WHALE WATCHING HOTSPOTS: MIRISSA, KALPITIYA PENINSULA AND TRINCOMALEE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). Whale Watching Hotspots: Mirissa, Kalpitiya Peninsula and Trincomalee. Ahasa, the in-flight magazine of Mihin Air. August 2010. Page 26-29.
I have written many articles to develop whale watching in Sri Lanka. The purpose of this article is to synthesize and update what I have written before to provide a simple convenient summary for whale watching.
In May 2008, I took the story to the world that the South of Sri Lanka is the best place in the world to see and photograph Blue Whales. I drew on a research insight by British Marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson, who is based in the Maldives and offered conclusive evidence based on field work,
In March 2010, once again drawing on an insight by Dr Charles Anderson, I explained that the seas off the Kalpitiya Peninsula is the third apex in a Whale Watching Triangle in Sri Lanka. I made a scientific case for this by using ocean floor mapping data which had become available only in October 2009. The third site, of the three whale watching locations is Trincomalee. All three sites are good because at these locations the edge of the continental shelf is close to the shore. The presence of deep water close to shore offers marine mammals the protection of deep water whilst being close to a nutrient flow. In the case of animals such as the Sperm Whale, it also means their preferred hunting depth of 400m is close to shore.
When should I visit?
For Mirissa and Kalpitiya, the best time for the Southern (and Western) seas is between November and April, when they are relatively calm (and outside of the south-west monsoon during which the seas are too rough for going out). In calm seas the ‘blows’ or ‘spouts’ of marine mammals and the splashing of dolphins can be seen at a much greater distance than when the seas are choppy. In some years the South-west monsoon come early and the whale watching window closes by mid April.
In Trincomalee the North-east Monsoon finishes by February and when the South-west Monsoon is blowing, the ‘season’ off Trincomalee has begun. However, the data collected by naturalists by John Keells Hotels and Jetwing Eco Holidays in the period April to May 2010 suggests that the hypothesis by Dr Charles Anderson of a U-shaped migration between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea is correct. This means that sightings off Trincomalee should peak around March and by May almost all the Blue Whales may be gone. Whale watchers must also note that although on land there may not be strong winds, the South-west Monsoon is powerful and as you head further out to seas during East Coast ‘season’, choppy seas may be encountered. In May 2010, I found myself off Trincomalee with a boatman who insisted we returned to shore as the off-shore winds picked up.
From what we know at present, it seems the window of time for seeing Blue Whales still remains as between December to April. It may not be a year round event.
Are there peak months when sightings are at their best?
There are peaks in the movement of whales in December-January and again in April. In January the whales are passing the South of Sri Lanka, eastward to the Bay of Bengal. In April, the whales are travelling westward, past the South of Sri Lanka, across the Maldives and on to up-wellings off Somalia, in the Arabian Sea around the Horn of Africa. The peak in Trincomalee will be when the whales have ‘arrived’ which should be around February and March. Off Kalpitiya, we still don’t have enough data for a pattern on Blue Whales. But the period from February to March has so far been good for records of Sperm Whales.
Where should I go whale watching in Sri Lanka?
The seas South of Dondra Head are the best for whale and dolphin watching in Sri Lanka. This is because the continental shelf is narrowest around Sri Lanka to the South of Dondra (the southernmost point in Sri Lanka). The whale watching infrastructure is also at its best here.
Depths of one kilometre and deeper are found relatively close to the South of Dondra, approximately six kilometres or 40 minutes away. This may be the reason why both Blue Whales and Sperm Whales can be seen within sight of shore. Sperm Whales dive to depths of one kilometre or more to feed on animals such as squid which live in submarine canyons. As deep water is found close to Dondra Head, it is more likely that Sperm Whales will stray close to shore. Blue Whales feed on krill found within the first 30 meters of depth. But they will use deeper water when travelling. The depths and availability of food to the South of Dondra Head seem to create conditions favourable for seeing both species close to shore. Elsewhere in Sri Lanka (except Kalpitiya and Trincomalee) the continental shelf is further out and therefore whale watchers may have to travel five or six times that distance to reach the one kilometre depth contour.
The continental shelf is defined as the depth contour or isobar of 200m. The location of the continental shelf is important as the depth of water rapidly reaches a depth of one and then two kilometres or deeper beyond this.
