Wednesday, 11 April 2018

1st April - Whale Watch Two, Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Despite the jet lag it was another good night's sleep, I awoke before the scheduled alarm time around 4.00 am, the next time I opened my eyes the bed side clock said 5.28 am and we were supposed to be picked up at 5.45!  After a manic 15 minutes we appeared down stairs in the lobby and proceeded to dismantle the picnic breakfasts, before realising that they were not ours.  Despite all this we were the first to arrive once again at the office, and once again our names were top of the list.  We headed down to the harbour where we once again wrote our names on the Coastguard list, but did not declare our ages (there is an obsession on the Sub-continent with age!).

Once the boat was  prepared we boarded and this time headed to the top deck.  We were joined by a group of Australian tourists, and there was an instant better feel about the day.  As Helen describes it, if the karma was good, as it was this time, then the occupants deserved to see something special.  In talking with the crew, who were amazing through out, it was clear that they did not enjoy yesterday's trip for the same reasons, too many boats chasing one whale, and the behaviour of the clientele on the boat.

So once again as we waited for the other passengers to arrive I spent the time taking in the sights and colours around us as the little harbour began to wake up for the day, and the night fishermen returned from the efforts in the bay.

Some beautiful reflections again.

The light was different from the previous day, a little more diffused by the light wispy clouds and the hazy conditions, this seemed to accentuate the colours.

More of the larger fishing boats could be seen moored up, their owners returning in time to celebrate the New year holidays next week.

While some are more pastel, others are bold and in your face colours.

Closer, the small boats cast their reflections in the still water, whether they are rust or just wear and tear they still look amazing

The Whiskered Terns still circled around dropping down and dipping into the water, but always managing to evade the perfect shot.  What did catch my eye though was a Striated Heron that flew across low over the water, catching the sunlight as it did so.

At 6.50 am we finally set off out of the calm waters of the harbour and into the heavy swell of Weligama bat.  The sea was distinctly rougher than yesterday's trip, and this became more apparent as we past the eastern tip of the bay, with the rising sun gaining height into the morning sky.

Yesterday we headed due south, but today the heading was more south east, into the rising sun.  Another difference from the previous trip was the increased number of fishing boats on the water.  Yesterday had been a holiday, and probably accounted for the lack of fishing, but today they appeared to be everywhere, some returning home.

But others clearly intent on staying out.

 As well as the number of fishing boats there also seemed to be large flocks of birds.  I am not sure here as to what comes first, do the fishermen follow the birds, or do the birds find the fish and the fishermen follow?  The birds though had found a large shoal of fish, probably being chased by tuna, and they were picking of the small fish as they were herded to the surface in an effort to escape the tuna.

It is difficult to get clear identification from the boat, so it was left to the photographs once viewed to identify the birds.  There are Bridled Terns, White-winged Black Terns, Gull-billed, and a few Whiskered and Common Terns.

The clouds and low sun sent shadows across the sea, turning the water a golden colour as we headed steadily south east.

The fishing boats moving about constantly following the birds.

It was no surprise then with all the boast about when we came across our first pod of dolphins.  These were Spinner Dolphins, and as we approached I saw one spin out of the water but that was the only time on the trip.  

When we had come across them previously in 2014 they were constantly spinning, but this pod seemed very intent on fishing, and they would surface and they all together disappear for a short time before turning up again herding the boiling water of fish.

We followed the dolphins as they chased the fish, and the fishermen in their small boats with outboards maneuvered between us and the dolphins in the attempt to catch the tuna that were also herding the bait fish below.  They tow a plastic lure on a line, and we saw several seem to catch something, but never saw them land anything.

The Spinner Dolphin is a relatively small dolphin found exclusively in tropical waters. 

The dorsal area is dark grey, the sides light grey, and the underside pale grey or white. Also, a dark band runs from the eye to the flipper, bordered above by a thin, light line.  They feed on fish and squid, but in turn are also prey for sharks, Killer and false Killer Wales, and Short-finned Pilot Whales

The pods can be quite huge, this group though was not that big.  Back in 2014 we did see a pod of over 100 individuals, one of the few photographs that managed to survive from that trip

We followed the dolphins for a short time, but then decided to leave them with the fishermen, and headed on our way.

We could see the shore still, unlike yesterday when we went straight out.  We had though travelled a considerable distance to the east as we could clearly see behind us the Dondra Head lighthouse at the southerly tip of Sri Lanka.

