best place in Sri Lanka for seeing and photographing pelagic seabirds. Pelagic refers to the open sea and pelagic seabirds are oceanic seabirds which rarely stray on to land, other than to nest and often so on remote oceanic islands. A fuller version of the article is on www.jetwingeco.com and the version published in the Sunday Times is on www.sundaytimes.lk. In this article, rather than repeat what was published in the print edition of the Sunday Times, I will carry a key facts section and a series of snippets about the birds seen and an account of the research behind the scenes.
Why the Kalpitiya Peninsula is the best for pelagics – Quick Facts
My quick facts are based on my field observations, an examination of charts showing depths and a wildlife photographer’s intuition. I appreciate that my views may not be shared by others studying marine wildlife. I give below a series of bullet points as to why I think the Kalpitiya Peninsula is the best for pelagic seabirds in Sri Lanka.
* The seas off the Kalpitiya Peninsula, in the area where the depth rapidly plunges from 200m to 800m,  seem particularly rich in the marine food chain evidenced by the large numbers of seabirds, marine mammals, flying fish (and commercially fished Yellow-fin Tuna) which are seen during the period when the seas are calm (November to April).

* The continental slope runs on a North-South axis approximately parallel to the Kalpitiya Peninsula. This creates a natural linear flyway for rare seabirds of the open ocean (pelagics).

* The 400m depth line can be reached easily within half an hour from 18 footer boats which are available for leisure use. The ease of access and the ability to track birds flying in parallel between the E 79 038 and E 79 035 longitudinal lines, makes viewing and photography easy. Bad weather brings pelagic birds sufficiently close to for shore-based sea watching. During the South-west Monsoon, rare pelagic sea birds may be seen close to, or over the shore or even landing on the beach in an exhausted state.

* 400m is the typical hunting depth of Sperm Whales. Clearly there is something about this depth at which squid are found which results in a food chain which extends to the surface making it rich for seabirds and fisher folk. Sperm Whales are being seen much more regularly since I drew attention to their presence in an article in March 2010. I have also found rare seabirds regularly around the 400m depth isobath.

* The area near the tip of the peninsula around N 08 15, between E 79 35 and E 79 38 seems particularly good for encountering flocks of rare seabirds. This may have to do with the underlying oceanic topography and oceanic currents mixing with the nutrient flow from the Puttalam Lagoon creating a rich food chain. There may also be a nutrient flow from mainland India which further enriches this area. The South-west Monsoon will also blow in nutrients from the West into the North-west of Sri Lanka.

* During stormy weather, especially during the Souh-west Monsoon, Kandakuliya Beach may provide a landing ground for exhausted seabirds. Using a telescope, it may be possible to pick up pelagics out at sea.
Top Pelagic Birds

Long-tailed Skua


On Sunday 11th April 2010 I was with my colleague Riaz Cader. We were looking for a Blue Whale which had slipped beneath the water for a third time. My attention was drawn to a pale bird with a black cap. We had good views and took some close photographs of what may well be the second accepted record from Sri Lanka of a Long-tailed Skua. The Skuas are a family of birds closely related to gulls. They are known to steal food from other birds in what is known as kleptoparasitism. There are seven species of Skuas in the world of which the Great, Pomarine, Arctic (Parasitic) and Long-tailed Skuas breed in the Northern hemisphere. They migrate to the South during winter. The Chilean, Brown and South Polar Skuas breed in the Southern hemisphere. The Great and Chilean Skuas have not been recorded off Sri Lanka.
Persian (Arabian) Shearwater

I first photographed these when I was at sea (on 4 April 2010) researching pelagic tours with Shiromal Cooray (Managing Director, Jetwing Travels) and Anne Shih, a keen amateur photographer. This may well be the second accepted record from Sri Lanka although its possible that there may be two or three more records of it. Nirma, Maya and Amali who stayed back to enjoy Alankuda Beach missed out on seeing these birds which may not have been seen off Sri Lanka until 2010. I have seen them on three different days, off Kalpitiya. Devaka Seneviratne also photographed them in Kalpitiya on 24th April 2010. Dr Charles Anderson also photographed them off Mirissa when whale watching in the first week of April. He has never recorded them around the Maldives. He believes that their presence off Sri Lanka in 2010 may be evidence of an El Nino year. Two sub-species of Persian Shearwater are recognised. One from the Arabian Sea and another from the Comoro Islands.
Lesser and Brown Noddy


