Sign up for our Free email Newsletter
and get all the latest wildlife news!

Sperm whale hotspot discovered off Sri Lanka


Unveiling the Kalpitiya Peninsula as Sri Lanka's third Whale Watching Hotspot
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne offers evidence that Kalpitiya is Sri Lanka's third whale watching hot spot.

From an article first published in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times on 7th March 2010.

As I walked to the beach an Indian Nightjar churred. I was sensing the world through my ears; I was in a world of darkness, like the one inhabited by Sperm Whales. In their world, in the murky depths where no light penetrates, they will 'see' with sound, using echo-location.

Starlight filtered softly to be swallowed by the sea. Waves gently lapped the shoreline in front of the boat house at the Alankuda Beach Resort, but then the silent murmur of the sea was abruptly disturbed by the scream of a powerful out-board engine as we thundered out, hurtling across the reef at 30kmph to where the continental shelf plunged away into a deep abyss.

I was heading in the darkness before day break, in search of the creatures of the darkness of the deep. I had instructed the boatman to head due west, in search of whales and answers to a theory put forward by Dr Charles Anderson.

An orange fireball lurked below the Eastern horizon, still waiting to be uncovered by the Earth's rotation. I was on my way for one more of my dedicated whale watching trips in Kalpitiya. Amazing as it may seem, it seems that this was the first serious, dedicated effort to look for whales off Kalpitiya and to ascertain whether whale watching could work as an eco-tourism product. Its not that others had not seen whales before. But almost all of them had been chance encounters of people watching dolphins in-shore of the reef. No one it seems had so far made a serious effort to go in search of whales beyond the reef, which lies around 6kms off the coast, roughly parallel to the peninsula.

Third whale hotspot
Sri Lanka already had two sites known for its whales. Trincomalee, known for its whales since the 1980s, but as of September 2010, it is yet to be assessed for its whale watching strike rate. I had already led the publicity campaign for Dondra (Possibly the world's best spot for Blue whales) , and now I was back in Kalpitiya to research another story; The possibility that Kalpitiya could be another whale watching hot spot in Sri Lanka.

My last effort on 19 April 2009 to look for whales off Kalpitiya was thwarted by bad weather. Despite the bad weather, I had tried once. With the boat buffeted by strong waves, and the chances of spotting a blow almost nil, I called off the search. I decided to bide my time for the next season after the current South-west Monsoon had spent its energy.

So I tried again yesterday. Two boats set out. One had Sandie Dawe, the Chief
Executive of Visit Britain, with her husband Jock. They would follow the 'Dolphin Line', broadly an area which ran north-south, parallel to the Kalpitiya Peninsular, in-shore of the reef. The other boat, prepared with three tanks of fuel and food and water for a long sea faring session carried myslef, Dallas Martnestyn and Georgina Viney with boatman Susantha set for a deep sea mission. None of what I have done in Kalpitiya would have been possible with the help of Dallas and his team who put together all the logistics for my whale watching trips. It is thanks to Dallas and his fellow investors at Alankuda that the world learnt about the dolphin watching at Kalpitiya.

As we headed out, we paused a few times to gauge the depth using a fish finder. In a conversation with British marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson and Dallas Martenstyn, Charles had articulated that the continental shelf may be close to Kalpitiya which could explain the presence of the Spinner Dolphins.

These are probably the first images of Sperm Whales taken off Kalpitiya of a
publishable standard. Photo credit Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne 

5 Sperm whales
The whale watching effort this time got of to a fairy tale start. We had left at 7.00 am and at 7.55am, English photographer Georgina Viney spotted the first blow whilst Dallas and I were fiddling with our two GPS units. We were at N 08 03 583 E 79 35 300 approximately 7 nautical miles out from the shore.

We had encountered a group of five Sperm Whales. I explained to Susantha he should never make a direct bearing to the whales and the importance of keeping a distance from the whales where they would be comfortable with the boat. I coached him on how to pull parallel to a whale and not approach it from behind.

We spent about 15 minutes with the school that were travelling in a south to north
Direction parallel to the peninsula. A fishing boat raced up to one of the Sperm whales we were shadowing at a distance; and it immediately dived, proving what I had explained to our boatman.

