THE SPERM WHALES OF KALPITIYA. TALES FROM THE FIELD

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2011). The Sperm Whales of Kalpitiya. Tales from the Field. Hi Magazine. October 2011. Series 9, Volume 3. Pages 172-177.
Encounters with Sperm Whales off the Kalpitiya Peninusla.

The great beast of Moby Dick fame had swum to within a foot of where my daughter Amali was seated on the 16 footer boat. It then commenced a feeding dive from just three feet away as Amali started a film sequence on her compact camera which was later broadcast on TV. In April 2011, I was once again exploring the seas off the Kalpitiya Peninsula to consolidate my claim that it is Sri Lanka’s third whale watching hot spot and one of the top sites in the world for Sperm Whales. I was also expecting to photograph seemingly rare pelagic seabirds which only a handful of Sri Lankan ornithologists have seen. I was not disappointed. On some memorable oceanic  trips between Tuesday 19th and Friday 22nd April, I came away with fantastic images of Sperm Whales and pelagic sea birds. The seas off the Kalpitiya Peninsula are special to me.  Since February 2010, I have set out on many trips with a map of the depths and GPS units, in the spirit of old fashioned exploration, to discover and publicise Sri Lanka’s last frontier for big ticket wildlife

In May 2010, based on field work between February and April 2010 and access to data hitherto not in the public domain, I published articles in the Hi Magazine and Sunday Times. In them, I gave the first credible and accurate public exposition that the continental shelf is close to and runs parallel to the Kalpitiya Peninsula. I pointed out that it will take the 16 footer boats equipped with 25 horsepower outboard engines less than 15 minutes to reach the ‘Sperm Whale Line’, the 300 to 400m depth isoclines along which Sperm Whales are seen feeding and travelling on a North-South orientation. I had written that to see and photograph rare seabirds and whales, one should run a boat along the lines of longitude between East 079 38 and East 079 35. Between these two lines is a distance of 3 nautical miles (38-35 = 3). Three nauticalmiles is just under 6 kilometres. In April 2011, once again I found this zone to be the right strike zone for whales and pelagic seabirds (‘pelagics’).

I have written my most recent round of exploration as two encounters in the field. One with Sperm Whales and other with pelagic seabirds. Once again my field research was supported by Dallas Martenstyn and his co-investors at Kalpitiya. As usual, I headed out to sea with three tanks of fuel, two GPS units and food and water.  During my field work in April 2011, with my wife Nirma and daughters Maya and Amali we occupied a tented room at Dolphin Beach (www.dolphinbeach.lk). Jetwing Eco holidays (www.jetwingeco.com) provided transport with naturalist chauffeur guide Lakshman Senanayake who was expert at picking out rare seabirds floating on the water.

SPERM WHALE ENCOUNTER: A FOOT AWAY FROM THE BOAT
On Friday 22nd April 2011, I asked the boatman Yasaratne to take the boat north along E 079 38, along which I knew Sperm Whales are regularly found, at least in April, travelling either North or South bound. Before long, Yasaratne spotted the first blow from a group of Sperm Whales. At one time, I could see four spouting ahead of the boat and another four behind the boat. At least eight were on the surface at that point in time and it is a guess as to how many more were underneath the water in feeding dives.

The previous day, my daughters Maya and Amali wanted to use the pool at Alankuda (Barr Reef Resort) which resulted in me running into Viren Perera and Giles Scott. Viren had read Philip Hoare’s book, ‘The Leviathan or, The Whale’, which he had bought at the recently concluded Galle Literary Festival. He had also read my articles on whale watching off Kalpitiya and was keen to join me. It had been a fortuitous meeting and as a result I was on the boat with Viren Perera, Giles Scott, Tim Edwards  and Nirma and Amali.

The group of Sperm Whales were spread out over 2-3 nautical miles and were travelling at a speed of between 20 to 30 kilometres per hour. They were also feeding as they would repeatedly dive. We followed at a distance. After a while, once I was sure that Yasaratne was accustomed to the idea of keeping a distance, I asked him to do an ‘arc forward’. This is where we curve away from the whale and then move ahead to position ourselves between 0.5 to 1 km away from the approaching whale. The whale covers this in a few minutes and has the option of moving away or maintaining its bearing. With the engine cut off, our boat drifted away from the path of the on-coming whale.

This whale altered course to investigate us and came to within a foot of the boat. It swam alongside the boat and swam to within a foot of the boat. I could have reached over and touched it.  It them swam about three feet to the front of the boat and then dived on a short feeding dive. I have found even with leopards in Yala, especially sub-adults, if you park a few hundred meters away from them, their curiosity overcomes them. They will come up to investigate the observers. Sperm Whales are highly intelligent, social animals. They are curious and will investigate boats. Around Kalpitiya they are used to seeing a lot of boats, small 16 footer speed boats and larger fishing trawlers on the sea.  They are not afraid to approach the fishing boats which do not molest them.

I managed to take the image of the diving Sperm Whale by leaning back whilst standing on the boat. I had to lean back because it had come so close. The Sperm Whale was completely relaxed and not in any way stressed by our presence because we had not chased it for a close up picture. We gave the whale the option of getting close to us.
A few days later I gave an illustrated talk at Jetwing House to tourist guides. I emphasized that boats with tourists should never chase Sperm Whales. If stressed or angered, they could smash a boat injuring or killing its occupants, as they did in the days when they were hunted by whalers. If you keep a distance and leave it at the whale’s discretion to approach you, one is safe. Intelligent regulation of whale watching will become important as the efforts by me and others succeed in establishing Sri Lanka as one of the top marine mammal destinations in the world.