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Engaging with the whale watch community at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Vanessa Williams-Grey, WDC’s responsible whale watching lead , is currently in Sri Lanka working with the country’s burgeoning whale watching industry. Here we follow her travels and her work to put best practices into place. 

Believe me, I’m as surprised as anyone to find myself writing about blue whales from what can only be described as possibly the best ‘outdoor office’ in the world.I’ve rigged up my laptop so that I can sit, swinging precariously – and thus typing equally precariously – from a hammock slung between two palm trees, barely metres from the ocean. My ears are full of the sound of waves crashing and the guttural squarks of birds flying from tree to tree. It’s green here, very green, and each evening, the air is heady with the scent of frangipani, whilst at dawn, stilt fishermen take up their positions perched atop impossibly flimsy-looking wooden poles in the ocean outside our villa. Welcome to Mirissa, southern Sri Lanka. We are staying for a week as guests of Sri Lankan Airlines and their tourism partners, Jetwing Hotels and John Keells Group, as we embark on a joint project to engage with the local whale watching community and – hopefully – work together to make whale watching here as good as it possibly can be. Because, despite appearances, all has not been entirely well in Paradise.

This beautiful island is starting to recover after decades of turmoil and tourists are once more flocking here to enjoy beaches and temples, tea plantations and wildlife. But like everywhere, it can be a case of too much, too soon and this has arguably been the case for much of the wildlife tourism that has mushroomed here over the past handful of years.

Whale watching started at Mirissa only 4 years ago but demand is such that nowadays, 20-25 boats ply these waters. Whilst some operators are extremely responsible and use custom-made whale watching vessels, others have diversified from fishing and have adapted their boats to varying standards. Behaviour on the water in recent years has varied widely as well and the better operators have suffered due to the behaviour of others who have approached too fast, crowded the whales or lingered too long.

This has meant good exposure for Mirissa’s whales and dolphins, but mixed press – and sometimes downright bad reviews – for its whale watching industry. And that is a pity, because this region has the potential to offer some of the best whale watching anywhere in the world. For a start, it can count both blue and sperm whales amongst its local residents.

Sri Lanka, as a whole, can currently boast a tally of 27 cetacean species and many of these are found off Mirissa with almost indecent ease. I’ve worked for WDC for over two decades and have been lucky enough to experience whale watching in many parts of the world, but I’ve never seen a blue whale and was desperately keen to do so. I was buoyed up by reports that the sightings rate for blues off Mirissa in season (December-April) is around 90% – but in some ways, this only added to the pressure….

Our first day on the water: (March 1st)

Within an hour of leaving the harbour at Mirissa with its brightly-coloured tangle of yellow and red fishing vessels and whale watch boats and obligatory band of stray dogs, we encountered a large pod of maybe 150+ spinner dolphins, and seemingly minutes later, we were enjoying our first sighting of blue whales.

Many people report that their first encounter with a blue whale involves two things: superlatives and tears……and I was no exception. It is hard to describe the rush of sheer adrenalin and emotion as this massive, massive creature blows and then slowly surfaces, arcing lazily – and seemingly endlessly – through the water, displaying its ridiculously out-of-proportion dorsal (a short stub of a thing, perched three-quarters of the way down its immense back)

and maybe fluking up for a deeper dive. We met at least 6 different blue whales that day and maybe as many as 8, over half a dozen good encounters. One female was shadowed by a very small calf, giving credence to the belief that the whales may give birth in these waters, making them even more important. At one point, it felt like we were surrounded by blows, as there were two pairs of blue whales as well as a lone individual in the vicinity at the same time, seemingly quite relaxed around our vessel.

Vanessa spent few days on the water, we’ll be following up with more amazing updates from her – so be sure and check back for more Sri Lanka whale watching.