There is constant communication, between the boats and the shore, amazingly there is a mobile signal reach that far out to sea.  This allows information to be shared, and it was clear that they knew there were whales about it was just that they were a long way off.

Finally we could see a spout in the distance and we moved in towards another Blue Whale.  While there were a lot of boats about, there was nothing like the numbers seen on the previous day.  The most distinctive part of a Blue Whale is the blow, a vertical tower of spray that can reach up to nine to twelve metres in height.

Already we knew that we were getting better views than yesterday, the height of the upper deck helping considerably.


Like all rorqual whales (the largest group of baleen whales including Fin, Sei, Humpback and Minke Whale), the Blue Whale is slender and streamlined. Although we were never able to see it, the head is broad and U-shaped when viewed from above and relatively flat when viewed from the side. Along the centre there is a single prominent ridge, which ends in an impressive “splash guard” around the blowholes, which you can see here.

Clearer here as to the shape of the "splash guard", and you can just make out the lighter colour of the head through the water.

The dorsal fin is relatively small, variably shaped, and placed about three-quarters of the way back from the snout tip.  This is probably the one photograph that does justice to the incredible size of this animal, the spout being about six metres high, the largest animal ever known.

Blue Whales grow to between 23 to 27 metres in length, and weigh in at around 150 tons.  the females are generally larger than the males, by comparison a bull elephant weighs around 4.5 tons.  In fact the tongue of a Blue Whale weighs about as much as an elephant!

We followed one whale only to realise that there were in fact two whales present, and this split the attentions of the boats, making it possible to enjoy the experience without concern for the animal.  While it would dive, it was never a deep dive, and we were never able to see the impressive tail flukes that are the classic whale shape.  Here the back is arching as it prepares to go under.

These dives would last up to 12 to 15 minutes, and then you would just wait to see where it would appear, by waiting for the blow.

Blue whales get their name from their grey to blue coloration on the dorsal side.  The head is uniformly blue, but the back and sides are mottled. There is light to extensive mottling on the sides, back, and belly, generally in the form of dark spots on a lighter surface, but can be the reverse.  Here you can see the mottling on the skin around the dorsal fin which is more about lighter spots on a dark background.

Here you can see the lighter grey colour down the side of body just in front of the dorsal fin.

On one of the dives I was also able to see another Remora fish attached to the side of the whale, just behind the blow hole.

One of the whales came up close alongside the boat, if they do that it is fine, what is not allowed is the boat steaming up close to the whale.  It swam along quite contently next to us.  After each blow it would submerge and you could make out the blue hue in the water, and as it became clearer you knew the whale was surfacing.

With that final dive it was clearly time to head back.  It was just 11.30, and we faced a long cruise back to Mirissa.  the estimate was arriving around 14.00, we had travelled a long way, and the current on the return leg was against us.  This required a change of plan for some of the passengers, but for us it wasn't too bad.  

About half way through the return trip we passed the Dondra head Lighthouse.  This is situated on the most southerly point of the island of Sri Lanka, and is also the countries tallest lighthouse.  The lighthouse was designed by a British man James Nicholas Douglass, and was built with granite shipped from quarries in Scotland and Cornwall.  Building was completed in 1890.  On our last trip we stopped to visist the lighthouse on our journey to Yala.

Finally we turned the point into Weligama Bay, and into the harbour at Mirissa.  As the boat moved to its mooring place a Whiskered Tern stood on one of the moored boats, which made for an easier target that when they were flying around the harbour.

We reached the hotel by about 15.00, and just about had some time around the pool before the sun started to drop in the sky.  This would be our last night of our first stay at the hotel, we would return later in the week for one more whale watch.  The view from the balcony was even spectacular in the nigh time.

Today's whale watch had made up for the anti climax of the first Blue Whale sighting.  Today we had much better views, and could appreciate the size of the animal.  They do not have the same character of the Humpback Whales, where you are never quite sure what they are going to do, but there was a majesty and presence in the animal.  Size is always difficult to assess when there are no markers to gauge from, but believe me they are huge, and I was more than satisfied with today's sighting, and we can now say that we have seen Blue Whale.

Tomorrow we get the chance of a lie in, then travel around the coast to Yala National Park.  The attention turns to the possibility of seeing leopard, encounters with Elephants, and soe really spectacular birds.

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