Ten years ago, few people were aware that thousands of whales were skimming past Sri Lanka's southwest coast each year. British marine biologist Charles Anderson first proposed the idea and, after significant research, it turned out that the island was sitting just off one of the greatest migration paths on the planet.
Today, southern Sri Lanka is one of the world's top whale watching destinations.
A meeting of warm and cool ocean currents creates nutrient-rich and krill-packed water that's a top feeding spot for several whale species, as well as dolphins, turtles and large fish. In Sri Lanka, the whales come closer to shore than elsewhere in the world, with thousands of sperm and blue whales passing by annually – during the November to April migration season, they're so numerous that sightings are almost guaranteed.
Where to go whale watching
The south coast town of Mirissa is the main hub for Sri Lanka's whale-watching trips. In season, boat tours leave daily from the local harbour and, with a palm-backed beach and decent accommodation, it's a pleasant place to spend a few days either side of your excursion.
Visiting in April (one of the best and busiest months for sightings), I booked online with Raja and the Whales. Claiming to be the first whale watching boat in the bay, they adhere to global conservation guidelines (not mandatory in Sri Lanka) and contribute daily whale data to international marine groups.
At 6,000 Rupees (around £30) per person, they're one of the most expensive operators – you'll find stacks of other boats advertising cheaper trips in Mirissa – but with a glut of good reviews, they seemed like a good bet.
My alarm went off at 5am and, having arrived in Mirissa the night before, it took me a moment to establish where I was. Sanity returning, I jumped into the shower, pulled on some clothes and threw my camera and sun-cream into a rucksack. Stepping outside my hotel, a tuk-tuk was already waiting for me and, after ticking my name off the list, we rumbled towards the harbour where twenty other tourists were starting to board the boat.
"Sea sickness pills?" a smiley member of the boat crew offered as I walked across the gangplank. "Thanks," I smiled gratefully, accepting the foil wrapped Avomine tablets and a bottle of water. The last thing I wanted was to spend the next five hours puking over the side of the boat.
I donned a musty smelling life jacket and the crew served steaming Ceylon tea and spicy ginger biscuits as we pulled away from the harbour past colourful fishing boats. Aware that whale-watching is big business in Mirissa, I was surprised to that we appeared to be the only boat heading out. Sailing into the ocean, we chugged across the chop as the rising sun sent twinkling shimmers across the water.
"Good morning," a crew member called above the clinking of cups, "how's the tea?" a satisfied mumble passed through the still sleepy passengers. Introducing himself as our 'marine expert' he continued with a short talk about the correct way to approach a whale, describing how other boats had been known to chase or 'box' them in by grouping tightly around them. He finished with some good news:
"We saw five whales yesterday, three sperm and two blue whale."
This news seemed to perk the other passengers up a bit and we all gazed eagerly out at the ocean.
Soon, a pod of spinner dolphins came dancing up to the boat and the captain slowed to a gentle pace. Jumping in and out of the water in arcing leaps, they played beside our boat for ten minutes or more, splashing and soaring through the water while we 'oo-ed', 'ahh-ed' and clicked our cameras. "I see them everyday but I still love them," one crewmember told me, grinning as he zoomed in for a closer shot.
Glancing over the stern, I noticed that a group of three other boats had now left the harbour and were heading in our direction. Already aware, and unkeen to share a viewing spot, our captain revved the engine, brought the boat back up to speed and headed for the horizon.
Breakfast was next, which meant fried eggs or omelette cooked fresh in the galley – no mean feat, as we were now rolling about in the open ocean. Opting for the omelette, I sandwiched mine between two slices of toast and washed it all down with a chilled mango juice from the communal cool box.
No sooner were the breakfast plates cleared, I noticed a puff of what looked like smoke, erupt from the water. "Sperm whale," nodded one of the crew, and we chugged towards it.
Cutting the engine a few metres back, the boat fell quiet as everyone watched in anticipation. A sperm whale's head measures a third of its body length but, with just the tip of its back visible above the water, it was different to gauge its full size. These are also the deepest divers of all whales, able to plunge thousands of metres in search of giant squid. And, sure enough, after a few minutes on the surface, it arched its back a little, revealing a few more inches of its mass, and dived vertically into the ocean, displayed a beautiful triangular-shaped tail.
As we pulled away, I saw that more boats were heading out to sea, two of which were gaining ground on us – no doubt having noticed that we'd spotted something. Our marine expert was quick clarifying our doubts:
"The whale may only stay down for ten minutes or so, so the other boats will probably see him too."
But one of the crew had already spotted two more sperm whales sending up spouts of water ahead, so we motored away from the approaching vessels.
After two hours on the water, we'd seen five sperm whales in total and the boat was full of smiling faces. Always a fair distance behind us, the other boats had had plenty of luck too and, content that their passengers had seen what they'd paid for, most had now turned around and were chugging back to Mirissa.
On a mission
Our captain had other ideas, having spotted what he thought was a blue whale in the far distance. Five minutes later, he cut the engine just a few metres from the largest mammal on earth. These endangered giants can reach up to thirty-three metres in length but with just the dorsal fin in view, it was hard to imagine the extent of what lay beneath. Nonetheless, we were all transfixed and, as everyone on board fell silent, all I could hear was the sploshing of the boat and the puff of the whale spouting water through its blowhole.
Full of surprises
After three hours of whale spotting, it was time to head back to the harbour. Fresh fruit and cold drinks were served by the crew and, by now, everyone was busily chatting about their favourite whale of the morning as we sailed over a gently rolling sea. About to sink my teeth into a slice of watermelon, my jaw dropped as I saw a huge shape in the water. "Whale shark," our whale expert announced, pointing to the dark shadow a few metres from the boat.
The world's largest fish, these peaceful creatures can be more than fourteen metres long, with huge mouths like car grill plates, filled with hundreds of tiny teeth for filtering plankton, krill and small fish. With a wide, flat head and speckled blue and white body, they're easily recognisable and, as our serene visitor glided beneath our boat, twenty-one passengers gave elated sighs.
Stepping off the gangplank back in Mirissa, every member of the boat was beaming, crew included. We'd been the first boat out and last boat in, had a freshly cooked breakfast and seen three different species of oversized marine life, plus dolphins: I patted myself on the back for choosing a good boat: it seems you get what you pay for.