Watching blue whales in Mirissa, Sri Lanka
26 June 2017 - 12:09pm
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to encounter blue whales off the coast of Mirissa, Sri Lanka. WDC has been active in the region since 2012, giving workshops to whale watching operators on the ground as part of our Project BLUEprint initiative. It was a great chance for me to see the impact of WDC’s work!
As tourism has become increasingly important in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war in 2009, the whale watching industry has grown steadily. Mirissa has always been the main hotspot for whale watching on the island, although both Kalpitiya and Trincomalee also offer good opportunities to see whales and dolphins.
There’s around two dozen operators in Mirissa offering whale watching boat trips and Sri Lanka is one of the best places to see majestic blue whales, the largest creatures on earth!
I was excited weeks in advance of my trip, hoping that I would be lucky enough to see at least one blue whale in the waters off the coast. As I joined the crew and other guests in the booking office, there was a real air of excitement about the upcoming trip. We went to Mirissa’s harbour and received some safety instructions from the crew, before our boat made its way out to the open sea.
Half an hour after we left the harbour, we were able to enjoy a group of spinner dolphins close to the boat. Everyone was amazed by their beautiful appearance and acrobatic jumping! Compared to bottlenose dolphins, they are relatively small at a maximum size of 2.35 metres.
But soon after, we were able to see a cetacean species that can reach 33 metres and weigh up to 150,000kg: the blue whale!
One of the crew members spotted a blow with his binoculars. Blue whale blows can reach 12 metres, so the chances of spotting one, even quite a distance away, are quite good. As we got closer, the skipper turned off the engine, keeping at some distance to ensure the whale didn’t feel disturbed. Everyone was jumping up and heading to the rail, as cameras and mobile phones were hastily pulled out. The blue whale’s back, with its small dorsal fin, arced slowly out of the water, finally showing the beautiful fluke with its dark grey and white patterns. I was stunned when we saw another blue whale shortly after the first one – what a lucky day!
Blue whales commonly live to around 80-90 years of age, although there is proof that some blue whales can even reach 110 years. So, this whale might have experienced a great deal during its life. We learned a lot of really interesting information from a biologist on board, who is studying blue whales and the effects of whale watching in Sri Lanka. It is important to have a biologist or expert on a whale watching trip who is able to provide in-depth information to tourists and ensure that boat crews comply with relevant regulations or guidelines in the region. Responsible vessel handling is essential, especially in regions such as Sri Lanka, where whale watching is a relatively new industry. Boat skippers anxious to give their passengers a good view of the whales can be tempted to crowd too closely, increasing the risk of harassing or even injuring these magnificent, yet highly endangered whales.
It is estimated that there are only 10,000 to 25,000 blue whales left on our planet, so it is essential that we offer them the best possible protection. In our report on responsible whale watching, you can find information how to choose an operator who respects marine wildlife and behaves responsibly to ensure that the whales are not disturbed by boats. It was great to see that WDC’s work has an impact all over the world, including in Sri Lanka. Thanks to Project BLUEprint, we’ve been able to share our expertise on whale watching with many operators in Sri Lanka!