Kalpitiya joins Lanka’s whale spots

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne offers compelling evidence why Kalpitiya can be one of Sri Lanka's three whale watching hot spots. This is the story of his quest to verify a theory by British marine scientist Dr. Charles Anderson
Text and Pics by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

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 the Sperm Whales. In their world, in the murky depths where no light penetrates, they will 'see' with sound, using echo-location.

Waves gently lapped the shoreline in front of the boat house at the Alankuda Beach Resort. The silent murmur of the sea was abruptly broken by the scream of a powerful out-board engine as we thundered out, hurtling across the reef at 30 kmph 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 Susantha to head west, in search of whales and answers to another theory put forward by British marine scientist Dr. Charles Anderson.

Sperm Whale.

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. It is 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 6 km out, roughly parallel to the peninsula. Any references to the reef in this article is not to Barr Reef which is off Kandakuliya.

Trincomalee has been known for its whales since the 1980s. But it is yet to be assessed for its whale watching strike rate in the post-war environment. I had already led the publicity campaign for Dondra. I was back in Kalpitiya to research another story - that Kalpitiya could be the next whale watching hot spot in Sri Lanka.

My last effort on April 19, 2009 to look for whales off Kalpitiya was thwarted by bad weather. With the boat buffeted by strong waves, and the chances of spotting a blow almost nil, I called off the search and decided to bide my time for the next season after the current south-west monsoon had spent its energy.
My next dedicated whale watching session off Kalpitiya had been the day before, on Tuesday, February 23, 2010. Two boats had 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 peninsula, 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 Dallas Martenstyn, English photographer Georgina Viney and myself with boatman Susantha for a deep sea mission. None of what I have done in Kalpitiya would have been possible without 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.

The whale watching effort this time got off to a fairytale start. We had left at 7 a.m. and at 7.55 a.m., Georgina 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 seven nautical miles out from the shore (Alankuda Beach Resort is at N 08 03 121 E 79 42 560). We had encountered a group of five Sperm Whales. I explained to Susantha he should never make a direct bearing to the whale and the importance of keeping a distance from the whale where it would be comfortable with the boat.

We spent about 15 minutes with the school that were travelling on a south to north trajectory parallel to the peninsula.

I was elated that the search for whales had been so successful. Determined to find more whales, the third consecutive whale watching session had begun before day break. I was joined once again by Nikki Connolly and Linda Fennell who had been excited by the images I had taken the previous morning. These are probably the first images of Sperm Whales taken off Kalpitiya of a publishable standard.
We headed out due west and then travelled on a south to north axis past the previous day's sighting which I had marked on Jonathan Martenstyn's GPS unit.

We continued north keeping out at sea at a distance of around seven nautical miles, with the shoreline no longer in sight. Three hours of searching yielded nothing when 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 and another pair. They were travelling south, on a south-north trajectory, at a pace of around 10 kmph. Susantha knew how to handle them this time and we spent over an hour with the group keeping a comfortable distance and trying out the arc-forward a few times.

Susantha said that he had come out just once before beyond the reef to look for whales. It had been with some of the staff. With clients they always stayed in-shore of the reef to look for dolphins and encountered a stray whale about once every three weeks.

That evening I spoke to Jonathan Martenstyn who runs the boats from Dolphin Beach. He 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 Alankuda who ran more dolphin trips.

Chitral Jayathilake of John Keells 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. Even Dallas Martenstyn had told me that the only time he went out beyond the reef to look for whales was when he had gone out with Georgina and me the previous morning.

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 was a sceptic until March 2009. No one had offered a concrete reason 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.

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 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.

My interpretation of Admiralty Chart No 828 Cochin to Vishakhapatnam was that the continental shelf was just too far out from Kalpitiya. But I wondered whether there was a submarine canyon which in conjunction with a movement of currents or tides somehow created a channel rich in nutrients which created an unusual and exceptionally rich concentration of marine life. The Spinner Dolphins would be a top predator of this unusually focussed food chain off Kalpitiya.

A more likely answer came on March 24, 2009 as I listened to Charles explaining to Dallas Martenstyn that the latter's observations of dolphins and the occasional stray whale could be explained by the continental shelf being closer than was previously believed. He also thought that there could be whales to be seen beyond the reef. I had been circulating a graphic we had done based on British Admiralty Chart No 828 which showed that the continental shelf was far out from Kalpitiya, not close to it. Charles disagreed with my interpretation and we pulled out a bundle of admiralty charts that Dallas had in the office. I saw that the 1,000m depth contour which is my personal benchmark is not actually shown on any of the admiralty charts I had carelessly interpolated. It was easier to interpolate smoothly along where the depth was available and draw the 1,000m isocline far out from Kalpitiya than to imagine that somehow it pinched in close to the Kalpitiya Peninsula like it did at Dondra.

I studied the charts more intently and with Charles teaching me to read them, the realisation swept over me, that what I had misinterpreted as hard evidence for a wide shallow basin was no evidence at all. In fact the location of the edge of the continental shelf was wide open. There was absolutely no data available at that time to us or anyone to know conclusively where the continental shelf lay. I instinctively knew that Charles with his deep experience was onto something. I was astonished by the idea that the continental shelf could be pinching into the Kalpitiya Peninsula as it does at Dondra.

That night, long after the others had turned in, I waited in the 'ambalama' thumbing through the charts. Occasionally I stared out to sea, immersed in thought, a shiver of excitement running through me. I knew that Charles had led me onto another big stoy.

