Whale watching in Sri Lankan waters

By Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Sri Lanka is increasingly known as a whale and dolphin watching destination with the potential, if managed correctly, to compete with the world’s best locations. To date, a remarkable 27 species have been recorded in these waters, including blue whales, sperm whales, Bryde’s whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales, plus numerous dolphin species including spinner, spotted, common, Risso’s and Fraser’s dolphins. Whilst mariners have reported the presence of whales in Sri Lankan waters for centuries, it is only relatively recently that commercial whale watching has become viable, beginning in Mirissa at the southern tip of the island. Two further locations, Kalpitiya in the north-west and Trincomalee to the north-east, have also developed whale and dolphin watching industries.

Mirissa

The scenic fishing village of Mirissa is currently the most popular whale watch destination in Sri Lanka. The presence of a continental shelf and associated nutrient upwelling only a few miles off nearby Dondra Head attracts many species of whales and dolphins. Whale watching from Mirissa starts in late October, but the peak viewing period is from December to April. Blue whales are the main attraction for whale buffs and this confidence is well-placed as, in peak season, the likelihood of seeing blue whales on a single sailing may be as high as 90%. Spinner dolphins are also seen on a high percentage of trips, followed by sperm whales, whilst whale watch vessels are sometimes accompanied by bow-riding bottlenose, Pantropical spotted or striped dolphins. A variety of boat trips are on offer: be prepared for an early start and for a trip lasting around 4 hours. The most boats at Mirrissa offers refreshments and offer good onboard facilities.

Kalpitiya

The Kalpitiya peninsular in the north-west is a marine sanctuary with a diversity of habitats ranging from Bar Reef, the largest coral reef in Sri Lanka, to mangrove swamps and salt marshes. Unlike Mirissa, whale watching has not yet been highly developed and the region as a whole is relatively untouched by tourism. However, Kalpitiya is rapidly gaining a reputation for sperm whales, which are often present in large numbers and these waters are also home to huge schools of spinner dolphins. Bryde’s whales, minke whales, orca, short-finned pilot whales, Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins and Risso’s dolphins are also seen in this region. As with Mirissa to the south, whale watching starts once the seas have calmed after the south-west monsoon and December to March/April are the peak months for viewing.

Trincomalee

The port of Trincomalee lies to the north-east of the island. Steeped in history, this region was once the central base for sea traders from China and East Asia. A deep natural harbour allows blue whales and sperm whales to swim close to shore and in fact, nearby Swami Rock is regarded as the best land-based location in the world for watching blue whales and sometimes sperm whales. The whale watch season begins in March, when seas are calm and migratory blue whales are still around; this window of opportunity offers a high chance of sightings in March and April, and recently it has been suggested that there are sufficient resident whales present to enable viewing to continue until around August. There are excellent opportunities too, to view ‘super pods’ of sperm whales (again, peaking in March/April) and various other whale and dolphin species.

Best for blues?

So, does Sri Lanka offer some of the best viewing opportunities for blue whales, sperm whales and other species? At the time of writing, the answer has to be a qualified ‘yes and no’. Yes, in terms of reliable sightings of whales and dolphins found – often in large numbers – relatively close to shore.

However, there are concerns that whale watching has taken off too rapidly, particularly in Mirissa, before the necessary infrastructure has been developed to properly support the industry. Whilst many operators behave responsibly, such is the demand for whale sightings that some boats reportedly travel at speed and swarm around the whales, creating the perfect conditions for disturbance.

What can be done?

Firstly, existing regulations governing whale watching need to be better enforced to ensure compliance and best practice; and ideally they need to be strengthened. Regulations, however, are only part of the picture and developing a sustainable whale watch industry requires engaging with all the operators – and indeed, with the wider community - in each region. Responsible vessel handling follows naturally when stakeholders understand the importance of protecting their ‘resource’: in this case, the whales and dolphins in their waters.

Project BLUEprint

In late 2012, WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) launched Project BLUEprint in partnership with SriLankan Airlines and other eco-tourism partners including Jetwing Hotels, Cinnamon Hotels and the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. Project BLUEprint encourages sustainable, community-based whale watching and so far, we have run training workshops for whale watch operators in both Mirissa and Kalpitiya and promoted scientific research. Our hope is that by engaging with all stakeholders, we can support and encourage them to work together for the benefit of their local community and the whales.

About WDC

WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservationis the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins. We defend these remarkable creatures against the many threats they face through campaigns, lobbying, advising governments, conservation projects, field research and rescue. Our vision is a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.

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