Just after Weligama and just before reaching Matara town proper, one comes to Mirissa in the south coast of Sri Lanka. The Mirissa water sports club near the Mirissa harbour offers whale watching tours. Some of the best whale watching around this island country is off the coast of Mirissa and is an experience not to be missed.
Staying at one of the cosy guesthouses on the beach, my friends and I woke up early one January morning in 2011 and made our way to the Mirissa harbour. Opposite the harbour entrance was the office of the water sports club. We checked in and were taken to our boat in the harbour. Donning the bright orange life jackets given us, we got on to the boat with much anticipation.
As our boat left the harbour, it was lovely to see the little colourful fishing boats bobbing against the blue sea. With the wind and sea spray lashing against our faces, we set off to see the elusive whales on a four hour tour.
All our eyes scanned the surface hoping to catch that first glimpse of spray spouted out of the water, the tell-tale sign of a whale in the vicinity. The boat crew did tell us stories where not a single whale had been sighted and of other expeditions, where so many had been. They mentioned that luck played a key role in whether we would be able to see any whales that day as did the weather conditions. One by one, the passengers started succumbing to either sea-sickness or plain boredom and by 10.30 a.m., the time for the tour to end, most were ready to simply return to land even though we had not spotted anything.
However, thankfully, our boat crew were whale enthusiasts and were determined to search for the whales and they decided to move further out to the sea so our boat headed further south. It was nice to imagine that if we continued in that path, we would end up on the Antarctic continent, a region that I have long dreamt of exploring.
As the sun continued to mercilessly beat down upon us, one of the crew suddenly shouted out an alert. A water-spout had been spotted in the distance. Everyone rushed to the rails hoping to catch a glimpse and those who brought their binoculars were lucky to see a bit more than those without. One of the boat crew explained to us that the whale we had spotted was a Byrde whale. Byrde whales – a type of Baleen whale (the toothless ones, as I refer to them) was common around the southern coast of Sri Lanka. These whales had been named after Johan Byrde, the Norwegian consul to South Africa, who set up the first whaling station in Durban.
We spotted a couple more of the Byrde whales or perhaps it was the same set occasionally appearing along our path.
Then, suddenly, the boat crew excitedly pointed to one direction and said that it was a blue whale. Given our own lack of awareness on the shape of the tail flukes, we couldn’t confirm it. However, I felt something powerful within me – a feeling of awe and great respect of being in the presence of such a magnificient whale. I was very much moved. The boat crew handed around cream crackers to celebrate the moment as well as the fact that most of us had not had any breakfast. The huge whale then suddenly dived into the ocean’s depth.
We then had some visitors as pods of dolphins, which I learnt is actually a type of toothed whale, came to meet us or rather our boat and swam alongside the boat.
The reaction of all the human beings in the boat to the arrival of the dolphins was quite touching. Everyone instantly had a smile on their face and were responding happily to the carefree abandon of the dolphins who were joyfully playing around. At one point, the boat stopped at the request of some passengers who promptly jumped off the boat, in their enthusiasm, to swim with the dolphins. I felt it was a bit irresponsible of both the swimmers and the boat crew as we were in the middle of the ocean and the marine life was not habituated to humans as in aquariums. The dolphins vanished within seconds as quickly as they had approached us. The swimmers climbed back on board and the boat turned landward as we started our trip back.
Our adventure did not stop with the dolphins and our ever watchful boat crew started shouting excitedly pointing to one direction. We all looked and sure, we could see a couple of whales lounging on the surface. The boat headed directly towards the pair and I worried that we were either disturbing the whales or that the whales might get annoyed and attack our boat. The pair of whales however did not seem bothered by our approach and actually allowed us to approach them.
Our boat guide informed us that this was a sperm whale. The whale was looking at us as we drew close and there was a stench emanating from the whale.
After a few minutes of continuing to float on the surface, the whale decided to dive back into the ocean and we were treated to a spectacular close up of the dive and tail cutting through the water.
Happy, tired and sun-burnt, we headed back to the shore around 1.30 p.m., our whale watching trip having been extended in our collective enthusiasm. A remarkable day and experience and most recommended during a visit to the southern coast.
Since that trip, I saw a documentary by a marine biologist studying the seas off Sri Lanka’s southern coast. According to the researcher, this area is a permanent residence habitat of whales, and other marine life, as the conditions are just right for them there in terms of feeding and water temperature. While I do worry that reckless whale watching tours will disturb the whales, I do think that responsible marine tourism is important. For me, that whale watching experience created a lasting interest and concern about marine life and how shipping lines, fishing and other human being induced factors disrupt and harm marine life.
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