A tale between the lens and wildlife

Sri Lankan Blue Whales

With just 9 days to go for my second Blue Whale expedition in Sri Lanka, I am pleased to share this exclusive article I had written for Sanctuary Asia in the current issue of the magazine. Special thanks to my friend and Sri Lankan partner Mevan Piyasena for introducing me to these majestic creatures.

The blue whale

SANCTUARY ASIA (Feb 2012)

It had been a phenomenal trip thus far. I had seen a dozen leopards and had had some great elephant moments in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park. I could hardly believe anything could top these encounters. So when a friend suggested that I head off to the southernmost tip of the emerald isle, I was just expecting great beaches and delicious seafood.

The coastline around Mirissa did not disappoint. It was spectacular, studded with sparkling beaches almost everywhere. I would have been quite content lazing around, enjoying the scenery, but then someone mentioned the possibility of seeing blue whales! Convinced they were mistaking sperm whales for the planet’s largest mammal, I discounted the possibility but arranged for a fishing trawler to take me out to the reported blue whale area anyway. The sea was rough and the turbulence made me question the wisdom of going out in search of a phantom. And with every nautical mile we travelled away from shore, my doubts multiplied.

“Let’s turn back,” I suggested to the boatman, just as I saw the spout on the distant horizon! No words were spoken as the throttle was pressed and we moved purposefully towards the vision.

And then there they were just 20 m. away — not one, but four majestic blue whales.

Migratory route

Few people know what I discovered that day… Sri Lanka is a great blue whale-watching destination. When they pass the island country, the whales are on their east-west migration from the Arabian Sea, around the Horn of Africa to the oceanic waters of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. These gigantic mammals feed on krill – small shrimp-like marine creatures. The migration is triggered by krill in the top 60 m. during certain months. The south-west monsoon causes surface currents to move off the African coastline and currents from below then replenish this displaced volume of water to create an entirely new food chain that results in the seasonal mushrooming of the krill on which blue whales feast.

Scientists studying the migratory patterns of blue whales have discovered that their migration follows ever-changing seasonal currents. It is assumed that the whales are found commonly along the slopes where shallow, inshore waters of the continental shelf drop away steeply to the oceanic depths. Local upwellings typically occur in these belts, resulting in plankton concentrations in Sri Lankan waters that attract whales to the shores of Mirissa and the Kalpitiya Peninsula where the best sightings are to be had.

Resident blue whales
Local reports in Mirissa suggest that December to April, when the sea is calmer, is the best time for people to avail of the services of fishermen and tour operators that readily transport you to deep waters for whale watching trips. Nevertheless, my visit in August in a highly turbulent sea was incredibly successful and made me wonder whether the whales were resident, migratory, or both?

Research papers and articles by Sri Lankan wildlife expert Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and marine biologist Dr. Charles Anderson suggest that blue whales may be present in Sri Lankan waters throughout the year. Wijeyeratne explains that the reason for plentiful sightings of whales in Sri Lanka is that a small resident group is supplemented by a large influx of migratory blue whales. Experts have compared local sighting reports with photographic records to conclude that the blue whale population soars during the months of December to April but some can be seen throughout the year.

This is great news for wildlife lovers across the subcontinent. But I do worry that a sudden influx of tourism and unregulated whale-watching trips could adversely impact these gentle marine mammals. Whale-watching in Sri Lanka is still at a nascent stage and experienced international conservation bodies should intervene to the advantage of both whales and their admirers in Sri Lanka.

Shivang Mehta is a wildlife photographer who organises wildlife photography workshops for Nature Wanderers. Visit www.shivangmehta.com for his online portfolio.

2 responses

  1. arun lakshminarayan

    Hi Shivang, I was wondering if a trawler is better or a speed boat (for the angle of the shot)? Does a trawler get closer than a speed boat to the whales? What kind of lenses do I take with me for photography, I use a nikon d300 with a 200-400 lens, do I need a shorter focal length lens in the range of 70-200 or even shorter like a 50mm, will a wide angle like 10-20 be of any use? The trawler has toilets, i suppose, while a speed boat does not, considering the length of time spent out in the sea being 3-5 hrs, the trawler may be better from that point of view. What do you suggest? Tks for your time. Regards,

    December 10, 2012 at 2:55 am

    • Hi Arun – since the boat is never stable I would suggest a 70-200 as the best bet. Tighter frames are difficult to control in this scenario. The whale watching boats in Sri Lanka are apt for photography. Be there on the lower deck for a good angle for the shoot.

      December 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm

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