The next day, on March 25, 2009, Charles, Dallas and I went dolphin watching from Alankuda and saw around 600 Spinner Dolphins. I returned to office as there was a business to run. But I knew I had to come back to nail the story with evidence. I needed to get the whales and get the depths.

On March 24, 2009 I had realised I needed to get the whales and the depths to confirm Charles 's insight that the continental shelf was close and that explained the presence of whales straying to the dolphin line. I was elated that on February 24, 2010 I had finally found the whales.

But I decided not call or text anyone yet with the news that there was conclusive evidence that Kalpitiya could be a whale watching hotspot. In my heart, I knew I did not have all the pieces together. The depth soundings I had taken with Dallas with a fish finder effective up to 700 feet was Mickey Mouse data. It did not prove anything. Driving back, that Wednesday, I knew that the only chance for any meaningful data lay with the National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA). What followed was a remarkable series of fortuitous meetings.

The next day, on Thursday, February 25, I attended a meeting at the World Bank convened by Sumith Pilapitiya. I looked around for people who could help me in the search for the missing data. I homed in on Dr Malik Fernando, a marine biologist and asked him if there was any data available on depths off Kalpitiya and where the continental shelf may lie. Malik told me how he had swum with Arjan Rajasuriya from NARA in the area where they had thought the continental shelf plunged into a deep abyss. Dallas had also told me on the last visit that with his experience as an angler, sailor and diver, that the continental shelf was close. But visibility in water does not go beyond a hundred feet. No one can peer down to a few hundred metres and see the edge of the shelf plunging a kilometer or two deep.

So although there were clearly others who shared the Anderson theory, I only had gut feelings to go by.
I desperately needed hard data. As if reading my mind, S.A.M. Azmy, Head of the Environmental Studies Division of NARA joined us and introduced himself. I asked him whether there were any data, any recent data at all of depth soundings off the Kalpitiya Peninsula. He explained that the search for oil had resulted in the sea floor being mapped. I asked him whether it would show the 1,000m and 2,000m isoclines. He confirmed it would and in fact said that they would have that for all around the island.

On February 26, Azmy pulled out a chart which showed in remarkable detail the depth contours off the Kalpitiya Peninsula mapped for exploration of oil. There in front of me were the depth contours which showed that the continental shelf was indeed very close and that the edge of the shelf, where it rapidly plunged to 1,000 and 2,000m was parallel to the peninsula. It was the north-south axis at E 79 35 the Sperm Whales had hunted on and for which I had taken GPS readings. I could not believe how well it all fitted together. Wow!

Technically speaking the continental shelf is defined as the 200m isocline and here that was as close as 4 nautical miles. The 1,000m depth isocline which I use as a benchmark for whale watching was 9 nautical miles away. I was probably the first person from the general public to see this chart which had been published internally in October 2009. The data simply had not been available when Charles had first convinced me to re-consider my view. The data had come out seven months later and I suspected that few in marine biological circles were aware of it.

M.A. Ariyawansa, the Head of the National Hydrographic Office (NHO) introduced me to his team and to their amusement I rushed over to a pile of maps on a table and began thumbing through feverishly. Out came an untitled map simply which showed the 200, 1,000 and 2,000m depth isoclines around Sri Lanka and the outer limits of the exclusive economic zone. It showed the continental shelf pinching in three places.

Trincomalee with a submarine canyon which has been known for some time and shown in the Admiralty charts. Dondra, again shown on the Admiralty charts but its significance for whale watching unknown until Charles had explained it to me in August 2003 and only one other place - the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Sri Lanka therefore has only three places which in terms of the location of the continental shelf are positioned ideally to be whale watching hot spots because the whale and oceanic dolphins need deep water to come close in.

I had now found the conclusive evidence which connected the dots to show that Kalpitiya was one and in fact the last of the three whale watching hot spots to be recognized as such. My role once again had been to listen to scientists and to go out and do the field work and connect the dots to make a big story to bridge science with commerce.

The NHO team were helpful, courteous and genuinely interested in their work. They gave me a print-out of the Mannar depths and a custom print-out of the chart showing the continental shelf. I came out of NARA clutching the remaining evidence why Kalpitiya can be a whale watching hot spot. The chart with the continental shelf was dated January 2010. My timing had been perfect. A few weeks earlier and the chart may not have existed.

Of the three records of Orca sightings since 2008, two have been at Kalpitiya, photographed in March 2008 by Senaka Abeyratne and on January 31, 2010 by Maithri Liyanage. It is likely that Kalpitiya could rival Mirissa for the diversity of species of marine mammals. However, Mirissa may remain the top spot for watching Blue Whales because the migratory movement postulated by Charles takes them past Dondra twice. I saw no Blue Whales on the two days I was whale watching at Kalpitiya. In contrast on Wednesday February 24, Anoma Alagiyawadu, the Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist observed what he believed to be seven different Blue Whales from Mirissa.

It is too early to conclude where Trincomalee, Mirissa and Kalpitiya will rank in terms of overall species diversity, the likelihood of seeing Blue Whales and Sperm Whales, etc. But what is very clear is that we have a scientific basis for concluding that Sri Lanka has three key sites for whale watching because of the proximity of the continental shelf, the marine mammal species diversity and logistics. The three sites could result in Sri Lanka emerging as the leading whale watching destination in the world.

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 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.

(Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays. He can be found on, Facebook and Flickr)

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