When you hear mention of the small island of Sri Lanka, images of tea plantations, elephants, temples and cricket come to mind. That, or sadly the on-going conflict, or the carnage of the 2005 Tsunami. But Sri Lanka has so much to offer the visitor. The contained conflict in the northern area of the island shouldn’t deter those seeking to uncover the rich diversity that this island gem has to offer. For nature lovers there is a smorgasbord on offer. Elephant orphanages, wetland areas for bird watching, snake and crocodile farms and also the Yala National Park for safari’s to name but a few. However out of sight, out of mind there are the leviathans.

Whales migrate annually past the southern most point of Sri Lanka at Dondra Head. Here the continental shelf comes very close to the land, bringing with it a rich bio-diversity of life, feeding on the nutrient rich waters. From December to April, Blue Whales can be seen in numbers far greater than almost anywhere else on the planet, making Sri Lanka the number one destination to see these majestic beings. Also in the area at the same time are pods of Sperm Whales, the largest toothed creature on the planet. There have been sightings of Humpbacks, Orca and Right Whales amongst others, though not so frequently. Dolphins are resident in mass numbers. There are three species most commonly found - Risso, Spinner and the Common Dolphin.

The small fishing villages dotted along the south coast are flanked by some of the most untouched beaches, with surf breaks in abundance. With the recent discovery of the whales, several operators have started to set up daily whale watching trips though still in its infancy. One of the most prominent of these is Mirissa Water Sports, based out of the sleepy fishing town of Mirissa. Set up after the tsunami by the ‘Building A Future’ foundation to help create employment opportunities for young people, Mirissa Water Sports operate two boats with a competent and very friendly crew. Often on board is Naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu from Jet Wing Lighthouse at Galle to answer any questions you may have. Trips leave at 7am and return before lunch with an afternoon sailing from 1pm.

But we weren’t here as tourists, we were on a mission…… to film the world’s largest creature underwater. We thought this shouldn’t prove to be too much of a problem, after all they are so big, slow and in abundance here? Wrong!

There are reasons why the Pygmy Blue Whale has never been captured on film underwater, reasons we soon discovered the hard and frustrating way. For the first twelve of our fourteen days in Sri Lanka we returned daily with nothing more than glancing surface tail shots. One of the natural worlds most beautiful images is that of the colossal tail flukes of a Blue Whale, raised in majestic splendor as the whale begins a deep dive, unfortunately this meant to us only one thing, another missed opportunity!

Our days were spent scanning the horizon for the tell-tale blows. Upon sighting we had to race over, as the whales tend to spend only a short time to catch their breath (or three) before descending once again to feed at depth. For this reason we left the larger whale-watching boat after the first two days and decided to charter a smaller, faster fishing boat that would be able to maneuver us into the correct position for our interactions. Our approach was most important and we tried many variations, trying not to alarm the whale, which would cause it to stress out and run deep. We used our past experience from whale interactions with fin whales and humpbacks to primarily ensure the safety of the whale, and the boat on our approach.

I enjoyed (or endured), probably the twelve most frustrating days of my life to date. We had near encounters, close encounters, lost encounters in fact every type of encounter but an underwater encounter. Try and imagine if you can, racing alongside a whale that is twenty-four meters (eighty foot) in length. You are perched on the side of the small boat with your mask and fins on, and a heavy video camera in hand. The whale is running parallel to you. You make the decision to go, and with an ungracious sideways roll you hit the water at speed, stopping immediately, tumbling in a cosmos of white frothing water. You know the whale is just outside the wake of turbulent water, the water clears and nothing! How can something so big, disappear so fast into nothing, not even a tail fin in the depths as it runs?

One evening after several bottles of the local brew the topic of whales being Interstellar Travelers from the Sirius star system came up. I had heard and read of theories that whales and dolphins were not of this world, and that their superior intelligence gave them incredible powers that we simple humans cannot even quantify. However far fetched and ridiculous some of these ‘new age’ theories sound, teleportation or inter-dimensional travel would have been a perfect explanation for how I could have missed seeing the whale that day.

We awoke on day thirteen, and both decided that we should stay off the local brew, as we headed out to hunt down our interstellar friends. The sea was like a mirror, a pod of some three-hundred spinner dolphins came to play with the boat. Was this an omen that we were in for a good day? After an hour of play and with hundreds of dolphin pictures in the bag, we sighted our first whale. We approached, coming alongside as the whale cruised effortlessly. We rolled in, hitting the water fairly hard, and there she was in all her glory. Well, the back half at least. The loud entry as we hit the water announcing our arrival obviously spooked her slightly as with a flick of the tail she dived deep. That time the tail was terrifyingly close and the pressure waves knock us backwards.

