The story that I broke in May 2008 that Southern Sri Lanka is the best place in the world for Blue Whales had a varied cast of supporting characters. One of them was an Englishwoman who had fallen in love with the island. Sue Evans first visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s and in 2002 bought a bungalow at Polwatta Modera near Mirissa.
A few months before the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, she took up residence with her husband Simon Scarff. After the tsunami, because of her background as a marketing professional, the charity, Build A Future Foundation, sought her help as a volunteer, with one of their projects. They had provided 11 tsunami-affected fishing youth with a 54-footer boat and two sailing dinghies. One day, I received an email from her about the planned leisure sailing activities of Mirissa Water Sports (MWS).
How Simon Scarff with MWS photographed Blue Whales on one of their sailings in April 2006 and Sue Evans communicated this sighting to me is a story I have written in my previous articles and I will not repeat it here. If I may move the story forward, on April 1, 2008, I set out with MWS on my first sailing. At that time, very few people in Sri Lanka knew of Dr. Charles Anderson and his hypothesis of a migration of Blue Whales skirting the South coast of Sri Lanka in an East-West migration.
I suspected that I was on to a big story at a time when no one had publicly made a compelling case in the media for Mirissa being an international whale watching hot spot. However, Southern Sri Lanka’s potential for watching Blue Whales had been brought to my attention as much as five years earlier by Dr. Charles Anderson in August 2003. Sue Evans and Simon Scarff were on my first sailing with MWS, when after about half an hour we came across our first whales.
‘Blue Whales’ announced the crew triumphantly. I was not so sure; they looked different. They were actually Sperm Whales. But the inability of anyone on board that day to tell them apart demonstrated how little most people knew as of April 2008. We went back to Sue’s house and I processed my Canon digital RAW files and consulted my books. I showed that we had seen and photographed both Blue and Sperm Whales close to shore. I was terribly excited. I was sure that if I ran more field trips and the results held, I could put Mirissa on the international map for Blue Whales.
There was one snag: the cost. The boat charter at that time was Rs 30,000 and we had taken it at a special rate of Rs 20,000. Even at the reduced rate, there was no way I could justify using Jetwing Eco Holidays money to research and develop Sri Lanka’s branding as a whale watching hot spot. I suggested that they offer me the terms which I had agreed with safari jeep operator Mola, when I marketed Yala as one of the top sites in the world for seeing and photographing leopards. Back then, I simply paid for the diesel, about Rs 500 a day. For the boat it would cost about Rs 3,000 for the diesel for several hours at sea.
I then rather dramatically told the crew to take a good look at me. Because, I said, if they did not agree, they would never see me again. But if they agreed to my proposal, I said I will know by the end of the month, whether I can put Mirissa on the world map.
I set off further South with the team of Jetwing Eco Holidays naturalist guides, leaving behind a rather perplexed crew of fishing youth. They had not quite understood the collaboration I had proposed. It seemed risky. Sue Evans explained again to them that I had taken the story of the Sri Lankan leopard in Yala and The Gathering of elephants to the world. She reassured them that I would deliver my promise if the facts supported it. She advised them to accept my offer. They were to provide the boat and crew. Jetwing Eco Holidays would pay for the diesel and make a compelling case to brand Mirissa for whale watching.
The fishing youth were in a dilemma. An Englishwoman and a corporate personality from the capital, were suggesting a strange new arrangement. They needed time to think it over. Later in the evening, Ruwan, the crew’s skipper phoned me. They had accepted. The advice of Sue Evans, the Englishwoman who had helped them before, had influenced their decision. The boat was in play.
We raced back for what became a series of exploratory trips, often accompanied by print and TV media. This continued into the 2008/2009 season.
If it were not for this agreement brokered by Sue Evans for a special ‘diesel only’ rate, the ‘Best for Blue Whale’ story would not have gone out in May 2008. Furthermore, it is possible that the fishing youth may have gone on to other work. They were struggling to take bookings.
