Accounts of Whale Watching in Sri Lanka
Underwater photography of Blue Whales and Sperm Whales off Sri Lanka
– Andrew Sutton
Wildlife photographer and film maker Andrew Sutton describes his experience on photographing Blue Whales and Sperm Whales underwater off the coast of Mirissa in Southern Sri Lanka on Wildlife Extra
Whale and Seabird watching off the south coast of Sri Lanka
– Charles Anderson
With Americans Corey and Diane Rusk I spent 14 days whale watching off the south coast this April. We went out with the Mirissa Water Sports boat Spirit of Dondra every day from 9 to 22 April 2008. We were joined by Jetwing naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu from the Lighthouse Hotel on all but one day and by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (CEO, Jetwing Eco Holidays) on 3 days.
Blue Whales were by far the most commonly encountered species, with sightings on 14 out of 14 days (and an average of 4.5 sightings per day). This makes the south coast of Sri Lanka one of the very best places to see Blue Whales in the entire world. I believe that most of these Blue Whales are on migration, en-route from their NE monsoon feeding grounds off Trincomalee to their SW monsoon feeding grounds in the Arabian Sea. However, most of the Blue Whales seen during our trips were not obviously travelling westward. Rather, they were repeatedly diving in localized areas, presumably feeding. So perhaps they are on passage, but having found food off the south coast are quite happy to loiter as long as the food remains. Clearly there is still a lot to be learnt about these whales.
Sperm Whales were also present, with pods being seen on five occasions. While most Blue Whales were seen over the continental shelf, Sperm Whales tended to occur a bit further offshore, in the shipping lanes. And this gives a clue as to why there are so many whales here. A glance at any chart of the Indian Ocean shows that Dondra Head is the southern-most point not only of Sri Lanka, but also of the entire Indian subcontinent. Any ship wanting to pass between east and west has to pass by Dondra. And so too does any cetacean. Furthermore, off Dondra the continental slope comes to within less than 3 nautical miles of the coast. With the seasonally changing monsoon currents producing seasonally changing blooms of plankton; with the land masses of India and Sri Lanka acting like an inverted funnel to channel cetacean movements; and with deep water so close to shore, it is perhaps not surprising that the southern tip of Sri Lanka is such a cetacean hotspot.
Other cetacean species seen were: Bryde’s Whale, Dwarf Sperm Whale, unidentified Beaked Whale, Spinner Dolphin, Striped Dolphin and Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin.
Among the seabirds, Whiskered and several other Terns were seen relatively close to shore. However, most of the ‘more interesting’ species were seen a few miles off, and would not have been visible to a land-based observer.
Shearwaters were seen in reasonable numbers. All were medium-large, all-brown birds. Most Shearwaters (38) were seen on or after 19 April. Some of these birds were definitely, and most were probably, Flesh-footed Shearwaters. They were nearly all heading west, presumably on their annual migration across the Indian Ocean from SW Australia to the upwelling areas of the Arabian Sea. Wedge-tailed Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater were also recorded.
Pomarine Skuas were relatively common, and also relatively easy to identify since more than half were in breeding plumage with full tail extensions (‘spoons’). All Pomarine Skuas seen were heading eastward, towards the Bay of Bengal. This was in marked contrast to most other birds, which were heading west. The peak passage of Pomarine Skuas occurred during 14-19 April (74 birds), with greatest numbers on 17 April (25 definite and 20 probable birds).
While nearly all the Skuas seen were identified as Pomarine (or probable Pomarine) Skuas, three birds were thought to be Arctic Skuas. Two could not be identified with absolute certainty, but one (seen on 19 April) showed classic tail projection and colouration of an adult pale phase bird, and was positively identified as Arctic.
The commonest seabird seen was the Bridled Tern. Hundreds were seen most days, with many in feeding flocks of 30-400 individuals. Most were heading westwards. There is a relatively well-known southward migration of Bridled Terns along the west coast of Sri Lanka, peaking in August-September. Perhaps these April birds are part of the return migration. The smallest numbers of Bridled Terns (10s rather than 100s) were seen on 14-19 April inclusive. Intriguingly, these were the exact days on which the largest numbers of Pomarine Skuas were recorded. Coincidence? Or might the presence of relatively large numbers of Pomarine Skuas have driven the Bridled Terns further offshore?