By the afternoon, the sea had turned rough when he headed, so as the boat scudded along, it felt as we were being dragged along the bottom of a dry riverbed strapped to a wooden board and picked up and slammed down intermittently as well. We searched in vain for over three hours and we returned as darkness fell, and the orange glow in the sky had dimmed.

Determined to find more whales, the third consecutive whale watching session began before day break this morning. We headed out due west before turning north past the previous day's sighting. I stood for some of the journey to enhance our chances of spotting a blow, but three hours of searching yielded nothing. So we turned for home, but on the way back, I saw a burst of spray dancing over the waves. We had found Sperm whales.

There was a group of three whales and a separate pair. They were travelling South, on northwards at around 10 kph. Susantha knew how to handle them this time and we spent over an hour with the group, keeping a comfortable distance.

This is the first time this spot has been recognised for its whale watching potential.
Credit Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne. 

Susantha the boatman said that only just once before had he come out beyond the reef to look for whales. It had been with some of the staff. He said that with clients they always stayed in-shore of the reef to look for dolphins and that they encountered a stray whale about once every three weeks. That evening I spoke to Jonathan Martenstyn who runs the boats from Dolphin Beach. He also confirmed that they stay in-shore of the reef and had never gone looking for whales. He said their rate of encounter with whales was less than with Alankuda who ran more dolphin trips.

Chitral Jayathilake of John Keels who runs the whale watching from Mirissa and dolphin watching from Kalpitiya also confirmed that they stayed in-shore of the reef. Chitral had never gone out to look for whales off Kalpitiya and had never seen one here, in-shore or off-shore of the reef.

It seems quite astonishing that with Kalpitiya becoming publicly known two years earlier for its dolphin watching no one had made a dedicated effort to whale watch and evaluate whale watching as an eco-tourism product from Kalpitiya.

It was not that people had not reported whales from Kalpitiya before. There had been a trickle of reports from people who had gone dolphin watching. Initially, I had dismissed them as chance events. I had been a sceptic until March 2009, as no one had offered a concrete reason for why Kalpitiya should be good for whales.

My earlier doubts about Kalpitiya being good for whales had to do with the location of the continental shelf. I knew the continental shelf held the key to an area of sea being good for whale watching. It had to be close to land. I had looked for whales off Negombo and Kirinda for example and failed because one had to travel out over 30 nautical miles to reach the edge of the shelf.

Old British admiralty charts gave the false impression that the waters would be too
shallow for whales. Photo credit Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

In May 2008, I had taken the story to the world that the seas South of Mirissa was beyond doubt the best place in the world for seeing Blue Whales. My conviction was based on field results of a theory by the British marine scientist Dr Charles Anderson.

In addition to a theory of a migratory movement, a key to the ease and proximity of sightings was the fact that the continental shelf pinched in very close to Dondra Head.

Spinner dolphins
Reports of the dolphins from Alankuda were regular and almost daily outside of the south-west Monsoon. Most of the dolphins seen were Spinner dolphins, an oceanic species. I just could not understand why Kalpitiya was so good for an oceanic species.

My interpretation of the Admiralty was that the continental shelf was just too far out from Kalpitiya.

However Charles explained to that the continental shelf could be be closer than was previously believed. I explained my doubts based on the old British Admiralty which showed that the continental shelf was far out from Kalpitiya. Charles disagreed with my interpretation and explained that a mark on the Admiralty chart was not a depth marker, but that they ran out of rope when measuring the depth! A study of some recent ministry charts (made for oil exploration) revealed the true picture, that the shelf was indeed much closer to shore and that Kalpitiya had an ideal profile for whales.

Whale watching industry
The appetite to go after whales from Kalpitiya and not to dally with just the dolphins will grow. Serious whale watching will now start from Kalpitiya. A trail has been blazed. In Kalpitiya as with elsewhere, legislation or guidelines will need to come in for the safety of the whales as well as the whale watchers. But legislation must be intelligent, practical and simple, to allow the whale watching industry to grow and create livelihoods. Whale Watching in Sri Lanka can easily grow to be worth several billion rupees of revenue each year. Wildlife can pay its way.

Wildlife Celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyerate is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays. He can be found on www.jetwingeco.com, Facebook and Flickr.