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In the Company of Giants: The Whales of Sri Lanka

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka Blue WhaleTRUE BLUES: There are three species of blue whales currently recognised and many believe the Sri Lankan blue whale will be a fourth

Words & photographs Douglas David Seifert

The blue whale is a catalogue of superlatives – a 2.7-tonne tongue; breath exhaled to a height of 12 metres; a mouth that can envelop 90 tonnes of water in a single gulp; the biggest heart the world has ever seen, weighing up to 600 kilos; calves that grow at 100 kilos per day towards the end of pregnancy and at birth are seven metres in length; newborns gaining 80 kilos a day in weight consuming the 150 gallons of milk their mothers provide. The largest animal in the ocean and the largest creature known to have ever lived on earth.

In 1694 physician and naturalist Sir Robert Sibbald described a giant whale found stranded on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, Scotland. Sixty years later, this species description was reassessed and expanded upon by pioneering taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus who moved whales from the category of fish to mammals. Linnaeus, who almost certainly never saw a blue whale in life, relied extensively on Sibbald’s publication and designated the blue whale as Balaena musculus. Subsequent taxonomic revisions have modified the genus name into Balaenoptera.

What was not stated in the original description – or perhaps was not even obvious at the time – is that female blue whales grow larger than males, as is the case in all baleen whale species; the opposite to toothed whales, such as the sperm whale or orca.

A blue whale reaches sexual maturity at somewhere between five and ten years of age when the female reaches 22m in length. The male’s penis is 3m long and 36cm in diameter at the base of the shaft, which tapers towards the tip. Females give birth every two to three years, with pregnancy lasting up to eleven months. Before man and whaling, a blue whale’s lifespan reached upwards of 90 years.

Since the first specimen was described, we have discovered that the blue whale is not a single species. This gradual revelation was a by-product of comparative anatomical observations and the unexpected result of the ruthless efficiency of the 20th-century whaling industry. Whaling has gone on ever since the first humans fashioned spears and boats capable of reaching the slow-moving whales that inhabited coastal waters, such as right whales, bowhead whales, grey whales and humpback whales. Rock art on cave walls in Alaska depicts whaling three thousand years ago. Even such early artisanal whaling had a catastrophic effect on whale populations. The North Atlantic grey whale became extinct in European waters by 500 AD and was extirpated from the shores of North America between 1700 and 1800. 

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka DSC4792 1
LICENCE TO THRILL: An official permit from the government is needed to get in the water with the whales. Permit-holder Tony Wu gets up close legally and respectfully

A DEADLY BUSINESS

The killing of whales went from a tribal activity to a profitable business enterprise with the development of large sailing ships capable of travelling vast distances for months or years at a time. As whale populations were depleted, ships sailed further to richer hunting grounds, eventually discovering a seemingly endless bounty of whales in the Southern Ocean, in the waters surrounding Antarctica. Nearly every modern nation succumbed to the lust for cheap whale oil, including: Great Britain, the USSR, Norway, Japan, the United States, Korea, Iceland, Spain, Denmark, Australia, Portugal, Canada, China, France, the Netherlands, Brazil, South Africa, Peru, New Zealand, Chile, and Panama.

The invention of a deck-mounted swivel cannon designed to fire explosive-tipped harpoons, combined with high-speed, steam-powered catcher boats, made for efficient killing of fast-moving whale species such as the blue whale. In fact, there were no whale species that could outrun a catcher boat nor evade their harpoons for long. The only reprieve for the whales was when a ship was full with oil and had to return to port, or the whales travelled beyond the range of catcher boats’ fuel capacity.

When the first floating stern-slip factory ship arrived in 1925, designed to efficiently process the bodies of whales into oil, any time, any place on the high seas, with the regularity of clockwork, the whales had no reprieve at all. As tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of blue whales, from all of the world’s oceans, were harvested, rendered and processed, it became obvious to some whalers looking at the yields of oil per whale that there were puzzling variations in their catches. It was apparent that there were size and weight differences between the blue whales harvested in the southern hemisphere and those of the north, and a realisation that they comprised two distinct subspecies. 

Of these blue whales, the northern blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, is the species described by Linnaeus based on the specimen examined by Sibbald and is found solely in the northern hemisphere of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. 


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In the North Atlantic, the largest measured blue whale recorded is 28.1m; in the North Pacific, 26.8m and 27.1m. There are two populations in the North Atlantic that do not intermix: the Canada-New England-Greenland population (that travels as far south as Bermuda and the Florida coast) and the Iceland-Norway-Ireland-Azores population (that travels as far south as the Canary Islands). The current populations are not confirmed but are estimated at between 600 and 1,500 individuals. The number of northern blue whales before whaling is unknown, but it is well documented that between 1900 and 1999, at the very minimum, 6,699 individuals were taken from the North Atlantic and 8,838 were taken from the North Pacific. A total of 15,537 northern blue whales were killed by man in less than 100 years.


