Saturday, January 25, 2014

Blue and Sperm whales off Sri Lanka – Underwater photography

Andrew Sutton writes about photographing the Blue and Sperm whales off Sri Lanka.

Inspired by talks given by Sri Lankan naturalist Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and a previous filming assignment in Sri Lanka, I was invited to photograph the Blue Whales that pass by Mirissa in Southern Sri Lanka from December to March (that seems to be changing as we speak). Armed with permits and permissions I spent 8 days in the main shipping channel, observing and photographing the largest animal ever to grace our planet; well almost. I encountered a Pygmy Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) which grow up to only a mere 80 feet long, they are also distinguished by their smaller fluke and larger head in relation to body size. That aside they are still Blue whales and they are still vast, magnificent and awe inspiring.
Whilst we didn't observe much in the way of extraordinary behaviour, the animals seemed very happy to pull up alongside "the Spirit of Dondra" whale watching boat, and sometimes even paralleled our own vessel, taking us by surprise. For one whole day we shadowed a mother and calf, and indeed they seemed to check us out themselves, and were relaxed enough to toy with us - just out of reach of the lenses but enticingly close enough for us to truly appreciate their incredibly effortless movement in the Ocean.

Sperm whales
Toward the end of the trip we were rewarded further by pods of Sperm whales breaching along a 20Km stretch, and as we hung in the water right next to our boat they passed close enough to give us a wink and sprinkle our bodies with Sub sonic clicks.

Migration, feeding or nursing?
Its fair to say, because of the relative recent first observations of these animals here in Sri Lanka, that there isn't a great deal known about the actual reason for them being here - migration, but to where? Feeding is a possibility, or simply nursing their young; whatever the reason, for the time being they are found here and in good quantities. One fact is known, the Ocean is 2000-2500 metres deep just 13 nautical miles south of Mirissa and this "Oceanic trench" surrounds the island from Kalpitiya in the west to Trincomalee in the east, and this appears to be the territory that the Sperm whales and Blue whales are attracted by.

Perfect whale watching conditions
The conditions for whale watching in Sri Lanka are possibly some of the finest you will find; hot tropical sun, mainly clement weather conditions, an hours boat journey from the shore and dazzlingly clear water make for a completely unique experience which is unparalleled in my experience, the odds of an encounter being as high as 70-80%. Add to this the chance of close encounters with feeding and migrating Sperm Whales, Giant Manta, Short Finned Pilot whales and Spinner dolphins and you have a Cetacean paradise where once there was human turmoil.

This trip to photograph Blue whales underwater was only permissible with permits and with co operation from the Sri Lankan Government and Navy.
The trip was organised by Jetwing Eco Holidays with the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotion Bureau assisting with Media formalities. My biggest thanks to Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (CEO Jetwing Eco holidays) who made all this possible and brought this story to our attention. In May 2008, he took the story to the world that Southern Sri Lanka is the best place in the world for seeing Blue whales