Juliet Coombe discovers why Sri Lanka is now officially the world’s best place for seeing Blue and Sperm whales, and nothing could be more exciting than doing it with Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel’s naturalist.
There are few things worth getting out of bed before dawn for, but the prospect of seeing a pod of 25 migrating whales measuring up to nearly 100 feet long each is surely one of them. About an hour’s boat ride off the coast, where the continental shelf drops away to the depths of the ocean, is the whales’ migration route. Sri Lanka’s continental shelf is unusually narrow between Mirissa and Dondra Head, which makes it much easier than normal to reach for whale watching expeditions, and in the migration period of December to April, the concentration of whales in this area is like nothing else in the world.
A trip organized by Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel with whale expert, Anoma forty five minutes’ drive from Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel in Mirissa, the fishery harbour where you can catch the whale watching boat in which Anoma Alagiyawadu, their naturalist, will explain the life of these legendary giants.
Your opinions on blue whales will be irrevocably altered when you discover that the males produce around four gallons of sperm when they ejaculate, and that their penises can measure up to 8ft long. It certainly sounds impressive, but bear in mind that in relation to their total length, that is roughly equivalent to a human having a 10cm (just under 4 inches) member. More impressive, perhaps, is the haunting song produced by male humpbacks, which was actually picked up by the Voyager space probes. So as well as being able to communicate with each other across the globe (interfering with many human surveillance systems in the process), whales may have been transmitting to aliens long before humans made it into space.
When you reach the migration route, it is up to your guide to find some whales. This is where going out with a trained naturalist like Anoma rather than just a fisherman out to make a quick buck really matters long term. He has the knowledge to understand and predict the movements and behaviour of the whales, following their pattern of coming up to breathe before diving deep into the water, and is particularly good at spotting their blow holes at vast distance, and tracking them by their ‘footprints’ – eerily smooth circular patches of water that they leave in otherwise choppy water when they dive back under.
Being with a naturalist also gives you the reassurance that the whales will not be overly disturbed or scared by your presence, as they understand that it is best to keep a distance from the whales, and to use the engine as little as possible to avoid making too much noise, unlike cavalier fisherman who may simply race to get as close to the whales as possible, and probably frighten them into diving very deep and disappearing all together.
On your trip back to the harbour you can reflect on the majesty of these giant creatures, which dwell under the vast expanses of the sea. The excitement may not be over though. As we saw a school of about 250 dolphins on the way back that appeared seemingly out of nowhere around our boat, capering wildly in the water and then only five miles out a couple of turtles making love. It was an absolutely transfixing sight, as they swam mere metres from the boat, so we could take lots of photos. We decided to stay with them, which delayed our return to harbour, though nobody seemed to mind. Suddenly waking up at 5am seemed a small price to pay.