Monday, 9 April 2018

31st March - Whale Watch One, Mirissa, Sri Lanka

The alarm went off at 5.00am local time, I have no idea what time my body thought it was, the four and a half hour time difference turned completely on its head by the early start, but adrenaline and the excitement of what lay in wait for us pushed us out of bed and downstairs to meet our driver for the rest of the week.  As we left the room there was a note under the door.  

Today was a public holiday in Sri Lanka, they have one each full moon, and all have different names to celebrate events in Buddhism, the holidays are called Poya, and today's was specifically named Bak Full Moon Poya,and celebrates Buddhas second visit to Sri Lanka to make peace between two warring chiefs who were also uncle and nephew.  In addition, to recognise the day the hotel would not be serving alcohol, we were going to have a problem later.

It was 5.30am and dark when we left, but the calls of the crows around the resort could be heard loud and clear.  The roads were quiet, but there were still plenty of tuk tuks about, and as always these would slow things down.  The roads in Sri Lanka are nothing like the noisy madness of India, but they still manage to scare and amuse at the same time.  Missing are the continuous car horns and animals seen in India, but remaining are the close shaves as vehicles pass each other, and the unpredictability of what the vehicle in front is going to do.

We made our way around the coast road, and then turned off, heading down a road I could remember well.  As we turned the corner I wondered who we would be sailing with, but as we pulled into the office of the Mirissa Water Sports company I realised it was the same company we had sailed with back in 2014.  

This was great news as I can remember them being very commited informed and also aware of the safety of the animals, something that could not be said for some of the other companies.  As we checked in I recognised several faces, although they never remembered us.

We were first to arrive, first on the list and eventually first on the boat.  It was then that we made a mistake electing to sit at the front of the boat, on the deck floor.  At the time it felt right, but it was eventually in full sun, and rather low down for good views. 

The harbour first thing in the morning is a very calm and serene place, the water is very still, and as the light increased full of colourful reflections from the many fishing boats that were scattered around the edge and in the middle of the water.

Whiskered and Lesser Crested Terns flew around us, the former dipping constantly over the water, while the latter flew above us scanning the water below.

I picked up a large bird flying towards us from outside the harbour.  As it came closer I could see that it was a Brahminy Kite.  It is a common bird of prey found through out Asia and Australia.  It is a distinctive looking bird with the rufous red upper parts and white head.

Like all Kites they mostly feed on carrion found along the coastal regions, dead fish, crabs and other dead animals, although they will take live prey such as fish and small animals, and will also take prey from other birds.  In this case the Kite was carrying a fish, and headed over our heads towards the trees at the back of the harbour.

As the light improved I tried my luck at photographing the Whiskered Terns flying around the boats. Some were in breeding plumage while others were still showing first year non breeding plumage, as was the case with this individual, the black cap showing a lot of white, and the body lacking the greyish appearance of the adult.

As the sun rose the light improved significantly, and attention turned to the fishing boats and the reflections cast in the water.  This fishing boat is the traditional design used on the south western coast of Sri Lanka, and is known as the oruwa.  It is specifically a Pacific outrigger, but the difference of the Singhalese boats is that they would use a rectangular sail.  In this case though, the sail has been replaced by an outboard motor.

All the boast are very colourful though, decorated with advertising and bold colours.

Other more typical boat shapes through colour into the water.

I finally managed to catch a shot of an adult Whiskered Tern, here you can see the dark body, and the white below the cap that gives it its rather dubious whisker!

On the far side of the harbour the larger deep water fishing boats were docked.  These boats go out for a month a time to catch Tuna, Marlin and Swordfish.  They are starting to gather back in harbour now as the New Year approaches and they all return for the holiday.  What was disturbing though was the amount of plastic bottles and bags floating in the water around them, this will find its way out into the open sea at some time.

We were not the first boat out, and I watched the reflections of the boat from the company Raja of the Whales as it left the harbour.

As we finally  headed out we passed a lovely sky blue fishing boat and its accompanying reflections.

Coming out of the harbour you soon come to realise the swell on the water, and we headed south past the eastern point of Weligama Bay.

On our last trip we had found dolphins and Sperm Whale quickly on the first day, but the subsequent trips out that time it was a lot harder, and we travelled for sometime before seeing anything.  This morning was very much like that.

