by Howard Martenstyn
It's been less than ten years ago since people first began discovering just how perfectly placed Sri Lanka is for whale-watching.
Today, a rapidly-growing industry is helping tourists and Sri Lankans get acquainted with the many species of whales and dolphins that abound off our shores. The east coast of the Island is one of the finest places in the world to see these magnificent mammals. And it was here - in Trincomalee that I was joined by a group of thirty whale-watchers on board.
With all aboard and the mandatory, all-important safety briefing concluded, we departed Dutch Bay at 7:12am. To the north rose the great mass of Swami Rock, with its historic Portuguese-Dutch fort still standing guard over the fifth-largest natural harbour in the world. The sky was clear, the wind was light, the waters calm and sparkling: ideal whale-watching conditions.
Out at sea, I briefed our passengers on dolphins, whales and oceanography, giving them some background about what they could expect to see. The eastern coastline of Sri Lanka is dotted with bays, lagoons, estuaries and submarine canyons, creating a variety of marine environments that sustain a vast diversity of marine life - including at least eleven species of whales. The largest Sri Lankan canyon of all begins in Trincomalee harbour, very close to shore. Created by runoff from the country's largest river, the Mahaweli, it has turned ‘Trinco' into a cetacean hotspot. Accordingly, we were setting out with high expectations.
The time and place were nearly ideal. While whales and dolphins are present round Sri Lanka throughout the year, whale-watching remains a seasonal activity due to changing weather and sea conditions. On the eastern seaboard, the season is March to November. Blue, Sperm, Bryde's and Eden's whales, all visit the nutrient-rich waters of the outer harbour at this time in search of food, while Spinner dolphins are seen almost every morning, particularly near Round Island. August in Trinco is just about perfect for whale-watching. Though we weren't expecting blues: almost all of them leave the eastern seaboard by April, returning only at the beginning of September. Bryde's and Eden's whales are thought to be largely or wholly migratory; the best locations to see them are in the outer harbour and off Swami Rock, to the west. Mid-March to April is the peak season in Trinco for blue whales and superpods of sperm whales.
Less than half an hour from our departure, we saw our first whale blows, still a fair distance off. They were easy to spot because sea conditions were perfect, with no whitecaps to confuse spotters. We headed towards the dancing plumes and at precisely 7:42am found ourselves alongside a pod of five adult sperm whales, passing over the outer rim of the submerged canyon while making towards the harbour in a south-easterly direction. My GPS indicated that we were two and a half nautical miles off Swami Rock. For many of those aboard it was their first sight of a living cetacean, and a chorus of gasps and delighted exclamations rose from the people on deck.
Meanwhile, we spotted many more blows in a line pointing northwest heading towards the harbour, at right angles to the first pod. I instructed our skipper to head towards them very slowly (so as to avoid creating a wake) and stay well over a hundred metres from the nearest whales to avoid alarming them. Thus began the show of shows: sperm whales in groups of one to five, many of them scarred veterans of many a submarine battle, surfacing and making fluke-up dives and giving passengers a lifetime photo opportunity. We were the only whale-watching vessel in the vicinity, and so were treated to an uninhibited display of cetacean behavioural moves such as lobtailing - lifting the flukes free of the water and slapping them down on the surface while the rest of it remains submerged. The line of whales was strung out over a distance of two nautical miles.
As if this wasn't enough, the first spinner dolphins turned up at 7:50am. For well over an hour they entertained us with their acrobatics, more and more pods coming up to join the party until there were as many as four hundred dolphins leaping and curvetting in the waters about us.
By 8:05 am we had reached the southernmost point of our voyage, 2.2 nautical miles from Chapel Island at the entrance to the outer harbour. Here we remained, watching a steady stream of sperm whales pass by us, and passengers were able to capture on camera an incredible series of fluke-up dives against the backdrop of Swami Rock. Several of the whales raised their heads to take a look at us as they went by. One passenger wanted to know if she could get into the water with them, but swimming with whales is a restricted activity in Sri Lanka, for which special permission (not hard to obtain) is needed.
At a conservative estimate, we saw perhaps 25 sperm whales that day. There were almost certainly more in the vicinity. Sperm whales are capable of diving to depths of over half a mile and staying submerged for hours in search of their prey, giant squid and the colossal squid, so we were only seeing them in between dives. This was a maternal pod - cow sperm whales identifiable by the creamish callosities on the tips of their squat and hump-like dorsal fins as well as by their relatively modest size: 33-43 feet in length, in contrast to 55-65 feet for males, which can weigh up to 55 tons. Sperm whales are the largest of all toothed whales, much of the length being accounted for by the ‘spermaceti organ', a large, oil-filled chamber that occupies most of this cetacean's projecting forehead.
When the show was almost ended, we headed back along the outer canyon wall with sperm whales still passing us by on their way out of the harbour. The last one was spotted at precisely 9:34 am. We spent a further hour or so cruising the harbour in search of Bryde's and Eden's whales or whale sharks until the wind began to rise, creating whitecaps and bringing an end to our expedition. We returned to our departure point around 11:30am after an incredible morning among the friendly whales and dolphins.
The following day, news arrived that another group of whale-watchers had spied a calf amidst the maternal pod we had encountered. We were sorry not to have seen the baby, but hardly in a position to complain, having been treated to one of the most spectacular cetacean live shows to be seen anywhere on Earth. Besides, we knew, the whales (and calves) would be there another day. In Sri Lanka, you rarely miss these majestic creatures.
This article on Trincomalee whale watching appeared in Serendib, Sri Lankan Airlines inflight magazine July 2016.