Whale watching off the coast of Mirissa

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We spotted a couple more of the Byrde whales or perhaps it was the same set occasionally appearing along our path.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

[I am linking this post to:

*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of Thisand What a Wonderful World

**The Weekly Postcard, hosted by Travel Notes & BeyondA Hole in My Shoe, As We Saw It, Eff it, I’m On HolidaySelim Family Raasta]
Wanderful Wednesday

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36 thoughts on “Whale watching off the coast of Mirissa

  1. Sounds like an amazing time! I wanted to go whale watching in San Francisco but my boyfriend thought it was a waste of time since we could (theoretically) dive with them. Not as fun as a reef dive since you’d be in the open ocean with nothing or very little else to see. I very much want to see a blue whale though. That would be incredible! Very curious as to why the sperm whale smelled so bad!

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  2. Wow! After what seemed like it was going to be a disappointing morning, you sure saw a lot! You guys were very lucky to see so many different kinds of whales as I know people who have gone Whale watching and not seen a thing. And those dolphins are so cute! I would have been just as happy to see all of them 😀

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    • Yes, dolphins are my favourite marine life. They do have such a positive, playful and happiness inducing vibe about them. I know we were very lucky that day. It was during the early years of whale watching tourism in Sri Lanka so the boat crew were more of whale enthusiasts hence the perseverance and distance we covered in the ocean.

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    • I was hoping to include whale photos taken by a friend, who is a really good photographer using a serious camera. Sadly her computer hard disk crashed a year or so ago and she lost the photos. And, it is certainly so much more fun watching out for whales in the tropics especially during the early morning 🙂

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    • Thank you, Marcella. I am glad that this little boat crew started off the whale watching tourism here. I was not even aware before that there were whales so close to the shores of Sri Lanka.

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    • Yes, it was amazing that we were able to see so many different types of whales that day! And, according to the guide, smelly sperm whales are normal 🙂

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  3. In Hawaii, the whales migrate during the winter months. I always have my eye out for them off the coastline, and they do get pretty close and you can see them coming up to breathe. It’s a truly magnificent, moving, sight. You got some awesome pictures — I am never quite that fast with my camera!

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    • The whales do have a special aura of magnificence about them, don’t they? Thank you. While I am happy with the photos that I was able to take with my regular camera, this was one of the rare times when I wanted to have a camera with a rapid shutter feature 🙂

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  4. This is so exciting! Having lived in Southern California for more than 10 year has taught me to love whales. We get beyond excited when the migration time come. This year I wa sable to go to Mexico to see the birthing lagoons.

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  5. Wow! You’ve got some great pictures of the whales. I’ve tried so many times to go whale watching, but have never seen more than the corner of a tail, or a jet from a whale. Maybe Mirissa is the place to go whale watching, not California! Great photos!

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  6. Nice encounters! I’ve been close to whales several times and it’s such a thrill to witness these amazing creatures. Pity your captain and the swimmers didn’t know enough about swimming with dolphins. I have off the Kona Coast of Hawaii and it was a process but thrilling.

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    • Thanks, Elaine. Good to hear that you had a certain process to swimming with dolphins, and not simply jumping off the boat in groups. It must have been a special experience.

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  7. You certainly captured a lot of great shots on your trip. It sounds as though you chose a great tour company, because they weren’t willing to give up at the first opportunity. Such a blessing, to go out whale watching and end up seeing so many types!

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    • Thanks, Linda. I guess I was lucky that I chose a water sports club that was just branching out into whale watching tourism and the crew was as excited and enthusiastic about seeing whales as the passengers were. Five years down the line, they are now the leading whale watching tour operator in the south coast of Sri Lanka and I hope they still have that enthusiasm and energy on documenting whale sightings.

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  8. This post is so beautiful! Dolphins often come to the coast of the California Coast and I was lucky to spot a couple. But a whale! What a miracle of nature ❤ Thank you for sharing this magical experience with us!

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    • It was a wonderful trip, Jessica. During the last five years, whale watching has become very popular in the country that I am hoping there is soon some sort of regulation and training brought about by the tourist board and environment authorities.

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