Among the ‘white’ terns, the commonest was the White-winged Tern. Most were either moulting into, or already in, their beautiful breeding plumage. This made them easy to identify, which is not always the case for birds in non-breeding plumage. Nearly all the White-winged Terns seen were heading westward, and were presumably on passage towards their central Eurasian breeding grounds. Exceptions were seen late in the day (after about 1500h) when some birds were seen flying eastward, perhaps towards local roosting sites. Most sightings were of single birds or small loose flocks, but 100+ were seen in one extraordinary feeding flock with Bridled Terns on 21 April.
Noddies were recorded on four days, always in association with feeding flocks of Bridled Terns. Those that were seen closely enough were all identified as Black Noddies. However, there is a bit of a problem with the taxonomy of small Noddies in the Indian Ocean, with confusion over the separation and ranges of Black and Lesser Noddies (Anous tenuirostris) still not fully resolved.
Dr. Charles Anderson is a professional marine biologist who has lived and worked in the Maldives since 1983. His research on whales there led him to believe that Blue Whales should be present off the south coast of Sri Lanka in April, a hypothesis which he confirmed with visits in April 2007 and 2008. He can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com .
Best for Blue – One Year On
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Best for Blue – One Year On. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. November – December 2009. Pages 50-53.
“In May 2008, I began an aggressive publicity campaign to position the South of Sri Lanka as the best place in the world for seeing blue whales. In April 2009, Sri Lanka completed its first full fledged year of commercial whale watching. A year’s data has demonstrated unequivocally that Sri Lanka is unsurpassed for the both the ease and likelihood of seeing Blue Whales”. Two navy patrolmen interrupted the feature interview I was giving the BBC on a beach in Wellawatta, with the Indian Ocean as a backdrop. They were puzzled when we explained that we were talking about whales. But they were satisfied that we were not a security threat. We went indoors where I repeated the story for a BBC radio version.
It is quite fitting that I look back on the first year, in an article in Serendib, because my two articles in Serendib were hugely influential in establishing the story. My publicity blitz began in a lengthy, story first published in the May 2008 special edition of the Sri Lanka Wildlife eNewsletter. This was published in various forms in local and international print and electronic media. Steve Peaple who read it commissioned two articles for Serendib. The second was subsequently released as a pdf and travelled the world as it was mailed around by people in tourism as well as wildlife enthusiasts.
I did not discover that blue whales can be seen off Southern Sri Lanka. My claim to fame lies in my realization and efforts to position Sri Lanka as the best place in the world for seeing blue whales. This was based on extensive field work by me and others, the ability to build a credible and well researched story. A networking skill with local and international media matched by few helped greatly . One year on, so well has the story been seeded, that there are many claimants to have been the first to see the blue whales or to claim to have got the commercial whale watching off the ground.
But I know that the ‘new story’ began with a small coalition of people. For me it began on an English summer’s day during the British Birdwatching Fair in August 2003, when Dr Charles Anderson, a British marine biologist explained to me that Dondra Head, the southern-most of Sri Lanka, could be the best land based location for watching blue whales. His planned visit was postponed by the tragic Boxing Day Tsunami. But out of this tragedy was born a cooperative of eleven tsunami affected fishermen who were given a boat to start marine leisure activities. Two British volunteers, Sue Evans and Simon Scarff who were assisting the Mirissa Water Sports team stumbled across the whales in April 2006. Charles Anderson tested his theory of a migration of Blue Whales in April 2007 and I ventured from the fishery harbour of Mirissa in April 2008.
