Steve McKenna eyes majestic marine life off the island’s scenic south coast.
“This not an aquarium,” says Raja, our wiry, vest- wearing skipper, as our boat edges out into the serene Indian Ocean under luscious, pinky-blue skies speckled with squawking gulls. “Remember, it’s nature. So please don’t ask every five minutes ‘Where are the whales?’”
It’s almost word for word what I was told yesterday, by another crew member, when I signed up for this whale- watching tour in an office plastered with photos of the magnificent marine life captured on camera during previous outings.
Scanning these images hammered home the fact that while Sri Lanka’s inland national parks teem with elephants, leopards and monkeys, its warm waters are also blessed with exotic creatures.
Over two dozen whale species — and great colleges of fish — have been recorded off the island’s south coast, with the headline act undoubtedly the blue whale, the world’s largest living animal.
Eager to see the “big blue”, we’re on one of the daily (sunrise) excursions that leave Mirissa, a fishing village and beach resort 40km east of the gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Galle.
Of the clutch of operators departing Mirissa harbour — a picturesque little hub, cluttered with colourful fishing boats and fringed by lurching coconut trees — Raja & the Whales gets some of the best reviews.
The firm was founded in 2008 by a former fisherman, who changed course to “dedicate his life to protect the marine wildlife around Sri Lanka”. Raja and his crew — all family members — say their affection for the sea is born from their close association with it from early childhood. Their life on the water, and as surfers, has given them “a deep-rooted love of nature, a strong sense of conservation and the realisation of the need to protect Earth’s precious wildlife”.
Throughout our voyage — which kicks off with a fruity breakfast platter and is peppered with other tasty snacks — it’s clear that these aren’t just mealy-mouthed platitudes designed to impress eco-minded tourists. Raja and co. genuinely seem to respect the well-being of the whales — which is more than can be said for some of their rival operators.
After the first half-hour of fruitless navigating, the inter-crew chatter suddenly switches from Sinhala to English. “One o’clock! Blue whale!” says Raja.
He’s not telling us the time. He’s telling us where to look. Almost directly ahead, there are ripples in the deep blue sea. Then sporadic sightings of dark flesh and flukes (tail fins). The blue whale can grow up to 30m long and 170 tonnes in weight (much heavier than any dinosaur that ever existed). Unfortunately, this one — which the crew estimates to stretch 15m — is too shy to show off its awesome dimensions.
Unwilling to chase it, Raja hangs back a little. He proudly adheres to international conventions on approaching whales (it’s recommended to stay about 100m away from them). He had also said earlier: “We try to make sure you are happy and that the whales are also happy.”
The drawback of his ethically minded stance is that it can reduce those postcard-perfect photo opportunities — unless you’re carrying a super long-range lens (which most tourists, of course, aren’t).
Though no one voices any complaints, there’s a tangible air of frustration among my fellow passengers, who are casting envious eyes at another boat, which has roared up, rather recklessly, next to the whale.
However, when the vessel, looking ever more horribly cramped and over-crowded, appears to nudge the creature, and seems in danger of tilting over into the sea, everyone’s suddenly relieved that they’re on Raja’s spacious two-level trimaran.
Peak whale-watching season here is usually between December and April — we’ve come in early February — yet it’s very quiet today. Our on-board slumber is occasionally punctuated with shouts of “nine o’clock”, “six o’clock” and “10 o’clock”, but there are only fleeting glimpses of our elusive oceanic cousins.
Over the course of the morning, we do see a bashful Bryde’s whale, a leaping bottlenose dolphin, a couple of manta rays and swarms of krill, which the blue whale apparently loves to feast on. But we see or hear very little of the main attraction itself, which is said to be the loudest mammal on Earth (its call reaches levels of 188 decibels, making it noisier than a jet).
The blue whale has been on the endangered species list since the 1960s, when its numbers had been heavily eroded by blubber-hungry, harpoon-wielding whalers. Even now, there’s estimated to be a maximum of about 14,000 “blues” left in the world.
When we motor back to Mirissa harbour just before noon, it’s fair to say we’re feeling a little blue — not to mention tired: we’d woken up at 5am for this.
However, it wasn’t a total damp squib. Just when our spirits are hitting a new low, a truly beautiful whale shark — 10m long — creeps up to our boat. It circles us a few times, then opens its giant mouth to vacuum down some krill, sparking delighted sounds, and camera clicks, from those on board.
We’re also told we can come back tomorrow free of charge to search for whales if we’d like (or get a 50 per cent refund).
In any case, Mirissa isn’t the worst place to hang around in. Not as over-developed as some southern Sri Lankan seaside towns, it has a lovely curving white-sand beach, with a string of bars, cafes and hotels shrouded in palm trees.
Seafood eateries barbecue up a range of treats — from crab to red snapper — and there are, mercifully, no whales on the chalkboard menus.
Priced at 6000 rupees ($56) for adults and 3000 rupees for children aged six to 12 (children under six are free), tours with Raja & the Whales run daily from November until the end of April, and upon request from July until October (depending on sea conditions). There are no trips in May and June because this is the height of the monsoon season. You can sign up for the tour at Raja’s office at Mirissa harbour or at his stand near the eastern end of the beach. rajaandthewhales.com.
For more information on visiting Sri Lanka, see srilanka.travel.