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Is southern Sri Lanka the world's top spot for seeing Blue and Sperm whales?

By award winning wildlife photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.
In April 2008, I was able to see for myself how easy it was to see a Blue whale in the seas south of the area between Mirissa and Dondra Head. It was easier than seeing a leopard in Yala. I ended April with over a thousand good images of Blue and Sperm whales, and Long-snouted Spinner Dolphins. On twenty two whale watching sessions in the first twenty six days of April, Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu saw Blue Whales every time. Due to the calm seas, between December and April, there are is an outstanding window of opportunity for observing Blue and Sperm whales close to shore. Marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson believes that sightings have peaks in December and April due to the whales' migration.

Whale watching will raise a series of issues for environmentalists, legislators and people in the travel industry. These are best addressed ahead of the next whale watching season. Before I go into this let me first explain how difficult it had been for whale watching to get off the ground. As a nation, Sri Lanka has spent nearly three decades in failed attempts to position itself as a whale watching destination. Much of this was a result of an erroneous assumption that the whale watching had to be undertaken from Trincomalee. Secondly, there was a paucity of data available to help develop whale watching as a commercial activity for tourism. Thirdly, there were no boats suitably kitted out, big enough and powerful enough for leisure activities in the seas. Fourthly, the cost of product development was very high as I discovered when chartering fishing boats for our initial forays out to sea.

The flurry of interest in marine mammals and whale watching began with the arrival of the research vessel the 'Tulip' in the early 1980s. They found Blue Whales close to Trincomalee, something which of course had been known to the locals, but they publicised it locally and internationally. I remember as a teenager attending a public lecture on their work.

Wildlife watching in Sri Lanka

Award winning wildlife photographer Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne runs Jetwing Eco holidays. They were one of the first and are still the best wildlife company in Sri Lanka.

In 2001, I began asking marine scientists about developing commercial whale watching. In 2003 I set out to sea from Negombo with a few journalists and a team from the Jetwing Blue Oceanic. We had chartered a fishing boat for the trial run, but we were completely unsuccessful, we saw nothing. Gazing out to the featureless open sea I realised it was like searching for a needle in a haystack. In August 2003, Jetwing Naturalist Chandra Jayawardana went to look for whales off Kirinda, and came away with nothing. A few years later I tried again with my team and I managed to see just two dolphins. Our wildlife watching out at sea with clients also produced no whales. It seemed like a hopeless task.

In August 2003 I was at the British Birdwatching Fair where I discussed with Charles Anderson how we could combine leopard safaris with whale watching in the Maldives. Over the next few years we discussed whale watching on and off when we met at the British Birdwatching Fair. Charles was developing a theory that there was migration of whales between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea which took them near the shores of Sri Lanka. He believed that the whales, especially Blue Whales and Sperm Whales, will be travelling past the south coast in January from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. In April, they would pass the south coast on the return journey travelling west to the Arabian Sea passing Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He had first suggested this theory in a paper published in 1999 which reviewed strandings in the Maldives. Having reviewed his records up to mid 2002, a total of over two thousand sightings, he refined his hypothesis further in a paper published in 2005 in the 'Journal of Cetacean Research and Management'. 
One of the key catalysts of the development of whale watching off the Southern coast was the involvement of Simon Scarff and Sue Evans with Mirissa Water Sports. On 11th April 2006 Simon Scarff was training the crew in sport fishing when he photographed some whales south of Dondra Head. These were identified as Blue whales. Simon's article was published in the Sri Lanka Wildlife eNewsletter which is compiled by me (see www.jetwingeco.com for past copies). Charles Anderson who read this began a dialogue with Sue Evans who had already advised the crew to maintain log of sightings.
The stream of sightings by Mirissa Water Sports communicated by Sue suggested to Charles more evidence for his theory of a migration of whales which could be seen from the southern coast. In April 2007 Charles Anderson climbed to the top of Dondra Lighthouse to look for Blue whales. Charles had decided on Dondra Head because here the continental shelf is at its narrowest with the one kilometre depth being encountered a mere six kilometres out.

On his second visit to the Dondra Lighthouse, Charles and Anoma phoned me within fifteen minutes to say that they had seen the first Blue whale. I was excited that it had been so easy and realised that this was another significant moment in the development of whale watching. I wished I could have joined them but I was busy with preparations for an overseas business visit. They also went out to sea three times with the Mirissa Watersports Club and had good sightings of Blue whales as well as  Sperm whales which Charles had hoped to find. The presence of Sperm Whales under such salubrious viewing conditions is also of international significance. It was when I spent time on the boat with Charles that I realised fully how significant Sri Lanka could be for whale watching. We may well be in the top spot for those seeking Blue and Sperm whales.
Sri Lankan waters are very rich in cetacean species with twenty seven species being recorded to date. One hundred and five river systems contribute a steady nutrient flow to the ocean. This together with continual upwelling at the edge of the continental shelf creates ideal conditions to support a food chain all year round in the warm tropical waters. However, to see marine mammals, location and time is all important.

