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Whales, workshops and watalappan: WDC in Sri Lanka

This blog could equally have been titled ‘sperm whales, spinner dolphins and serendipity’! I’ve just returned from an action-packed week in Sri Lanka, heading a small team comprising WDC colleague, Rob Lott, along with WDC Ambassador and professional photographer, Andrew Sutton and his wife Rachel Collingwood.  This was our third trip, and once again, our objective was to run activities under WDC’s Project BLUEprint partnership which encourages responsible, community-based whale and dolphin watching in Sri Lankan waters.

Our first stop was Kalpitiya to the northwest of the island. Still fairly unspoilt, this is a wild and beautiful landscape characterised by mangrove swamps and salt marshes. The largest coral reef off Sri Lanka, ‘Bar Reef’, is only an hour away.

Here, we joined biologist and DWC (Department of Wildlife Conservation) consultant, Ranil Nanayakkara, and local organiser, Ashan Seneviratne, to run a whale watch operator training workshop.  The workshop was attended by over 100 local whale and dolphin watching operators, plus representatives from the conservation and tourism communities, sponsors and media. Presentations highlighted the importance of observing regulations and gave advice on identifying whales at sea, and dealing with unreasonable or unsafe requests from passengers. Discussion forums followed, all operators received course hand-outs, a certificate and t-shirt which most delegates immediately donned for a group photo!

The operators also asked for our help in publicising a current threat to local dolphin populations – and also of course, to their livelihoods – due to illegal fishing methods in the region. Purse seine nets (also known as Laila nets), coupled with dynamite, are being used illegally to target tuna and other fish species, and in the process are causing the death of spinner dolphins, sharks, turtles and other species as well as irreparably damaging coral reefs.  We gave interviews to the local media, urging action to ban this utterly destructive fishing method which not only threatens dolphin populations, but also the livelihood of local operators and of course Sri Lanka’s ecotourism reputation.

We spent the following day at sea, where our delight at seeing an exuberant pod of spinner dolphins, as well as striped dolphins and sperm whales (more of which shortly….) was tempered by the knowledge that these waters are far from a safe haven.

Travelling down to Colombo, we gave a press conference on the workshop and once more called for strong action against the dynamite fishing.  I also took the opportunity to flag up WDC’s strong concern at the disturbing proliferation of trips promoting the opportunity for members of the public to swim or dive with blue whales.  Sri Lanka’s regulations forbid the public to swim with whales (except for divers in possession of a DWC permit) yet in several areas, particularly off Mirissa to the south, this rule appears to be somewhat laxly interpreted.

Whilst a case can be made for a (very) limited number of highly experienced professional photographers working strictly under permit – such as WDC Ambassador Andrew Sutton who is thoughtful and responsible around whales – entering the water to collect images for clear conservation benefit, this is categorically not an activity for rank amateurs.  Close up, blue whales are enormous and their habitat off the southwest tip of the island happens to coincide with one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes:  these waters are murky and over a kilometre deep.  Whales – especially mothers with young calves – can react unpredictably. Already endangered, the last thing these giants need is to be disturbed by the close approach of boats dropping possibly incompetent swimmers into the water next to them!

The truth of this was further brought home to me two days later when, arriving in Mirissa on the south coast, we took a couple of whale watch trips in order to gauge vessel behaviour in the aftermath of our training workshop at nearby Matara in October 2013. We were lucky enough to encounter around half a dozen blue whales on both days (along with large pods of spinner dolphins and a possible Bryde’s whale), but the spectacle of these huge whales diving and surfacing – some accompanied by calves, deep inside the shipping lanes, up to 15 nautical miles offshore and in waters over a kilometre deep – merely reinforced the need firstly for responsible and respectful whale watch vessel handling at all times, and secondly, for in-water encounters with whales to be banned for the general public.

My feeling is that, whilst things have definitely improved overall and most whale watch vessels are behaving responsibly, there are often far too many vessels around each whale at any one time.  Some vessels are approaching too closely and failing to behave cooperatively as a community, by which I mean observing the regulations, and respecting the needs of the whales and other vessels in the vicinity at all times.

It’s been a great experience – exhausting and exhilarating by turns – but deeply satisfying to have such privileged encounters with some of the most amazing marine life on our planet and to work with Sri Lankans who share WDC’s vision for responsible wildlife viewing.

And watalappan? Only my absolute favourite Sri Lankan dessert, rich with coconut, jaggery (dark palm sugar) and spices. Heaven!

Warm thanks to sponsors including SriLankan Airlines, Jetwing Hotels, Cinnamon Hotels, and the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. Special thanks to Ashan Seneviratne, Ranil Nanayakkara, Vasita Seneviratne, Andrew Sutton and Rachel Collingwood, Asanga Cooray and Chandi Abeywardana.