The Secret to Diving with Blue Whales in Sri LankaSimon Vetterli
Nature lovers from all over the world have been visiting the country for decades to observe and photograph elephants, leopards and countless bird species. However, little is known about scuba diving in Sri Lanka. This may be due to the fact that the island is not surrounded by a protective coral reef and therefore vulnerable to the power of the Indian Ocean. This was also one of the main reasons why, when the 2004 tsunami hit, it caused such devastating damage to the country. The underwater landscape consists mainly of rocks covered with algae and sponges, similar to the Mediterranean, but unfortunately without the consistent brilliant visibility of the Mediterranean Sea. Tropical reef fish such as angel fish, napoleon and countless nudibranch species still romp in the reefs around Sri Lanka.
But in the deep blue of the Indian Ocean dwells another secret; blue whales. “Perhaps Sri Lanka is currently the only destination in the world where you can observe blue whales with great reliability.” explains Mads Odgaard of Kingfish Dive & Travel. It is not the very large species of up to 30 meters long, the Balaenoptera musculus, but the smaller species of pygmy blue whale, the Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda. The word “pygmy” in the name is a little misleading, as these whales can still reach lengths of 24 meters and weigh up to 140 tons. The most famous place in Sri Lanka to see the pygmy blue whales is near the south of the island. There is well-developed whale watching tourism, which has operated successfully for years, but due to its popularity there are also countless tourists with whom you have to share the animals. Trincomalee on the other hand is relatively unknown and was rediscovered in 2009 after the end of the 28-year civil war in the east of the country.
It is here where several deep-sea basins and trenches come right down to the coast, forming one of the largest natural deep-sea harbors in the world— highly contested in history and still home to one of Sri Lanka’s largest military bases. Between February and May each year, pygmy blue whales gather here, attracted by the microorganisms in the deep trenches.
“Since 2011, we also have official licenses from the authorities to work with the whales.” says Daya Rathne, a 43-year-old Sri Lankan local. “I was born and raised in the mountains near Nuwara Eliya, but immediately fell in love with the ocean and work with the whales.”
Daya, who also worked on the famous BBC series Blue Planet II can be seen in the last episode during the making-of. “One of the first days I went out into the ocean, we came across a blue whale right in the harbor of Trincomalee.” He says proudly of his first experience with the giant mammals. Of course, Trincomalee has become better known since that time. The images of blue whales are attracting more and more tourists. “Therefore, we ask all our guests not to link Trincomalee if they share images of the blue whales on social media.” Daya explains this is an attempt to keep mass tourism away from the small town in the east. Whether this is actually a viable method to protect the animals from too many visitors is questionable. However, the fact is that there are already too many boats with the whales in the water. “We are the only ones licensed to work with the blue whales. All other boats come from nearby dive centers and are illegal here.” Daya says angrily. The anger can be understood; sometimes five to six boats can be seen around a single blue whale. They approach it very fast as soon as it comes to the surface to breathe. “In such situations, we prefer turning off and searching for our own whale.” Daya explains his approach.
Blue whales are naturally shy and will dive down earlier than necessary when disturbed. “Not so easy.” says Hans Hurvig from Denmark, who is in Sri Lanka for the first time and has specially trained his freediving skills for this trip. “As soon as the boat stops, you have to dive as fast as possible, hold your breath and behave calmly, if you want to see the whale as long as possible” continues Hans. As different as we humans are, so are the whales. Sometimes you have an individual who is shy and does not seek contact, sometimes you have a whale who does not seem to notice the presence of people so much. “It is important that we treat the animals with respect, so that we can preserve this treasure here in Sri Lanka and do not disturb the animals.” says Mads Odgaard, the co-owner of Kingfish Dive & Travel in Denmark, who organized the trip. “Only when we work with vendors who are tested and do not make a mass event out of the tour, we can protect the animals” continues Odgaard. Above all, he means the boats that operate without a license and throw groups of snorkelers directly into the water above the whales after they have approached the animal at full speed. “It is not uncommon to see fights between the boats, here on the open sea.” says Daya sadly as he reflects on recent experiences over the years. “We must not disturb the animals too much, otherwise they may never come back” continues the guide.
Biologist Dr. Charles Anderson wrote in 2008 a study on the migration of blue whales from the north-east of Sri Lanka further into the south-west of the Arabian Sea. The waters around Sri Lanka are an ideal resting place for the animals, because over a hundred rivers rinse rich minerals into the water, which in turn attract countless microorganisms, from which feed the blue whales. Therefore, it is so important that the animals on their route are not disturbed too much or scared and the experience and the respectful handling of the animals in the foreground. This has also been recognized by Britt Montesinos: “It has always been my life’s dream to see whales underwater. I cannot believe that even the world’s largest mammals – the blue whale.” says the Copenhagen-based Montesinos enthusiastically after their first encounter with the giants. “Unbelievable how slow the whale movements are, but how fast they still travel underwater. Luckily, I was able to take a picture quickly.” says the passionate photographer proudly. And she is completely right. To experience these huge whales up close will be unforgettable. If, with a bit of luck, you are in the right place and at the right moment, time seems to stand still when the blue whales pass by. After the massive head and approximately four to six meters long mouth goes past, then comes another ten meters in length before you set sight on the two to three-meter-long pectoral fins. But then the massive body of the whale keeps moving past, the caudal fin measuring four to six feet wide, and you should take care because with one, powerful blow of this huge fin, the blue whale can accelerate to up to 30 kilometers per hour. Anyone who has swam too close behind a whale’s fin and has been washed away by the huge displacement of water can confirm this. Visually and physically, the blue whale meets all the expectations of the world’s largest mammal. The few seconds that you spend with the animals seem like hours, which are rewritten again and again in the brain of the guests.