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Coming to the surface

Photos by Dhanush De Costa

To see a Blue Whale out in the deep blue sea is something most of us can only dream about. To see more than one in a single outing is a rarity reserved for a fortunate few and there is possibly no better place in the world to try your luck than in Sri Lanka.

Cetacea – An order of marine mammals that comprises the whales, dolphins, and porpoises. These have a streamlined hairless body, no hind limbs, a horizontal tail fin, and a blowhole on top of the head for breathing.

Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Kirinda, Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Alutgama, Mirissa and Ambalangoda. Dolphins and Whale watching on the northeast coast is said to be at its height between June and September, whereas the south coast is more popular during the months between January and April. Many of the hotels, which are located in these destinations, provide essential facilities for a pleasant dolphin and whale watching experience.

Sri Lanka is arguably one of the most naturally diverse and beautiful spots on earth. And we aren’t the only ones who think so. The blue whales that have made their home off the coast of Sri Lanka, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, seem to agree with us.

Whales in tropical oceans are known to be less productive than those in temperate or polar oceans. However, the fact remains that whales of all species are known to seasonally migrate great distances in search of food. But, researchers are particularly baffled by “our” blue whales’ tendency to stay here year round. Due to the remote nature of the waters where they live, and because those areas were considered unsafe and were largely inaccessible to researchers for so many years during the country’s unrest, they have only recently been able to begin to study the particularly unique nature of our resident gentle giants.

Mankind has long had a fascination with these giant mammals, perhaps, in part, because they often exhibit qualities that can be linked with human behavior. Whales are known to teach, learn, cooperate, scheme, and even grieve just as we do. The neocortex of many species of whale is home to elongated spindle neurons that, prior to 2007, were known only in hominids. In humans these cells are involved in social conduct, emotions, judgment, and theory of mind. Whale spindle neurons are found in areas of the brain homologous to where they are found in humans, suggesting that they perform a similar function.

These kindred spirits are also known to communicate using melodic sounds, known as whale song. These sounds can be extremely loud, depending on the species. Sperm whales have only been heard making clicks, while toothed whales can generate about 20,000 watts of sound and be heard for many miles. Whale vocalization is likely to serve many purposes, including mating and identification. Captive whales have even occasionally been known to mimic human speech. Scientists have suggested this indicates a strong desire on behalf of the whales to communicate with humans. Some cultures associate divinity with whales and after one has had the experience of seeing even just one, there is no question as to why. The sight of these enigmatic creatures is a breathtaking, spellbinding and truly humbling experience. First an exhalation as the whale prepares for its descent, the spout misting the blue horizon as its giant body moves seamlessly, glistening through the water. Then an arch as it dives, the last lick of the mammoth tail enthralling as it leaves only a gentle ripple in its wake.

Sri Lanka is within the protected zone of the International Whaling Commission, and is home to 26 species of the 80 species of cetaceans found in the world, including the common blue whales, sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, killer whales, melon headed whales, dwarf, false killer and Cuvier’s beaked whales.

During the season, just off the shore of Mirissa (just 30 minutes from Galle) is the most reliable site in the world for seeing the elusive blue whale, among others. Marine biologists believe that sightings peak in December and April because of a migration of whales between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea that takes them near the shores of Sri Lanka.

The deeper waters off Kalpitiya’s coastline are also a popular haunt for whales. Whales aren’t the only star attraction to these waters, however, as during peak season, if you are lucky, one can witness literally thousands of dolphins in large pods in the north west coast of Kalpitiya. If you take a boat at sunrise, sightings are almost a certainty. Spinner dolphins are the most common and the most spectacular due to their engaging acrobatic leaps out of the water. Other dolphins one may spot are bottlenose or Risso’s dolphins and, in the Kalpitiya bay, look for the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins - popularly known as “pink dolphins”.

Sri Lanka provides boat and air voyages for spotting whales and dolphins. Motorized boats and trawlers allow travellers to journey far out to the deep and reach the natural habitats of the dolphins and whales. Helicopters and seaplanes offer a more distant view of the animals, perhaps, but they also serve up an awesome aerial view of the island.

The best up close and personal experiences will come with a little bit of patience and luck. But most importantly, our respect for the habitat and space of these majestic animals is essential to ensure that they continue to delight, awe and teach us for many generations to come.

This article was originally published at:

Tripin Publication 2013 - www.tripinsl.com

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