With Trincomalee, I had been simply taking pot shots in the dark. Charles with his experience carefully worked out when and where to see them. He realised that they were unlikely to migrate passing the north of Sri Lanka because the Palk Strait was not deep enough. The Admiralty charts showed that near Dondra Head would be the ideal location in which to search for them. Charles had hoped to visit in 2005 to test his hypothesis but his visit was put off due to the Tsunami. Nevertheless, his hypothesis seems to have received the first confirmation from the observations of Simon, Sue and the Mirissa Water Sports boat crew starting in April 2006. 
Charles Anderson is quick to point out that much more work has to be done before the hypothesis can be taken as confirmed. Mirissa Water Sports have consistently seen whales from mid December 2007 to mid April 2008. Until a more detailed and longer census is conducted using standard scientific techniques, any spikes in the number of whales due to a migration may not show up. It is possible that there is a resident population always present which will result in sightings whenever conditions are good to go out whale watching. I was out on the 1st of April as well as on the 26th April, when the Spirit of Dondra did its last whale watching run for the season. I noticed a distinct tailing off in the sightings of Blue whales which supports the theory of migratory spikes.

It was time to get stuck into developing and marketing whale watching and in April 2008, I set off from Mirissa Harbour with Mirissa Water Sports, Sue Evans, Simon Scarff, Anoma Alagiyawadu and a team of naturalists from Jetwing Eco Holidays. We had travelled for around forty minutes when Sue Evans pointed out the first blow of a Blue Whale. We also had at least five Sperm Whales. A few days later, with the same group, we encountered around five Blue whales in an area of less than 3 square kilometres. This must be one of the highest densities in which Blue whales can be seen anywhere in the world. With Deepika Kumari of Lodestar who is assisting Mirissa Water Sports with the handling of bookings, we had a discussion at Sue's home with the youth from Mirissa Water Sports.

A couple of weeks later I was on the boat with Charles Anderson, we steamed past no less than five Blue whales in search of sperm Whales. On the horizon we saw the short bushy, angled blow of a Sperm whale. Behind it outlined against a tanker was the more powerful, towering, vertical blow of a Blue Whale. I could also see a pod of Long-snouted Spinner dolphins. Two of the world's most sought after marine mammals and a pod of dolphins all in the field of view at the same time. What an incredible experience.

Whale watching will present environmentalists, regulators and the tourism industry with two main issues to address. Parallel in importance will be the safety of the tourists and the welfare of the whales. The issue of safety will be easier to address as licensed tour operators and hoteliers will wish to ensure that client safety is paramount.

A fair amount of education and persuasion will be required to ensure the welfare of the animals. On one trip we saw around ten Blue whales and fifteen Sperm whales in an area which was approximately 7 square kms. There are enough whales during the season for boats to spread around without having to crowd around a single animal. But would a situation arise where we see a swarm of twenty plus boats surrounding a single Blue Whale?

Parallel problems have arisen with vehicles congregating around a leopard in Yala or during The Gathering of elephants in Minneriya. But through education, I have also seen vehicles being managed in a way that the animals are left un-disturbed so that many visitors can enjoy a good sighting. I once observed a leopard cub sleeping for three hours whilst seventeen vehicles lay parked beneath it without disturbing it. Similarly in Minneriya I have on many occasions observed the staff of the Department of Wildlife Conservation arranging vehicles in a long drawn out line to avoid disturbing the families of elephants coming to water. There are parallels to watching whales and leopards. If you keep your distance, you will enjoy a much better and longer sighting. Sometimes a Blue whale or Sperm whale will swim close to a boat if you put your boat on neutral two hundred metres away and let it chose to swim past you. The technique which works with curious leopard sub-adults works with whales as well.
Kaikoura in New Zealand has over thirty thousand whale watchers visiting it annually for Sperm whales. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (http://www.wdcs.org/) estimates that ten million people go whale watching every year. Sri Lanka could one day attract several hundred whale watchers on bespoke tours and several thousand could be taking one off excursions. It may turn out that Sri Lanka is the most reliable and easiest location in which to see the Blue whale, the largest animal that has ever inhabited this planet. The success of whale watching will be closely parallel the development of pelagic cruises for seabird watching, which will 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.