The first of April 2008, was a pivotal date. Within forty minutes we encountered our first whales and several more. So little was known by anyone at this stage that only I and my naturalists realised that we were looking at more than one species of whale. Back at Sue Evans’ house I processed my RAW files, consulted the four books I had brought with me and announced that we had both the largest baleen whale (blue whale) and the largest toothed whale (sperm whale) in the bag. I then realised without any doubt, that I was now on the biggest positive story for Sri Lanka. In fact in a literal sense, the biggest living story on the planet. I explained to the Mirissa Water Sports crew that I could take this story world-wide if they would run the boat for me at a special rate so that I could ground truth the story with more field data. I returned with my team of guides within two days, back from Yala, for more sightings of blue whales. Anoma Alagiyawadu, who became the principal collector of data and the naturalist of the Jetwing Lighthouse went on to clock twenty two whale watching days in April 2008, with a hundred percent record of seeing blue whales. In April 2009, the monsoon closed in early and out of fifteen sailings blue whales were seen on fourteen.
Anxious to gain a complete data history, as soon as the seas calmed again in October 2008, I resumed my search for whales. The burst of publicity resulted in Anoma Alagiyawadu being out on many whale watches supplemented by off season whale watches chartered by us. Thanks to this by April 2009, we had gathered a very comprehensive and compelling year round data history which showed that Sri Lanka is un-matched for the ease and likelihood of seeing blue whales. During the 2008/2009 season, Anoma clocked in an exhausting 75 whale watching trips. We collected data on 108 sailings by Mirissa Water Sports with blue whales seen on just over seventy percent of the sailings. The strike rate is higher when off season sailings are taken out.
On the first of April 2009, a year on from where it began for me, I was the first of two back to back whale watching groups with Dr Charles Anderson. My blue whale anniversary day passed without seeing a single whale. It could have been all so different, if this had happened exactly a year ago. I may not have returned to the southern seas on my way back from Yala. Sri Lanka could still be without a champion to publicize it as the best place for blue whales in the world. A few people, would be going out and seeing marine mammals. But there would have been no concerted and well researched burst of publicity. There would not have been a queue of people wanting to meet Dr Charles Anderson on his return in April 2009.
But fortunately it worked out on the 1st of April 2008. It was not bad in April 2009 either. The whales failed on my blue whale anniversary day denting my hundred per cent track record for April. But they made up for it on the 2nd of 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. A total of eight species of cetaceans in two days. With us was artist Anoma Wijewardene who has been on one of Dr Anderson’s Maldivian whale watching trips where they travelled on a live aboard for seven days. On that trip they had clocked nine species. We had managed eight species in two days, from two consecutive morning sailings. It showed how good Sri Lanka is for cetaceans.
I joined Charles again in the second week of April for two more sailings with his second group. On one of their trips they had recorded what they believed were ten individual Blue Whales. This is having discounted possible repeat sightings. I also found Dr Anderson’s groups very useful for collecting a different type of data. His clients were people who had gone in search of blue whales elsewhere in the world and were able to provide first hand comparative information. One Swiss national had taken ten zodiac trips into the Gulf of Lawrence from British Columbia in Canada for Blue Whales. He had seen none. Another couple had sailed along California on a ten day whale watching trip and had just three blue whale sightings. The previous year I had been introduced to Alastair Fothergill who had produced the episode on blue whales for David Attenborough. He too had confirmed that it was not so easy. In August 2008 at the British Birdwatching Fair I spoke to whale watching tour leaders and picked their brains on their encounter rates in other parts of the world which are listed for blue whales. It was overwhelmingly clear that Sri Lanka was pre-eminent. When the next season began, I was could approach my story with even more confidence.
I had taken a gamble in 2008. I had placed a lot of faith in the work of Dr Charles Anderson and run my story on one month’s data, that of April 2008. But in that month, I once had 8 blue whales spouting, simultaneously in view. Having extensively reviewed the literature, I knew that in the space of a few seconds of viewing time, I was seeing more blue whales than people in other blue whale watching sites in the world may see on a ten day live-aboard trip. I decided to take a risk and go public with the story. I was helped by a receptive local and international media. Two magazines helped in particular. Firstly, Serendib and the subsequent pdf of my second article in it. Secondly, the Sri Lankan society magazine Hi and the interest in wildlife by its editor Shyamalee Tudawe. Hi magazine is seen by an influential and affluent audience and the whale article created a storm. Anyone who was anyone in Sri Lankan society circles decided that they had to go whale watching. The most significant on-going contribution came from a young and passionate team of the then recently formed Sri Lankan Tourism Promotion Bureau headed by Dillep Mudadeniya. Dileep had assembled a team of people who had backgrounds in media and advertising. This young team more than anyone else understood that the blue whale story was an effective media hook for positive publicity. They began to facilitate visits for media, diplomats and a host of other people, assisted by media briefs which I had put together for them.
