Aerial route to watching Lankan whalesView(s):
“There’s one; there’s one,” shouts an excited passenger, spotting a whale.
That’s a cue for the pilot to immediately swing to the left just like a helicopter – amazing manoeuvrability for a small plane – and go back to view two magnificent beasts – the largest mammals in the ocean. Our photographer Indika Handuwala happily clicks away.
Reporters from the Business Times were accompanying officials and crew on an exclusive whale-watching flight off Sri Lanka’s southern coast of Koggala near Galle, two weeks ago, operated by charter operator, Simplify.
The airline is the only one in Sri Lanka that operates helicopters, planes and sea planes. In operation since 2004, Simplifly has flown over 26,000 passengers and this month offered an entire new experience of whale watching by air.
Sri Lanka is fast becoming a popular spot to watch whales and dolphins off the Southern, Eastern or the West coast of Sri Lanka. Most tours are gradually including the whale watching experience for travellers.
Eastern Trincomalee said to have one of the best natural harbours in the world, has another unique offering: Probably the only place on earth where you could see the largest land mammal (elephant) and largest ocean mammal (whale) in one place!
According to tourism authorities, the ideal locations for whale watching are Dondra Point (accessible from Galle, Hikkaduwa and Mirissa) and Trincomalee while Kalpitiya on the west coast has an abundance of dolphins.
Accompanying the Sunday Times was Suren Mirchandani, Founder – Simplifly who said the airline is operating nine flights per week – three each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, all from Galle. The hour-long flight over the south coastline provides a bird’s eye view of whales, temples, churches, mosques, lakes, the Galle Fort and other places of interest on the coast.
“This is the new, environmentally conscious way to observe the world’s largest animal without disturbing them in their natural habitat,” said Mr. Mirchandani, speaking through a microphone as the 6-seater GAS Airvan flies over the ocean.
The trip is much less than the normal 4-5 hour journey by boat. The landing at the former Koggala airforce strip is a picturesque sight, flying over the lake. The GAS Airvan aircraft is based full time at Koggala during the season and the business is, helped by a fully staffed Simplifly office in a beautifully restored building in Galle Fort. Among the special features of the plane are plush leather seats, carpeted flooring and a video screen.
Adding to this are the large windows which afford excellent visibility for every passenger.
With whale watching by air, Sri Lanka is among a few countries including New Zealand and South Africa that offers this kind of experience. The tour takes visitors over the coastline with a view of the Galle Fort and the mountain ranges before heading out to meet the whales, about 10 km offshore.
The pilot is guided by a map and compass showing the spots where whales frequent. Further into the ocean, he spots a group of whale watchers on boats, and heads to that location and says, “Let’s follow the boats”.
Often there is reciprocity, the plane either follows the boats or vice versa.
Nearing the boats but not finding any whales, the pilot makes a detour until one of the passengers on board spots a sperm whale, gliding through the water. Then another is spotted, and another.
From the air we see dozens of visitors, visibly clearly wearing safety, trademark orange flak jackets on two or three boats. They wave as the plane crosses their path. We wave back.
“Wings over whales . that’s what we should call these tours,” laughs the Simplifly founder as the GAS Airvan heads back to shore, after a short tryst with the largest ocean mammal.