by Howard Martenstyn
I have embarked on many an exciting and adventurous journey in my endeavour to observe, protect and encourage best practices in the sightings of the magnificent whale. Yet I can say with confidence that I have just concluded a voyage of a lifetime. As a 145-foot yacht took to the Island's waters, the first vessel of its size in Sri Lanka, I too had the good fortune to be aboard it and witness the splendour of great whales.
Week 1: On the eastern seaboard
The first tour limited us to the eastern seaboard. However, the week did yield sightings of three Bryde’s whales (mother, calf and juvenile), two blue whales,18 - 20 sperm whales swimming into Trincomalee and 30 pilot whales. The experience was coupled with the delight of seeing 40 common bottlenose dolphins and several pods of spinner dolphin ranging from five to over 300. The week’s activities profoundly hinted that most of the magnificent blue whales had yet to arrive.
Week 2: Trincomalee departure and whale movements
Deciding to head South for the Little Basses, we departed Trincomalee as historical GPS data and search patterns concluded it would be a while before we saw whales in the historic port. This meant a majority of whales should be in the south extending westwards from the Little Basses. Further, the pod we had seen in Week 1 were probably the first sperm whales to arrive in Trincomalee. The group of pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins may have arrived a little earlier as they usually lead the migration.
Although the Bryde’s whales had arrived in Trincomalee a month ago, their migration to the East when compared to 2015 was delayed by a month. Probably the result of the intermonsoon starting late this year. Any travelling whales we hoped to encounter on the eastern seaboard would likely be heading in a northerly direction towards the northeast of Sri Lanka.
Journey to the Basses
Passing many submarine canyons on the eastern seaboard we journeyed South. Although there were no encounters with whales, as we approached Little Basses canyon at 6.45am on November 1, 2016 I was excited to spot six blows.
We were 7.4 kilometres north of the canyon and to our amazement there were 18 to 25 blue whales in this localised area, which stretched southwards for 5.9 kilometres and north of Basses canyon (Map: Area 1). There were blue whales in every direction, as though someone had switched on the sprinkler system of the ocean. It was an astounding, memorable and rare experience.
Before 2pm the yacht steered for Potana Bay anchorage (off Yala National Park). On the route we witnessed the historic lighthouse and the renowned Little Basses Reef with its marine life and shipwrecks. It was, for me, a nostalgic visit to the ‘Basses’ reef.
The Little Basses lighthouse was established in 1878. Designed by Alexander Gordon and James M Douglass, it was built by his brother William Douglass. Located on the reef called Kuda Ravana Kotuwa (Fort of Little Ravana) the Little Basses lighthouse was renamed by the British.
Yet the amazing sights we would behold on this day were not over. It was 2.35pm, as we approached the Little Basses lighthouse. Like fountains, water was being sprouted and sprayed into the air. For the next hour I observed and photographed five to eight Bryde’s whales. I was also lucky enough to spot a blue whale, feeding in the shallows close to the Little Basses lighthouse (Map: Area 2).
Our group dived in to swim with the large mammals, an awe-inspiring moment of frolics. A sailfish too was photographed underwater. A rare find that added to the rich biodiversity of sharks, rays and trevallies among other species that are found at this reef.
It was only Day 1 at the Basses. That evening while making my presentation I told our group that this day was an experience of a lifetime. We believed that the day's sightings could not be topped. Yet, "humble pie" was served to us the next day, in the form of a spectacular sighting of whales.
Day 2 proved to be an even more exhilarating experience.
Day 2: In the Basses
As usual the Skipper's GPS was programmed for a route on Day 2 that would take us back to the lighthouse (Map: Area 2). It would then pass through south of Area 1 where a majority of blue are believed to congregate.
From 6.38am to 10.25am we witnessed one of the greatest whale shows ever seen. It included 12 Bryde’s whales including a mother and calf as well as a blue whale. All were feeding on the seaward side of the Little Basses Reef within 1.6 kilometres to 3.3 kilometres of the lighthouse (Map: Area 2). A flock of terns joined the feeding frenzy where Bryde’s whales lunged and skim fed themselves by gulping schools of baitfish near the surface. Much to the delight of whale watchers, two of these streamlined 15-tonne Bryde’s whales fully breached thrice.
At 12:56pm, another spectacular sighting ensued. We spotted a pod of orcas, which then led us to an aggregation of pods of both blue whales and Bryde’s whales shallow feeding.
Onwards to Colombo
As we journeyed towards Colombo, the next day we were privy to three more blue whale sightings. In total we saw 8 blue whales between the south of Ambalantota and east of Dondra canyon.
The yacht steered on as we ended the week in style. We spent our last morning in the waters with 9 -12 blue whales at the Panadura canyon before heading into the Port of Colombo.
Although we saw over 50 whales over two days, one could not help but think that a survey of the entire Little Basses area could yield anywhere from 50 to 100 whales. This was about the best time of the year to see whales in the Basses given the abundance of krill and calm seas. Even though the Little Basses Reef and surroundings are naturally protected by the two monsoons, clearly this area should be zoned off as a marine sanctuary to preserve the marine life and oceanic heritage of Sri Lanka.
The Little Basses is possibly one of the best locations in the world to see a large congregation of whales. It is especially ideal for researchers, scientists and whale watchers to study Sri Lanka's abundant marine life during the intermonsoonal seasons.
This article was published in the Serendib Sri Lankan Airlines inflight magazine, December 2016 issue. You may view a pdf version of this article on how wonderful it is to go whale watching in Sri Lanka in a multi-day vessel.