Watching And Stressing The Whales Off Mirissa
Whale watching off Mirissa is fast becoming the “Must See” event for nature enthusiasts and for tourists to Sri Lanka. Last week I had the great privilege of seeing these magnificent mammals in their natural setting, a few miles off the coast of Mirissa .
The whale-watching industry is well-organised and the boats solid, seaworthy and sturdy. The local boatmen are master seafarers, professional, hospitable and polite and do their best to provide a top quality service to the tourists.
Safety vests were mandatory and about fifteen boats set off from Mirissa at about 7 a.m. We all waited in eager anticipation for the shout “whale at 2 o’clock position” but this did not come. However, some welcome sandwiches and slices of the most delicious pineapples were passed around which most of us enjoyed. However, some promptly vomited them out due to the seasickness!
“Whale at 10 o’clock “ screamed the look-out on the top of the boat and our craft did a sharp turn to the left and raced away towards the water sprouts of the whale in the distance. Then the captain got onto his CDMA phone and rang all his buddies in the other whale-watching boats at sea off Mirissa! Fifteen boats converged on this hapless whale!!! Boats were careering around the whale at breakneck speed, giving the tourists thrills spills and ample splashings of sea water. Naturally, the whale got stressed out and took a quick dive showing us his beautiful blue body and his magnificent tail, never to appear again!
We were fortunate enough to see eight of these mighty mammals on this whale watching trip. However, when I went whale watching three years ago when “The whale watching industry” was in its infancy, I saw over thirty whales .
The highlight being a mummy whale with its little calf! She was oblivious to the few humans around her and was frolicking in the water with her little baby! This was the most memorable sighting for me.
At that time there were only three whale watching boats and this “traffic jam” of whale boats around the whales was not such a problem. It is now a very big problem, a very big problem! It causes much stress to the whales and will probably kill the sport. This “traffic jam” is similar to the traffic jams we see at Yala National Park when a tusker or leopard is spotted. The jeep drivers phone their buddies and all the jeeps converge at the point where the leopard is spotted.
This naturally causes stress to the beautiful animals whose territory we humans have invaded. Our national treasure and pleasure that is the Yala National Park is over crowded, mainly at week ends and school holidays and is rapidly becoming a place full of traffic jams when leopards are spotted. This same problem is happening in the waters off Mirissa where traffic jams are now the norm. The excellent experience of whale watching will die a natural death if the harassment of the whales continue due to the ignorance or avarice of the boatmen.
I noticed that no tips were given to the boatmen by the tourists for the excellent service provided by the boat men. The very small fees charged (by European standards) is very small. Tips and gratuities are expected to supplement the meagre salaries that these boatmen receive and this may be a factor for the crowding of boats around the whales.
People from the Southern Province are friendly, generous, genuine and hospitable and this may also be a reason for their efforts to show the tourists as many whales as possible, leading to the traffic jams and harassment of the whales.
Whatever the reasons, the industry must realise the damage they are doing to the whales and their livelihoods and have a form of self regulation. This will ensure that the whales are allowed to live in peace in the deep waters off our Southern coast and we as nature enthusiasts enjoy these precious sightings.
The whales migrate from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea going around Dondra Point during the months of November and March. If this harassment by the whale watching industry continues, they will no doubt change their migratory route and either go further out to sea or go further down the deep blue sea. The sonar system of the whales are well developed and next season may see fewer whales or no whales at all.
The Navy, in an endeavour to utilise their troop ship ferry, has organised whale watching trips with good intentions. However, when I went on this 300 seater ferry, I only saw three whales at a great distance. They were just specks of black in the horizon than the glorious sight of Blue or Sperm whales at close quarters that I saw from the smaller boats! The reason? The sonar systems of the whales which are well developed pick up the loud noise from the big engines of the ferry and they get frightened away! In a post war situation, the skills and resources of our Army, Navy and the Air force must be put to good use.
The skills of warfare of our valiant serviceman must be preserved so that we are never ever forced again to be subjected to terrorism, separatism or a threat from an enemy. This excellent service by the Navy is a good public relations exercise. However, the ferry may well be driving away the whales due to the noise emanated by the large engines.
Dr Asoka Thenabadu