Another key entrant was the tie up between the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation with Walkers Tours. This provided more boats. Walkers Tours will ensure that whale watching is on the itineraries of large tour operators many of which are handled by them. The media end and the commercial end have become connected and commercial whale watching is here to stay in Sri Lanka after a relative brief birthing period.
Sri Lanka’s first full fledged year of commercial whale watching had many pleasant highlights for me. Germaine Greer the acclaimed feminist and author exclaiming that the sea was dotted with Sperm Whales, is one. During the Galle Literary Festival in January 2009, we had headed out in drizzle and stiff wind. As the boat rocked in the swell, over twenty Sperm Whales logged past us, with one group of seven tightly packed against each other. A few days earlier, with Steve White, the Editor of Action Asia, we watched two Humpback Whales creating arcs of white foam as they breached. They cavorted in the water and at times used their long white pectoral fins to slap the water. We also had five Blue Whales spouting simultaneously around the boat.
With Lewis Borge-Cardona I narrated for the Sri Lankan Airlines in-flight radio program the story of ‘Best for Blue’, whilst blue whales whooshed and blew towering white spouts near the boat. At the same time, Shyamalee Tudawe the editor of Hi Magazine screamed with joy as one blue whale after another came into view. On another trip artist Anoma Wijewardene watched silently and wistfully, close to tears as she encountered her first blue whale. My at time controversial marketing tactics saw me on board with Shyamalee Tudawe for the Amangalla Celebrity Whale Watch where over twenty people from eight nationalities gave three cheers for the blue whales. As the whale watching season drew to an end, the Jetwing Lighthouse finally began the first whale watch sightings newboard at a hotel, creating a buzz amongst clients and staff. The on-line newsboard at stag2.mydemoview.com/jetwingeco had already become a point of reference for media.
The periods I spent on the boat Charles are times I will always treasure. His wit is as sharp as his mind and he sees things which we would have missed. With his trained eye he would point out a species which we could have been easily overlooked. I remember Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins bow-riding whilst a mixed age and sex group of Short-finned Pilot Whales swam close to the boat. This was the second sight record since commercial whale watching began. On my trips to sea with him I had some magical moments with Pantropical Spotted Dolphins bow riding, Shearwaters skimming the waves, Striped Dolphins leaping in the distance and a school of five hundred Spinner Dolphins playing with us.
The year also saw me with Chitral Jayatilake attending meetings called by the National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) and the Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority (SLTDA) to discuss legislation drafted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DLWC). Intelligent and practical legislation which ensures the welfare of marine wildlife and client safety whilst allowing the poor south to develop an economic resource, will be important. It will be necessary before long to introduce licensing for accredited whale watching boat providers. One hopes that the legislation will be intelligent, practical and enforceable.
As commercial whale watching becomes a success, the debate will become more heated with claims as to who began it first. There have been a few research vessels which conducted surveys on Sri Lankan waters since the 1980s. There had also been more than one attempt to start commercial whale watching from Trincomalee. But the credit for the first truly successful and sustained effort for commercial whale watching in Sri Lanka must go to a small group of tsunami affected fishing youth from the poor fishing communities of the south assisted by the Build a Future Foundation. The man who unlocked it for me and laid the scientific foundation for my press blitz is undoubtedly Dr Charles Anderson. Without him, we would still be waiting for the seas off Trincomalee to be de-regulated for leisure pursuits in a post war environment. My role as always has been to act as a catalyst and publicist at the interface between science and commerce. The story I took to the world, that Sri Lanka is Best for Blue, is only the ‘new story’. It is really an old story which we had forgotten. Long before any modern cetacean researchers visited, Sri Lanka’s south coast was known to the whalers. Architect and historian Ismeth Raheem drew my attention to a map drawn in the second century AD by Ptolemy. The area around Kumana was known as the Cape of Whales. Two thousand years ago, people knew what we know now. They came and hunted our whales. More recently, in the 19th century, the Boston Whalers came to Sri Lanka to catch whales and details of their catches are recorded in shipping intelligence registers. So my story, is an old story, once which we had forgotten, about a century or more ago.
