Kalpitya Pelagic Birds on Flickr

Kalpitya(Whales, Dolphins and Pelagics) on Flickr
Sri Lanka National Parks and Reserves
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne explains the launch of commercial pelagic seabird tours thanks to the Kalpitiya Peninsula being a hotspot

Key Facts
* The continental shelf runs on a North-South axis approximately parallel to the Kaplitiya Peninsula. This creates a natural linear flyway for rare seabirds of the open ocean (pelagics).

* The seas off the Kalpitiya Peninsula seem particularly rich in the marine food chain evidenced by the large numbers of seabirds, marine mammals, flying fish (and commercially fished Yellow-fin Tuna) which are seen during the period when the seas are calm (November to April)

* The 400m depth line can be reached easily within half an hour from 18 footer boats which are available for leisure use. The ease of access and the ability to track birds flying in parallel between the E 79 038 and E 79 035 longitudinal line, makes viewing and photography easy. Bad weather may bring pelagic birds sufficiently close to for shore-based sea watching.

* The area in line with the tip of the peninsula around N 08 15, between E 79 35 and E 79 38 seems particularly good for encountering flocks of rare seabirds. This may have to do with the underlying oceanic topography and oceanic currents mixing with the nutrient flow from the Puttalam Lagoon creating a rich food chain.

The setting sun had sculpted a vast sea monster edged with fire over the horizon. Pink candy floss clouds were gradually engulfed by the encroaching darkness. Flashes of lightning illuminated a seemingly primordial world. As sunlight was about to be tottaly extinguished Rohan Susantha, the Alankuda Beach (www.alankuda.com) boatman opened the throttle and we sliced through a rising swell to return from another session at sea from Alankuda Beach. I had been out with my colleague Riaz Cader to develop pelagic tours for seabirds and marine mammals. We had a good session with a rarely seen Lesser Noddy (a kind of tern) making three abortive attempts to land on the canopy on our boat.

The next morning’s session, five hours out at sea, was the stuff of dreams. Over five hundred Spinner Dolphins cavorted around our boat, as we headed out to the Sperm Whale hunting line, the 400m depth isocline at E 79 36. The dolphins spun and raced and bow rode for thirty exhilarating minutes before I asked Susantha to peel away in case our presence caused stress. In deeper water, at E 79 35, N 08 15, for me what is a seabird hot spot, I motioned Susantha to pull over to photograph a Persian Shearwater, a rare pelagic bird, whose second record in Sri Lanka was by me only a week ago. “Whale” yelled out the hawk-eyed Susantha distracting Riaz and me from the Persian Shearwater. The Blue Whale slipped into the water on its third dive and we circled around looking for it. A bird with a pale head and a black cap floating in the water at a distance caught my eye. I knew it was something very special and I told Susantha much to Riaz’s surprise we must abandon the Blue Whale for the bird in the water. It turned out to be a Long-tailed Skua, possibly the second record for Sri Lanka (if another previous record is accepted) and the fourth or fifth record for the Indian Sub-continent. The show by the Spinner Dolphins, a Blue Whale with Persian Shearwaters flying over it or the second Sri Lanka record of a Long-tailed Skua are three things of which a marine biologist or enthusiast would have settled for just one. We had all three in one amazing pelagic session in one morning on Sunday 11th April.

In the last week of March we went public of my plans to return to the UK permanently. I informed my team that my last field project of eco-tourism product development would be to provide a firm foundation for pelagic tours for seabirds. For this we needed a site where there were good underlying reasons as to why seabirds could be seen with a fair degree of reliability. This required field work and know how. Although at least one other company had advertised pelagic tours, for various reasons I knew there were weaknesses with their chosen location and I had to find a site which could be used even if the seas were too rough to go out to the open sea.