The largest of the blues is the Antarctic or ‘true’ blue whale (Balaneoptera musculus intermedia), found exclusively in the waters of the Southern Ocean. The largest true blue whale recorded was 32.6m, with the next-largest animal 31.7m. One specimen caught off South Georgia in 1947 weighed 190 tonnes. Antarctic blue whales were originally the most abundant blue whale subspecies. The whale industry is reported to have killed, 363,648 blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere, with 239,000 killed in just 50 years. In the 1931 season alone, blue whales accounted for 75 per cent of the whale oil production worldwide. When the killing of blue whales was officially forbidden by the International Whaling Commission in 1972, it is thought that only 360 of the true blue whale remained alive.

In the 1960s, Japanese whaling biologist Tadayoshi Ichihara published the discovery and description of a third blue whale subspecies found in the southern Indian Ocean, the southeast Atlantic Ocean and the southeast and southwest Pacific Ocean: the pygmy blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda). The pygmy blue is a pygmy in name only – a mature female is only five metres shorter in length than a true blue whale. 

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka Pygmy Blue
RELATIVE SIZE: The pygmy blue is a pygmy in name only – a mature female is only five metres shorter in length than a true blue whale

FOUND IN SRI LANKA

Scientists today discuss and debate an arguable fourth subspecies, tentatively called the Sri Lankan (or, interchangeably, Northern Indian Ocean) blue whale (putative Balaenoptera musculus indica). 

The Sri Lankan blue whale was found by chance during a sperm whale research project conducted off Trincomalee Bay, in the early 1980s by scientists Jonathan Gordon and Hal Whitehead. They came across blue whales feeding in the bay as an unanticipated bonus. The Sri Lankan Civil War erupted in 1983 as fighting broke out between the Tamil Tigers and the government forces, and raged on for the next 26 years, effectively ending research in the northeast of the country and allowing whales to go about their business without interruption or inconvenience. In some ways, the Sri Lankan Civil War was the best thing to happen to whales in Sri Lanka – no one was hunting them, no one was harassing them, they were left in peace for the first time in two hundred years.

After the Civil War ended, Trincomalee Bay began to be rebuilt as a tourist destination. By this time, Sri Lankan and foreign researchers had begun studying the blue whales found off the south coast of the country. One such researcher is Dr Asha de Vos, who first encountered pygmy blue whales off New Zealand in 2002 after getting her marine biology degree from the University of St Andrews. When she returned to her native Sri Lanka, she began the Sri Lankan Whale Project (now Oceanswell), and along the way was granted her masters from Oxford and her PhD from the University of Western Australia. Since 2008 she has been studying Sri Lankan blue whales, which she calls ‘The Unorthodox Whales’, because unlike other blue whale species, they do not undertake an annual migration to the colder seas of either the North or South Pole. They appear to be resident year-round. She has also determined that they breed six months out of phase with other pygmy blue whale species, and they have a distinct acoustic vocalisation. These factors tend to tip the balance in considering the Sri Lankan blue whale to be a distinct subspecies from the established pygmy blue whale or the true blue whale. The benchmark for a definition of a subspecies must include two elements: distinguishing biological features, and geographic isolation or genetics. However, in this case, the genetic studies are so far inconclusive.

There is also the possibility of perhaps two or three (some say a grand total of nine) otherwise genetically and/or geographically isolated subspecies or populations yet to be described in other parts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The Sri Lankan blue whales are encountered along the south coast of Sri Lanka, off Dondra Head, near the village of Mirissa and in the northeast of the country off the deepwater bay of Trincomalee. During certain times of the year, the whales migrate westwards to the Arabian Sea past the Maldives and into waters north of Seychelles, and the Gulf of Aden off the south coast of Oman. 

In the 1960s, these were extremely dangerous waters for blue whales, as well as for sperm whales and the Arabian Sea humpback whales. From 1960 to 1972 the Soviet Union ran an unprecedented whaling effort, with three enormous factory ships and nearly 70 catcher boats. The Soviet Union whaling business was best described by Russian whale scientist Alfred Berzin: ‘Ignoring every quota restriction or prohibition agreed on by the International Whaling Commission, the USSR factory ship fleets killed every whale they could find. Nothing was spared: highly endangered protected species, undersized whales, even lactating females and their newborn calves – anything that crossed the bow of a catcher boat was considered fair game.’   

It is now known that the Soviet whaling fleet took at least 1,294 blue whales from the Arabian Sea illegally, as well as 242 Arabian Sea humpback whales. This indiscriminate slaughter, which involved the taking of protected species, and falsifying catch data, was a massive fraud. It resulted in the near-extinction of the North Pacific right whale, protected since 1935 (perhaps 30 animals left alive today); a 70 per cent cull of Arabian Sea humpbacks (perhaps 82 individuals remain today) and the terrifying haul of  Sri Lankan blue whales. No one knows the current population status of the Sri Lankan blue whale  – it may be on the verge of extinction or it may be recovering.

