And there it was…..my first and most memorable blue whale….I’d just crossed into Sri Lankan waters from the high seas and there it lay, blowing, as if to say ‘welcome’.
From that first moment, I was hooked. A few days later, off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, six blue whales surrounded the research vessel on which I worked. Their characteristic tall, vertical blows gave them away wherever they were. My mind was racing, six whales in a small space? Why? The ocean makes up 70% of the planet but these whales each of which are the size of 2000 adult humans were aggregating in a small area. What were they doing?
Over the years, I spent time on boats, looking for blue whales - where they were, what they were doing. I noticed big red patches of whale poo floating on the surface in the ‘footprint’ of a whale that had just dived. It was a regular observation, and evidence for feeding. Unlike blue whale populations in other parts of the world, those in the Northern Indian Ocean don’t appear to migrate beyond this single ocean basin. But traditionally, we think of tropical waters as being nutrient poor and unproductive, so why would these whales spend time here in such great numbers in such a small area? How can it support their immense energetic demands? What processes within this ocean give rise to large blooms of krill – their favourite food? How do the environment and human activities influence the ecology of the whale?
This is what I want to find out.
The southern coast of Sri Lanka supports one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Unfortunately, this area also overlaps with my study site, a hotspot of whale activity. Recent strandings in this region suggest that collisions with ships are a major conservation concern. It is therefore absolutely necessary to understand the importance of such habitat to the blue whale populations and the role it plays in their survival.
Following the end of the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka, development within the country is occurring at a fast pace. The whale watching industry, one such initiative, has great potential if conducted in a sustainable manner. People come from all over the world to catch a glimpse of the largest animal that has ever roamed the planet and all the other amazing sights, sounds and flavours of Sri Lanka. Good management and long term sustainability is wholly dependent on regulation, participation of local researchers and the gathering of good quality science. The time is now.My journey begins from a somewhat clean slate. Every observation brings new knowledge, yet new questions. Each, a valuable piece of an infinite jigsaw. And so, our understanding of the conservation and management needs of these endangered animals begins to grow. Sri Lanka faces a number of challenges in this new era of peace and prosperity. The blue whales are our ambassadors and it is our greatest challenge and responsibility to protect these great leviathans for our future generations.