de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). Deep Blue. July – August 2010. Pages 34-35. Volume 5, Issue 6. ISSN 1800-0746.
Exploring the seas off Kalpitiya in search of whales. Reflections on the first focussed effort to develop Kalpitiya for whale watching.
We were in the vast emptiness. I scanned the vastness of the Indian Ocean around me with my Swarovski 7 x 42 binoculars. I steadied myself by holding the canopy with one hand as a gentle swell rocked the boat. As the rising sun heated the land and sea creating a differential in temperature, the wind would rise and waves would buffet the relatively tiny 18 foot boat we were in. But that would come later. We had left early when weak starlight could still struggle down to the earth and we had come out 30 kilometers west from Alankuda Beach where Dallas Martenstyn and his team were hosting me. I had food, water, four tanks of fuel, two GPS units and depth charts which had only become available in October 2009 as a result if exploration for oil and gas on the sea bed.
In the seas South of Mirissa, I was used to going in large boats with a crew of at least four. The sea lanes were busy from hulking container ships to small trawlers. Out here, far beyond the shelf, there was no one. Just us. Rohan Susantha one of Alankuda Beach’s boatmen and me.
I was the first person from Sri Lankan tourism to push over the reef which ran parallel to the Kalpitiya Peninsula and begin a determined search for whales and pelagic seabirds. I may probably be the first person ever to have come out with the oil exploration depth data and a GPS, to try and understand where the best strike rate would be for cetaceans.
On this trip, we were looking for Blue Whales. I already had sightings on two successive days of a pod of Sperm Whales at the 400 meter depth isocline fairly close to shore. I was not expecting to see many Blue Whales as I have encountered South of Mirissa. Dr Charles Anderson had hypothesized a U shaped migration of Blue Whales between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal which would take Blue Whales around the island’s coast South of Dondra. There was no prediction as to why Blue Whales should be out here other than for a few randomly scattered individuals because of the rich feeding off the coast. But my guess was that any Blue Whales seeking food would be close to the edge of the shelf where the marine food chain appeared to be the richest. But I had to come out to ‘the deep’ as the fishermen called it. Only by running a series of deep sea transects could I field test what I had already concluded as the best search area.
Susantha had his head covered in a shawl to protect him from sun burn. He looked like a Bedoudin in the Arabian desert. He narrowed his eyes and watched me silently as I took a GPS reading and examined our position. “Two kilometers deep” I announced and traced out with my finger the contour line on the map. Susantha nodded thoughtfully and looked at me to announce the next stage of the game plan. I had been back ten years and still had not invested enough time to acquire a sufficiently wide grasp of Sinhalese to have a deep conversation. I was curious to know what Susantha thought of my relentless determination to find whales. What did he think of me? I suppose I never will know but I could see he was enjoying the adventure just as much as me.
Many more hours of searching drew a blank and with each North-South transect we ran we pulled in closer and closer to the peninsula and within the safety net of mobile telephony. Until I began the search for whales everyone had stayed in-shore of the reef, within 4-6 kilometers of the shore to watch dolphins. Now people were beginning to come out off shore of the reef to search for whales. I did eventually find my first Blue Whale off Kalpitiya. But that was on a later trip with my colleague Riaz Cader when I was once again on the 400m depth isobath at E 79 37.
On that week day, I had the privilege of being the only person to be out snorkeling on Barr Reef. As we pulled westward again I observed a thin white line of sand recede into a blue sky mirrored below by a blue sea. I was lucky to have two island homes. Sri Lanka where I was born and Britain where I had lived the first fifteen years of my adult life. If have fallen in love with the sea, it would have been that March and April in 2010 as I searched the Indian Ocean for the giants on the planet. I began to sense how truly Sri Lanka was an oceanic island. How the richness of its myriad landscapes could only be rivaled by the other island I had grown to love, Britain. In the months to come, I knew my Kalpitiya sea journeys would be replaced by winter walks to watch wild geese flying in from Iceland, escaping the grip of the Arctic ice.