Updated: Feb 13, 2019
by Rochelle Palipane
The term Whale Expert or Marine Expert would be too limited a description for this man of the sea who is vastly knowledgeable and passionate about the marine wildlife of Sri Lanka. There are a handful of people you feel honoured to meet and Howard Martenstyn is certainly one of them. A prodigy with a devil-may care attitude, Howard draws people like a moth to a flame…...
Indiana Jones of the Seas My first encounter with this walking encyclopedia was in 2013 during a whale watching expedition organized by Little Adventure. With camera on tow, hat and khakis, Howard looked every bit the explorer and adventure seeker Indiana Jones. During our day tour at sea he shared his knowledge with infectious enthusiasm and illustrated it with posters and pictures. It was further perpetuated by the sighting of the blue whale and the dolphin pods who were displaying their acrobatic skills with temerity.
The motley crew on the boat was impressed by his expertise and kept seeking him for all marine related subjects. “Ask the kids to look over as the dolphins love to ride the bow,” was a fascinating fact and seemed something out of the movies. With Howard there was never a dull moment as he enlivened it with his vibrant anecdotes. After being with him, one inadvertently becomes a nature lover ….. Fast forward to 2017, another time and place but the subject matter was the same; whales and the marine treasures around Sri Lanka’s coast, which gave me another opportunity to meet the indomitable Howard who was armed with more facts and figures and more epic encounters. This sparked an interest to interview this brilliant individual. The ‘Whale Whisperer’ was hot on the heels of a new fact finding mission. My third encounter was an exclusive interview with the man himself and was I in awe. The location was ideal, the Barista outlet at the Museum with its fascinating artifacts set the ambience for a morning filled with wonder as Howard was The Discovery Channel in the flesh. Before I divulge any information about the course of the interview, I must tell you about the tour de Science Museum with its gargantuan, authentic skeleton of a blue whale which was discovered on the shores of Sri Lanka over a century ago. Here was proof that the whale is the length of “three buses,” enthused Howard. It was massive and I literally gaped the whole way through as it seemed unreal.
Knowledge as Vast as the Ocean
Howard revealed his secret like a child who could not contain himself and it was about the launch of his second book, which is to be more technical and includes a vast amount of information required by university students and researchers. It is a comprehensive compilation which pulls together the entire historical research from A.D fifteen hundred. He has paid attention to every minute detail, while including the information from the original source. The bibliography is extensive and each and every article that has been written about the whales in Sri Lanka’s waters is contextualized in the appendix. In addition one could find museum specimens with references, vessel based research information and other facts which are not for laymen as it contains in-depth technical jargon.
This book contains 10 years- worth of tracts, innumerable hours of work, data, maps, graphs and pictures of historical value and unusual behavior such as breach of a blue whale, fluke of a bryde’s whale and much more. Further included is the depth distribution (bathymetry)of marine mammals, marine map contours (lines of bathymetry) which I believe is a first of its kind in the world. Surmise it to say, it’s a no holds barred pearl for those seeking accurate information.
For centuries, Sri Lanka’s whales, dolphins and dugongs were a secret known only to fisher folk and other residents of the island’s coastal districts, as well as a small number of foreign mariners, whalers and naturalists. Today, whale watching has grown to be an ultimate wildlife experience and is one of the fastest growing tourist activities.- Howard Martenstyn.
The engine is on full throttle as Howard continues his goal to educate all and sundry, starting with his Sinhala translation of an abbreviated version his first edition of ‘Out of the Blue.’ Next on his wish list is to publish the sequel to ‘Out of the Blue’ which would see a change in pictures and taxonomy.
During our meeting he revealed his weakness and I let out a sigh of relief as it portrayed his humility, after all a genius is human! It was his intense loathing towards Latin/scientific names and the irony of it seen in the amount of time he spends ensuring the correct spelling of the Latin names of the species in his area of work. “check, check and re- check and strive to make it error free,” is a mantra I follow, quipped Howard.
A self- proclaimed book lover and voracious reader, he spends his free time browsing through libraries and archives in search of data for his research. One of his favourite exponents of Sri Lanka’s wildlife is the late Professor Deraniyagla. “metaphorically speaking I need to travel in time to the era when the language used was exemplary, to the extent in which I have to use a dictionary to understand certain terms. He was the greatest Sri Lankan Scientist who was responsible in identifying a new species of whale. Fifty years later, we saw the first marine mammal to be named after a Sri Lankan; Deraniyagala’s beaked whale which is a species of mesoplodont whale!
Constructive Criticism – Bring it on – HM
Another astounding quality possessed by Howard is his ability to take on criticism, to actually revel in it, “tear me apart as I need to know the error of my ways in order to rectify it, be it in my work, books and life.”
“02 years ago I dabbled in designing my own website and submitted it in a competition for the purpose of getting some negative feedback and constructive criticism but instead it was adjudged the best website and I was shocked!” exclaimed he. The website has given me the impetus to come out of my comfort zone and provided the platform to share so much with a wider network of people.”
