One morning back in 2015, in an ocean devoid of other vessels for at least a mile in every direction, I had an astounding encounter with a veritable armada of sperm whales. I was off the coast of northwest Sri Lanka with colleagues including WDC ambassador and professional underwater photographer, Drew Sutton. We were there as part of Project BLUEprint, working with Sri Lankan partners to engage with coastal communities and encourage responsible whale watching practices.
Drew has been back several times to document the sperm whale gathering which takes place each year on virtually the same date! He returned this spring, intent on learning more about this special event. He always works under full permit and with great care for the welfare of the whales and in this guest blog, Drew notes with sadness the tourist and media circus which now accompanies this annual gathering.
Over to Drew:
I’m back in Sri Lanka for the fifth time since I first witnessed, and started to document, the amazing annual gathering of sperm whales off Kalpitiya. These whales come together from the southern Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean and gather en masse for the purpose of mating and socialising. It all started back in 2015, when we witnessed the largest aggregation of sperm whales any of the assembled team had ever seen and then, a couple of years later, in 2017, we watched as two pods of transient orcas held a large sperm whale pod at bay whilst they planned an attack on the young sperm calves held captive within the group. I’ve witnessed a lot of whale behaviour patterns over the years, but this year I’ve been struck by a change - all the sperm whales in our vicinity have been spy-hopping (poking their heads up vertically above the water) far more than usual.
Day one - west of Bar Reef
A calm and peaceful start. Within 25 minutes, we come across three or four sperm whales, just waking up. Sadly, conditions are too murky to film the whales underwater so we simply can’t tell just how many whales are below the surface. We also encounter a small pod of short-finned pilot whales, around 20 strong, which always pleases me! After our initial encounter, we only see a few other sperm whales, bringing our surface count to about 15 individuals (not counting those beneath the surface).
Conditions are excellent so we head north to the same spot as yesterday, since most of the fishers are reporting that they’ve seen whales in that region earlier that morning. We can’t find them, but we do encounter an expanding group of short-finned pilot whales. We gently cruise alongside the pilots for three hours as they begin to stretch across our horizon, but by 2pm, we decide to head back as the wind is up - not ideal for spotting. I ask myself, could the pilots be deterring the sperm whales from coming in?
The sea is flat calm and, as we head north, we see blows in various places and eventually come across several sperm whale pairs. We gently ease our way around. This is when I begin to notice the change in behaviour. On previous trips, we saw very few whales spy-hopping but suddenly, this seems to be the dominant behaviour. Our skipper, Joseph, tells us about a surge in the number of whale watch boats - not all of them are behaving responsibly. He says that, five years ago, there were only around a dozen vessels but now, in-season, he estimates that there’s probably more in the region of 60 to 90 boats, all intent on finding the whales. Can this be the reason for the change in their behaviour?
As a pod of sperm whales passes us, we notice the remains of an armoured sea robin (or armoured gurnard, a deep water fish) bobbing up from the depths: this unfortunate chap was probably eaten accidentally, as they are found deep down, where the sperm whales forage for squid. We also see a discarded dogfish/shark floating in the sperm whales’ wake. By about 12pm, the wind picks up again and we head back, encountering a 40-strong pod of spinner dolphins (this felt quite small - before we arrived, people spoke of encountering 1,500-strong pods).
Being a Saturday, the whale watch boats are out in force. Until now, we’ve seen few other vessels, but the news of a modest sperm whale gathering has spread and whale watch boats appear from every direction. We watch and wait as the pod of around 15 to 20 sperm whales begins to disperse. I’m interested in what I think is a large male, so when the chance arises, I manage to photograph him cruising around a pod of five or six females, before moving away. As we draw closer to the main group, we can see that, once again, the whales all seem agitated, spy-hopping and rolling sideways with shallow dives, leaving me to ponder whether the morning’s whale watchers had taken a toll on this group.
It’s Sunday, there’s only two other boats out and once again, I see a large male sperm whale leading a group of around 15 females. In all, we probably see around 25 sperm whales today - it’s very clear that the size of the groups is increasing by the day.
We see many more sperm whales today! We start to lose count after 50 or 60 but it seems that everywhere we move, they appear. OK, it’s nowhere near the numbers in previous years, but nonetheless they are here and they are mating. We see at least six huge breaches, one whale is pretty much flying! Males are joining in with female groups of around six or seven, possibly more. The water is a bit milky but I am getting shots of whales underwater in ones and twos. There are single females with young in tow; I swear I see a calf suckling, but my ethics won’t allow me to get close enough to disturb them.
Today starts off promisingly with a distant breach which draws us further north where we witness a waking pod of sperm whales. The water is deep green and there’s a lot of whale skin and also, sadly, plastic bags (the ziplocks gave them away). We then observe three separate whale groups of between three and six individuals - likely all females - heading in a southerly direction. Multiple breaches are always exciting, and you have to be really lucky to capture that on a camera and today just isn’t my lucky day. But, just watching such dramatic behaviour and sharing the experience with the team was a glorious moment indeed!
A large film crew has turned up - their ‘mother ship’ is a luxury motor boat, accompanied by two speed boats fitted with what look like large Cineflex stabilised cameras, a couple of aerial drones and two or three spotter boats. Kalpitiya certainly seems to have captured the imagination of international media and celebrity photographers alike, they all seem to be queuing up to get here. This is so different to the experience our WDC team had when we were sole witnesses on one particular day to an ‘armada’ of sperm whales, back in 2015. I hope all the data we have collected in the intervening years has traction when it comes to conserving this fragile region. These whales need protection during their breeding season, and limiting harassment is vital.
Poor whales. Every time there is a surfacing, we hear the roar of boat engines followed by the insistent buzz of a drone shooting across the sea. Skimming low over the blows of the whales, these drones get shots which will have people praising the production values - but without seeing the distress caused to the whales. Our boat peels away and we head out into the open ocean. We seem to attract some really tranquil whales - maybe like us, they are seeking some respite from the media circus. One group of females seems so relaxed that they simply hang in the water in front of me and we have a gentle seven or eight minute encounter, just static in the water. We also collect some excellent audio clips, courtesy of team-mate and conservation biologist, Ranil Nanayakkara, include the usual sperm whale sounds we have come to know so well here, but also the sudden full-on ‘BLAM!’ sound, which can make your hair stand on end if you are in the way.
It’s always sad when the time comes to leave these waters, and it’s particularly poignant when I’ve had to witness something I can’t fully accept – the pursuit of whales by media crews hungry for the shot. So, I end this season a little saddened by humanity and its insatiable appetite to be entertained by whales, but I will forever be naturally inspired by these giants I have travelled so far to see.
The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of WDC.