BEST FOR BLUE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). Best of Blue. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. November – December 2008. Pages 42-46.
The story behind the discovery that Sri Lanka is the best place in the world for seeing Blue and Sperm Whales together.
When I set out in the last week of April 2008, 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 Blue Whales. It is almost certainly the best to see both Blue Whales and Sperm Whales together. I told my media guests that we will probably see the first Blue Whale within forty five minutes of leaving the fishery harbour of Mirissa. The Mirissa fishery harbour is close to the southernmost point of Sri Lanka, Dondra Head. The next land fall (or ice fall?) is Antarctica.
Sure enough, the first Blue Whale spout was seen within forty five minutes and then another and another. I could not resist boasting about one of the previous week’s trips with marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson. That time, in our search for Sperm Whales, we had passed five Blue Whales, without stopping. “Yes, five blue whales” and I pause for effect and continue “and we did not even stop!’ I gesticulate, holding one palm with five fingers outstretched for exaggerated effect. The TV crew looked green. I thought it was with envy, but later discovered that it was sea sickness.
Shyamalee Tudawe, the ebullient editor let out a badly timed celebratory whoop which interfered with the sound track, as I explained the extraordinary story on-camera. Three decades of time during which we could have attained whale watching pre-eminence had been lost as whale watchers and biologists remained deeply rooted in their conviction that Sri Lanka’s whale watching prospects lay in the troubled North-east, around Trincomalee. That had finally changed. Now, we know that that the whales were in our back yard all the time. We were not smart enough to have realised this earlier.
When I tried to develop whale watching, I realised that without the involvement of a team of researchers, we could not go far. Knowledge is everything. It is the foundation of wildlife tourism. Research by scientists and extensive field work by my team had provided the platform for us to introduce Leopard Safaris, the Sinharaja Bird Wave, Primate Safaris, The Gathering, Dragonfly and Butterfly Safaris into the local vocabulary. Marine mammals researchers were thin on the ground in Sri Lanka and I could not find anyone to engage with me. I had diddly squat to go on and whale watching slipped into the ‘B List’ of things to do.
In 2003, a faint glimmer of hope arrived when I had a discussion with Dr Charles Anderson at the British Birdwatching Fair in August 2003. A British marine biologist resident in the Maldives, he studied cetacean strandings in the Maldives and deduced that a migration of whales was taking place. His hypothesis was that in December-January they would be passing Dondra Head within sight of shore on their way to the Bay of Bengal. Then, back again in April to return to up-wellings off Somalia in the Horn of Africa. I liked it. A theory supported by data which needed testing on the ground or rather in Sri Lankan waters.
We agreed that under the Jetwing Research initiative we will provide him with food and accommodation at the Lighthouse Hotel, one of five hotels in Sri Lanka which are members of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. All Charles had to do was come over and find the whales and my team would crank out the publicity and help create whale watching dollars for the impoverished South. It seemed like we had a plan.
On 26th December 2004, tragedy struck when the Boxing Day tsunami hit Sri Lanka with a terrible cost of human life. Charles decided it was best to postpone his visit that migration season as everyone was pre-occupied with the aftermath. However the whales did not go off the radar. The first confirmation of the theory came from Simon Scarff and Sue Evans on 11th April 2006. They were training a group of Tsunami affected youth from Mirissa Water Sports. The latter, operate the 54 foot boat The Spirit of Dondra. They photographed a group of whales which were identified as Blue Whales by Anouk Ilangakoon, a marine mammal researcher. Sue and Simon published their sightings in the Sri Lanka Wildlife eNewsletter which was compiled by me and Charles initiated a dialogue with them.
Charles visited in April 2007 and confirmed his theory with on-shore sightings from the Dondra Lighthouse as well as by going out to sea. He had first suggested his theory in a paper in 1999. In 2005, he had refined it further based on 2,000 records of sightings and published a paper in the ‘Journal of Cetacean Research and Management’. After that visit, I knew we were sitting on something really hot. Since April 2006, I had carried in the wildlife newsletter whale sightings sent to me by Sue Evans. But Charles Anderson’s hypothesis grounded in credible data, now field tested, was the hard science that I needed, to launch a new product development and publicity crusade.
So finally, on the 1st of April 2008, I headed out with Sue Evans, Simon Scarff, Mirissa Water Sports and a team of my naturalist guides, Wicky, Hetti, Jayaweera and Sam. Sue laid out one of the British Admiralty Charts and we looked at the depth contours. The continental shelf is closest to Sri Lanka to the South of Dondra Head. It is a mere six kilometers away. Elsewhere it is about 30km or more away. Depths of one kilometer or more are very close to this and this explains why both Blue Whale and Sperm Whales are so close to Dondra.
Sperm Whales are the champion divers of the animal kingdom and dive to within one to two kilometers to feed mainly on squid and to a lesser extent fish. Deep depths close to Dondra make it more likely that they will stray close to shore. Blue Whales feed on krill found in the first thirty meters of water. But they may use deep water when migrating.
“Whale’ called out Sue pointing to a short bushy blow of water vapour. It was ephemeral and melted away. But the whale kept blowing and the boat deftly steered to be parallel to the whale. Close enough to see but not enough to stress it. We photographed its tail as it fluked for a deep dive. The deep notch and shape and the ‘knuckles’ on its back confirmed it was a Sperm Whale. There were more.
On another trip with Sue, we had Blue Whales and I mean we had Blue Whales. At one time we counted no less than eight Blue Whales simultaneously spouting. In the first 26 days of April, Anoma had done 22 whale watching trips and had seen Blue Whales on every trip. I had done several trips and amassed few thousand images of Blue Whales, Sperm Whales and Spinner Dolphins. In May 2008, I broke the story.
Over a thousand people gathered for the Galle Literary Festival in January 2008 and no one went whale watching. Because no one really knew. The next Galle Literary Festival and the whole whale watching season will be different. The story is out. The poor South will can now harvest the seas for their whale watching Dollars and Rupees. With the involvement of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and various state agencies, it can be done responsibly with both client safety and the welfare of marine mammals being paramount. In April 2008, I once had Blue Whales, Sperm Whales and Spinner Dolphins in the field of view at the same time. I can’t wait to try again this coming season.
When to go – During December to April on days when the seas are calm. The migration of Blue & Sperm Whales peak during December-January and again in April as they travel Eastward and Westward respectively.
Where to stay – A broad range of accommodation is available from Mirissa through Galle to Hikkaduwa, etc.
Responsible Whale Watching – Travel with a crew that exercises client safety and the welfare of the animals.