Gentle Giants of the Deep
Watching Blue Whales in Mirissa
A thin column of white mist almost a kilometre away wafted over a flat sea and I instantly recognised it. I called out 'Blue Whale'. A depression over Southern and South-east Asia had lifted, ending nearly two weeks of continuous and unseasonal wet weather. The sea was calm and in the absence of wind there were no "white tops" to the waves. Conditions were ideal for spotting a whale's blow (also known as a spout). Under gusty conditions, the ephemeral blow is snatched away by the wind in an interval of time even shorter than the usual second or so in which the spout is suspended in the air. The difficulty of seeing the blow is compounded by the white tops that distract the eye. It is hard to think that the largest animal that has ever lived is hard to see even at a close range. In a rolling sea, a Blue Whale on the surface can go unnoticed even at a few tens of meters if its blow did not reveal its presence. If you had no reason to look for its signature in the air, you probably will not notice it, in much the same way a Londoner hurrying into the city will not notice a Blackbird foraging in the shrubbery.
In May 2008, when I launched a media blitz that the Blue Whale, hitherto considered one of the hardest animals to see, was easy to see off Sri Lanka, I was greeted with disbelief by the Sri Lankan tourism industry. If Sri Lanka was "Best for Blue" they questioned, why had no one noticed it before? There were tourist hotels on the beach and there was a thriving fishing industry. I would respond by asking when was the last time you saw a red car on the road? If you don't have a reason to look for something, you will not see it. I would stop fishing boats and ask the occupants about whales and they would have a vague recollection of having seen one a long time ago. I would sometimes see Blue Whales surfacing near fishing boats and the fishermen being oblivious to the giants beside them.
In January 2009, with Shyamalee Tudawe (the Editor of Sri Lankan society magazine Hi) I led a celebrity whale watching tour for the Amangalla Hotel organised by its then General Manager, Olivia Riccli. A reason for the celebrity whale watch was to raise awareness of people in Colombo that Sri Lanka was one of the top whale watching destinations in the world. Joining us was Srilal Miththapala, who was then President of the Sri Lanka Hotels Association. He had co-championed the Elephant Gathering with me and his objective was to report back to his hotel industry colleagues if there was much truth in my media blitz. I had begun the media blitz after British marine biologist Charles Anderson had told me, and subsequently tested his prediction that Blue Whales will come close to the South of Sri Lanka. The story has been told in previous articles and in this article I want to move onto my whale watch six years later, in December 2014.
When I began to establish the likelihood of encountering Blue Whales off Sri Lanka, I was often the only person taking a boat out, under a support agreement with Mirissa Water Sports who sailed the "Spirit of Dondra" for me, for the cost of diesel. Six years later, I was now whale watching as their guest at the invitation of their new General Manager, Asanga Coorey. I was with my family and the Forbes and Ratnavale families. Things were different now. Manjula, one of the original crew who took a gamble with me in April 2008 was now skippering the boat. He said that up to 60 boats take people out whale watching. I noticed on a signboard at the Mirissa Harbour that the local boat operators association has over twenty registered operators. Competition is fierce, he told me, and they have upped their service levels to fend off the competition. A packed breakfast, any amount of bottled water, biscuits and a serving of mint toffees is now a standard inclusion in the price. Most importantly, the crew remain razor eyed as always. Being experienced, they try to keep calm when less experienced boats may be tempted to rush into a whale and spoil the sighting for everyone.
There had been increasing concerns about boats chasing whales and I had discussed this a few weeks earlier in London with some visiting tour operators from Sri Lanka. I had suggested that with the boat operators association in Mirissa, they lobby for a code of conduct that once a boat had got to a whale, boats arriving subsequently line up beside that boat. This prevents a whale feeling it is being pursued as boats converge on it from all directions. They are used to fishing boats strung out in a line and if whale watching boats strung themselves out in a line rather than encircling a whale, it is less likely to be threatened. The situation would be similar to the occasions when disciplined safari vehicles line up in Minneriya National Park to observe the Elephant Gathering.