Best For Blue
– Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
When I set out in the last week of April with a crew from ArtTV and the editor of a local society magazine Hi!!, I knew I was on a hot story. The south of Sri Lanka is probably the best place in the world to see the Blue Whale. Indeed, it is almost certainly the best to see both Blue Whalesand Sperm Whales together. I told my media guests that we will probably see the Blue Whale within 45 minutes of leaving Mirissa. Close to the southernmost point of Sri Lanka, the next landfall from Mirissa fishery harbour is Antarctica.
Gehan’s Journal – a whale watching experience
I left Lighthouse at 5.30 am with Anoma Algiyawadu the hotel naturalist and two groups of Lighthouse Hotel clients. Nalin and Elizabeth Seneviratne and their son Michael Seneviratne (a UCL medical student), John, Roz and their two sons (Chris and Mathew).
We took the boat from the fishery harbour around 6.30 am and within half an hour we had our first spout around. Soon we could see four spouts simultaneously. Incredible! The seas around Sri Lanka offers the chance to see Blue Whales in concentrations not seen elsewhere in the world. Blue Whales do not move in groups like Sperm Whales for example. However, off the south coast they gather for feeding, with mothers often seen with calves. Just the week before we had at least six, possibly ten individuals, within a quadrat of half a kilometer square. A concentration of blue whales of this nature is something which whale watchers can only dream about.
The south coast of Sri Lanka also offers what may be one of the easiest blue whales watching opportunities in the world. Dr Charles Anderson in April 2007 investigated the reports of Blue Whales by Sue Evans. He visited Dondra with naturalist Anoma Algiyawadu to scan the sea for whales with a telescope. Within 15 minutes they phoned me to say they had seen from shore the ‘blows’ of blue whales. On recent trips with Anoma I have had blue whales on every visit, within five nautical miles of the shore and within sight of land. A boat ride of thirty to forty minutes can yield close sightings of the largest animal to have ever lived on the planet. Blue whale watching does not get any easier.
The boat crew used by Anoma is experienced and makes it a point to keep a comfortable distance from the whales so that they are not stressed. Steaming directly towards a whale is a sure recipe to lose the animal who will deep dive under stress. We have always kept a distance and been treated with animals leisurely exhaling and engaging in repeated shallow dives for feeding.
Voyaging with the Odyssey – Watching Whales in Sri Lanka
– Duncan Murrell
As soon as I heard that I was returning to Sri Lanka for the first time in many years leviathans from the deep surfaced in my mind. Perhaps most wildlife enthusiasts would conjure up images of elephants, leopards or a cornucopia of exotic birds. But I have spent the last twenty years or so nurturing a passion for whales in the icy waters of Alaska, and the time that I have spent here in the past has reinforced my awareness of Sri Lanka’s standing as one of the world’s hotspots for whales and dolphins; although it seems as if only a minority of people here share that awareness. The biggest gem present in the necklace of magnificent marine mammals that dive and cavort around the island is indeed the largest animal that has ever lived – the blue whale.
I will never forget my first encounter with a blue whale off of Trincomalee ten years ago. As I have always worked from the very intimate viewpoint of a kayak you might say that I have become somewhat habituated to the size of the humpback whales that I have spent so many years rubbing shoulders with in Southeast Alaska. On this occasion I was safely detached aboard a fishing boat as the blue whale broke the surface and after a few towering blows proceeded to roll it’s massive form into a dive. I waited with baited breath for it’s massive flukes to appear but it’s back seemed to go on forever compared to the dive sequence of my beloved humpbacks: when the tail finally appeared it looked more like the wings of a jet aircraft taking off !