Meanwhile, Chitral Jayathilake from Walkers Tours and I were in regular dialogue. With the data I was sharing, he changed the strategy of their sailings for the next season by switching to Mirissa from Galle. My media blitz ensured that there were enough bookings in the next season (2008/2009) to sustain more than two whale watching boats. By 2011 this has grown to half a dozen.
On our first trip Sue quite nonchalantly pulled out an Admiralty Chart. This was nothing special for someone like her who was a sailor. I don’t think she had any inkling what a huge impact this would have on my ability to convince the media, tour operators and the world at large. For decades I had walked trails all over the world using Ordnance Survey maps and their equivalent. But not having a nautical background I had no idea that members of the public in Sri Lanka could buy the Admiralty Charts used on ships. On that first sailing with Evans when she unrolled ‘Admiralty Chart No 813 Colombo to Sangamankanda Point’, I was gobsmacked. As an avid map reader, I could visualise immediately how the sea floor dropped away.
It was obvious that an effort to sail from Galle to whale watch was not going to be productive. The edge of the continental shelf is just too far way from Galle. It pinches in close to the South of Dondra. This was not new information. Indeed, some years earlier Charles Anderson had pin-pointed the area near Dondra as the most likely place to watch Blue Whales after consulting Admiralty Charts. But now using the Admiralty Charts, it was so much easier for me to explain to media, clients and tour operators why it made sense to sail from Mirissa. I was also struck immediately how clumsy my previous efforts had been. Without Admiralty Charts you are running blind. With them, you can look for the edge of the shelf where shallow water meets deep water and churning takes place, creating a food web and at the same time allowing a secure depth of water for large whales. With the depth contours on the Admiralty Charts, it was easy to connect the Anderson hypothesis of the East West migration of the Blue Whales and how they were skirting along the edge of the shelf. Evans had the details of a local company (Marine Overseas Agency) which was an agent for the British Admiralty Charts. We wasted no time in buying them, laminating them and taking them out to sea.
When I first called Evans to arrange the first sailing with MWS, she explained that my team would need to negotiate directly with MWS for a rate. I was not obliged to invite her to join us. But I knew she had worked hard to introduce MWS to the travel inustry. She had also asked the crew to maintain a log of whale sightings on the boat and on the web after their first encounter. I was glad that I had invited her to join my first trip with MWS. In addition to persuading the crew to have confidence in me, she introduced me to a useful tool, the Admiralty Charts. A seemingly trivial thing but one I used with great effect to make a compelling case with the media. I later used depth charts with another Anderson insight. This led me to demonstrate in 2010 that the seas off Kalpitiya Peninsula is Sri Lanka’s third whale watching hot spot.
The publicity bore fruit along with the strong take up by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and the parallel efforts of Walkers Tours to launch whale watching with the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation. But in my mind, the birth of a sustainable whale watching industry founded on credible data is a story which was set in motion by a foreign philanthropist, a coalition of tsunami-affected fishing youth, a British marine scientist, a data collecting hotel naturalist and me connected by an English volunteer Sue Evans.
Sri Lanka being the Best for Blue Whale is a recent branding. However, as historian and architect Ismeth Raheem pointed out to me, the ancient Greeks knew about our whales. Ptolemy’s map of Taprobane in the 3rd Century AD, had an area near Kumana on the South-east marked as the Cape of Whales. Perhaps they knew something which has now been lost in time. Well as for me, I needed Dr. Anderson and his hypothesis to explain the movement and the precision afforded by Admiralty Charts and portable GPS units for recording details, to help make sense of it. But it is an extraordinary story of how as explained above, a few people brought together by a love of science, adventure, the sea, Sri Lanka and commercial opportunism, all came together at the same time and thrust this story on the world’s stage in a dizzyingly short space of time.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne can be found on Facebook, LinkedIn and www.flickr.com