Whale watching in Sri Lanka

Spotting the world’s largest animal can be a thrilling experience provided you don’t expect too much, says Shruthi Mathews

I recently travelled to Sri Lanka with the intention of writing a travel piece. Admittedly, I spent less time travelling and more time, well, never mind, but my so-called travels did end up in a rather interesting whale watching excursion.

There are a lot of nice things for tourists to do in Sri Lanka, but whale-watching is one particular activity that seems to be experiencing quite a hike in popularity. There are several spots around the island where you can do this, depending on the season. Mirissa, which is on the southern tip, is considered one of the best sites in the world to spot both blue and sperm whales. I remember going there about four years ago and getting on a small, rickety sort of boat with a handful of people. Now I find myself climbing aboard a huge boat and being given food and bottled water — as well as a very professional-looking pamphlet about the tour.

How swiftly things change.

Whilst in Sri Lanka, I also happened to watch a film called Adaptation, which I’m reminded of as I sit down to write this. The main character, Charlie Kaufman, is a screenwriter faced with the task of adapting a book about orchids into a film. One of Kaufman’s issues (and he has many) is how to make a story about orchids interesting. I find myself in a similar situation when it comes to whales.

This isn’t to suggest that whales aren’t beautiful, magnificent wonders of the natural world — they are this and more; as are orchids. But whale-watching is a fundamentally underwhelming experience. Sort of like New Year Eve.

Anti-climax is the almost inevitable consequence of anything that has been, for want of better phrasing, ‘hyped up’ — and whale-watching comes with an inherent hype: the prospect of seeing the largest animal on earth in its natural habitat is, of course, fairly thrilling. So despite the early start (if travelling from Colombo to Mirissa, the journey to the harbour takes around three hours. The boat leaves at 6 am. You calculate) people are generally quite excited as they stand on the shores of the vast blue sea, filled with promise and expectation.

And there really is something quite ennobling about facing the ocean at sunrise and feeling the brisk sea-spray on your face. Personally, I had visions of myself as a young Odysseus about to embark on a perilous adventure filled with wondrous, mythical creatures; I glanced around and noticed that I wasn’t the only one caught in a reverie of some sort — although there was a significant group who seemed to possess a more Captain Ahab-like energy. Well, not in wanting to kill Moby Dick, but just being the first ones to spot him.

There were several false alarms before the actual sightings: “Whale! Oh, no… just a flying fish.” “Whale! No, no… a sea-turtle.”

But when we did eventually see one, it was truly exhilarating, if brief. You don’t really see an awful lot of the whale. Just it’s back, and the fluke — which I have since learned is what you call the forked tail. And it’s more a flashing image than a sustained moment.

But here’s the thing, the first, second, and even third sighting is wonderful. There’s something quite special that comes from knowing that a creature so huge and powerful exists — and that you’re right there, almost close enough to touch. By the time you get to your fourth whale, however, you begin to stop caring. I had forgotten the very serious downside of the trip: sea-sickness. After having seen a couple of whales, the majority of the formerly excited troop were lying supine on mats and cushions, fanning themselves with the pamphlets to fend off the nausea.

It happens, and there’s generally not much you can do about it.

However, whilst this is a downside, it shouldn’t be a deterrent. The intermittent moments between spewing your breakfast over the side of the boat when you do actually see the spray or fluke of a whale are breathtaking. These moments are rare and few. Much like the species itself. Blue whale hunting reached a peak in the 1960s, and what remains of the species today is estimated to be only around five percent of its original population. We were fortunate in that we actually saw quite a few. But once the novelty of actually seeing them had worn off, people became less excited.

But regardless of the generally waning enthusiasm, every time the boat raced towards a whale, there was definitely an excited little shiver that darted up my spine. It’s an experience, and a unique one at that. Just be prepared, and don’t expect too much. That way you’ll be happy.

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