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka Sperm WhaleDEEP DIVERS: Sperm whales dive as deep as  2,000m in search of  food such as squid

A TOURIST ATTRACTION 

What is known about the Sri Lankan population is that the two biggest threats currently are entanglements in fishing gear that result in drowning, and death from ship collisions. The blue whales’ preferred feeding ground off the south coast of Sri Lanka is in one the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In the past ten years, there was been a 300 per cent increase in shipping traffic, and collisions have killed an undetermined number of whales. The Sri Lanka National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency estimated that up to 20 blue and sperm whales were being killed annually by ships, but the number could be deceptive as many whales sink when dead and their corpses are not tallied. One estimate even puts the number of blue whale deaths as high as 56 a year! The solution to the shipping collision is simple: move the shipping lanes out 50km – it will make no appreciable difference in time or fuel and will keep the ships out of the whales’ foraging area.

However, in the past three years, another threat to the Sri Lankan blue whales has become glaringly apparent: the harassment and forced behavioural changes caused by out-of-control tourism. The whale-watching business and especially the illegal ‘swim-with–whales’ tours are an unlicensed, unscrupulous racket. In the fishing village of Mirissa a booming and clearly unregulated whale watching industry has developed in the past few years. Today, the scene on the ocean mid-morning off Mirissa is one of dozens of boats chasing after a few whales. Once a whale surfaces to breathe, the entirety of the flotilla of these boats races to get as close as possible. For an animal trying to breathe, having a horde of boats closing in from all directions is stressful, and the whales often abandon their feeding and escape to areas away from the chaos.

In other parts of the world, where whale watching has been an established activity and a code of conduct created or environment laws passed by governments, whale watching can be a relatively non-intrusive activity, bringing humans out to appreciate whales. But in places where permits are disregarded, the operators who act irresponsibly drag the entire industry down. And this is what has been occurring off the coast of Sri Lanka. 

The ‘user comments’ on the internet on sites such as Trip Advisor or Facebook describe horrific scenes of rival whale-watching boats bearing down dangerously on each other, crews swearing at other crews and throwing projectiles, even screaming death threats to rival boats. Respected Sri Lankan scientist Dr Anoukchika D Ilangakoon describes the current situation thus: ‘Competition among whale-watch operators and a lack of knowledge regarding whale biology and behavioural ecology, is leading to unethical practices and harassment of animals… Therefore there could be a distinct possibility that unregulated whale-watching activities are adversely affecting these whales. This could be through a two-pronged impact: (a) displacement from favoured, traditional feeding areas, and (b) inadvertently the whales being pushed into the adjacent shipping lane with an increased risk of vessel collisions.’ 

And this is just the whale-watching business in the south of Sri Lanka. In the north, off Trincomalee Bay, it reaches another level of horror with the ‘swim-with-whales’ operators. It is forbidden by law for anyone to swim with whales in Sri Lankan waters. An official permit from the government is needed to get in the water with the whales. If a tourist does not have a permit and they are in the water with a whale, they are breaking the law. The permit must be applied for in advance.

I have been visiting Trincomalee for the past three years and Mirissa for two. Each time I get a permit from the government and use experienced licensed guides.

Our typical day would begin before sunrise, putting gear into a six or seven-metre fibreglass boat with a canvas canopy and a 40hp four-stroke engine. We would be out for eight hours or more, heading well offshore, sometimes as far as 80km. The distance was not so much to find whales but to get away from the illegal operators who could spot a boat from several kilometres away and if it looked as if it was competently driven, they would hone in on you. If you found a whale and manoeuvred to get close the distant specks on the horizon would race towards you like out of control missiles and would compete to get to your position, cut you off, and deploy their passengers first, often dropping them on the heads or tails of the whales, and sending the animals off in a panic: the very definition of harassment.

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka Socialising Sperm Whales
HANGING OUT: Sperm whales spend time together often in the afternoons socialising

The best encounters were when we came across a ‘promising’ whale. We would move in slowly, dropping in from the boat 50 or 100m from the projected path of the whale, slowly swimming to intercept and see the whale underwater from a close vantage point. Many times, the elements would not come together and the encounter would not work. Sometimes it did. And those are the moments that would make it all worthwhile. But those moments are becoming more and more a distant memory off Trincomalee. This year half a dozen boats from different hotels and guesthouses shadowed our boats. Almost none of them had permits. One Malaysian tour operator called himself ‘The Whale Whisperer’ – ‘The Whale Molester’ would have been more accurate.

