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Mass gathering of sperm whales gatecrashed by boats in Sri Lanka

In 2012, WDC launched Project BLUEprint in Sri Lanka, a unique and exciting partnership with SriLankan Airlines and eco-tourism companies: Jetwing Hotels and Cinnamon Hotels. Our goal is to encourage responsible, community-based whale watching and to this end, we’ve run training workshops for local boat operators; worked with government agencies and the media to flag up threats and promote conservation and observed and documented the whales, accompanied by WDC ambassador and professional underwater photographer, Andrew Sutton. In 2015, I led a WDC team to Kalpitiya in the north-west of the island where we were fortunate to witness a mass gathering of several hundred sperm whales, far from shore and with no other boats around. Andrew returned to the region at the same time last year and had a similar experience. 

Fascinated by what he had seen and keen to prove his theory that this gathering is an annual event in the sperm whale calendar and is particularly important for mating, Andrew returned last month.  Working under permit, alongside the DWC (Department of Wildlife Conservation), his aim was to collect additional audio-visual material. Sadly, this time, the whales’ ’party’ was gate-crashed by tour boats. In this guest blog, Andrew tells the story of what went wrong:

(Guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of WDC.)

Day 1

Leaving port, we were notified that a group of whales had been sighted. We joined two dolphin watching boats observing seven to 10 sperm whales. The majority were adolescents (no more than 10 years old), mainly in small groups of two or three individuals.

Day 2

We encountered one of Kalpitiya’s famous spinner dolphin ‘super pods’! We couldn’t pass up this opportunity so, GoPros at the ready, we spent a happy hour with this pod. As we moved away, we received a call that a pod of sperm whales had arrived in pretty much the same location as yesterday. We travelled across and found several groups, numbering up to half a dozen whales each, spread across a distance of about three kilometres with a total of maybe 20 or 30 individuals.

The whales seemed oblivious to our presence and we observed some great ‘pass-bys’ and fluking. I carefully entered the water to see if there was more activity beneath the surface and the whales’ general behaviour could best be described as ‘socialising with a hint of flirting’ – this is, of course just my theory, based on the next day’s encounters!

Day 3

We woke to forceful winds: palm trees rustling and bowing and white caps visible on the horizon. After consultation with our skipper, Joseph, we decided to head out, following a report that sperm whales had been seen around 12 km offshore.

We began to see water explosions on the horizon, as huge males breached simultaneously in several locations. With whales breaching really close to us, we faced the classic photographer’s nightmare: wielding a long lens when your boat is being hammered by the water means you have no idea where the next breach will come from!  We could see groups of around five or six whales with some incredible, repetitive tail slapping, making me wonder briefly whether orcas (the sperm whale’s only predator, apart from humans), might be around, but we could see no dorsal fins or defensive grouping behaviour to back this up.

Almost without warning, we had seven to 10 individuals heading towards us at a rate of knots. The whales were right below us. I could see one individual whale, upside down beneath another – rubbing bellies and could only assume they had just completed their natural task. Viewing the footage later, I could see that there were around 12 whales in this group, mainly underwater, and hardly visible from the surface. I would estimate the size of the overall group to be around 30 or more with breaching becoming increasingly intense – as were the wind and water conditions.

We turned back toward shore, but at this point, I noticed that we had been joined by eight small boats, packed with tourists. Some boats were speeding towards the whales as they surfaced, and to my horror, at exactly the spot where the breaching seemed most intense. I could only imagine how disastrous the situation might become so, as we approached a boatload of tourists, I called across to their skipper to slow down and be very careful as I was extremely worried that whales and boats might collide.

Soon afterwards, I saw another dive boat hurtling toward the other boats and again, I called a warning. The main group of boats was racing around at speed and chasing anything that moved. We hung back from the throng and just observed as a lone female sperm whale surfaced not far from us. Within moments we were surrounded by the other vessels. I pleaded with them not to harass this whale, as she was displaying signs of exhaustion – making frequent blows and heaving up and down.

After an hour, the boats began to move away. We’d witnessed a remarkable event but at what cost? The frequent over-crowding of vessels around whales off Mirissa, to the south, is sadly being repeated at Kalpitiya.

Day 6

We were alerted that a group of sperm whales had been spotted off the continental shelf.  As we approached, we could see whales breaching in the distance, with several groups of whales, in twos and threes, circling an area of around three kilometres.

The whales seemed relaxed, so we observed and filmed. Only one other boat was nearby, but as it approached, I could see that it was a commercial vessel. I heard the loud buzz of a drone flying overhead, only 15 metres or so above two sperm whales and two snorkelers entered the water near the whales. After the events of day 3, this felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back – tourists getting into the water with sperm whales on their mating ground, whilst operating a noisy drone overhead, is both irresponsible and reckless!

This whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth and raised many difficult questions. I have many years’ experience as a professional in-water photographer working under full permit. Additionally, I know this region, and this whale species, well. I’m worried though, at the ease with which inexperienced people appear to obtain permits, and fearful that this year could herald increased exploitation of sperm whales off west coast Sri Lanka.

WDC is working hard to educate whale watch operators in Sri Lanka and to introduce codes of practice for behaviour around these magnificent beings. Hopefully education and better understanding will lead to more responsible conduct. We all appreciate the excitement that comes with seeing a whale in the wild and empathise with the desire to get close, but we need to approach these encounters with consideration and respect.

If you’d like to make a donation to help our work in Sri Lanka, you will be helping to protect the amazing whales who make their homes there.