HOW SRI LANKA WAS POSITIONED AS BEING BEST FOR BLUE WHALES
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2011). How Sri Lanka was positioned as being Best for Blue Whales. Daily Mirror. Colombo. 28 July 2011.
Imagine encountering an aggregation of 25 Blue Whales migrating together. This is the stuff of dreams for any marine biologist. On 5th November 2010, Anoma Alagiyawadu, the naturalist of Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel was on his 234th whale watch on a sailing with Mirissa Water Sports (MWS). He took down critical notes on this encounter of 25 migrating Blue Whales to add a spectacular observation to the on-going story of Sri Lanka and its Blue Whale migration. On Sunday 24th April 2011 when I joined him on one of the last sailings that season, he was on his 340th sailing. On that day, we had seven Blue Whales spouting simultaneously around the boat. Dr. Charles Anderson who was on another boat estimated that there were at least 17 different individual Blue Whales on that morning’s sailing, feeding in an area of approximately 5 kilometers square.
In 2010/11, Southern Sri Lanka completed its third, full and proper whale watching season, demonstrating further that it is ‘Best for Blue’. During this period, I found myself once again answering many questions from film crews, print media, tour operators and clients. There was also interest from students in marketing, who wanted to learn how a small group of people established commercial whale watching and generated column inches of international publicity.
In this article I would like to re-cap on the short, recent history of Blue Whale watching in Sri Lanka. In May 2008, I took the story to the world that the South of Sri Lanka is the best place in the world for seeing Blue Whales. The open release article which was published widely remains the best reference point (see the list of articles onwww.jetwingeco.com). To-recap briefly, the story rested on a hypothesis by the British marine biologist Dr. Charles Anderson. My role was to connect the dots between science and commerce by doing my own field work to ground truth the hypothesis and launch a press blitz to establish Sri Lanka as the number one spot for Blue Whales. Dr. Anderson had first suggested his migration theory in a paper published in Sri Lanka in 1999, which reviewed sightings and strandings in South Asia. Having subsequently reviewed his sightings records up to mid 2002, a total of nearly two thousand encounters, he refined his hypothesis further in a paper published in 2005.
Dr. Anderson and I discussed plans to search for the migrating Blue Whales at the British Bird Watching Fair in August 2003. But our plans were delayed by the Tsunami of December 2004. In the aftermath of the Tsunami, the Build a Future Foundation set up Mirissa Water Sports (MWS) as a sailing and angling business to provide employment for Tsunami-affected fishing youth on the south coast. In April 2006, the MWS crew stumbled upon a Blue Whale and it was photographed by Simon Scarff (a keen angler who as a volunteer was training the crew in angling, etc). Of course whales have been seen by many other locals, passing shipping crews and even researchers on visiting vessels. But previously, there was no scientist with a hypothesis which suggested that blue whales might be sighted regularly. Establishing a viewing season, a strike zone and a sellable strike rate, were essential requirements for someone like me in the private sector to launch an international story and to have it accepted rapidly by both the media and mainstream tourism. This twinning of science and commerce, a flair for taking a story international and the ability to ground truth it first with field work were pivotal to the breathtakingly rapid development of commercial whale watching.
Dr. Anderson eventually caught up with the Blue Whales in April 2007 on a recce I missed out as I was due to fly out to Milan. Subsequently, both Dr. Anderson and I pressed Anoma Alagiyawadu to record data on sailings. With the data I was seeing, I sensed we may have a sellable product. I set out to sea on 1st April 2008 to clinch what I thought would be one of the biggest positive media stories for Sri Lanka. It was an amazing trip with multiple sightings of Blue and Sperm Whales. With assistance from Sue Evans a volunteer helper to MWS we subsequently negotiated with MWS to take me out for future trips for the price of diesel. This was in return for a promise that if the data held up, I would put Mirissa on the international map for whale watching. After several amazing sailing with MWS, I came away with a strong set of field data and thousands of images of Blue Whales (and also Sperm Whales) during April 2008. I launched a press blitz in May 2008 which publicized Sri Lanka as the top spot for Blue Whales. Anderson provided the scientific theory, MWS the boat and crew, with the Jetwing team I did the rest to collect more data and to make sure the story was accepted internationally and commercial whale watching became a mainstream tourism offering.
On 1st April 2008, when I was joined by volunteers Sue Evans and Simon Scarff, it was in doubt whether MWS would remain viable with their business model for leisure sailing. Their original plan was to take bookings for either two small sailing craft for ‘self hire’ or to have the 54 footer, wooden decked Spirit of Dondra available for hire with a full crew. These would be pleasure sailings with food and beverage served aboard or for hire by specialist anglers. Since their April 2006 encounter, they had added whale watching to their offerings, but whales remained a random encounter. No convincing story for why whale watching was viable, was in circulation. The Anderson hypothesis, although clearly stated in two technical papers, was not in the public consciousness. There was a worry that MWS may even close shop as the 2007/2008 season drew to a close. Sailings for any reason were so few. The crew’s experience with whales was so limited at that time that on my first sailing with them they could not distinguish between Sperm and Blue Whales.
