Every whale death is a tragedy, but a dead blue whale is a big loss in every sense of the word. A young blue whale – its beauty and future potential cruelly extinguished – is arguably the greatest loss of all. I was really concerned, then, to hear a few days ago of another blue whale washed up on the beach at Midigama, on the south coast of Sri Lanka: the third in the area in as many months. These palm-fringed beaches are a slice of heaven and it seems plain wrong to see this whale – at around 10-15 metres, small in blue whale terms – lying dead on the sand.
Reports suggest that the whale had a 5-metre-long gash running down its throat pleats and under its left flipper. Whales have been fatally struck by vessels in these waters on an all-too regular basis, as blue whales and other species have the misfortune to make their home within one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. At the moment, there are many unknowns, but samples have been taken and hopefully, we may eventually learn why this young blue whale died.
Sadly, just a fortnight ago, another blue whale washed up dead at nearby Kathaluwa beach, and in early March, yet another blue whale was found on the beach at Dikwella, to the east of the well-known fishing village of Mirissa. Just days before that March death, two blue whales had been observed in the area, both in poor condition; one looking emaciated and the other with injuries suggestive of orca attack.
Taken together, these deaths – and the earlier sightings of whales in poor condition – suggest that all is far from well with the local blue whale population. This is a matter of great concern of course, not only to conservationists but also to the local community, which in recent years has developed a whale watch industry around these gentle giants and the many other whale and dolphin species found in these waters.
Back in 2012, in response to concerns that this new industry was developing too quickly, WDC launched Project BLUEprint, in partnership with SriLankan Airlines and local eco-tourism companies. We started to engage with the whale watch operators, offering support and training in responsible whale watching and at the same time, encouraging fit-for-purpose regulations, with proper monitoring and enforcement provisions, as these elements go hand in hand. Last autumn, we staged a successful two-day training workshop in the region, which was attended by around 90 operators and stakeholders.
There is still some way to go before all local operators have sufficient training and experience to allow them to offer truly responsible viewing practices across the board – and equally, whilst regulations are in place, they are not yet as robust as they should be. Nonetheless, things are moving in the right direction and several local operators currently offer an experience that is on a par with high-quality whale watching elsewhere in the world. And, crucially, there is growing awareness within this community that they cannot protect their livelihoods without first protecting the whales in their waters. Fostering this sense of guardianship over the blue whales and other marine life in the region is absolutely essential of course and thus is a large part of Project BLUEprint’s remit.