Noddies are infrequently seen off the seas of Sri Lanka. On 5 April 2010, I spoke to a person who has been engaged in research on seabirds for at least two years. He said he had not had a ‘tickable’ view of a Noddy and the only view he has had so far is of a very distant view at Adam’s Bridge of Mannar. This highlights that close views of Noddies are special. I have encountered them a few times when whale watching for Blue Whales off Mirissa. However it was the fast 18 footer boats from Alankuda Beach which gave me easy access to approach these birds and photograph them. I suspect those who go to Kalpitiya will find it not too difficult to see and photograph them at the right time of the year. One flock we saw held both the Lesser and Brown Noddy. One Lesser Noddy tried thrice to land on the soft canopy of our boat when I was at sea with Riaz Cader. The Brown Noddy has paler upper inner-wing contrasting with a darker outer-wing. It is also a bird with a heavier bill and a more laboured flight. It has a pale forehead. The Lesser Noddies we have been seeing have shown extensive white on the forehead sometimes extending towards the nape.
Sooty Tern

In the Sunday Times Plus article of 2nd May 2010 I boldly predicted that Kalpitiya Peninsula would remain good, if not better, for seeing rare seabirds when stormy seas made it impossible to go out to sea. In fact, I claimed that for various reasons that the Kalpitiya Peninsula is the best place in Sri Lanka for shore-based sea watching especially during bad weather. To test this theory I arrived on 19th May with a team of four staff on our way back from Trincomalee where we had tracked the 1,000m depth line for whales. The next day we sea watched from the boat house of Alankuda Beach (www.alankuda.com).

We decided to go to Kandakuliya which was a more Northerly location on the peninsula which we could access in a vehicle. I thought our chance of seeing storm blown pelagics would be better. There was even a chance of finding an exhausted Sooty Tern on the beach as Howard Martenstyn had found at Alankuda Beach. To our amazement within five minutes of our arrival, Ganganath Weerasinghe spotted a dark tern landing on the beach. It was an exhausted Sooty Tern which had nearly completed assuming adult plumage. In Sri Lanka the Sooty Tern is considered a passage migrant arriving with the advent of the South-west Monsoon. It also participates in the movement of thousands of Bridled Terns which take place past the West Coast peaking in August and September. It breeds on oceanic islands, coral reefs etc. The nearest breeding sites to Sri Lanka are in the Maldives, Laccadives and the Andamans.

Bridled Tern (Brown-winged Tern)


Along the west coast a mass migration of Bridled Terns together with other species of sea faring birds takes place with a peak in the months of August and September. This was first discovered and written about by Thilo Hoffmann and subsequently also by A. Van der Bergh. Since then a detailed picture has been built due to the perseverance of local ornithologist Rex De Silva, who has studied the migration for a period of over thirteen years. Skuas, Petrels, Storm-petrels and Shearwaters are also seen with the migrating birds. The Bridled Tern is seen fairly regularly in small numbers during the whale watching season in the South and North-west from November to April. In May I observed them coming very close (within a kilometer) to Swami Rock in Trincomalee. When the South-west Monsoon arrives they can be seen gliding over the beach on the Kalpitiya Peninsula and Chilaw Sand Spit. The much rarer Sooty Tern is distinguished by blacker upperparts and the white supercilium not extending behind the eye.
Behind the scenes
Behind the fun and glamour of breaking major wildlife stories, there is a lot of hard work and a team of people. The acknowledgements in my books refer to seven categories of people who make it possible for me to do what I do. In this article I will comment on the specifics of the research off the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Two stories have been broken by me in relation to the Kalpitiya Peninsula. The first one (Sunday Times Plus, 7 March 2010) was on identifying Kalpitiya as one of three whale watching sites, the third apex of Sri Lanka’s ‘Whale Watching Triangle’. The second was on why Kalpitiya is the best for watching pelagic seabirds (Sunday 2 May 2010). Both of these relied on field observations and data on the continental shelf which had become available after October 2009 as a result of oil and gas exploration.

The field work itself simply would not have been possible without the support of Dallas Martnestyn (the man who put Kalpitiya’s Spinner Dolphins on the map) and his co-investors of Alankuda Beach (www.alankuda.com). They hosted my team with food, accommodation and boats. There is a parallel here with the support of Jetwing Lighthouse from April 2008 to April 2009 to me and the Jetwing Eco Holidays team to position the South of Sri Lanka as the best place to see and photograph Blue Whales.

The field work itself is rather tough and anyone who has been out to sea in rough weather in an 18 footer speed boat will understand the bone jarring ride when running through on-coming waves at speed. The hours are long and the boatmen at Alankuda, especially Rohan Susantha never complained when I would clock up at times nine and a half hours out at sea. At times I rode out 30 km due west from Alankuda to survey the area for cetaceans and seabirds. Alankuda Beach always made sure I was well stocked with food, water, soft drinks and at least three full tanks of fuel for the outboard motor engines. To keep up with office work, emails had to be checked daily, often at 5am and at night, and when being driven back, however tired I was.

