Over the weekend, while the nation celebrated the New Year with festivities and feasting, a festival of another sort was taking place off the island’s west coast. As if to join in the revelry on land, over one hundred Sperm Whales were gathering off the Kalpitiya peninsula in a feeding extravaganza.
On receiving a flurry of reports describing the unusual occurrence - CRIOMM’s (the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals) Director, Marine Research, Howard Martenstyn was soon scrambling to head back to Kalpitiya where he had been working at sea. Brother Dallas Martensteyn –hotelier and pioneer of the whale and dolphin watching in Kalpitiya, who had his boats at sea, soon helped CRIOMM’s Convenor Dr. Hiran Jayewardene, set up a conference call with personnel on the vessels to monitor the unusual activity in an attempt to get a definitive identification of the species, numbers etc. and get a better understanding of what was happening at sea.
Previously, a gathering of about 100 pilot whales led by about 40 bottlenose dolphins had been seen by Howard in the area. Wildlife authorities had been notified of over 100 Sperm Whales floating like logs - (called “logging” by scientists) as being near the Bar Reef Sanctuary and also close to the Norochcholai Power Plant.
While on line, Keith Wanigasekera, Manager of Dolphin Beach on one of the boats reported two Blue Whales surfacing by his boat and travelling south. Switching to another boat further north, operating off Talawila, veteran operator Maithri Liyanage from Ruwala Resort, Talawila reported an encounter with more whales – Sperm Whales, about 40-50 moving south. Maithri further reported that he had also been with 30+ Sperm Whales the day before moving south.
Next morning, two boats resumed the search, with Howard heading to sea on a forty-five degree transect from Dolphin Beach, Ilanthadi where he has his boat. Meanwhile, Maithri departed Kandakuliya on a northerly heading but was soon drawn eastward by a call from another observer, missing the spectacular encounter Howard’s team had.
At 7:40 a.m. there were over one thousand spinner dolphins dotting the sea off Norochchalai prompting a call from Howard to all resorts to come and see the dolphins. While waiting for Maithri, Howard’s boat had first seen a few Sperm Whales, and then - looking for signs of feeding, observed large cuttlefish some over 3 kg. confirming the presence of the Sperm Whales’ favourite food source. Soon their boat was surrounded by whales feeding across a wide area of sea in pods of varying sizes.
“They were lob-tailing and diving around us. Spinners and Sperm Whales spread about two km in numerous pods of one, two’s and mostly eight to twelve, with around thirty individuals making up the largest group of Sperm Whales. They were seen logging, travelling, and fluke-up diving. They were also observed tail-slapping with loud thumps on the water seemingly to push the food source towards others feeding on the cuttlefish. One Sperm Whale displayed bleeding injuries and scratch marks around the mouth and front raising suspicion as to how they were made,” said Howard.
As Howard summed-up “The overall activity was one of milling and feeding while travelling north.” The focus of his studies at present is correlation between distribution and various oceanographic features, as well as discerning local and regional/sub-regional migration patterns.
This recent encounter is one of many, researchers who are working with CRIOMM have experienced in endeavouring to develop a better understanding of marine mammals in the Indian Ocean with special reference to Sri Lanka. The principal thrust of CRIOMM is capacity- building for better management of marine mammals in the Indian Ocean Sanctuary area, including Sri Lanka and to consolidate and interpret information necessary for long-term management.
Source: newspaper article