On 1 April 2010 I sailed out of Mirissa with Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu marking the second anniversary of my sailing on 1st April 2008 which saw me leading the field work and a media campaign to firmly position the South of Sri Lanka as the best place for seeing Blue Whales. Also with me one the boat were my colleagues Hiran and Shiromal Cooray who were hoping for Blue Whales. My thoughts were however on pelagic seabirds. Pelagic refers to the open seas and pelagic seabirds are species of seabirds which do not come to land unless bad weather forces them close to shore or to the shore to rest when exhausted. I discussed with Anoma how the sightings of seabirds were progressing and he told me he had already seen the first shearwaters, a sign that the South-west Monsoon would come early. A skua, possibly a Pomarine or Arctic Skua flew overhead and I pointed it out to Hiran, regretting later that I was showing and not photographing.

My thoughts on how to go after the pelagic seabirds had been influenced on my time out at sea from Mirissa with British marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson. It had been documented in the literature, perhaps for 20-30 years that the South-west Monsoon brings in these rare seabirds. But the conversations out at sea with an experienced scientist like Dr Anderson somehow added the extra ingredient to make me realise that it may be possible to pursue the pelagics rather than leave it to chance. But I had a problem. From Mirissa, the sightings of pelagics were random and improved only when conditions started to become rough. When it was really rough we could not go out at all and the continental shelf although close to Dondra only pinched in there. Elsewhere it widened out again and shore-based watching did not seem attractive.

By April 2009, I had already homed in on what could be the site for the commercial development of pelagic tours. This was the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Once again there was a link with Dr Charles Anderson who had led me onto the story that Southern Sri Lanka was the best for Blue Whales. I had followed one of his leads to photograph the Pink Dolphins (Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins) in the Puttalam Lagoon. On 7th March 2010 in the Sunday Times, following another lead by Charles I had explained why Kalpitiya will be the third apex of a whale watching triangle with Trincomalee and Mirissa. A key factor for its potential for whale watching and pelagic birds was the location of the edge of the continental shelf being close and running along a North-South axis, practically parallel to the Kalpitiya Peninsula. When I was doing my field work to research why Kalpitiya was a marine mammal watching hot spot I had noticed other factors which would make it ideal for pelagic seabirds. The North-South axis of the continental shelf created a natural linear flyway, close to land for rare seabirds.  The peninsula also had a reef which broke the force of the open ocean and which may at times allow pelagic seabird watching boats to go out when the open seas was too rough. There were records of exhausted pelagic birds (Sooty Terns photographed by Howard Martenstyn) resting on the beach which meant when the seas were really rough, shore-based pelagic seabird watching would be possible. I had also noticed that I was seeing anything from 5 to 10 times more seabirds off Kalpitiya as I was off Mirissa. I was seeing that many times more flying fish as well once I reached the 400m depth isocline (at E 79 36). The presence of large flocks of Spinner Dolphins and birds such as Little Terns suggested that it was a very rich feeding ground. I was sure that when the South-west Monsoon began to blow Kalpitiya would be the place to go in search of pelagic seabirds.

It is not that others had not looked here before. On 12 April, the day after my Long-tailed Skua sighting I chanced upon an article by Rex de Silva which I had first read when it was first published in the Oriental Bird Club’s Sri Lanka special bulleting in 1997. In it he mentions Talawila in the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Rex has been one of the leading personalities in studying seabirds in Sri Lanka and has written many papers and delivered many lectures. I had been inspired by listening to his lectures organised by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) and as an A Level student I had assisted with shore-based counting of the mass migration of Brown-winged Terns, a study which he did for thirteen years. Early pioneers such as Rex were handicapped by certain constraints. Most significant of these was the cost of going out to sea. In those days and when I first began to explore whale watching, hiring a boat was expensive because one had to effectively hire a fishing boat and pay for the average value of a day’s catch. Furthermore the boat were seldom suitably outfitted for birders. In the early days there were no mobile GPS units available for navigating out of sight of land and for recording accurate coordinates of sightings. Furthermore with specific reference to the Kalpitiya Peninsula the location and the shape of the continental shelf was a guess until exploration for oil resulted in the first sea depth contour charts in October 2009 which were given to me by NARA when I was researching the Kalpitiya whale watching story.

