de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). Whale Watching. Montage. June 2008. Pages (?). Volume 2, Issue 5.
Sri Lanka has failed for nearly three decades in a quest to establish itself as a premier whale watching destination. That will now change for ever as many including myself have witnessed that during certain times between December and April, sightings of Blue Whales are almost guaranteed off the deep South. Sometimes it takes as little as 45 minutes after setting out to sea before seeing the first spout.
Sri Lanka’s failure to establish commercial whale watching was due to a number of reasons. Firstly, the myth that it would have to be centered around Trincomalee which has been subject to security constraints since the 1980s. Secondly, the lack of boats suitably kitted out for leisure. Thirdly, the lack of research data which could be used by private sector actors such as myself for product development. Fourthly, the high cost of product development in terms of chartering big, powerful boats which made it difficult to set out to sea regularly to gather data for eco-tourism development.
All that changed the after Mirissa Water Sports was set up under a charitable foundation in December 2005 forming a partnership of twelve local youths who were given a boat kitted out for leisure activities. Simon Scarff was asked in a voluntary capacity to train them in angling and his wife Sue Evans assisted with English, marketing and sailing tuition. Independently of them, marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson was hatching plans to visit Dondra Head to test his theory of a migration of whales which would pass our southern shores travelling between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. In April 2006 Simon first spotted whales on one of his training sessions and emailed the photos to cetacean experts who identified them as Blue Whales. Thereafter the Water Sports team kept a detailed log of the whale sightings so that they could begin to predict their appearance. Sue Evans began to email me and others of sightings of whales and it became clear that the data collection and infrastructure in terms of a boat had fallen into place.
Charles Anderson visited in April 2007 and climbed the Dondra Lighthouse with Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu. Within fifteen minutes he called me to announce triumphantly that he had see a Blue Whale spouting. Three boat trips seem to confirmed his hunch on a movement of Blue and Sperm Whales. There is an alternative school of thought that the Blue Whales remain in Sri Lankan coastal waters throughout the year as there is ample food all year-round. The proximity of the edge of the continental shelf contributes to the added bonus that whales are seen so close to shore. It may well be that both schools of thought are right and there is a migratory as well as a sedentary population. Commercial whale watching may help researchers to gather the additional data they need to ascertain the true situation.
Mirissa Water Sports was set up to help unemployed youth affected by the Tsunami. Thanks to this initiative, the efforts of the crew, Sue Evans, Simon Scarff and Charles Anderson, the Lighthouse Hotel now had the confidence to offer whale watching tours from 2007. In January 2008, I asked the then General Manager Chamin Wickremesekera and Anoma to place whale watching flyers in every room to accelerate the pace of bookings. I was confident that clients would not be disappointed. But I was more interested in accelerating the data collection than in the revenues. In April 2008, Anoma was having a one hundred per cent success rate and I joined Sue, Simon and Charles on several visits to photograph Sperm and Blue Whales. The images here are a few of the hundreds of images I have since taken of Sperm and Blue Whales, photographed ‘top side’. The three years of data collected by Mirissa Water Sports have laid a foundation on which a commercial whale watching industry may develop.