Now, ten years later I found myself elevated to new heights of appreciation of Sri Lanka’s offshore giants. I was high up in the crow’s nest of the “Oddysey”, an American research vessel which is on a five year global expedition designed to gather the first ever baseline data of synthetic contaminants in oceans around the world using sperm whales as indicators for measuring the health of the seas. Fortunately my lofty elevation was not magnified by an unsettled sea and my “nest” would have been as secure for eggs as it was for me. We were within sight of the Great Basses Lighthouse just off the SE coast and the sparkling ocean appeared as benign as a puddle on parched earth. I had the supreme sensation of weightlessness as my eyes drifted across the ocean searching for any vaporous plumes of whale breath.
During our two week passage from Colombo via the Gulf of Mannar we had already encountered many sperm whales and their blows are unmistakeable because their single blowhole (blue whales have two) is not positioned centrally and the breath is exhaled at an angle. My first ascent up to the crow’s nest in the Gulf of Mannar had been christened with a pod of about fifteen sperm whales clustered around the bow of the boat like a logjam. I couldn’t believe that there were so many whales laid out beneath my feet and rendered naked from blowhole to flukes by the crystal clarity of the water. From a kayak I have been used to seeing tantalising sections of submerged whales as if through a magnifying glass: now I was getting my first panorama of whales! All the while we were in the presence of sperm whales the deckhouse resounded to their staccato clicking that was captured by the hydrophone trailing behind the boat. Theirs is a world as reliant on sound as ours is on sight and which tantalises research with it’s complexity.
These were my first ever encounters with sperm whales and by the time we reached the waters off the Great Basses Lighthouse I had seen so many that they were becoming as familiar to me as humpbacks. Now I was ready for some blue whales, perhaps with some more dolphins for dessert. We had already encountered three species of dolphins in one day (striped, bottlenose and common ) and I was eagerly anticipating seeing more species for the first time. ” Big blow at 11 o’clock ” I bellowed. It was as perpendicular as my lofty perch and probably just as high. As we got a little closer to the whale I could see the prow of it’s enormous gothic arch-shaped head ploughing a furrow of foam through the water. It’s broad polished surface described a creature of enduring power and speed. Bisecting the head I could clearly see the cutting edge of the ridge that leads to the fleshy splashguard that surrounds the muscular blowholes. They open and shut in the blinking of an eye and it’s foul-smelling rocket-propelled breath shoots out at over 700 kilometres per hour. With a trail of misty wraiths hovering in it’s wake the mighty blue whale raised its flukes and slides back into it’s world of enduring mystery.
“Another one at 3 o’clock …and another one ..it must be a cow and a calf”. My crewmates at deck level are sighting their own whales and it’s getting hard to keep up with the action. Some sperm whales surface to join the party and I’m treated to the largest toothed whale on the planet appearing in the same frame as the largest baleen whale. Beyond the whales I can see the distinctive acrobatics of a large school of spinner
dolphins. Their exuberant behaviour very accurately mirrors the excitement welling up inside of me. I look back to the Great Basses Lighthouse and the heat-hazed land beyond, and recall the wonderful terrestrial experiences that I’ve had in Bundala and Yala. What an incredible and bounteous juxtaposition that is. There can’t be many places on earth where you can expect to see an elephant walking along a beach with plumes of whale breath sprouting on the horizon.
We had another expected treat in store for us. We sighted a large group of Risso’s dolphins and I was informed by my crewmates that they are very difficult to approach, and are certainly not interested in bow-riding as many dolphins are. Sure enough they tantalised and teased as I tried to capture any discernable shapes in the viewfinder of my camera. We could see that there was some very boisterous interaction taking place which suggested mating or fighting ..or both. The heated exchanges became so intense that we were able to drift right up to the melee of flippers and flukes. It was obvious that several males were competing for the attention of one or more females. It was no holds barred as they viciously gnawed at each other providing clear evidence for the cause of the scars and lacerations that are such a distinctive feature of the Risso’s dolphin. After numerous previous encounters with this species the crew of the “Oddysey” were amazed to witness this kind of behaviour at such close quarters. As for myself I was beginning to think that anything is possible in the waters of this sceptered isle.