Access to the seas off Kalpitiya Peninsula changed dramatically when boats became available for leisure thank to Dallas Martenstyn and his co-investors who set up Alankuda Beach, a barefoot luxury resort in Alankuda. Dallas had put Kalpitiya on the map for dolphin watching. I first visited Alankuda in April 2009 with Dr Charles Anderson it was already known for its dolphins. Dallas was aware that the availability of boats for leisure use off Mirissa though Mirissa Water Sports after the Boxing  Day Tsunami and a research insight by Charles had led me to taking the Sri Lanka is Best for Blue Whale story. Dallas suggested that if I wanted to chase up anymore leads, the Jetwing Eco Holidays team will be supported by Alankuda Beach with free food and accommodation and the use of the boats and their experienced boatmen. I was the right man in the right place at the right time to make a clear case for why Kalpitiya should also be Sri Lanka’s preferred site for pelagic seabirds. I began by exploring first the Pink Dolphin story and the whale watching story off Kalpitiya thank to the field work support of Dallas and his investors at Alankuda Beach.

In May 2008, I had taken a well researched story world-wide that the South of Sri Lanka was the best place in the world to see Blue Whales. In the short space of two years, this story and subsequent follow ups (over 70 press ‘events’ to date by my team) saw a Blue Whale watching industry in Sri Lanka becoming firmly established. My open release article of May 2008 which positioned Sri Lanka for Blue Whale watching concluded with the following. “The success of whale watching will be closely parallel the development of pelagic cruises for seabird watching. This will also contribute a wealth of ornithological data. At present most Sri Lankan birders have not seen a Pomarine Skua. One morning we saw over forty. The development of pelagic cruises for seabird watching will have to be another story”.

This is the ‘another story’. April 2010 would be my last chance to research Kalpitiya as a site for pelagic seabirds. In February and early March I had been seeing pelagics such as Brown-winged Terns. But I needed a few more special birds and I knew I would have to put on a few trips in March and April to cement the story.

On 4th April 2010, four days of rough seas had mellowed into a calm morning where the sea was as flat as a pancake. I stood in the mid-section of the 18 foot speed boat scanning the sea intently for the blow of a Sperm Whale. I was running a transect on a North-South axis parallel to the Kalpitiya Peninsula on E 79 37 which is on the 400m depth isocline. This is the typical hunting depth of Sperm Whales although they can dive to depths of between 1-3 km. I was also looking for seabirds.

The timing for watching pelagic birds, was just before the on-set of the monsoon. In April 2008, whilst looking for whales on the Spirit of Dondra, I saw how increasing numbers of Pomarine Skuas, Flesh-footed and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters began to come in, ahead of the monsoon. The shearwaters which skim the waves, sometimes just inches above the water are enthralling to watch. They skim the undulating waves, riding them like a surfer, but with no contact and with hardly a wing beat.

As the South-west monsoon arrived the number and diversity of pelagic seabirds became better. But the conditions on the water also became rougher and at times it was too rough for the boats to head out.  I realized that sea watching from Mirissa fishery harbour (in Weligama Bay) would present problems in rough weather. It would be worse from fishery harbours such as Beruwela where the continental shelf was further out. In March 2010 I realised that Kalpitiya would be an ideal location. This is because the continental shelf is close and there is a reef which cushions some of the impact of rough weather. Even if the open seas was too rough, seabird watchers could be at sea but stay in-shore of the reef in calmer protected water and watch seabirds which have drifted in. I had also noticed that during the migrant season, seabirds which are found close to shore roosted on the beach. During several trips to sea in February and March I had noticed that the seas of Kalpitiya had much greater numbers of seabirds than Mirissa. I would regularly see hundreds of Little Terns and dozens of Brown-winged Terns. On the beach, I would see Gull-billed Terns patrolling the tide line for crabs and Large-crested, Lesser-crested and Common Terns perched together, occasionally in the company of Sanderlings, Lesser Sand Plovers and Whimbrel.

