Risso's dolphins Kalpitiya Sri Lanka's Amazing Maritime

Pulling you under the magnificent covers of the “blue”

By Jennifer Rodrigo, the Morning Newspaper

Holding, in my hands, Howard Martenstyn’s second edition of “Out of the Blue”, which was launched recently (27 November) in an elegant affair at the Dutch Burgher Union, felt, simultaneously, as though I was carrying a treasure trove of information, thoughtfully laid out in paper, and also as though I was turning the pages and peeking into one man’s passionate life’s work. The pages spilled the ardent admiration for Sri Lanka’s rich and often understated marine mammal life. It felt like I was being let in on a secret. A big and beautiful one.

Howard pens in the introduction: “This book is a guide to the marine mammals that inhabit Sri Lankan territorial waters and the surrounding region.” He goes on to explain that in his intent, with this book, to produce a single volume that would serve both as guide and reference, he quickly discovered how little is really known about the marine mammals of Sri Lanka. “It is only in recent decades that the abundance and variety of marine mammal life in Sri Lankan waters have come to be fully understood. With such consciousness has come a significant shift in public and legislative attitudes towards them.”

Although unconsciously (and quite aptly owing to my own lack of extensive knowledge on the subject), I was hoping for the read to “grow on me”, I was wrong. The book instantly draws you in.

280 pages long (or should I say dazzling?), the second edition of the book comes after the much-acclaimed first edition which was released in 2013. Five years later, researcher, photographer, and marine mammal lover extraordinaire Howard Martenstyn has returned with a revised and updated edition of the book that has thrilled audiences all over the world. The second edition promises and delivers never-before-seen photos and the latest scientific observations and discoveries.

“Out of the Blue” is lovingly dedicated to Howard’s brother, Cedric, whom Secretary-General – Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation, Convener – Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals and Founder Chairman, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, Hiran W. Jayewardene refers to in the foreword as a “master PADI diver, he brought with him an interest in the outdoors, seagoing, and an innate ability to make important connections when observing nature and wildlife.”

Hiran goes on to observe that “it is fitting that Howard has dedicated this book to his brother Cedric,” and we realise that Howard has beautifully carried (and propelled to burn brighter) the “torch” of Cedric’s love for the outdoors, which he himself says, ignited his plunge into the blue.

Chapter 1 describes the book’s potential audience to be researchers, marine mammal enthusiasts, and the casual whale-watcher; I’m somewhat amused to think I didn’t fall into any of those groupings; yet, I found the book alluring at first, richly informative and explanatory when I continued to turn its pages, and cleverly paced right till the end.

Broken into 14 chapters, the book starts with describing the marine mammals of Sri Lanka, detailing recent research, the first whale-watching station, and directions for future research and regulation. It moves on to define and beautifully illustrate marine mammal groups; cetaceans: whales, dolphins and porpoises, and sirenians: dugongs and manatees.

What follows is an in-depth analysis of marine mammal physiology covering respiration, sleep, senses, scent, taste, touch, reproduction, lifespan, and more. I particularly found chapter six enlightening as it broke down the “surface behaviour” of these marine mammals. “Dolphins, in particular, seem to go out of their way for viewers,” it fondly observes.

Chapter seven, titled “Marine Mammals of Sri Lanka: An Observer’s Guide”, forms the heart of the book – containing illustrations, descriptions, and beautiful photographs of thirty species, from blue whale to dugong, along with cleverly laid out identification aids and taxonomic notes. Chapters nine and ten deal with climate and marine ecology, and also details on locating marine mammals at sea.

“Locating marine mammals at sea can be a daunting task. Out in the open ocean with no landmarks or other vessels in sight, uncertain of what course to take and what conditions one might find along the way, many enthusiasts find themselves intimidated by the seeming impossibility of the task they have taken on.”

“In fact, the task is not nearly so hard as it seems. The animals we seek are out there at sea, every day, all year round. Finding them is simply a matter of knowing where they are most likely to be at any given time.”

“Out of the Blue” certainly comes to the very fore in making this task that much easier. I was left in awe at how beautifully succinct the words were – neatly arranged throughout the book, interspaced with aptly timed double-spread photos that were breathtaking reminders of the wonders of our ocean.

If I were forced to assign it a genre, I’d struggle, for the book embodies “guide”, “memoir”, “history”, “encyclopaedia”, “photography”, “science” and much, much more.

If I were forced to pick a few words to describe it, I’d struggle once more, for it moves beyond being defined. The only words I’d use are probably the author’s own in his acknowledgements, when he says: “My grateful thanks are due to my wife Laila, who has patiently – if not always without protest – consented to share her husband with a mistress of a different kind.”

The “mistress” beckons, she embraces and she enthrals within the pages of “Out of the Blue”.

Get a copy. You won’t regret it.

This article on the brand new 'Out of the Blue' book appeared in the Morning newspaper on 27 November 2018.