Saving our whales as well as watching our whales

On an excursion off Mirissa with John Keells Nature Trails, Shaveen Jeewandara experiences the thrills and spills

Our eyes are fixed on the far horizon. The sun’s rays illuminate the seascape. ‘Whale.. Blue Whale!’ a cry is let out from the boat. All eyes turn to the person who made the call and then follow his finger towards the distance. Suddenly the magnificent creature surfaces. The sight itself is overwhelming. The Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the largest animal on earth shows itself for just about minute, before disappearing into the depths of the sea.

The Blue Whales are seen in three locations off the coast of Lanka–Mirissa, Kalpitiya and Trincomalee. Mirissa being the prime spot out of the three, sandwiched between the towns of Weligama and Matara, is a 35 km or one hour drive south of Galle by bus. The whale watching season is just beginning as the Sunday Times joins a John Keells expedition on board a 20-seater power boat off Mirissa.

“Passion is what drives me on this whale quest,” says Nilantha Kodituwakku, naturalist at John Keells Nature Trails who has worked alongside Chitral Jayatilaka – Head of Eco-Tourism and Special Projects at John Keells to promote the operation. Having been inspired by the wildlife and backyard jungle treks of Polonnaruwa, where he grew up, Nilantha has ever since been in love with nature.
“I don’t believe that whales are here for the season, I believe that they are resident creatures,” adds Nilantha. ”Of course the start of the season signifies the best weather conditions to see whales, and has yielded high success rates,” he adds, as the sun glistens across a sky that now beams clear blue.
‘John Keells Nature Trails’ have been pioneers in the industry and are known to have the safety of the passengers and the whales uppermost.

The official season kicked off early November with a few boats going out to sea, in search of luck in its big blue form. At the entrance to the John Keells office at the Mirissa fishery harbour a whiteboard with dated entries lets us know that the last few outings have indeed yielded good results – with sightings of up to a dozen Blue and Sperm whales, and a staggering 300 Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris), on a particular outing.

Nilantha pulls out a sea chart to pinpoint the locations we’ll be heading to. The sea chart reveals the extraordinary fact that there is a high density of whales between the first and second international shipping lanes. “The whales are not deterred by the ships though the reason still remains a mystery,” says Nilantha. As though to solely prove his point, a magnificent Blue surfaces and does a trademark dive as an oil tanker steams past in the distance.

The Mirissa sea is unique in many ways, being upto 300 metres deep within close vicinity to the shore, the continental shelf being very narrow here. This specialty is what makes these waters well-suited for marine mammal watching. The success rate of spotting Blue whales is almost 100%, with Sperm whales, Risso’s and Spinner dolphins showing themselves along the way.

Along with John Keells, Mirissa Water Sports was one of the first in the industry. With a modest beginning of very few boats – three to be precise, they currently have 15 boats in operation. But these apart, unregulated boating has been a reason for worry, with a large number of fishermen-cum-whale watchers emerging from the region. The thirst for quick money has lured them into this enterprise. With their owners having little knowledge, these boats pose a threat to the long term viability of the industry. “The balance in the industry depends on proper regulation,” says Nilantha. “We know the regulations, we don’t chase the whales, we don’t separate the pack and we certainly don’t encroach on their personal space.”

Such practices were evidently lacking in some of the small boats that took to sea. On one instance a small boat laden with foreign tourists ventured so close to a whale that it was literally on top of the creature. The whale obviously showing signs of panic, vanished out of sight.

NARA chairman Hiran Jayewardene, speaking to the Sunday Times says that regulations are long overdue, although there have been discussions between the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Tourist Board and NARA. Dr. Jayewardene points out that regional co-operation on this matter is being sought. “We are presently working with the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), and the Indian Ocean Maritime Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC), to adopt a common approach and a dedicated Marine Mammal Management Act.”

Just as a Blue whale is spotted by Nilantha, our boat slowly approaches from the rear, making sure the 100m distance is kept. The Blue acknowledges our restraint by remaining on the surface for a prolonged period before treating us to another breathtaking tail fluke. Four giant leviathans are sighted, before we head back, only to be greeted with the pleasant surprise of close to a hundred Spinner dolphins, as one chirpy dolphin rose from the water spinning upwards – justifying its name. Spectacular would be an understatement for these sights.

Enjoying the spectacle, tourists Farida and Francis Gueroult from France, tell us that whale watching is what attracted them to the Southern coast. Francis says travelling has been their pastime for the last couple of years. “Sri Lanka is one of our top destinations, because of its ecology and its smiles,” beams Farida.

“This industry should not be abandoned, however small boats should not be allowed to close in on the whales,” they say. Being one of the first to literally point a finger at the rowdy boatmen, Farida reiterates that the tourists should be the first to tell the local boatmen not to disturb the whales – solely to please them.

Another stakeholder is the Sri Lanka Navy who recently launched their very own whale watching expeditions headed by Commander Kosala Wijesooriya. Their boat – the A543 had seen active service in Eastern waters. “We have decided to come into the industry as there was a lack of methodical operations,” says Commander Wijesooriya, explaining that the Navy aspired solely to provide a boost to the industry.

“Sri Lanka has not even touched its potential in becoming a whale watching hotspot,” he claims. The Navy currently has no affiliated naturalist but is keen to take down methodical notes of sightings and log them for future use. “Once the industry blooms, we’ll not continue the enterprise, as the Navy is entrusted with other operations of prime importance,” Commander Wijesooriya says.

The whale watching industry is on a tight-rope, struggling to find the balance between conservation, regulation and national economic gain. To strike this intimate balance is what authorities and conservationists must work towards if it is to be a sustainable and beneficial effort both for tourism in Sri Lanka and the majestic marine mammals that seek our waters.

Keells Nature trails

A three- hour excursion with John Keells Nature Trails costs Rs 7000 per person, and reservations can be made from the John Keells Head Office, Colombo 2, or at the Chaaya Tranz Hotel Hikkaduwa.
Contact 0715322322 or visit!/naturetrailslanka for more details.

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