During my fifteen years in the UK, I had been on a number of sea watching trips ranging from Cley to Dungeness in the South. I had noticed how in rough weather birders could observe many seabirds from shore using telescopes. The beach at Alankuda Beach (www.alankuda.com) would be an ideal location for watching seabirds during rough weather. In slightly rough weather, it may even be possible to head out to sea into the area in-shore of the reef for closer and richer encounters. In terms of physical topography (especially the proximity to the edge of the continental shelf), the presence of a rich marine fauna and the year round presence of seabirds, Kalpitiya seems to have all that was necessary for a rich showing of rare pelagic birds when the South-west monsoon brought them in.

On Sunday the 4th of April, I was to have one such encounter which provides very clear evidence that Kalpitiya Peninsula has all the ingredients to be Sri Lanka’s top spot for seabird watching. I came across a flock of seabirds which would have surpassed the imagination of any Sri Lankan birder. I came across what is probably the largest flock of shearwaters ever seen off the seas of Sri Lanka by a birder and what is more, it was sprinkled with rarely seen seabirds.

I had taken out Shiromal Cooray the Managing Director of Jetwing Travels to acquaint her with my plans to brand Whales and Wilpattu. Also with us was Anne Shih a keen photographer. Much of Sri Lanka’s ‘sellable bio-diversity’ lies left of the ‘The Diagonal’. This is a line connecting Mannar Island on the South-west to Ruhunu (Yala) National Park on the South-east. Trincomalee with its whales and Minneriya and Kaudulla and Lahugala with its elephants are the only big wildlife stories to be on the right of ‘The Diagonal’. In terms of wildlife tourism, almost everything a foreign or local traveller could want for is to the left of ‘The Diagonal’, especially with regard to the endemic rich lowland rainforests and the cloud forests. “The Diagonal’ had been bottom heavy with Blue and Sperm Whales in Mirissa and Elephants, Sloth Bear, and Leopards in Yala. However with the re-opening of Wilpattu National Park on 27 February 2010, ‘The Diagonal’, could now be balanced with Sperm Whales and Dolphins in Kalpitiya and Leopards, Sloth Bear and possibly Elephants in Wilpattu.

We travelled over 14 nautical miles (26km) North from Alankuda Beach to N 08 19 at which point the Kalpitiya Peninsula which arched inwards was no longer visible. We began to head back South on the Sperm Whale line of E 79 37 when I spotted a flock of seabirds. I had already had fours sightings of individual Persian Shearwaters and a Noddy. Birds which probably less than half a dozen Sri Lankan birdwatchers have seen at the time of writing. I looked through my Swarovski 7 x 42 and realised immediately that this flock was very special. There were by a conservative estimate at least 25 Persian Shearwaters  and some Noddies with Brown-winged Terns and Little Terns.

I motioned Susantha to slow down and pull up slowly towards the flock slowly. Flocks of terns are not disturbed by boats and will often follow and mill around fishing boats. Susantha moved the boat gently under the flock. A number of Persian Shearwaters were floating on the water and vocalizing loudly with each other. Some would fly up and join the terns in the air and then land back in the water. At one point I counted 18 Persian Shearwaters, close to the boat on the water and spaced out a few feet apart. They were not afraid at all by the boat and were allowing the boat to drift to within ten feet before they would take off, fly into the air and then land again. Shiromal and Anne commented on how they were like ducks on water on how they were vocalizing in piping calls. Coming across this many shearwaters was extraordinary. No birder in Sri Lanka has seen so many shearwaters together. Later on Monday 5 April 2010 I had a discussion with Uditha Hettige who has been looking at seabirds during the last two years and he also confirmed that he had never seen a flock of shearwaters or come across anyone who had such an observation in Sri Lankan waters. Subsequently Dr Charles Anderson also recorded them off Mirissa in April 2009, forming the fourth set of Persian Shearwater records off Sri Lanka. At a discussion at Yala Village Hotel on 21st April 2010, he told me had never recorded Persian Shearwaters in the Maldives. He suspects this could be evidence of an El Nino year when the direction of the currents change.

