MIRISSA OR TRINCO: WHICH WILL BE THE HOT SPOT?

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2011). Mirissa or Trinco: Which will be the hot spot? The Sunday Times Plus. Sunday 02 January 2011. Features. Page 7.
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110102/Plus/plus_12.html

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne continues with the last of his two part article series to discuss whether Mirissa will remain the top spot or be overtaken by Trincomalee.

In my previous article in this two part series, I discussed the two strategies, resident and migratory adopted by individual whales. The notion that Blue Whales for whale watching were present all year found favour with some at the start of 2010. Some people, especially those in tourism in particular wanted to believe in this. With the opening of the east coast, they thought that this opened up Blue Whale watching in Sri Lanka all year round. In August 2010 I conversed with a British wildlife Tour Leader who was about to bring a Blue Whale watching trip to Trincomalee in August. It was the season for Trincomalee. I reminded him of the Anderson hypothesis that most of the Blue Whales should almost all be in the Arabian Sea by then. I also drew his attention to something else Dr. Anderson had pointed out. Although it is the season in Trincomalee during this time, the South-west Monsoon with its powerful offshore winds creates rough conditions the further out to sea one travels, on the East coast as well.  However, where the wind meets the water first, on the Eastern shoreline, it is relatively calm.

In April 2010, the eco-tourism teams of John Keells followed by Jetwing were amongst the first to go out to sea for several sailings. I was on a game drive in Yala with Chitral Jayathilake (with Dr. Anderson due to arrive in the park for a leopard safari) when Nilantha Kodituwakku one of his John Keells naturalists phoned in to say he had photographed Blue Whales. The Chaaya Blue in Trincomalee has a floor to ceiling high image, of a Blue Whale. This stunning and evocative image taken by Kodituwakku shows a Blue Whale close to Swami Rock, from the first round of exploratory sailings in April 2010. However, all was not well on the ‘can see them all year-round’ hopes or theory. The opening of Trincomalee also seemed to confirm the Anderson hypothesis as the majority of the whales disappear by the end of April. Dr. Anderson and I went out to sea in Trincomalee in April 2010, a few days apart and we both concluded that most of the whales had gone by then. I also found myself and the  team from Jetwing Eco Holidays being brought back to shore by a boatman who was uneasy with the choppy conditions created out at sea by the South-west Monsoon. In an article published in Ahasa, the Mihin Air in-flight magazine in August 2010, I explained why Trincomalee will not alternate with Mirissa and the timing of the whales will be similar.

During the World Travel Market (WTM) week in London, I had discussions with Andrew Sutton for whom we had arranged to film and take stills of Sperm Whales and Blue Whales underwater off Mirissa in March 2009. I also spoke to Philip Hoare the author of ‘Leviathan or, The Whale’ and Ian Rowlands of Planet Whale, a tour operator. Soon afterwards I also had meetings with film makers Simon Christopher and Adaire Osbaldeston. Trincomalee is in the Bay of Bengal which is at the end point area of the Blue Whale Migration. A recurring question was whether Mirissa or Trincomalee would be the better location for film crews. It is tempting to think of Trincomalee as being the best option as it has a history of being known for Blue Whales for around thirty years. Also, the Blue Whales according to the Anderson hypothesis, end up in that area. There is also a deep submarine canyon, which comes in to the harbour which explains why people have seen them from ashore and dramatic images such as the one taken by Kodituwakku. However, the Bay of Bengal is a vast area of thousands of square kilometers. We need more data before we know how the Blue Whales are spreading themselves out and also whether the Blue Whales also spread themselves out temporally with different individuals having different times in which they arrive and leave from the area. As I mentioned in my previous article, the secrets may be unlocked as and when a Facebook or Flickr account becomes the repository for thousand of images (ideally encoded with GPS coordinates) which are uploaded by people on commercial whale watching sessions.

At this juncture, because the data is not available, I cannot offer a definitive view as to whether Trincomalee will up stage Mirissa. I had a chance meeting with Mani Sugathapala of John Keells Hotels during WTM week. I urged that the naturalists of Chaaya Blue make the data of their sailings from Trincomalee available and frequently updated on the web. The confidence of the press and tour operators in my story that Sri Lanka was Best for Blue Whales was partly built on the data being available and regularly updated on www.jetwingeco.com. Field data is the key to developing nature tourism and only quality data from Trincomalee will challenge Mirissa’s pre-eminence as Sri Lanka’s top spot for whale watching.

The data to position Mirissa for whale watching became available thanks largely to Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist Anoma Algiyawadu, who came under serious pressure from me to make the data available at least on a fortnightly basis. I knew that typing up notes is not easy for many Sri Lankans for whom English is a second language. I also knew the naturalists were extremely busy and working long days. Therefore, I resorted to being a tad extreme and would phone, text or email naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu at least thrice a week during the 2008/2009 season, to get the data up. This relentless pressure no doubt helped to establish a routine and compile a body of data. I am also pretty confident that if I had not sailed on 1st April 2008 and broken the story the way I did, we will only have a small fraction the data. The huge volume of sailings and the consequent data came as a result of my having convinced people that Blue Whales can be seen easily. It is not impossible that if it were not for the aggressive campaign, the fishing youth of MWS may even have moved on to other employment in the next season and gathering any data may have become a problem as had been the case in previous years.

Trincomalee may well be better as it is an end point and a submarine canyon brings the whales close to shore. Only a similarly determined effort to collect and publish the data on the web will establish whether Trincomalee is as good or better. For the moment, I still believe Mirissa is the safer option for film crews because it has an established body of data and we know that the migrating Blue Whales pass through at least twice and are present throughout the season from November/December to April (but note that peak sightings have so far been at the December-January and March-April intersections).  We also have the presence of infrastructure in terms of experienced whale watching boats and crews. As for Sperm Whales, my guess is that the seas off Kalpitiya Peninsula on the 400m depth isobath on E 79 35 provide an ideal location as the Sperm Whales often swim along or parallel to this line of longitude. The whale watching off Sri Lanka just keeps getting better.

The unfolding whale watching story and the fact that Sri Lanka is the best for Blue Whales fits into my wider story that Sri Lanka is the Best for Big Game Safaris outside Africa. This in turn is part of a bigger branding that Sri Lanka is the Ultimate Island Safari. I have also proposed branding a Sri Lankan Big Five to help get these stories across.

A key challenge for tourism in Sri Lanka is to ensure that whale watching is done responsibly for the safety of clients as well as the welfare of the marine mammals. As a first step, MWS carry the code of conduct of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. A local marine biologist has also trained them. The tourism and conservation authorities are also in dialogue to implement a whale watching code. This was commented upon during World Travel Market in November 2010, by the new chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa. I was also pleased that he was quick to see the value of publicizing Sri Lanka as the Best for Big Game outside Africa. I hope others will also use these tag lines because it is the big, catchy stories that win Sri Lanka the much desired column inches in the international press.

Acknowledgements
My thanks to Dr. Charles Anderson for answering questions and to Tara Wikramanayake for copy editing.

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.