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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Whales of Taprobane - Words and pictures by Asha de Vos

When Ptolemy set out to draw his first map of the ancient world, I don't believe he had whales and dolphins on his mind. Their appearance on the southeastern tip of the map of Taprobane, as Sri Lanka was then called, is indicative of their prominence in the area. In fact, they defined it. The term ‘cetacean' is the collective term for whales and dolphins. As such, ‘cetcum promotorium' refers to a headland around which, presumably, many whales and dolphins were observed by ancient travellers. This promontory located in the Deep South although no more, comprised the rock outcrops of what is today known as the Great Basses reef. I can personally vouch for the accuracy of this moniker, as my first awe-inspiring encounter with six Blue whales, two-dozen Sperm whales and multiple thousands of a variety of dolphins was right there. In one day.
It was the first day that I had plucked up enough courage to clamber up the mast to the crow's nest of the 28m research vessel on which I was working. It was a day when winds were low and the sea was mirror-like. Flat, shimmering and deep blue. The temptation was too great and as soon as I saw the characteristic tall, vertical blows of the Blue whales I knew there was only one place from which to watch them. The captain, a wise sea dog with many circumnavigations under his belt gently coaxed me up the post that swayed ever so gently the higher I got. The only reason I was putting myself through this was to soak in the view and get a glimpse of my first full-length whale. From my vantage point high above the seas, each appeared to be only a few centimetres long. Side by side, the vessel and the whale looked like Matchbox renditions of their true selves. The sea breeze was heady and pungent with the smell of whale breath. The next five hours left me mesmerised, so much so I didn't even realise that the winds had picked up, leaving me with a more challenging descent. All the while I tried to imagine what it might have been like before mid 19th century when whalers from other parts of the globe traversed to the waters of the Northern Indian Ocean in search of these prized creatures.
In four years in the 1960s, over a thousand Blue whales were killed in this region alone. Although we have no idea as to how many whales inhabit our waters today, a thousand more immediately makes you think of rush hour in whale country.
Fortunately for us, Sri Lanka has never been an advocate of whaling. While our history and culture is not closely interwoven with these hard to miss leviathans, we made a statement when we agreed to declare our waters part of the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary in 1979. The protection afforded through this declaration ensured that our waters became a safe haven for the whales that ventured through, culminating in our current prominence as a cetacean hotspot.
Side by side, the vessel and the whale looked like Matchbox renditionsof their true selves. The next five hours left me mesmerised...
Today, whale watching is a growing industry around our coasts, notably in Mirissa, Kalpitiya and Trincomalee where accessibility to deep water and thereby whale habitat is increased by the narrowness of the continental shelf. On a typical day in the south, whale watchers are treated to the remarkable sight of Blue whales cruising through, skillfully weaving between the ship traffic, displaying their tail flukes and diving to the dark depths in search of their prey. It is unfathomable why a 24m long Blue whale, the largest animal to have ever roamed the planet that weighs as much as 2000 adult humans, has evolved to feed purely on krill, a pinkish shrimplike creature the size of a two-rupee coin. In a day, the whale must consume as much as forty million of these tiny creatures in order to satiate itself. Once digested, the result, which is red in colour immediately begins to dissipate and float at the surface. It is not a wonder then that whale watchers exclaim in horror at first sight, assuming it to be an expanding patch of blood, the result of a shark attack. To me however, this is a worthwhile and exciting sighting in itself as it defies all imagination and reminds us of how little we truly know.
Whilst we have become famous for our Blue whale sightings, the seas around Sri Lanka are teeming with other delights. Look carefully and you might be treated to a pod of spinning dolphins, a school of ravenous tuna, the elusive slinkiness of the Bryde's whale, the slanted bushy blow of a Sperm whale, a breaching manta ray or even the breathtaking synchronised flight of a group of flying fish. Never forget that with every sighting, you join a very small percentage of the world that have had the privilege to set eyes on these wonderful creatures in their natural surroundings.

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