I turned my attention next to the Noddies. I soon realised that there were actually two species of Noddies. These are terns which are brown overall. One species was distinctly larger than the other and had a heavier bill. It also seemd to have a heavier spoon-shaped tail and a more laboured manner of flight. It often fanned its tail and bent it down and forward to brake and hover over the water. It hardly showed any white on its forehead. These were the Brown Noddies. The smaller noddies, some with extensive white on the forehead and showing up as white all the way down the nape were Lesser Noddies. None of them showed the black lores which are found on the Black Noddy which is much rarer in Sri Lankan waters. I also noticed two all brown shearwaters and I was able to photograph one of them, a Wedge-tailed and a Flesh-footed Shearwater. We were having five very rarely seen seabirds in this flock, Persian, Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwater, Brown and Lesser Noddy with a more regularly seen pelagic the Brown-winged Tern. We spent over half an hour with the flock which accepted us. I reminded Shiromal Cooray that she was on a very successful pelagic tour and was seeing a flock of rare seabirds which no one in serious birding circles in Sri Lanka would have ever imagined to be possible.

The previous evening we had taken the boat close to shore to just beyond St Anne’s Church in Talwaila. We had encountered a flock close to the shore which had mainly Little Terns, Common Terns, Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage (it was unusual to have them at sea) and between 5-10 Brown-winged Terns flying in and out. Gull-billed Terns patrolled the shore and an occasional Lesser Crested Tern and a Large Crested Tern flew by. I commented that there were seven species of terns when into good light and offering good views at a distance of about fifteen feet a tern with black upper-parts flew past. I failed to photograph what could have been a scarce Sooty Tern. I remembered that Howard Martenstyn had showed me photographs of Sooty Terns he had taken at Alankuda Beach.
I had never seen a Persian Shearwater until this day and I had two sightings of what were probably single Persian Shearwaters earlier that day and later on, a very good sighting of another which was perched on some floating debris. When I came across the second bird, I had noticed it because the white on its face was glinting. At first I thought it was some floating debris and when I realized it was a bird we were too close and it flew off. The sea was very flat and therefore I could actually see it floating at a distance. I suspect on many occasions shearwaters which are floating on the water fly away but are not noticed until they take flight. This may lend the impression that they hardly ever rest when away from their nesting sites.

In April, the whale watching boats from Mirissa also begin to see rare seabirds which come in with the South-west Monsoon. However I had been reluctant to promote pelagic tours from Mirissa because if the seas are rough, the seabirds are too far out from the shore of the Weligama Bay to see them with ‘scopes’ and ‘bins’. At locations like Alankuda on the Kalpitiya coast on the other hand, sea watching is possible from the shore line. Also weather which may be too rough for the open sea, may still allow boats to go out 3-4 km in-shore of the reef which mitigates some of the force of the waves. The Kalpitiya Peninsula also offers long, relatively inhabited stretches of coast line which seabirds and waders use to feed or perch on. There are also traditional fishing villages which attract seabirds to offal and these birds venture near properties such as the Alankuda Beach. In stormy weather, rare seabirds will be pushed close to shore and may even settle on the beach. In good weather, during the South-west monsoon, the seas may be calm enough to rare seabirds, relatively close to the shore because of the close proximity of the continental shelf and the rich web or marine life which is present close to shore. The richness of the marine life off Kalpitiya is evidenced by the sightings of marine mammals and the presence of seabirds and waders throughout the migrant season from October to April.

For many years I had hoped of finding a location in Sri Lanka as a hot spot for watching rare seabirds to replicate the sites such as Dungeness in Kent and the beaches of Cley where I had sea-watched in windy, near zero temperatures. The Kalpitiya Peninsula in Sri Lanka seems to be the top site in Sri Lanka for sea-watching from on-shore or out at sea for the reasons I have explained above. Being able to do so in warm weather and the prospect of a chilled beer being close to hand, adds another attractive wildlife tourism trump card to the Kalpitiya Peninsula and another wildlife attraction to the left of “The Diagonal’.
Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne can be found on Facebook and Flickr. Almost every major wildlife tourism product in Sri Lanka has had Gehan playing a pivotal role in its research and commercial development.