Mobile phone calls had alerted the Mirissa Water Sport crew that boats ahead were watching Blue Whales. We had close sightings of one or possibly two Blue Whales feeding. The crew decided to stay with the lone whale that was feeding around us. It is surprisingly hard to know whether you are seeing the same individual or more than one, as they dive and surface every 10-12 minutes at varying distances from the boat. We watched other boats speeding away to the location of the pair of whales. We also had a close encounter of a Bryde's Whale as a bonus. After things went quiet, almost two hours later, we set out to where the other boats were.
A pleasant surprise greeted me. Exactly 12 whale watching boats were strung out in a line and two Blue Whales were feeding so close to the boats that they seemed to be rubbing along the line of boats. The orderly line up was I suspect, more to do with location rather than discipline or ethical whale watching. The whales were quite far out, on the shipping lane. There was only one direction from which the whale watching boats could arrive. If the first boat had seen the whale whilst it was heading out and the whales were beyond it, the second and third boat to arrive would find it easier to stop beside the first boat and so on. Later arrivals would not want to raise the ire of the whale watching line by attempting to move onto the far side. The risk of encircling and scaring away the whales had been avoided. Most of the boats had cut their engines and the whales were now treating the whale watching boats no different to a line of fishing boats which they were used to. They were clearly very relaxed and as they continued to engage in shallow feeding dives, would surface very close to the line of boats. It was quite extraordinary to watch such a close parallel to what happens with a line of safari vehicles in Minneriya National Park at the Elephant Gathering when the vehicles are well behaved and the elephants nonchalantly feed so close that you can hear them munching. Nigel Forbes, my friend who had initiated this trip to the south of Sri Lanka said it was mind blowing to be so close that you could hear the blow of the whales.
The two whales were feeding on the shipping lane where giant container ships which could crush a whale, were cruising past. The fact that the whales were so relaxed and had stayed near the boats for over two hours reaffirmed my conviction that the whales were here because complex oceanic dynamics had resulted in a concentration of krill in this area. It, probably, had little to do with the whales being chased to the shipping lanes. This is not to say that there is no risk of the whales choosing to feed in the shipping lanes, if whale watching boats are irresponsible. It remains paramount that whale watching is done responsibly. Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC, a charity registered in the UK) supported by Sri Lankan (the airline) has been training local boat operators to reach a "gold standard" of conduct. My observations on this day reaffirmed my belief that even if all boats behaved responsibly (or if no boats were out on a particular day), whales would still elect to feed in the shipping lanes if the concentrations of the tiny krill they feed on were in the sea lanes. This means that it would also be beneficial to lobby for a ‘go-slow’ speed reduction when ships pass this area of Sri Lanka. Studies in the USA have shown that even modest speed reductions can have big impacts in reducing ship strikes on whales.
A large container ship hove into view and came bruisingly close to a feeding blue whale. The Blue Whale made no effort to alter direction, judging that the ship will pass it with a few hundred feet of space. I was probably more alarmed than the whale. But animals misjudge and a collision would be fatal. It was not clear if the two whales were of the same sex, or a pair. There was no hint of what the relationship could be. I took many photographs of them tail-fluking, which I could share with Georgina Gemmell who is running Wild Blue, a photo identification project on the Blue Whales off Sri Lanka. As of December 2014, she had identified 81 unique individuals. There was no indication if the two we were watching were two individuals who had just happened to converge to being within a few feet of each other or whether there was some relationship between them. In the absence of any special behaviour, which I would like to record, there was no reason to suggest that the boat stayed out any longer, as the passengers had a wonderful morning of whale watching. So, we agreed to turn back leaving the whales feeding in the shipping lane, their future now inextricably tied with the expansion of a dominant species, which now pollutes their world with sound and toxins.
As we headed back to the harbour, I saw some white terns (a kind of seabird) flying around a fishing boat. There were, also a pair of brown terns in the air. I asked the boat to divert whilst most passengers dozed off. I took some very close photographs of a pair of Brown Noddies, a scarce pelagic visitor to Sri Lankan waters, which very few birders have seen.
Good things come to those who look. When was the last time you saw a Red Car?