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An Armada of Whales: WDC in Sri Lanka

Date: March 24th 2015

Country: Sri Lanka.

Location: 8°35’12.10”N     79° 32’ 11.84” E

Last week I was in Sri Lanka to help coordinate WDC’s Project BLUEprint training workshop for the local whale watch operators in Kalpitiya in the northwest. The event was a great success and during the course of the day the local operators shared their experiences and chatted to us about the wealth of wildlife they find in the seas around Sri Lanka. I knew this to be true as I was on a return visit to this whale and dolphin paradise with friends and colleagues, Vanessa Williams-Grey, Head of WDC’s Responsible Whale Watch Programme, WDC Ambassador and professional photographer, Andrew Sutton and his wife, Rachel Collingwood.

In the days leading up to the workshop the local operators had been out at sea and spoke of their encounters with orcas, spinner dolphins and striped dolphins.

On the actual day of the workshop news was coming in that sperm whales had been sighted offshore which caused much excitement amongst organisers and participants alike.

The following day was a travel day for us as we were heading to Colombo, the capital, to give a press conference to the Sri Lankan media on the workshop’s achievements, alongside the other project stakeholders and our generous sponsors. After a quick discussion, our team decided to delay our departure to the city until later that afternoon so we could go out with one of the local operators and follow up on the rumours of the sperm whales.

That may have been one of the best decisions we have ever made.

Our group chartered two small boats to take us out to a deep water canyon about 25 miles offshore. In one boat was myself with Andrew and Rachel while in the other was Vanessa and Dr Ranil Nanayakkara, a conservation biologist and consultant to Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife and Conservation.

As we headed out to sea we encountered several schools of spinner and striped dolphins following the local tuna fishing boats. We stopped and asked several of the fishermen if they had seen anything but they only mentioned the group of sperm whales that had been reported to us from the previous day.

The last boat we checked in with did, however, have news – some whales had recently passed their boat earlier that morning a little way further north. We headed out in the general direction of where they had last been seen and sure enough soon caught up with a ‘nursemaid’ group of about five whales. A little while later we noticed huge splashes on the horizon which we immediately recognised as full body breaches.

What we witnessed over the next four hours was nothing short of astonishing as wave after wave of sperm whale pods approached from the North.

We slowly headed towards the whales and adopted the usual approach technique which was to carefully position the boat out of their immediate path and turn off the engines.

The surface team’s job was to try and keep an eye on the travel patterns of each pod, the number of individuals present and the spatial proximity of each pod to one another.

Andrew, as an underwater photographer, had a permit to enter the water with the whales in order to document them for the Department of Wildlife and Conservation, WDC and the Sri Lankan Tourist Board. As the first group approached us he slipped over the side and carefully swam a little way off the boat towards the whales. Our surface count was estimated to be in the region of 12-15 while Andrew reported a further 20 whales deep underwater below him. Looking up between counts we could see more breaching and blows on the horizon as different pods approached. We knew this was something special.

We diligently continued to assess the extent of this incoming armada – though at some points we could make out whales nearly as far as the eye could see.

The second wave of whales, composed of about four groups, had a similar dynamic to the first with about a dozen or so whales visible at the surface with a further 20-25 reported below. One striking feature of one of these groups was the size of some of the whales.

I knew sexual dimorphism i.e. the difference between the sexes, was well pronounced in sperm whales but seeing an enormous male, possibly 18 metres long, swimming alongside females of about 11-12 metres really brought it home to me.

The group composition of all ages and both sexes may indicate this area is important to sperm whales for mating, calving and nursing.

At some points the second boat was about two miles away from ours and reported similar numbers of about 15 or so surface whales but, unlike us, had no one underwater to determine what lay in the depths.

As we were assessing the third wave of whales Andrew swam back to the boat and told us of an incredible experience he had just experienced while floating on the surface. He was actually shaking and feeling completely overwhelmed.

Here he takes up the story…

“I have been privileged to have witnessed three of these sperm whale events during my time photographing whales in Sri Lanka, and this encounter was by far the most spectacular I have seen. My own notable highlight happened when a juvenile whale, possibly five metres long, approached me as I lay on the surface, watched very carefully by six adults who formed a ring below me. They were all upturned and allowed the small whale to approach me, coming to within three metres and slowly, sonically scanning me for around five minutes. One of the larger females closed in and gently encouraged it forward but as I gently retreated the group sank into the blue. It was an encounter that left me quite breathless, literally – from the sonic sensation and the trust the animal had in me as a non-threatening “object”. “

After over four hours with the whales we reluctantly made the call to head for home even though we could still see whales in the distance and we all knew there were groups we just simply couldn’t connect with.

For the second half of the encounter our two boats came together and it was time to make an initial estimate on numbers. We took a precautionary approach to this and compared notes on group numbers and movements. Our experienced estimates, based on our own certainty, gave us a figure in excess of 350 sperm whales spread across an area of approximately 15kms by 5kms – our visible range.

We contacted Professor Hal Whitehead, an associate of WDC and the world’s leading authority on sperm whales. He considered the encounter ‘extraordinary’ and bigger than anything he had witnessed.

It is entirely possible that our encounter in the Gulf of Mannar may well be the largest gathering of the world’s biggest predator seen in living memory. For us, the stunned observers, we are still trying to process the magnitude of the incredible events that unfolded that day but one thing is for sure – the memory is indelibly etched and will live with us forever.