Upon surfacing we were ecstatic, we had seen her with our own eyes, a life experience I will never forget, and could never truly describe in words to a third party. We had joined an elite few that could say they have swam with the largest creature on the planet, albeit for about ten seconds. That day we had more encounters and we started to get underwater footage. By the end of the day we had five underwater encounters. We went home that night riding on a natural high.

Waking on our last day, and with the previous days experiences under our belt we became greedy for more. Our footage was footage, but not anything with a wow factor. We needed more, so we headed back out to sea for the last time. The sea again was like a millpond and we cruised out the ten miles or so. We shut off the engine and drifted, listening and searching for the blow. Nothing for three hours, we had to head for home at midday to catch our transport back to Colombo and our flight home. This gave us two more hours. Paul began his whale call, “Here fishy, fishy, fishy.” Well he felt it would help, our friend Adam was out with us that day and started some reiki something or another. Me, I just started to try and will the whales to come.

When you are in the water with whales, you get some sort of energy from them. We call it ‘Whale Juju’. It is very hard to explain, and in doing so I would lose any credibility I might have with you, however it is like being completely overwhelmed with emotions to the point of almost being hypnotized. Either that or it was the elaborate excuse we conjured up to explain how two professional photographers with years of experience could make so many simple mistakes, resulting in us not capturing what we were there for. Whale Juju hit us in Tonga on the infamous Day Three, the most magical interaction with a Humpback mother and calf that lasted almost an hour, and resulted in our experienced whale guide Karen, climbing out of the water in tears, and us filming either out of focus or under-exposed. In these circumstances you have to assign the blame to something, so the term Whale Juju was created.

An hour before midday we see a blow, not far off the starboard bow, about three hundred meters off. We kit up and slowly cruise over. The whale seemed to be stationary, almost as if finally surrendering after two weeks of chase. We came in slow this time and slipped over the side and swam towards her. We came in on her ten ‘o clock, and for the first time we saw the front end. She seemed to be checking us out as we swam closer. She slowly started to move off, not in a hurry this time, and started a shallow dive. She was incredible in all her glory, moving almost effortlessly, her small pectoral fins coming out to help her bank left before diving down deeper, and then she was gone. Beautiful.

We get back to the boat and wonder if that was the final sighting, we watch as the minute hand moves slowly around towards the twelve and our departure. Ten minutes before we are due to head back, we have another sighting, as we close in, Paul goes in off the starboard side, encumbered by my heavy video camera I miss the entry. The whale dives and Paul gets a few frames off. Frustrated I am left sitting in the boat. Adam who is standing up on the bow and acting as a spotter sees the aqua-marine shadow passing directly under the boat. “If you jump in on this side,” gesturing to port, “you should be right on top,” he says. Without hesitation I slip over the side and upon entering the water look left, right and then straight down. There, about ten meters below me I see nature’s biggest head passing below my fins. The whale looks like a nuclear submarine on a silent patrol, cruising almost motionless in the depths. I tilt the video camera down and pan as the whale starts to surface some hundred meters away from me, the giant tail disappears into the blue. Wow, now that was special. I climb back onboard and we turn for land. The trip in was almost silent as Paul and I reflect on our personal experiences, the Whale Juju still tingling through our bodies. We vow to return soon and complete what we have started.

During our visit in January we had whales every day we went out, some days more than others, but out of fourteen days we had an average of eight whales a day. The whales are Pygmy Blue Whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) that are found in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. These have been known to science for only the past forty years. Slightly smaller than the ‘true blues’ this sub-species grows to twenty-four meters, only five meters shorter than their big cousins. During our trip we also saw Spinner dolphins in mass numbers as well as Risso’s dolphins, manta’s, turtles and a lone whale shark.

We will be returning to Sri Lanka in a few months to catch the whales on their return trip past Dondra Head as they move West. Our time in Hong Kong will mostly be spent working out new strategies and methods of filming, the birth of Paul’s second child and the building of a few new ‘gadgets’ to help us capture the Big Blue on film. To be continued……

Gary Stokes,
Underwater Photographer & Videographer for Oceanic Love.

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