A fountain of spray and then ‘magnificence’ itself

Sharmini Rodrigo has a whale of a time on board the Navy’s Princess of Lanka

February was a month of dreams realized, accomplished, fulfilled. Maybe because of Valentine’s day with people tending to be a little more conducive to giving ear and actually – listening, and best of all .. making things happen!

Or maybe because it is the month of my birth and life being shorter than it ever was in this uncertain world we live in –feeling that one had better be indulged, given into-the result was that we went whale watching.

Yes, on Saturday February 25 on the dot of 7 a.m., “Yours truly” and her entourage of extended family and a friend, made it to the Naval Base in Galle. We went on the highway, and yes, I am a fan. In spite of all the doom and gloom, stone throwing and dead dogs. The latter chilled my animal-loving bones to the very core but all that changed quite recently with a trip on the Southern Highway to Mathugama one Sunday morning, quickly accomplished, and dead dog carcass free. And like I said – I became a fan.
We left Colombo at 5.20 a.m. and were in Galle at the exit toll gate by 6.20.a.m. (It must be mentioned and acknowledged here “thanks to some very good driving by offspring No:2”)

At the Naval base all is politeness and efficiency from start to finish – vehicle number check, someone to lead you up to the Princess of Lanka, personnel to check your reservation and accept payment, those who welcome you aboard, all smiling faces.

A little while after we were seated an announcement was made and we were off – heading out to sea and the treat in store. We were allowed to stand on deck, looking out at a grey sea – it wasn’t yet too light or hot and sunny. Young Navy boys (some of them Navy Divers) stood all around us, not only ensuring our safety but also serving as Whale and Dolphin spotters, quite intent that we do see what we came for.

We soon saw a school of dolphins prancing ahead in the water. They chose not to come too close, as I prayed for the safety of these very lovable and friendly mammals.

Further out at sea, we heeded a polite request, that we return to our seats to have our snack. Trays down the front as in an airline, we snacked on a presentable boxed breakfast. Two sandwiches, a cutlet, etc, followed by a ‘tetra’ packed soft drink.

Back on deck there is a bit of a scramble for key positions, but the problem gets eased out as those who have sea legs triumph over those who do not or everyone finds their comfortable special niche and sticks to it.

Out in deep water what a thrill it was to spot our first whale, then another and another. The Captain cuts the engine as soon as there is a sighting – one balances the bit of heave and roll and “aaaaah” all is worth it. The Naval personnel are adept at spotting and tell us - “over there and there.” One first sees a fountain of spray and then ‘magnificence’ appears.

Ah me – is this what they harpoon and kill ? ! After a time my so-called sea legs gave up on me - and I had to find a seat to take the deep breaths advised by the Captain as you start the tour. They work and I kept telling myself “you are going to fight the “queesy weesy” feelings somehow ! “ (coming from someone who is not too happy at too many bends in a road up –country !)

Sleep helps, if you manage to get some shut eye. Just as I was nodding off rocked by the motion of the craft at a standstill , the intercom came to life and the Captain announced that a Whale was heading towards the ship at the front. I lurched, like a drunken sailor – forward, determined.

I knew instinctively this was something special that HAD to be seen, no matter how I was feeling and how the stationary craft lurched. To the front I rolled on assisted into a life jacket by the helpful crew, and there I was on the front deck, holding onto anything and everything as I made my way to a wide empty spot and saw “Leviathan” as mentioned in the Bible come right up, right past me at almost touching distance. “Thank you God” I kept whispering and to anyone around me “so beautiful, so beautiful,” my voice breaking at the wonder of the moment.

The sound the giant mammal made was like that of a wheezing asthmatic – amplified! ! Heaving and whooshing in and out of the water as it passed dark brown, big, huge. I do not know if my imagination was playing tricks or it was the harsh sunlight – but I thought I saw that its body was striped, in the very same brown. This was no ordinary sighting, this was special, this was summoned.

I lurched back to my seat telling anyone who was willing to listen that it was great! Totally, totally worthwhile, great ! That just about summed up the whole experience. If you love nature and all of creation you have to venture forth and do this. The whale watching season from Galle ends in April. From Trincomalee the season is May to October.

“The Princess of Lanka” carried troops and civilians during the war, and now that her yeoman service is at end continues to serve the people in this way. Making it possible for folk like me who always wanted to experience this wonder out at sea, and considered it a distant dream, to become a reality, and I am grateful !

Back on terra firma, around noon - we headed out to find a place for “a sea bath” the term employed on almost every Sunday of my distant childhood. We found a secret cove, and I am not telling – because it is just that “ a secret” and I so want it to remain that way – not as the venue of the next Shangri La but belonging to “Citizen Perera” and me!

A cool box of soft drinks, our own homemade packs of lamprais for lunch, a mangrove cover- to suffice as a changing room, a friendly dog on hand to snack on all that was left in our “bio degradable” packs, what more did we want ?

The highway smoothened the return journey to Colombo in much the same way, but from Kottawa onwards it was a “buffer to buffer” traffic-filled hour ! It didn’t dispel the mood however, the buoyancy of the waves remained with us, rolling on as we relived the experience, floating on the heady sensation - of having had a whale of a time.

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