My press blitz in May 2008 changed all of that. A few months later, the publicity shy patron saint of MWS, a wealthy philanthropist, visited me in office. By then with the team at Jetwing Eco Holidays, we had rolled out whale watching itineraries and briefed the foreign offices of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and developed a 16 page brief which offered credible reasons why there was a high strike rate for seeing Blue Whales. I assured him that during the next season there would be sufficient demand for a second boat. MWS continued to sail and did indeed launch a second boat in the second full season of whale watching in 2008/2009. This extended to three boats for the 2010/2011 season.
The press blitz continued, with me explaining why sailing from Mirissa offered the quickest access to the whales. The efforts of Jetwing were complemented by a team led by Chitral Jayathilake from Walkers Tours who had also started whale watching with sailings from Galle, in a boat lease agreement with the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation. We all received enthusiastic support from the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau who further disseminated the story. Consequently, whale watching became established in the mainstream tourism vocabulary in an amazingly short time. By 2008/2009, the first full whale watching season, it was firmly established. So much so that by April 2010, the end of the second full season, I began to chase another story. This, once again inspired by an intuition by Dr. Anderson, was to establish Kalpitiya Peninsula as Sri Lanka’s third whale watching hot spot. This field work was supported by Dallas Martenstyn and his co-investors at Alankuda Beach. It has established the Kalpitiya Peninsula as South Asia’s hot spot for pelagic seabirds and one of the best if not the best in Asia for pelagic seabirds.
The recent and rapid development of whale watching in Sri Lanka is characterized by a strong partnership between science and commerce. Anderson provided the scientific lead for both Mirissa and Kalpitiya. I brought in an eye for a commercial opportunity and the ability to develop and launch tourism products rapidly into mainstream tourism using the business clout of the Jetwing family of companies together with a well honed flair for taking the stories (e.g. The Gathering, Leopard Safaris, etc) to the local and international media. The fact that I had a background in the applied sciences, was a popular science enthusiast, a field naturalist and photographer also helped. This background made me receptive to the insights by Dr. Anderson and I recognized the need to give due credit to the scientific insights and to leverage it.
I especially understood how important a scientific backbone would be to hang the story on, to make it credible to both local and international media. This need for credibility holds true for clients and tour operators as well. This was the reason why I applied intense pressure on Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu not just to record data, but to let the Jetwing Eco Holidays have it in a format which could be disseminated on the web for anyone who wished to process or view the data to have access to it. The stream of data used by me helped to create publicity, generated even more sailings which in turn generated even more data. This created a positive feedback loop which made whale watching a viable business. I think my insistence on this steady feed of data was pivotal not only to gathering and delivering the data but keeping the whale watching boats in business and avoiding another attempt at developing whale watching to fizzle out. The interaction between Dr Anderson and me allowed science and commerce to be bridged to create livelihoods. This in turn makes a strong financial case for conservation.
There were many others of course who provided the vital ingredients. The boats and crew becoming available is one. The efforts of the Build a Future Foundation to help the tsunami affected fishing youth by setting up Mirissa Water Sports provided a crucial piece of infrastructure; the later tie up between Walkers Tours and the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation also helped here. There was assistance from many others including volunteers such as Sue Evans and Simon Scarff and Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu. The Jetwing Eco Holidays team and the media invited, were hosted on my research trips by the Jetwing Lighthouse in 2008 and 2009. The Jetwing Lighthouse also supported Dr. Charles Anderson under the Jetwing Research Initiative, an investment that has been rewarded handsomely with new business and publicity generated for it. The Jetwing Eco Holidays team plays a huge part in the continuing publicity campaign and at present the website www.jetwingeco.com lists over a hundred media actions to brand Sri Lanka as being Best for Blue.
Whale watching is now firmly established in the tourism literature and everyone from small guest houses to tuk tuk drivers to the large destination management companies are offering it. Now, it is almost as if whale watching has always been around, ever since Ptolemy marked a Cape of Whales on his 3rd Century AD map of Taprobane. This article was written as a handy summary in response to the questions on the rapid development of whale watching in Sri Lanka since May 2008. The challenge ahead will be in the intelligent regulation of whale watching so that it develops as a economic asset but with due regard to the safety of clients and the welfare of marine mammals. The rational development of whale watching off the seas of the Kalpitiya Peninsula will pose similar challenges.