Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Whale watching off the coast of Mirissa–Sri Lanka

Wilson , Amudesh and my wife Hemamala have been long time friends and are likeminded when it comes to nature and the wilds. We are a set of ardent birders while Hemamala has a passion for butterflies as well. Both these pastimes being activities on land we wanted to try out the latest naturalistic hobby of ‘Whale-watching’ that is being popularised these days ….

Mirissa a new and upcoming tourist location in the south coast Sri Lanka went into the world travel logs as one of the top ranking whale watching destinations during last decade. Mirissa became famous for Blue whales and Common Dolphin sighting very close to the shoreline and this annual migration of whales in the months of December to March gave positive sighting around coordinates “N 05° 52.684 ', E 80° 16.416' “ enhancing a thriving tourist industry. The number of boats modified with high decks leaving the Mirissa fisheries harbour has tripled since 2009 when only a few fishing boats took tourists into the sea for an exorbitant fee.   

Whale Path copy
The general Whale and Dolphin watching route and positive sightings for the year 2015

The latest addition to the whale watching industry is the Sri Lanka Navy in a better and safer manner on their luxury cruiser the ‘Princes of Lanka’ compared to the improvised vessels that leave the Mirissa fisheries harbour every morning. The Princes of Lanka leave the Naval Base at Galle on weekends  during this time of the year. We preferred this to the improvised types from the Mirissa harbour….

By six in the morning the listing, ticketing and seating takes place and the cruiser leaves for Mirissa after everyone has been served with a packed breakfast and fruit juice. The captain narrates of what to  and what not to do while on board and informs of the medical assistance and of the procedures to be adopted in case of an emergency….

We pull out of the Galle harbour by 7.30 a.m. to Mirissa  to return in timeline of five hours.

Seating within the cruiser


The power of the propellers creating the foamy trail 

Children mesmerized 
Out of the harbour now in the deep sea, everyone is on the open decks clad in life vests with the beautiful morning sun in their eyes and wind blowing wide across the faces…everyone are seen grabbing onto the railings with extended necks into the sea… posturing  the ‘Titanic style’; the famous film on the ill-fated British luxury liner in 1912.  

Sun in the eye, wind across the face

Wilson Photographed us
Wilson with Amudesh

We are just across the shoreline of the renowned Unawatuna beachhead, and the engines cut-off, the captain announces that a school of Common Dolphins has been sighted. Eyes stare into the thick deep blue and from time to time we see the silver grey bodies curve out of the water and back into the deep. They are fishing…and the fish in panic take flight out of the water to escape the dolphins. Each time one attacks the ball of fish  we see both the dolphin and the fish out of the water.

Click at the right time
 Accounting to this activity out in the sea there is more activity on-board…with the engines cut the cruiser is free at the mercy of waves dipping swaying and tumbling…it began with the children and ended with the unsuspecting ladies. The cheerful faces until now have stretched long and are throwing out; its called SEA SICKNESS.
Dolphin 2 
Missed by a tail length
Attention to children 
The Navy’s medical care was at assistance with bags distributed for the needy to throw into and medication for the sever cases. That was to be the end of the whale watching to many who now are seated in air conditioned comfort in the saloon area behind the bridge.

Glue stuck to the rail
Four of us being also novices in this game are lucky to have survived the rolling seas. I’m surprised of Hemamala who is glue stuck to the railing, did not show symptoms of sickness probably through her love for the water or for  reminiscing how Vihara Mahadevi who was set afloat into the deep seas in scarification to a probable Tsunami  that hit the Kelanithissa Kingdom as recorded in history.
Having had enough with the dolphins and the sick now put to comfort we are back cruising to Mirissa for the whales.

Boats from Mirissa


World cruising yachts too come here in search of whales 
Another hour gone we are amongst several other boats and yachts at the said location looking for whales. Communication say that there had been one whale spotted this day and all eyes stare into the rippling sea… eager to see a blowout. I keep clicking the shutter into the deep indigo  for photographic record to be perused later. Another hour passes we do not see the size of a whale and with the sun at its azimuth with disappointment for many we head back leaving behind a few other boats still waiting for the whale to surface. 

Navy look outs for whales
My random clicking in the area where the whale was said to have been sighted gave this unusual picture.....Whale???
Whales are mammals and are the largest on planet earth with most species being migratory. The reason for their annual presence here in Mirissa is said to be the warm waters in the Indian Ocean and the presence of ‘krill’ a favourite food source that resemble shrimp but smaller in size. Krill has a daily habit of migrating on a vertical journey from the sea bed. They reach the ocean surface during the night to feed on the surface algae and sink to the deep during the day to avoid predation. It could be this reason that the whales are active around the surface in the early hours of the day predating on the krill.

Checking-out the propellers 
The checks on the drive gear of the cruise done we commence the return journey. The children and those interested are welcome to peep into the  controls on the bridge but many seem to have retired into the saloon.



Not in the habit of getting disappointed over matters… I make the maximum with my photography. Never realized the sea had this much hue and shade of the colour blue. This little time of about five hours created so much shades of blue that no colour pallet have ever created. The children’s interaction with the uniformed staff brought about good photo opportunities as well.


Hues of Blue
Deep Indigo
Sea Blue
A Blue sea turned Silver against the glittering sun
DSC_0493 crop
Navy's  Feminine Elegance
Getting closer to the shoreline the famous Unawatuna bay that is frequented for bathing and sunning painted a totally different picture from out here.  The Rumassala HIll or the ‘Bonavista’ [‘O Happy Sight’ in Spanish] would have been coined by Don Lorenzo de Almeida being shipwrecked and drifted to the Galle harbour in 1505.  Never thought that Rumassla was such an expanse as seen from the liner. Closer home the Dutch Fort of Galle looked so dwarfed in this vast Indian Ocean.

Rumassala / Bonavista

Unawatuna Beach / Wellamadama

Yes it is so vast and so much water around; it’s hard to imagine that there are those that take up seafaring as their occupation.  My memory runs down to schooldays and three persons in particular; Suresh Markandan, Nalin Abeyratne and Ravindra Jayawickrame who took up this oceanic occupation and they all reached its heights. Suresh and Nalin ended as ship captains and are now into maritime business, while Ravindra is the present Harbour Master in Colombo. It is only when you are exposed to these different habitats that you tend to feel how different are people when selecting their occupations.

Panorama 3
Dutch Fort in Galle dwarfed in the Indian Ocean
Light house in the Fort opposite the harbour
I’m now dreaming of others  who have put their oceanic experiences into words. Seeing the solitary fishing boat out there with just only two in it…. again a disturbing occupation to me as of now, may  have triggered Ernest Hemingway to write his award winning book ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ in 1951;and prefers to call him more an angler than a writer.

The Old-man and the Sea

‘The Cat’s Table’ by the Sri Lankan born Michael Ondaatje  narrating his experience of the journey by ship to England as a school boy touches many on episodes of famous aristocratic personnel who came over to England by sea.

We are close to a large buoy outside the Galle Harbour when the Captains voice is clear requesting everybody off  the quarter deck and we a back in our seats within the saloon.


Back on the jetty amongst the capstans that take the sway of the liner we look back at  ‘Princes of Lanka’ more in appreciation for a memorable five hours……A lifetime experience to all of us for sure.

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