While the width of its fluke is the length of an average Sri Lankan fishing boat, it is with great respect that we maneouver through its territory knowing that a mere flick of the tail would send us reeling. But it is with unending fascination that we stop to watch. Even as a researcher who has the privilege to spend many hours weaving through their world, each encounter reminds me how lucky I am to experience something that only the smallest percentage of our world has, and ever will get the opportunity to marvel at.
The largest animal to ever roam the planet, the blue whale, is fast becoming a national icon; a symbol for the Sri Lanka in a new era of peace. While Sri Lankans are now free to roam and experience the entire country, the blue whale is free to explore the entire ocean, however, those in our waters do not wander afar. The northern Indian Ocean basin is home to a population of blue whales that, unlike others of this species, remain resident all year round. While the warm waters of the tropics are a key reason for tourists from around the world to flock to our shores, it is precisely what prevents most whales from hanging around throughout the year. Tropical waters are generally less food-rich than those in the cooler areas such as the poles. For a species that feeds exclusively on tiny shrimplike animals called krill, that are no bigger than a 2 rupee coin, and consume about 3.6 metric tons or 2/3rds of the weight of an elephant in a single day – having areas rich with food is a key to their survival.
The blue whale is a baleen whale. This means they have fringed plates of fingernail-like material, called baleen attached to their upper jaws and a distinct absence of teeth. These giant animals feed by gulping an enormous mouthful of water, which is made possible by the expansion of their throat pleats. The whale then uses its massive tongue, which weighs as much as an elephant, to force the water out through the thin, overlapping baleen plates. The krill that are left behind are then swallowed in a single gulp.
So why are they called blue whales? Because as they swim under the surface of the ocean, they take on a beautiful tinge of blue; while at the surface, they are a mottled blue-gray in colour. While blue whales are generally considered solitary, in Sri Lanka, one often gets the opportunity to see more than just a couple in a single area. So why are our waters so popular with these great leviathans? Well, evidence comes in the form of a reddish substance that floats at the surface of the water before dissolving….blue whale poo! It gets its beautiful hue from the reddish-pink krill that the whales consume…and the fact that they defaecate is a sign that they are feeding in our waters.
While Sri Lanka is now being crowned one of the most accessible places in the world to see blue whales, for over two thousand years another giant has become synonymous with our island – the elephant. It became such a symbol of Sri Lanka that the coat of arms used during Dutch and British rule were adorned with an elephant standing majestically between two stands of palm trees. Sri Lanka is a blessed land. An unimaginable range of cultural and natural sights, smells and sounds abound as you travel through this island and the sight of the largest land mammal roaming the planet today is certainly one to behold. The mere fact that it is possible to see the largest land mammal and the largest marine mammal in one holiday makes Sri Lanka a very unique land and definitely worth a visit.
Unfortunately, both these species, the largest mammals in their respective habitats are endangered – they face a very high risk of extinction in the wild. They face problems related to increasing human encroachment – directly linked to increasing population size. Blue whales face significant threats from increasing ship traffic and elephants suffer from loss of territory and habitat due to increasing land development. While research on blue whales is still at its infancy mostly due to the costs related to working in the marine environment, we are beginning to understand their needs and better ways to conserve the populations.
So, while we sit back and enjoy the moment it is always important to remember to treat these giants with respect. We must recognize that these are wild animals, and while seeing them is a moment to celebrate, there is no guarantee for nature. To truly appreciate these giants, we must watch them in their natural habitat indulging in their natural behaviours. Rushing to get as close as possible or any other invasive action on our part only disturbs them and sends them fleeing. It is essential that you tell your operator that while you are keen to watch these animals you are happy to hang back and get the real experience to prevent harassing the animals. Make a statement about the importance of conserving these species when you pick your guide and don’t be afraid to vocalize if you think they are disrupting the animal’s behaviour. We have to remember that while we have the privilege to experience these giants, two of the greatest that have ever lived, they are not ours to destroy. We have a responsibility to protect them as they belong to all of us and most of all to our unborn children.
(This article will be published in SL magazine very soon. Click here for full access to the magazine http://content.yudu.com/Library/A1vcju/SLmagazine1stQuarter/resources/index.htm?referrerUrl=http%3A%2F%2Ffree.yudu.com%2Fitem%2Fdetails%2F464196%2FSL-magazine---1st-Quarter--2012)