THE PINK DOLPHINS OF KALPITIYA
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). The Pink Dolphins of Kalpitiya. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. July – August 2009. Pages 42-43.
The first popular article to publicise the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins in the Kalpitiya Lagoon.
Two navy Arrow boats screamed past us powered by two 200 horsepower outboard engines. Our relative speeds were exaggerated as we sped out in the opposite direction. We were headed to where the waters mix. The fishermen had told me that the ‘Ongil’ is seen regularly where the extensive Puttalam Lagoon enters the open sea.
I was on the trail of the Pink Dolphins of Kalpitiya. Well, I exaggerate on the degree of pinkness and more on this later. The pink dolphins I was after are correctly known as the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin. It is the only cetacean (the scientific order in which the whales and dolphins are placed) known to enter lagoons in Sri Lanka. The dugong is another marine mammal which enters lagoons, but it is a sirenian ( a scientific order of animals with a distant affinity to elephants) and not a cetacean. The Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin is a little studied dolphin about which very little was known until recently. For the fishermen of Kalpitiya of course, the animal was no stranger. But for those of us with a background in the western sciences, it was largely unknown. In 2001, the Wildlife Heritage Trust published Anouk Illangakoon’s book on the whales and dolphins of Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, there were only two confirmed records and one possible sight record.
The dolphins are not totally pink. But they show enough pink for me to label them as the “Pink Dolphins of Kalpitiya”. However at the level of a species, The Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin or Sousa chinensis, can become almost totally pink as they do in the waters around Hong Kong. The all pink form is of the sub-species chinensis. The sub-species found in Sri Lankan waters is plumbea, a reference to the plumbeous or grey colour. However as the photographs show, some mature adults can show a fair amount of pinkness.
I had not even thought of going after them until I was told about them by Dr Charles Anderson, during dinner at the Alankuda Beach Resort. Dallas Martenstyn, who had played a pivotal role in drawing notice to the Spinner Dolphins off Kalpitiya had invited Charles. Dallas and Charles had attempted to find the dolphins but were hampered by mechanical problems. During dinner, Charles drew my attention to a paper by Koen Cornelis Arthur Br?ker and Anouk Ilangakoon on the ‘Occurrence and conservation needs of cetaceans in an around the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary, Sri Lanka’ published in 2008 in the journal Oryx of Fauna and Flora International. Between April 2004 and March 2005, the authors had conducted monthly surveys of the Puttalam Lagoon. They had ten encounters with the humpback dolphins, with three of them in April. The next morning, Charles, Dallas and I set out to sea for a memorable encounter with 500-600 Spinner Dolphins. We had to go back South to join the first of two back to back whale watching groups which Charles was bringing to the Jetwing Lighthouse. They were coming to watch Blue Whales South of Mirrissa. The pink dolphins would have to wait.
I promised to resume the search and I was back a couple of weeks later, racing against the early arrival of the South-west Monsoon in April 2009, which Charles had predicted. I had arrived ahead of Dallas and set out with Romlas the Manager of the Alankuda Beach Resort and Kumara one of his boat crew. Romlas negotiated with one of the local fisherman for the use of a boat and we were soon scudding against strong waves. Sea spray whipped against us covering my glasses in a film of salt. Two Skuas flew low over the water and close to us. I was braced against the side of the boat which had no seats. In the rough sea I could not even steady myself enough to use the binoculars effectively to identify them to species level. After over two hours we had not seen much more than Bridled Terns and Large Crested Terns.
I had warned Romlas and Kumara that we could not expect easy results. In 2001, when I set out to brand Sri Lanka for leopard safaris, I did not encounter too many leopards on my first few game drives. Those that I did, were not suitable for brochure quality photography either. I had learnt that many field sessions are needed to find an animal and to learn enough as to how to find it again. We asked passing fishing boats whether they had seen any dolphins. They all had, at some point during the last few weeks, but not today.
The next morning I set out with Dallas who had arrived. Dallas got his boat yard crew to prepare for a long session. We were going to hire a fisherman’s boat, from a boatman near the navy base at Kalpitiya. But Dallas was going to take one of his own engines and a spare propeller. Three tanks of fuel were also loaded. To make sure we were comfortable for a long stretch of time, a bench to sit on was loaded. Ice boxes were packed with soft drinks, water and enough lemon puff biscuits to feed a biscuit munching whale.
There is heavy security and a floating navy sentry point requires all boats to check in and check out. Its manned by three navy men, who have at their disposal serious weaponry mounted on the boat Other navy boats frequently patrol the lagoon. Approximately 40 kilometers North of where we were, was the former LTTE sea tiger base at Silvathurai which had been captured a few months earlier after repeated air assault. Each registered fishing boat has a unique number and its own identification papers. Any unusual passengers such as marine mammals enthusiasts have to be cleared by the navy base first. I was glad that Alankuda Beach were taking care of all the formalities. All I had to do was find and photograph the dolphins.
We headed out to one of the larger islands in the lagoon, Ippantivu. Nearly two hours had lapsed without a sighting when Nirman, the boatman pointed ahead. It was immediately obvious that these dolphins were different to the oceanic Spinner Dolphins. What struck me at once was how much pink some of the individuals showed on their dorsal fin and body and even more on the tail flukes. On deep dives they would raise the tail out of the water. This feature combined with their squat bodies reminded me more of a Blue Whale than the graceful and aerodynamic oceanic dolphins.