We passed a large flock of terns feeding above what looked like hunting Tuna, the terns too distance for definite identification but I could make out more Whiskered and the odd Bridled and Gull-billed Terns.

There were whale watching boats in front of us,and if you strained your eyes to see if they changed direction or stopped to look at anything, but they kept going, and the small looking freighters on the horizon soon became enormous ships in front of us!

Then the phone on the boat rings and we change direction, in front of us the distant whale boat also changes its behaviour and starts to circle.  After what seemed like an age we can just make out a blow on the water, a high column of spray is a good sign.  The rest of the passengers start to accumulate at the front of the boat, many of them Chinese tourists with just smart phones at the ready.  There is a lot of pushing and shoving, and finally a distant view of a whale just breaking the surface of the water.

With it being a holiday the boat was full, but so were a lot of other boats, and they were now bearing down on this one whale.  There are guidelines about how close you can get to the whales, it is set at 200 metres but these were just that, guidelines and no one seemed to care.  Our boat though did keep the distance, but this did not seem to help the whale.  It would stay briefly on the surface, blow, and then as the marauding boats bore down on it, dive, fortunately not showing the fluke that would indicate a deep dive, but arching the back and showing the small distinctive dorsal fin.

In addition to the marauding boats, our fellow passengers were not making it an enjoyable experience on board.  In an effort to get a sighting they would push and shove past you, despite the fact you had been standing there all the trip.  Smart phones would be pushed into your face in an effort to get the impossible shot of a very distant whale, and when the whale did surface it would be greeted with shouts and whoops like you have never heard

I can't show you the melee on board but here is an indication of how close the boats were.

We bobbed about with the boats waiting between dives for a good view.  Our position on the deck was not conducive to good shots, but to be fair the whale was hardly on the surface for anytime.  In this shot though you can see a Remora fish stuck to the back of the whale.  The position is just between the blow hole and the dorsal fin.  These fish attach themselves through a modified dorsal fin that acts as a sucker on to the whale.  It moves around the body eating ectoparasites and flakes of skin while benefiting from the fresh flow of water across its gills.

Finally one last dive was enough for our boat to turn around and head back, there were just far to many boats to make the viewing an enjoyable experience.  Here is the base of the fluke, but we never saw the full classic whale shaped fluke.

We could now say we had seen Blue Whale, but it wasn't the emotional sighting that I had hoped for, too many other boats pursuing the whale in an effort to please smart phone carrying tourists was not what I had expected.  I could only hope the experience would improve tomorrow.

We had come a long way out, the constant cruising south taking us about fifteen nautical miles off shore.  The journey back was a long one, with very little to see other than this petrel that flew past.  At the time I wasn't sure what it was, but researching at home I now consider it a Jouain's Petrel, the pointed tail, and all dark plumage picking this out for me, but if anyone out there has a different view then I would be happy to hear about it.

We finally got back to the harbour just after 13.00, we had been out for just over six hours, and met by our driver, who took us back to the hotel.

We spent the afternoon by the pool, and in the sea, then as the sun started to drop in the sky we went for a walk along the beach.  Heading on to the beach we were confronted with passing terns off shore, and yet another gathering of House Crows.

They seem to be everywhere, and are very social calling to each other all the time.  They also seem to know when there is an opportunity, starting to gather around the pool when the light falls and people leave the tables.  I was not sure what this gathering on the beach was for.

We headed east with the setting sun on our backs.  The oruwa were sitting high on the beach, there colours reflecting on the wet sand.

The boast already for the evening trips out into the bay.

The colours being very vivid on the fishing boats.

As we reached the end of the "parked" boats there was little else to see,  just beach and distant cliffs.

So we turned and walked into the sun, the view changing considerably.

As did the fishing boats

In 2014 it was all about the fishermen on sticks in the sea, there was no sign of them here, just surfers in the water enjoying the considerable waves.

The sun was dropping behind the fishing boats, changing them into dark silhouettes.

At the surf's edge footprints fill with water that looked like liquid gold in the setting sunlight.

The crows had now turned their attention to the fishing boats picking over the nets for anything that would resemble a meal.

With posted look outs to call in others should they be successful.

Finally the sun began to sink below the distant clouds, what remained cast a golden line across the surf.

Tomorrow was going to be another early start, but hopefully a little less stressful out on the water.  Fo now we had to find some way of getting a drink tonight to celebrate actually, finally see the largest ever animal to live on the planet Earth, the Blue Whale.

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