New Year with the Blue Whales of Sri Lanka

4th Jan 2017

This year I have been fortune enough to spend my Christmas and New Year travelling through South India and Sri Lanka.  It has been an amazing experience of social and cultural difference, culinary experimentation and a natural environment that at times has seemed unparalleled.  But without a doubt, my most special and enduring memory will be of the Blue whales of Sri Lanka.

To see a Blue whale has been a life ambition, and was a priority in the planning of this trip from the very beginning.  At this time of year the best region to see Blue whales in Sri Lanka is off the south coast, and the location of choice was a little surf town called Mirissa.  Mirissa can only be described as relaxed, with all clocks firmly set to ‘Island time’ it is not unusual to wait over an hour for a coffee or a burger at one of the sea-side restaurants, or to share that dining experience with a six foot rat snake that happens to pass through.

Once on location we began the exhausting task of selecting a reputable and responsible whale watching operator with a good knowledge of the whales, sustainable whale watching practice and an educational programme to better inform their guests about whale welfare and conservation issues.  Fishermen have long recorded the presence of ‘big whales’ in the waters off Mirissa, but confirmation that these whales included Blue whales (there are also Fin, Sei and Bryde’s whales) was made only as recently as 1983.  What is even more remarkable is that these Blue whales are present all year round, although it is not possible to visit them during monsoon season due to rough weather and poor sea conditions.  Because Mirissa’s whale watching industry is new, and there is such a demand to see the world’s largest animal, many of the islands fishermen have switched to providing whale watching tours during the peak tourist season.  This new industry is poorly regulated by the Government, resulting in a large number of unprofessional and unsustainable operators.  However, after two days of intense searching and investigation, including three visits to our chosen operators head office, we had booked a tour to see Blue whales with Raja and the Whales.

The first Blue whale

Pick-up was at 06:00am and by 06:45am we were leaving harbour heading out to deep water in search of Blue whales.  We quickly established a course which took us away from the many other tour boats also departing that morning, and after a brief rendezvous with a small fishing boat we arrived at our first Blue whale of the day.  From a respectable distance we watched a giant surface with a powerful blow, roll silently through the water to its small dorsal fin and submerge with total indifference.  After a series of shallow dives it arched, lifted its giant tail and disappeared.  An anxious wait of 9 minutes followed before the whale surfaced again, and it remained at the surface for a few minutes before lifting its giant tail and diving once more into the deep.  It is simply impossible to describe the sense of size, power and grace of movement that these awesome animals possess. 

But news of the whale’s presence had leaked and tour boats of all shapes and sizes were rapidly approaching from all directions.  The whale was quickly surrounded by a gang of eager tour operators blatantly disregarding sustainable practices to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals.  Thankfully, we had watched the whale for three successive dives from a safe distance and we were content to leave the animal to lessen its obvious harassment.

           

 

 

 

 

 

          

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second Blue whale

Our second Blue whale came again curtesy of a tip off from local fishermen out early to secure the days catch for the lucrative sea side restaurant market.  This whale was much more relaxed, appearing to rest at the surface for significantly longer than the first whale even in the presence of our tour boat.  Thankfully, there was no influx of competitors on this occasion and we could observe the whale as it carried out its natural behaviours in its natural environment.  I think in that moment the entire boat lost all concept of time and it felt like we could stay in the presence of this magnificent animal forever, and never return to land. 

   

The challenges

On the trip home I spoke to the captain and crew about their experiences of Blue whales in Mirissa.  Many of the crew pointed to the reckless and irresponsible actions of ‘over-night’ whale watching tour operators that know little about whales and less about sustainable whale watching.  They pointed to the need for education, proper licensing and the enforcement of sustainable practices for the good of the whales and the long term prospects of the industry.  Another concern which was obvious throughout our tour is the sheer number of cargo ships transiting through the Blue whales habitat.  The crew estimated that more than 200 ships move through this major international shipping lane every day with no requirement to take any action to reduce the risk of ship-strike or the impact of noise pollution on the resident whales.  The main tour guide estimated that up to 10-12 carcasses of Blue whales wash ashore every year with evidence of ship strike as the cause of death.  It doesn’t take a scientist to conclude that this is an unsustainable number for such a small local and global population of whales.  Net entanglement was also a significant threat identified by the crew, and one which is not being actively investigated or addressed.  And then there is the obvious and ever present pollution from indifferent and ignorant users of the ocean.  The main tour guide recalled memories of seeing 8-9 different Blue whale mother-calf pairs during his time as a fisherman.  He has only seen three in all his years on the Blue whale tour boat. 

 The similarities

Sri Lanka has its fair share of challenges; a young and uneducated whale watching industry, international maritime trade, fishing nets and pollution.  But it seems eager to learn.  The crew of our tour boat were very interested in the work of the IWDG. I explained that Ireland too was a very important habitat in the Northeast Atlantic for many cetacean species, including the Blue whale, and that we were also experiencing a growth in our whale watching industry built on the back of reliable whale and dolphin populations.  I explained our efforts towards ensuring the highest standards of welfare and conservation for our cetacean populations, including the development of a sustainable whale watching industry that can benefit local communities without impacting individuals or populations of cetaceans.  A copy of the IWDG Cetacean Welfare Policy was gratefully received and such were the similarities that our tour operator asked if they could print and place a copy of the IWDG Welfare Policy in their head office and on board their tour boats for tourists who were interested in learning more about sustainable whale watching practices and cetacean welfare.

Unforgettable

It was an unforgettable experience, a true trip of a life-time, and it was made even better because we were with a responsible and sustainable whale watching operator.  I would recommend anyone who has a chance to see these remarkable animals to take it, I guarantee you will not be disappointed by the ocean’s most extraordinary inhabitants.  And if you can’t make it to Sri Lanka, you can always take a tour with one of Ireland’s sustainable whale watching operators and support the IWDG annual Whale Watch Ireland event to contribute to the protection and conservation of our native cetacean species.        

Paul Kiernan

IWDG Welfare Officer

To learn more about whales, dolphins and porpoises in Ireland visit: www.iwdg.ie