The seas of Kalpitiya Peninsula became known for its large pods of Spinner Dolphins from around 2008, thanks to Dallas Martensyn and his co-investors who developed Alankuda Beach (www.alankuda.com). But everyone stayed within an area bounded by a reef, where the ‘dolphin line’ was found. No one made a concerted effort to travel off-shore of the reef to look for whales for developing commercial whale watching until I set out in March 2010, inspired by Dr Charles Anderson who thought the continental shelf may be closer than shown by published marine maps. I have found Sperm Whales traveling on a North-South Axis along the 400m depth contour (E79 35). This is their typical feeding depth. With my team I also photographed a Blue Whale and rare pelagic seabirds before the window for marine exploration closed in May 2010. However, after I ran the story in March 2010, a few others also ventured offshore of the reef and reported whales. Of a small handful of recent sightings of Orca off Sri Lanka, almost all of them have been from Kalpitiya.
Trincomalee has been known for a long time for its Blue Whales. Whales come very close to shore because of a submarine canyon which comes into one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. In March 2010, the first post war effort (led by John Keells Hotels) to explore Trincomalee for commercial whale watching were explored. Most of the Blue Whales here may be those passing the South coast, it remains to be seen whether Trincomalee will offer better viewing than from sailings off Mirissa.
What is the best location for whale watching off Sri Lanka
For a broad variety of species and a ninety percent chance of seeing a Blue Whale, Mirrisa remains the best option. Also the infrastructure for whale watching is best developed here. From Kalpitiya, the whale watching is done from 18 footer speed boats. The frequency of sightings is less, but there is a greater sense of adventure. Trincomalee still has some issues with security and I have been turned away by a naval boat near Swami Rock. But I suspect these issues will be ironed out fairly soon as the government is keen for tourism to develop on the East Coast.
What am I likely to see?
The notes here relate to what can be seen during the season. Blue Whales are a strong possibility, with Mirissa offering a ninety per cent chance. Pods of Spinner Dolphins are encountered regularly off Mirissa and very frequently off the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Sperm Whales are seen regularly off both Mirissa and Kalpitiya. Together with Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu, I had a one hundred percent strike rate in April 2008, for Blue Whales. Data is still thin on the ground for Trincomalee.
I have had a few sailings where as many as 5 Blue Whales were in the field of view at the same time confirming that at least 5 individuals are around the boat. In most parts of the world, seeing one Blue Whale is difficult. On one memorable trip when I was researching the Best for Blue story, with Mirissa Water Sports team and my naturalists, we had 8 Blue Whales simultaneously ‘blowing’ around the boat.
Let me provide another real example of how good it can be on certain days. On a tour led by Dr Charles Anderson, we had eight species of cetaceans on the 1st and 2nd April 2009. On the 2nd April, in the space of an hour we had a Bryde’s Whale, Blue Whale and six Sperm Whales. In those first two days of April we also had Spinner, Indo-Pacific Bottlenosed, Pantropical Spotted and Striped Dolphins.
What about accommodation?
Most whale watchers set off from the Mirissa Fishery Harbour. The coastal strip from Hikkaduwa, through Galle, Unawatuna, Koggala to Mirissa has a broad range of accommodation including some of the most luxurious villas and boutique hotels in the island. This entire strip is within commuting distance from the Fishery Harbour at Mirissa. Galle is approximately a 40 minute drive.
The Kalpitiya Peninsula has a smaller number of options for accommodation, but this may change as more budget and boutique hotels are coming up. Alankuda Beach which supported my research is at the high end and has the most experienced boatmen.
Whom do I book with?
Most foreign visitors book with a tour operator or their local hotel. Residents in Sri Lanka may prefer to contact the boat operators directly. The two main established operators of boats from Mirissa are Mirissa Water Sports and Walkers Tours who run the boats of the Fishery Harbours Corporation in the south. Dolphin Beach handle boats for Kalpitiya. In Trincomalee, the Chaaya Blue (a John Keels Hotel) will arrange boats. All of these operators provide visitors with life jackets.
Where can I get more information?
Almost everything you want to know about whale watching can be found on www.jetwingeco.com
Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a Director of Jetwing Eco Holidays. Almost every major wildlife tourism product in Sri Lanka has had Gehan playing a pivotal role in its research and commercial development. He is on www.jetwingeco.com, Facebook and Flickr.