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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Did you know

Marine mammals are voluntary air breathers which means they have to make a conscious effort to rise to the surface to breathe. If they are unable to do this due to entanglement in a net or for any other reason, they drown. This is why their nostrils or 'blow holes' are located on the top of their heads, as it enables them to surface to breathe while keeping most of their body underwater. Here, an Indian Ocean Blue whale exhales at the surface after a 12 minute dive off Mirissa, Sri Lanka.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Blue heaven - A blog by Asha de Vos

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.


Spotting blue whales in Sri Lanka - Words by Philip Hoare

Sri Lanka has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, beset with problems from terrorism to flooding. But in the wake of the contentious ending of the war in 2010 with the Tamil Tigers, this verdant island is experiencing a new tourist boom founded largely on its exquisite beaches, where one may spend weeks doing nothing but drinking lime sodas in the sun.
However, I found another prospect more appealing – especially after the frenetic demands of appearing at the island's Galle Literary Festival.
For some years now, I'd heard stories of whales seen off Sri Lanka's coast, not least from my brother-in-law, Sam Goonetillake, founder of the Helplanka charity, which was set up to assist the orphans of the 2004 tsunami.
For a dedicated "whalehead" such as myself, these tales were impossibly alluring. The southern tip of the island is surprisingly close to the deep waters of the continental shelf, and here swim giants: blue whales, the largest animals that ever lived. It is a unique situation: nowhere else do these whales come in so close to land, or are so reliably seen.
Their presence, confirmed by such naturalists as Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, has encouraged the eco-tour specialists Jetwing to start dedicated whale watching trips, using boats supplied by Mirissa Water Sports, a company set up with European funding in the wake of the tsunami. With the prospect of adding this animal, the holy grail of whale-watchers, to my list, I joined forces with photographer Andrew Sutton in the search for whales.
An hour before sunrise, we left our hotel and hurtled down the road in a tuk-tuk. Passing fishermen balancing huge boxes of fish on their bikes, we pulled up at the harbour, where Rasika, our boatman, was waiting. Our vessel was hardly luxurious: a 19ft fibreglass boat, barely more than a canoe, scruffy with rough repairs. But its 25 horsepower outboard motor was surprising powerful.
We slipped out of the harbour and towards an unseen horizon, studded with the lights of dozens of fishing boats already out there. If we'd carried on, the next land we would have would have been Antarctica, 10,000 miles away.
As the sun rose, I looked down into the deep blue, its swell shadowing whatever might lie below. Lulled by the boat, I fell asleep under the surprisingly comfortable prow, listening to the waves lap at the hull.
Suddenly the mood changed. Five miles away, or maybe more, the horizon had been broken by what looked like a head of steam – as tall as a house. Rasika's English may have been uncertain; what he was saying was not: "Whale!"
I've watched whales around the world, from Cape Cod to the Azores, from the Bay of Biscay to New Zealand. But in a decade of cetacean-spotting, I'd never seen a blue whale. Now I was about to have my first encounter with an animal as big as a jet plane, and just as loud. Fifteen minutes later, the whale broke the surface barely 50 yards from our bow.
I let loose a profanity. It was not a profound response, but how do you react to an animal so huge? The snout, with its massive blowholes, ploughed through the water, followed by the whale's extraordinary bulk.
Slim and enormous at the same time, the blue whale is almost impossible to comprehend. Yet beyond the massive size – these animals can reach up to 100ft or more in length – and the sheer span of time it takes to arch through the water, I was most astounded by its colour. It really was blue – a deep, petrol blue mottled with grey, the same colours as the sea and sky.
That day, we were blessed. Before most people back home had begun their breakfast, we'd seen a dozen or more blue whales, eating their own breakfast of krill. A blue whale will consume six tons of these tiny shrimps daily in order to sustain its great bulk. And that, above all else, is why they were here.
The meeting of the warmer coastal waters with the colder waters of the continental shelf creates a cycle of rising nutrients called upwellings. The rich, rotting matter from the ocean bed feeds the krill, and the krill feed the whales. It's an efficient exchange, a marker of oceanic fertility.
However, it was salutary to see a procession of giant container ships on the horizon, 20 nautical miles from land. That the whales chose to feed between the island and the world's busiest shipping lane seems symbolic of the effects humans have upon them.
For all their size, these animals depend on us, and our actions. In the 20th century, blue whales were nearly driven to extinction by extensive hunting. Around 360,000 blue whales died in those years – many of them taken in these same waters, often by Soviet whaling fleets deliberately under-reporting their catch. As a direct result, now only 15,000 or fewer blue whales remain worldwide.
Sri Lanka's tourist board boasts that only in this country can one see the world's biggest land mammal, the elephant, and its largest marine mammal, the blue whale, in a single day. Jetwing's well-informed naturalist, Anoma Indragith Alagiyawadu, says that as news of the whales spreads, whale-watching – already increasing by 20 per cent each year – will expand at an even greater rate. Even during my stay, a former naval boat, the Jetliner, was pressed into service for whale-watching.
The success of Sri Lanka's whale-watching industry brings problems. Unregulated operators may stress the whales and even drive them away. Asha de Vos, an impassioned young Sri Lankan marine biologist, says that she and other scientists are asking for strict guidelines to be enforced, limiting how many boats can be allowed to approach whales, and how closely. Without such stringent regulations, de Vos fears the whales might simply leave the area.
And that would leave scientists and visitors alike bereft. To say goodbye to these animals so soon after their "discovery" would be a shame indeed – a loss to Sri Lanka, and the rest of the world.
  • Philip Hoare is the author of 'Leviathan or, The Whale' (Fourth Estate), winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

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.

I am back

I am very sorry for the long silence. I realise I haven't updated my blog very regularly so now I will attempt to make my excuses; please bear with me. In my absence I have been working hard for the blue whales so have no fear!
1. I wrote some grants for research funding so I can continue the work I am doing (and I got some funding so I am extremely stoked!)
2. I presented my research at the Australian Marine Sciences Association (AMSA) meeting in Fremantle to a really receptive audience
3.  I am working on a project with the Sri Lanka Tourism Board to ensure responsible tourism in our country (particularly related to the whales)
4. I attended a really great workshop by Prof. Ken Pollock on some methods I will use in my research and
5. I have been finalising a paper that I just submitted for publication.
No rest for the wicked they say! I am not complaining in the least - this journey is so much fun and I want you all to join me on it.
OH and I have also been replying all the wonderful people who wrote to me after watching the documentary! Its been slow because there have been so many great notes and I want to respond to everyone - if you haven't heard from me yet - you will! Sorry for the delays!
Thank you for your patience!