“Sri Lanka’s tourist board boasts that only in this country can one see the world’s biggest land mammal, the elephant, and its largest marine mammal, the blue whale, in a single day!”
– Philip Hoare – author of ‘Leviathan or The Whale’ (Fourth Estate), winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction
If you are based out of India, the cheapest and most convenient way to catch sight of a whale (Blue Whale , Sperm Whale) is to hop off to the ‘tear-drop shaped’ island of Sri Lanka. I’ll tell you what – it will bring you tears of joy when you spot your first whale (ok a bit of Hyperbole here!)
While discussing my Sri Lankan itinerary with couple of my friends, they suggested that if time permits, I should go whale-watching ( and with some luck may spot even the tail of a whale!).
After debating on whether I should take :
1) a small whale watching vessel (operated by numerous tour operators off Mirissa)
(Pros : Takes you closer to the creatures, Cheaper ;
Cons: Tends to rock a lot and hence susceptible to sea-sickness , Ecologically unethical as they tend to disturb the whales and dolphins and may pose a problem to their migration route in the future)
2) Sri Lankan Navy’s Ship (which runs on certain days of the week)
(Pros : Professionally maintained, Less susceptible to motion sickness, State of the art gadget, Maintains a certain distance from the whales and dolphins and not disturbing them
Cons: Relatively expensive, Manoeuvrability issues, Can’t get close to the mammals)
– I decided to take the relatively ethical way – Sri Lankan Navy it is!
Day 9 of my Sri Lankan trip:
I had already requested one Tuk-tuk driver ( who was in the Sri Lanka Army before and now is retired and plies on his tuk tuk as additional income) to take me to Galle Naval Harbour from my hostel ( Pedlar’s Inn Hostel within the Galle Fort.) I guess this was the first time I spent couple of nights within a UNESCO World Heritage main site!
The reporting time was 6: 30 AM and during boarding I informed the person at the counter about my confirmation number , paid him in USD ( you may also pay in LKR) and boarded the ship “Princess of Lanka” and took my assigned seat ( which was only for a while to have breakfast and sit till the ship starts on its voyage). After that you could go to the deck and stay there during the entire duration of the trip.
The ship was now on a gentle cruise mode and it was time to put on our life-jackets and go to the ship’s deck and patiently wait for whales for the next 5-6 hours.
I met an elderly Bengali couple from India (uncle works in an Indian bank’s branch in Colombo) who had taken this whale-watching trip couple of times before. They mentioned that they had been lucky before and have seen many whales and dolphins. Well they don’t get tired of whales and dolphins, do they?
We first caught sight of a whale after an hour of sailing. ( I am not an expert on whales and there was no one there to tell me which one was Sperm whale and which one was Blue Whale. One hint : You have to look for the tail).
The ship continued to head south-eastwards towards the coast of Mirissa and further towards Matara.I kept checking HERE Maps on my mobile and could find us almost 3 km away from land and hence Mobile network was working fine throughout the journey. Then we came across a group of around 6-7 private tour boats surrounding a whale and being quite close to it. This is rather unfortunate and wonder that if this practice is not made illegal, there may come a time when the whales may deviate away from the current migration route. We could manage to catch a glimpse of a fin of the whale and also the sprays from its nose!
The crowd was getting excited and being curious for more cetaceans, it was time to move on in Sri Lankan territorial waters. We kept on sailing and in excitement I forgot that I was not wearing a full shirt and with just one layer of sunscreen, I was getting tanned and tanned by the minute out in the strong sunlight getting reflected by the water too. Only after the whole journey, I realized that I should have applied sunscreen again!
We kept on sailing!
Then came the pièce de résistance of our trip – the one we all pray for or hope for or wish for!
Again we caught sight of a whale but this fella has special plans for us – it would blow a spray and then try to do a somersault and show us its elusive tail while it goes deep down in the ocean and come back only after sometime to take a breath- we all were awestruck.
(Check out the rather shaky video in YouTube. The tail comes at 1:06 timestamp)
After an hour or so, it seemed our ship was the only vessel out there and many people had already gone back inside the ship’s main sitting area as protection against the strong sunrays!
I instead opted to stay out in the deck and keep on scanning 180 degrees (it being a proper ship, it’s not possible to scan a full circle like a private small boat!) for just one word- Whale. After some time , a few lucky guys like me managed to notice the entire top portion of probably a large Blue Whale out there in the distance and of course the blow spray emanating out of its body.
Our ship then reversed direction and we headed back to Galle Harbour. We could see the dazzling white Saama Stupa on a hill in Unawatuna beach from our ship as well as the Galle Fort.
So ladies and gentleman, after around 6.5 hours of sailing and sighting around 5 whales (unfortunately no dolphins) , we have decided to call this Mission Whale Watching a relative success !
1. Sri Lanka Navy Contact Details:
Whale Watching Project
Princess of Lanka (A 543 )
SRI LANKA NAVY
Hot Line – +94 777323050
E Mail – firstname.lastname@example.org
Website – http://whalewatching.navy.lk
Fax – 0094913096980
2. Auto from Galle hostel to Galle Naval Harbour : 250 LKR
3. Whale watching Cost : USD 60 (includes breakfast and water)
4. Some bit of reading : http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/whales/sri-lanka-whales.html#cr
5. YouTube link to the video of the tail : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1mCdiHba3U2
6. Please note that the pictures of whales are screen grabs of videos taken by me. Hence the resolution is not that perfect.