They were relatively slower and showed a pronounced basal area under the dorsal fin and were strongly ‘humped’ when diving. They did not show their beak for more than a fraction of a second and I found it impossible to photograph their beak. They were not afraid of fishing boats and at least two swam up to the boat and dived underneath. We followed them at a distance comfortable to them and kept pace in parallel whilst they traversed from one side of the lagoon to the other. We estimated that there were possibly ten or more. But its never easy to estimate numbers of dolphins as only a few show up at any one time. The most number of dolphins we had simultaneously breaking the surface were three. For popular parlance, the name Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin is a tad dry and long winded. Struck by the pinkness they showed, Dallas and I agreed that we should popularize them by branding them as the Pink Dolphins of Kalpitiya.
When we returned, Romlas who saw my pictures claimed he had seen at least four of these dolphins being sold as shark meat at the local fish market a week earlier. Clearly there is a need to create more awareness how precious these dolphins are and the need to protect them. In fact Br?ker and Illangakoon in their paper write that the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin ‘should be recognised as having the potential to be an important non-consumptive resource for ecotourism and a flagship species for marine environmental conservation…….”.
The fishermen claimed that they are seen easily in the mornings when the fishermen are heading out to sea at first light. The next morning I marshaled a reluctant family who rose at 4.30 am so that we could be on the boat in Puttalam Lagoon by 6am. Three hours of searching yielded nothing. But Nirma, Maya and Amali were able to see a part of Sri Lanka which many people cannot even imagine exists. That morning, I appreciated how large the area between the Kalpitiya Peninsula and the mainland really is. The area can be approximated to a thin rectangle approximately 35km long and 6km wide. This is over 200 square kilometers. The extent of deeper water where we had to search was less than half, but in theory was still approaching a potential hundred square kilometers. Quite a large area to search for our target species in a 19 foot boat. Blue Whales will betray their position with a spout which can be seen more than two kilometers away. In contrast, the Indo-Pacific Humpback does little to betray its presence. Occasionally, one may breach. We had two breaches. But in a choppy sea, this is easily missed.
The humpback dolphins are what are considered an in-shore species. It will enter lagoons, mangroves, estuaries, etc and also be at sea near the coastline. Dallas and I had both done three trips apiece and had a strike rate of one out of three. Many more trips will be required before we gain a qualitative feel of what the strike rate is. For keen marine mammal enthusiasts, the ‘pinkies’ adds another marine mammal to the wants list. It opens up more tourism possibilities for the Kalpitiya Peninsula which has been earmarked for tourism development.
The Spinner Dolphins at Alankuda were a fortuitous discovery by the Colombo fraternity. Dallas Martentyn had been visiting the Kalpitiya Peninsula with his parents, to snorkel and dive, since he was a teenager. In the early 2000s, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe earmarked the Kalpitiya Peninsula for tourism development. Dallas who already acquired a love for the peninsula was inspired by this and in 2002 started his search for property. In 2004 Dallas and his partner began investing in Alankuda. They started with a simple base camp and started planting trees on their property. By 2006 they had built 4 cabanas and some basic facilities. In 2005, Dallas who had a deep love for the sea had discovered for himself the large numbers of oceanic Spinner Dolphins. A retinue of friends began to follow them to Alankuda to watch dolphins and chill out.
As friends of friends also began to visit the property it created pressure to provide more facilities and lean towards a commercial model to manage costs. In 2008, they completed two villas and a swimming pool. What had begun as a real estate prospecting had morphed into a tourism resort and Dallas and his investor had become the pioneers of high end tourism on the Kalpitiya Peninusla. What is more, Dallas Martenstyn had played the lead role in introducing dolphin watching to Sri Lanka
The pointer by Dr Charles Anderson to Dallas and me, adds another species of marine mammal to the list which visitors can hope to see. Dallas had been struck by what a deep impression the dolphins made on visitors. Not surprisingly he was keen to search for the humpback dolphins with me and have his team organize the logistics.
Howard Martenstyn, the brother of Dallas had also helped popularize the Alankuda dolphins through the usage of his images in an article, ‘Dancing with the Dolphins in Kalpitiya’ which ran in Hi Magazine (Series 6, Volume 4) in 2008. This and my earlier article on Sri Lanka being Best for Blue Whale in Hi magazine (Series 6, volume 3) had a significant impact in galvanizing Colombo’s social circles to go out to sea in pursuit of whales and dolphins. The Editor of the magazine, Shyamalee Tudawe realized her affluent readership had an empathy with wildlife and used the magazine to break new ground in popularizing wildlife. The other key article on Alankuda’s dolphins which also used photographs by Howard and words by Shehan Karunatilake ran in the July-August 2008 issue of Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. Co-incidentally, this ran in parallel with one of my articles to publicize the South of Sri Lanka as the best place in the world to see Blue Whales. Dallas’ nephew Jonathan is now building a facility named the ‘Dolphin Beach’ from which he runs boats for dolphin watching. This will further reinforce the Martenstyn family’s connection with Alankuda’s dolphins.
I also used my time on the peninsula look at migrant waders for which the Kalpitiya Peninsula has always been famous. There is enough here to keep a keen birder and marine mammals enthusiast busy for a few days. In a few more months, the South-west Monsoon will be spent and the seas will be calm once again. Others can resume the search for the little studied pink dolphins of Kalpitiya. However a word of caution is necessary. Marine mammals watching need to be handled responsibly with the welfare of the animals and client safety kept foremost. Prospective clients need to understand that these animals need time to rest and sleep. Continuous, intrusive and irresponsible dolphin watching traffic could add to the physical stress created by already heavy boat traffic. If dolphin watching is done properly without stress to the animals, then marine mammal watching can help conserve these animals. The local fishermen will understand that a live dolphin is worth a lot in tourist dollars and this will help to reduce the killing of dolphins.