Tuesday, 17 April 2018

6th April - Whale Watch Three, Mirissa, Sri Lanks

We left Yala on Thursday morning after breakfast where we were entertained by the Langar Monkeys around the pool, the young and old using the pool to drink from, and then fighting and rolling around over the deck around the pool.

The journey back was in sunshine, and as we passed the salt lagoons I could see Little Stint and Knot feeding in the shallow pools.  We arrived at the hotel around midday, and were able to spend a relaxing afternoon by the pool, and in the sea.

Our last day of action was on Friday, with a final whale watch.  It was four years exactly to the day that we had first whale watched in Sri Lanka, on that day we saw many Sperm Whale.  It was another early start, and away at 5.30 through the early morning traffic in Weligama.  When we arrived at the Mirissa Water Sports offices we were greeted with a realisation that it was us, and we knew what to do.  I checked in, signed our names, checked the sightings board which had only Blue Whale on it, and then we walked down to the harbour.

Once on the boat we went upstairs, and I joked with the crew we needed to see Sperm Whale today.  There had not been any sightings all season apparently.  The Sperm Whale is migratory in these waters moving west to east from the Arabian sea around the tip of India, past Sri Lanka, and then up into the Bay of Bengal.

The light again set off some lovely scenes around the harbour.



Lights from the boats sending a white line across the water.



The colours of the boat cast into the mirror like water.



The harbour water was very still as the light began to improve.



With the sun coming up the colours became vibrant.



The clutter of boats and ships mixing up a variety of colour



The first whale boat out is that of the company "Raja of the Whales".  As it cruised out it left some incredible reflections.



The skipper told me that the these boats never report on any sightings they see, so in turn all the other boats never tell them if there are whales about.  I suppose they think going out first gives them the best chance to see whales.  Probably not though if they are not connected.

Finally we left passing the fishing boats with a Palm tree background.



The sea was much calmer today, with hardly any swell as we left the harbour and headed off past the easterly point of the bay.



As we headed out, the fishermen, whose lights we had seen out in the bay during the night were returning to the harbour.  To be out all night on these small boats with so many men on board must be dangerous, but they seem more than content.



There was rain about, and away to the east there were some dark clouds on the horizon.



A little further into our cruise the phone rang on the deck, the skipper answered and there was a lengthy discussion in Senegalese, but the other crew members seemed to be quite pleased. On replacing the receiver he turned around and smiled and just said "Sperm Whale".  Amazingly four years to the day we were seeing Sperm Whale again, and I had the chance to get the pictures I lost on the that trip.  The atmosphere on the top deck was very excited as we slowly headed out to meet what we were led to believe was a huge pod of whales.

It started to spit with rain, but still with the sun out, and behind us we could see a Rainbow over the sea.



We came across a group of Dolphins, not the Spinners we had seen on the previous trip, but a new dolphin for me, Risso's Dolphin.  Identified by the crew by the distinctive high dorsal fin.



The dolphins were difficult to photograph, as they would break the water and little else.  Risso's have a broad head with no distinctive beak, and they appear very robust.  Here you can see the broad head of the dolphin on the right.



We also encountered Bottlenosed Dolphins that cam along side the boat, and too close to be able to photograph them.

We soon began to see the blows of whales, not the tall columns of spray you see with a Blue Whale, but more of a cloud as the blow of a Sperm Whale is at about 45 degrees and not straight up.  This gives some idea of the number of whales we were approaching.  We were told there was anything up to 100 whales about today



Still a long way off we could see the flukes as the Sperm Whales dived as a part of their movement.



Finally we managed to catch up with the whales, and came along side them, but at a safe distance.  The dorsal fin is rounded and in females has a kind of callous patch.



The dorsal fin is rounded and in females has a kind of callous patch.  Here you can also see the wrinkles on the skin, which is different to the smooth skin of other whales



They would stay on the surface for up to five blows, then arch the back, and the flukes would appear for a dive.



The whales swim close to each other, and some were diving while others would be breaking the surface and blowing.



When they do dive they do so with an impressive fluking of the tail.  The back arches, and the tail breaks the surface trailing water of the whole length of the tail.



Then in amongst the Sperm Whale were the Risso's Dolphins once again.  Here a better view of the head of this large dolphin



They would swim alongside each other, one always leading and blowing first.  



The blowhole is set forward on the head, and skewed to the left.  The head is disproportionately large, and dominates the body of the whale.



Unfortunately we were not the only boat to find the whales, there were many others (but poor Raja could be seen well out at sea, probably looking for Blue Whale).  All these boats though were not behaving as they should, and would steam into the pods and as a result the whales would dive.  Our skipper took the decision to cruise ahead of the whales, and to find another pod away from all the boats.

This tactic seemed to work, and we came across another pod, and the whales were happy to come close as we shut down the engines and drifted.



The whales though would still dive after five blows, but would surface again close by.



Where would be able to get a shot of a superb tail fluke.



We then came across another school of Spinner dolphins, our third dolphin species of the trip.



But the "piece de resistance" was yet to come, a Sperm Whale surfaced along side us, and we were able to cruise at the same speed alongside it, giving some excellent views.



After the head comes the dorsal fin, this whale a male.  You can clearly see the wrinkles down the side, and the dark grey colour of the skin.  In some light the body colour can appear brown.



The blow would come as the head broke through the surface of the water.



The closet head shot I could get, I was hoping to see the eye, but it is set too far back on the head, and remained under the surface.



Then the dive and the tail fluke which signaled the end of the encounter, and time to head back to the harbour.



As well as the still photographs Helen was able to get some video, which really captures the experience and thrill of seeing these whales.  It was very special, and the perfect finale for the holiday.




We were back into Mirissa harbour by 11.30, our earliest return, and we were able to get time at the pool and in the sea during the afternoon.  Clouds came over though around 16.30 so we retired to the room to pack for our journey home the next day.

Looking down from the balcony though, surfers were still making their way out into the sea.


It had been a wonderful holiday, we had seen everything this time we had wanted to see, and maybe more.  I had also managed to get all the lost images from last time, and again maybe more.

We had seen 112 birds, of which 14 were new for the Sri Lanka list, and 10 were lifers.  Of the Cetaceans, we had finally seen Blue Whale, and had the bonus of Risso's Dolphin, and the experience once again of a large migrating pod of Sperm Whale.  Of the rest, Leopard of course was superb, but so were the elephants.

After the stuttering start at the airport, the travel arrangements were superb, the hotels spot on and the transfers on time and comfortable

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, while having similarities with India, it lacks the crazy noisy and manic situations that wear you out and exhaust you in India.  The people are lovely, always with a smile that looks and feels genuine.  We are already saying we would happily return, there is still a lot more of Sri Lanka we would love to see.

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