Whale of a time

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST

A BLUE WHALE comes to the surface to breathe. Its spout, a water spray from the blowhole, can rise up to nine metres.-

A BLUE WHALE comes to the surface to breathe. Its spout, a water spray from the blowhole, can rise up to nine metres.-

In the south of Sri Lanka, on the migration route of blue whales between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

WHEN Charles Anderson, a British marine biologist working in the Maldives, put forward the theory that some blue whales migrate from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea and back, keeping close to the Dondra Head continental shelf in southern Sri Lanka on both routes, it made biologists sit up and take notice. Until then most whale watchers had focussed their attention on the seas near Trincomalee in the north-east of Sri Lanka.

In a paper published in 1999, Anderson noted that the whales passed the south of Sri Lanka and the Maldives in December, when they travelled from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal and then again in April when they returned to the Arabian Sea.

Incidents of blue whales being stranded off the Sri Lankan coast have been recorded as early as 1932, in Trincomalee. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, many sightings on the south and west coasts were recorded. This indicated that the blue whale is one of the more common whale species inhabiting the waters around Sri Lanka.

In 2008, a friend who travelled to Sri Lanka told me she had seen a few blue whales off Mirissa, near Dondra. I decided to head for Mirissa at the first opportunity. I learnt from various reports that April was the best month for whale sightings, and so in April 2009 I was on my way to the south of Sri Lanka.

The drive to Mirissa from Colombo, down the west coast of Sri Lanka, offers a spectacular view since the highway runs alongside the sea. There are dramatic views of rocky outcrops and sandy coves. En route one passes the stilt fishermen of Welligama, well known for their unique way of fishing they perch on a wooden pole fixed in the seawaters to fish.

The village of Kosgoda, which has a turtle hatchery run by a local voluntary organisation, is another interesting stop. The hatchery incubates mainly green, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill turtles, which are protected from dogs and other predators and then released back into the sea.

Mirissa is a small fishing village south of Welligama. Our trip was organised by Mirissa Water Sports, a cooperative set up to employ youth affected by the tsunami. It informed us that we had a 95 per cent chance of sighting whales. So at 6-30 a.m. the next day, we set out from the picturesque Mirissa harbour for a morning of whale watching.

The sea was placid when we started out. As we got further from the shore, we began to see shoals of flying fish make silvery streaks across the blue ocean. Terns of all kinds whiskered, greater-crested, white-winged, Noddy flew past.

The day began to get hotter as the sun rose, and the half-covered deck did little as a shelter. As the boat bobbed in the sea, the shaded spaces shrank and soon we were surrounded by seasick semi-comatose people. Enthusiasm levels had suddenly nosedived.

All of a sudden, one of the guides yelled blow, and then there was a mad scramble on the deck to see the blowhole of a whale. And there it was, a slender column of spray up in the air. We were close enough to see the blue-grey back and the blowhole as the whale glided away. Then unexpectedly, a small dorsal fin appeared and the guide cried fluke, fluke.

There was mad excitement again on the deck. With great grace for an animal its size the whale then disappeared into the depths of the ocean, but not before we had seen its massive flukes framed against the sea and the sky.

During the course of that morning, we sighted four blue whales and one Bryde's whale. Each time, we saw the whale spout for a while and then its dorsal fin would appear a telltale sign that the whale was preparing to dive. Finally, its beautiful flukes came up with a shiny sheet of water running off it like a waterfall.

After that there would be a large round area of calm where the whale had gone under called flukes print or foot print' caused by the powerful upstroke of the tail creating a vortex below.

The next day again, we were back at Mirissa at sunrise. We had another morning of great sightings of whales, including a mother and calf. There were times when we could see three or four spouts at a time. By half past eleven, we were exhausted and decided to head back.

On the ride back to the harbour, we saw dolphins on the horizon and they seemed to be coming straight at us. What looked like a few grew to dozens and then hundreds as we drew closer to them soon they were everywhere. They came towards us one wave after another, under the water and in the air, spinning and dancing, down at the horizon and riding the bow.

We watched in amazement as some of them leapt out of the water like a group of choreographed dancers while others seemed to be jumping in pure joy. We had just witnessed a mega-pod of spinner dolphins.The blue whale is the largest mammal on the planet. It grows to over 30 metres in length and weighs over 150 tonnes. A creature of the open ocean, it is often found along the edges of continental shelves. The mouth of a blue whale is lined with keratin plates called baleens, which act like a sieve and strain water to extract krill, of which it can consume about four tonnes a day. Its blow, or spout, is the largest amongst whales and is known to rise to a height of 9 m.

Conservation threat

The blue whales found in the waters around Sri Lanka are believed to be a subspecies called the pygmy blue whale. With less than 5,000 individuals left, the blue whale is on the endangered list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It faces a very high risk of extinction in the wild.

The biggest conservation threat to this magnificent creature continues to be whaling. Over the years, whale stocks in all oceans have depleted as a result of uncontrolled whaling, and this has brought some species to the brink of extinction. Also, whale populations do not recover at the same rate as some other marine creatures as they are on the top of the food chain. It is a natural attribute of ecosystems that prey species reproduce faster and are found in larger numbers than predators. Whales, being top predators, tend to recover very slowly and are hence very vulnerable to drops in population.

Commercial whaling was banned globally in 1982; the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) moratorium came into effect in 1986. But before this, over a hundred whaling permits had been issued by several countries, including the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Canada, Japan and South Africa. Using what is known as a scientific permit', Japan continues to hunt whales in the guise of research.

The two other whaling nations, Norway and Iceland, continue to hunt them openly for commercial purposes after having lodged formal objections to the moratorium. Between 1985 and 2009, about 27,000 whales were slaughtered by the three whaling nations, with Japan alone accounting for 17,900. The IWC cannot interfere with the right of a nation to issue a permit; it can only comment on the permit on the basis of a report from its scientific committee.

Since the 1970s, whale and marine mammal watching has grown to become a multimillion-dollar industry. It has been estimated that over a million people go whale watching every year.

While it is true that the experience of seeing a whale does increase people's interest and affection for the animal, it also has its pitfalls. Aggressive tourism could become a potential harassment for the animal, especially in its breeding grounds. Chasing a whale to catch a better view could physically injure it.

Anouk Ilangakoon, a member of the Cetacean Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, who has done pioneering work on cetaceans (mammals who have adapted to aquatic life) such as whales and dolphins in Sri Lanka since 1985, suggests the following practices while watching whales and dolphins:

Never approach whales and dolphins at high speed, and avoid sudden change in direction as you approach them.

Do not go closer than 100 m; at this distance the engine of your boat should be idling.

Should the whale approach your boat of its own accord, shift the motor to neutral or idle. If you must use your motor to hold your position, keep your speed down to a minimum. Never try to touch or swim with the animals or attempt to feed them.

A boat should never attempt to chase, herd, or separate groups of whales or dolphins, especially when calves are present, as mothers could get separated from their young.

Boats should never encircle or entrap whales and dolphins between them or between the boat and the shore. All boats should remain on one side of the animals paralleling their course at slow speeds, always leaving them an escape route.

Finally, the time spent with whales or dolphins should be limited to less than 30 minutes at a time. When leaving the location, start out slowly and wait until you are 300 m away from the animal before accelerating.

Whale watching is a growing past-time in Sri Lanka and the close proximity of these magnificent animals to the coast makes it a must-do for most tourists to the country. Unless some guidelines are enforced strictly, commercial interests may well take precedence over the well-being of this endangered marine mammal.

Nithila Baskaran is a development consultant with a keen interest in conservation.

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