Some days we would find blue whales early in the morning, surfacing, breathing and diving out of sight of land. The diving takes two forms: the shorter, shallow dive and the longer, deep dive. Blue whale dive cycles are more often than not, a series of shallow dives followed by a long, deep dive. When a whale first surfaces from a deep-dive until the time it commences another deep dive, is called a ‘surfacing bout’ and the shallow dives are the interval in between. A deep dive is characterised by the whale lifting its tail out of the water – known as fluking up – or a ‘high arch’ dive, where the back is arched dramatically and the whale sinks without showing its tail. Generally, whales will ventilate – breathe – for between 30 seconds and seven minutes, with four to 20 breaths between these dives. The dives can last ten or 11 minutes. The difficulty is that there is nothing linear about a whale’s progress underwater when it is feeding or travelling. They go down and they can come up anywhere – or pretty much anywhere except in a straight line from their previous direction of travel.

Sometimes would find a whale not bothered by the sound of our engine or by the tack of our approach, slip into the water to intercept the whale and it would pass closely by and make eye contact. Other times, a whale would detect us before we could make it to the 30m visibility zone and it would dive. 

SRILANKAmapSri Lanka map

The situation is more of the same when it comes to the other cetacean visitors to Trincomalee Bay: the sperm whales. Sperm whales live in matriarchal social units of a dozen or more closely related whales, typically mother-calf, aunties (some with their own calves), grandmother, immature males. Sperm whales tend to socialise with each other when they take a group ‘time out’ to rest in the morning or afternoon; the rest of the time they are busy transiting from surface to deep water to hunt for squid.

When a group of sperm whales is at rest, the animals are still alert. Your approach on a boat should be slow and wide and you then enter the water without making a splash and gently swim say 100 or 200m towards them. If done correctly and on a day when the group of whales is tolerant, curious or receptive, there is a real possibility of getting a close encounter with a fascinating animal. Mostly it requires stealth, patience and caution: three attributes that the pirate boat drivers cannot understand.  I have witnessed more than 30 sperm whales at rest on a flat-calm sea, on an early morning, suddenly jolted out of their relaxation (and for some, sleep) by small boats driving fast into the centre of the group. One by one, like dominoes, the sperm whales’ tails fluke up and they dive, only to surface 40 minutes later, 10km away from the tourist boats.

The blue whale is one of the most impressive animals to swim in the ocean – beautiful, elegant, mysterious, majestic, and so deserving of our respect. Just to have a moment of eye contact with a blue whale evokes that feeling of awe so missing from the majority of life’s moments. Sperm whales are equally amazing, wonderful and captivating. As whale populations struggle to rebuild themselves – a process that will conservatively take more than 200 years – the question is, does this harassment disrupt their recovery? 

Dr de Vos summed it up: ‘Unfortunately, the swim-with-whales activities have got completely out of hand. These animals are large – one swipe of their tail can knock a person unconscious. People wouldn’t stand as close to a wild elephant, but apparently feel safer in water next to a giant, where they are completely out of their natural element. Most operators are irresponsible and don’t care about the safety of the whales or their clients. They are just keen to make money, so people are thrown in in all conditions, whether or not they can swim. The clients just seem to care about getting a Facebook photo for their brag book, but most show little consideration for the animals themselves. Obviously, this is upsetting. It’s time we gained some perspective. We have the privilege to live side by side with the biggest animal that has ever roamed the planet. We should treat these animals with the respect they deserve and the respect we would expect if someone were to come into our homes. It is high time we humans came together to protect and give back, rather than take, take, take.’

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka Mother and Child
MOTHERS AND CHILD: Sperm whales live in matriarchal groups with mothers, aunties and grandmothers looking after calves

 


CLASH OF THE TITANS

We saw a disturbance on the horizon and on approaching realised it was several sperm whales tightly clustered on the surface, being circled by killer whales. The water was black with whale excreta. One whale seemed in trouble, and its fellows closed ranks protectively. It stuck its head out of water, perhaps to inhale through its nostril. The orcas raced around at high speed. Some of us wanted to position ourselves downstream to observe this rarely seen clash of the titans, but our skipper was in a rush to get into the water to start filming. He got a few frames and I slid into the water with two colleagues. The visibility was atrocious. We could make out one killer whale attacking the whale that was being protected, and other orcas circling nearby. However, our boat was drifting too near the action and the killer whales were startled and fled, giving the sperm whales a chance to take off at high speed. The attack was over. Our chance to witness a rarely-seen natural event had gone.

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka Killer Whales
The killer whales circle the sperm whales

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka Sperm Whales Huddle
The sperm whales formed a tight huddle

SEIFERT.OrcaAttackSpermWhales MG 8715 1 copy
The killer whales probe the protective group of sperm whales

SEIFERT.WhalesSriLanka Sperm Whale Roll Back
The sperm whale under attack rolls onto its back

issue 8

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