A Vibrant Childhood
“We were five siblings born with a silver spoon at 99, Rosmead Place. My father, Douglas Martenstyn was a pioneer in the marine export business and among the firsts to export coloured fish, lobsters etc. It was a period when conservation laws were unheard of and we used to hunt, fish and explore the wilds to our hearts content. Cedric was the eldest and we were a mischievous bunch who transformed our house into a mini zoo with a litany of animals even a monkey,” reminisced he, with a laugh.”
We were boarded at St. Thomas’ College and I was the first in the family to leave the island to UK at the tender age of 19. I excelled in the corporate world and moved to Canada. In the year 2000, I got the opportunity to visit Africa and that was a turning point in my life. It struck a chord as I realized that there was something missing in my life- which was a bond with the natural world and I felt the need to reconnect. I travelled alone and never felt lonely in nature. After 10 years in UK and 23 years in Canada, I was ready to come back home for good, and returned before my 51st birthday. I quit my profession as an Engineer cum Computer Designer.
Cedric my brother: a True Hero
His story is intertwined with his brother Cedric, a figure who looms larger than life. “My first publication was dedicated to him as he was a fearless adventurer who explored less traversed paths. A pioneer, trailblazer and marvelous human being who was a POW until all traces of him were swept away, I believe by the tsunami in 2004. Cedric was the first Sri Lankan to accomplish many feats and among them were sailing in a research vessel in 1982, swimming with whales with Rodney Jonklaas, guiding a whale watching vessel out of Trinco harbor and Co- Founder of CRIOMM. Cedric was missing at the time I returned to Sri Lanka for good as he was captured by the LTTE during a mission as he was the first volunteer officer to be appointed as the Commander of the Small Boat Squadron (SBS). He spearheaded the 1999 Point Pedro operation and designed the small boats used by the Navy which is named after him.
Howard’s Modus Operandi
He achieved success in his field of study by having a strategy and being drawn to copious amounts of study and research. By collecting data and focusing on the distribution of animals in certain areas he determines the highest path of probability. He is astute about the type of data and ensures he collects it through intensive study in Whale watching (WV) expeditions or research vessels (RV). The most important lesson is the ability to keep on learning as each moment grants an opportunity to do so.
Out of the Blue
Fortunately for those who value in- depth information his book, ‘Out of the Blue’ serves as a veritable treasure trove to those who wish to be taken on a magic carpet ride to a whole new world. All you need to do is sit back and relax and enjoy the ride as he draws back the curtains to that special place which causes his eyes to sparkle similar to the aquamarine hue of the deep blue….
An Invaluable asset
Howard’s capabilities, his knowledge of the seas and its wonders, his love for nature, passion for research and knowledge sharing makes him an invaluable asset to Sri Lanka and the world as such folk are rare. The wow factor is that he does all of this voluntarily and without seeking fame. All he requires is an equal amount of attention to be given by the hierarchy and the government towards the conservation of our precious marine life.
A Desperate Plea for Mother Lanka
“Sri Lanka is truly a paradise isle but if she lacks proper care, she will wither and die. All it needs is the enforcement of stringent laws regarding wildlife/marine life conservation and meticulous training to be given to those who feel for her and long to see her flourish. As an island we should start valuing our resplendent seas and waterways and all its creatures and create a safe haven for them, especially those who are rapidly careening towards extinction viz., whales, dolphins, sea turtles among them.
Marine biology should be inculcated into the curriculum and that would inevitably spark an awareness of our marine life and inculcate a sense of purpose towards conservation within the younger generation,” voiced Howard.
A Lone Crusader
Howard should be honoured for his stupendous work towards this cause which he has taken on single-handedly. Running the gauntlet between sea and land, combing through archives and spending thousands of hours has benefitted him immensely and those who truly value his work but now it is up to those in power to take stock and put everything in perspective as the land and its seas are groaning and moaning in sheer desperation for a colossal change which has to be for the better as time is running out.
Web Inspect – HM
The country first became the focus of international cetalogical attention in the early 1980s, after research vessel Tulip documented the unusual frequency of great whale sightings (blue whales, Bryde’s whales and sperm whales) off its coasts. Soon, whale-watching tours were being offered to a growing number of enthusiastic tourists and researchers. Unfortunately everything was suspended by the country’s ethnic conflict. Following the end of the war in 2009, marine mammal watching in Sri Lanka experienced a resurgence which is being enjoyed to date.
Howard Martenstyn is an independent Sri Lankan marine researcher. A Director at CRIOMM, the Centre of Research for Indian Ocean Marine Mammals. He has been recognized and honoured by IOMAC for his outstanding research on marine mammals. His website “Sri Lanka’s Amazing Maritime” was judged best Travel & Tourism website in Sri Lanka for 2015 (www.slam.lk).
His first publication Out of the Blue is the most comprehensive treatment of marine mammals – whales, dolphins, porpoises and dugongs and their environment in the northern region of the Indian Ocean. It features well over 300 stunning photographs, and close to 200 illustrations, paintings and maps. The author’s unique depth of experience and knowledge, coupled with stunning photography and the artists and illustrators unrivaled skills, come together to produce this educationally-focused monumental publication that is well laid out and highly informative.
This article was published in the Esteem Prime magazine, February/March issue and can be viewed online.