On one trip to Alankuda my vehicle’s battery short circuited and the front caught fire. Fortunately no one was injured and the research for marine wildlife tourism continued with only a modest delay.

The shape and location of the continental shelf and slope

There is a misconception that the shape and location of the continental shelf is shown on the British Admiralty Charts. The Admiralty Chart No 828 (Cochin to Vishakapatnam) published in June 1977 (based on Indian Chart 32 published in November 1974) revised in April 1974 does not even show the depth isobath off-shore of the Kalpitiya Peninsula!  There is a gap in this area between the depth lines on the West coast and where it is shown again to the South-west of India. In May 2008, when I first began to publicise the South of Sri Lanka for whale watching, I created a graphic which interpolated incorrectly how these lines connect and showed the continental shelf being further out than it is. This error was further reinforced by my inspection of Admiralty Chart No 1586 (Pamban to Cape Comorin) showing what appears to be shallow depths around Kalpitiya. Another chart showing the Kalpitiya Peninsula which I examined included the Omega International chart series of the Indian Ocean. The Chart of the Bay of Bengal (1:3,500,000) produced under the superintendence of the Chief Hydrographer of the Government of India, from the latest information in the Naval Hydrographic Office 1977). This also reinforced the impression that the depth lines veered away from the peninsula and that the edge of the shelf did not run parallel or close to the peninsula. In fact, the position of the 1,000m and 2,000m depth lines on this map is also reflected in a recent map published by the National Hydrographic Office, NARA in 2008. The chart is titled “Arabian Sea Eastern Part” to a scale of 1:3,400,000 and has text in Sinhala and English.

In April 2009, Dr Charles Anderson pointed out that a notation above some of the depth numbers on Admiralty Chart No 1586 meant that whoever was taking the depth sounding had ‘run out of rope’. So a depth of 123 m marked in this way could be 124m or even 2,000m. Dr Charles Anderson suspected the presence of marine life indicated that the shelf was close. But it was not something which had been shown then (or even now) on the British Admiralty charts, when we had this discussion in April 2009. However, fishermen, sport anglers and divers had intuitively guessed that it was close because of the presence of Yellow-fin Tuna and other deep water fish.

In my article in the Sunday Times Plus on 7th March 2010, I stated that the depths and shape of the continental shelf and continental slope, with any degree of accuracy, was only revealed for the first time in the chart published in a NARA report in October 2009 after the sea floor was mapped for oil and gas. I was probably the first person from the public to see this (even marine biologists seemed to be unaware of this data) and use it to make a scientific case for why the Kalpitiya Peninsula is a whale watching hotspot, based on the insight by Dr Charles Anderson.

I may have been partly wrong about when the depth lines were first shown accurately. Alfons van Hoof had read my article in the Sri Lanka Wildlife eNewsletter. On 15 May 2010 he drew my attention to the topographical maps prepared by the ex USSR army who had extended the contour lines out to sea. At the time of writing, I have not been able to examine the full map and ascertain the date of publication. But a ‘cut out’ he had emailed me shows the 400m depth isobath close to the peninsula as shown by NARA’s chart of October 2009. However the 1,000m depth isobath which I consider as an important benchmark for marine mammal watching is shown further away and veering away as in the Admiralty charts. So the October 2009 depth chart given to me by NARA remains the first definitive map of the depths off the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Even if the ex USSR army data was completely accurate, this would not change the substance of my story in the Sunday Times Plus of 7th March 2010. Whether I had been led to the NARA data or the Russian data, the thrust of my story would have been the same. It also would have been the same whether I had been given either set of data before I had set out to sea to demonstrate that one can go in search of whales beyond the reef of the Kalpitiya Peninsula and find them with a reasonable strike rate and to explain why off-shore of the reef is good for whales. I certainly was not the first to see whales off Kalpitiya and neither did I ‘discover the continental shelf’. But I was certainly the one to act on the lead by Dr Charles Anderson and to do the grunt work in the field and break the story with a credible explanation as to why the Kalpitiya Peninsula can be a third apex of a whale watching triangle in Sri Lanka.

Now that I have explained what data exists to explain the location and shape of the continental shelf and slope off the Kalpitiya Peninsula it is easy for people to say, we always knew. As for the Anderson intuition that Kalpitiya can be developed for whale watching, well again, people can now say, oh we always knew. But no one made an effort before February 2010, to seriously look at Kalpitiya for commercially watching whales (as opposed to focusing on dolphins) and looking for pelagic seabirds as a part of a wildlife watching tour.

Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne can be found on Facebook and www.flickr.com. Almost every major wildlife tourism product in Sri Lanka has had Gehan playing a pivotal role in its research and commercial development.