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  • Writer's pictureFrank Klaus Jordan

chasing the tail of the whale

ready for adventure

It is still dark when we get picked up from the hotel. Our ride goes through narrow streets, with barely enough space for two cars to pass each other. The typical Sri Lanka traffic hasn't started yet and so we manage to get to the port on time. Here at Mirissa Harbour, the morning scenery changes abruptly. Crowds of tourists are trying to find their agencies and the tour guides are trying to get the right guests checked in on the right boats. And boats there are many. Half an hour later, we and twenty other people, board one of them that has the size of a large dive boat. At sunrise, we are ready and make our way out of the harbour towards the open ocean. Today is the day, I'm thinking when some of these funny looking Sri Lankan fisher boats pass by on their way back to the port. Today we are on a 'my kind of' adventure - Whale Watching.

the largest mammal on earth

Mirissa is the place to go on a whale-watching safari. It is located at the most southern tip of Sri Lanka, at the eastern end of Weligama Bay. The captain steers the boat straight out towards the open sea and after one hour drive, we slowly lose eye contact to the mainland. The weather is calm and we do not expect any trouble to come. Steady we head further south into deeper ocean waters to find blue whales, the largest mammal species on earth. Blue whales are enormous, ranging in length from 24 to 30 meters, weighing up to 160 tonnes. The blue whale's heart has the size of a small car and its heartbeat can be detected from two miles away. Blue whales are also the loudest animals on earth and their unique calls reach up to 188 decibels, enabling them to communicate over miles and far below the water’s surface.

During feeding months, blue whales migrate towards the chilly polar waters. Here, they feast upon krill and other types of zooplankton, up to 4 tons per day. To reach their breeding grounds, blue whales migrate towards the equator into the warmer tropical waters. On their thousands of miles journey, they will not take time to feed but instead rely upon their great amount of fat and blubber reserves, build up during feeding months. Throughout these 3 months migration, blue whales can maintain a slow and steady swim speed between 3-6 miles per hour. However, today we rely on the crew's experience in finding the migration route of these giant sea mammals. Standing at the ship's bow I'm scanning the horizon, hoping that we are lucky to see them today.

chasing the tail of the whale

Short after there is movement on the bridge when the man in the lookout shouts excited and points at something. Yes, far at the horizon a whale is blowing a large fountain of water into the air. The ship's engines are starting to roar when we speed towards the place the fountain was spotted. Now everybody on board gets busy arranging camera equipment and finding a good place on board to get an undistracted view. With full speed, we are closing in and only now I realise the full magnitude of this disturbing chase. Many other whale-watching-boats nearby have taken up the race heading in the same direction. In the meantime, we are close enough to see the whale's upper contours each time it comes to the surface to breathe. Then the back of the blue whale breaks one more time the surface and his tail comes out of the water before the giant dives down into the deep of the Indian ocean.

It becomes silent on board, the chase is over and the crew turns back to their usual routines. Now the other boats are spreading out in all directions in the attempt to find the next target. During the next hours at sea, we are repeating these blue whale chases several times. It's a nightmare and I feel sorry for these majestic sea animals. My prior excitement for whale watching slowly changes into embarrassment and I feel ashamed that I'm a part of this environmental disturbance today.

Finally, the captain decided that the hunt is over and we are heading back to the coast of Mirissa. On our way back I'm trying to enjoy the open ocean but my mood is quite messed up. I remember a documentary I once watched about blue whales. In there they stated that during the 20th century, blue whales were almost exterminated due to commercial whaling. Although this species has slowly recovered following the global whaling ban, it remains endangered and still faces some serious threats, including the impact of climate change and ship strikes. Today I must add one more item to the list of serious threats to these wonderful sea mammals - this kind of whale watching.

Poseidon saves the day

We can already see the coast when I am pulled out of my gloomy thoughts. The man in the lookout is pointing at something ahead of us. First, we can't understand what we are looking at but then we see the water surface changing into something magnificent. There are hundreds of Spinner Dolphins, closing in fast. Our mood brightens again when we soon after find us in the middle of these playful sea creatures. We are happy that we can conclude our journey in the great ocean with this amazing spectacle.


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