As soon as I heard that I was returning to Sri Lanka for the first time in many years, leviathans from the deep surfaced in my mind. Perhaps most wildlife enthusiasts would conjure up images of elephants, leopards or a cornucopia of exotic birds. But I have spent the last twenty years or so nurturing a passion for whales in the icy waters of Alaska, and the time that I have spent here in the past has reinforced my awareness of Sri Lanka's standing as one of the world's hotspots for whales and dolphins; although it seems as if only a minority of people here share that awareness. The biggest gem present in the necklace of magnificent marine mammals that dive and cavort around the island is indeed the largest animal that has ever lived - the blue whale.
I will never forget my first encounter with a blue whale off of Trincomalee ten years ago. As I have always worked from the very intimate viewpoint of a kayak you might say that I have become somewhat habituated to the size of the humpback whales that I have spent so many years rubbing shoulders with in Southeast Alaska. On this occasion I was safely detached aboard a fishing boat as the blue whale broke the surface and after a few towering blows proceeded to roll it's massive form into a dive. I waited with baited breath for it's massive flukes to appear but it's back seemed to go on forever compared to the dive sequence of my beloved humpbacks: when the tail finally appeared it looked more like the wings of a jet aircraft taking off!
Now, ten years later I found myself elevated to new heights of appreciation of Sri Lanka's offshore giants. I was high up in the crow's nest of the "Odyssey", an American research vessel which is on a five year global expedition designed to gather the first ever baseline data of synthetic contaminants in oceans around the world, using sperm whales as indicators for measuring the health of the seas. Fortunately my lofty elevation was not magnified by an unsettled sea and my "nest" would have been as secure for eggs as it was for me. We were within sight of the Great Basses Lighthouse just off the SE coast and the sparkling ocean appeared as benign as a puddle on parched earth. I had the supreme sensation of weightlessness as my eyes drifted across the ocean searching for any vaporous plumes of whale breath.
During our two week passage from Colombo via the Gulf of Mannar we had already encountered many sperm whales and their blows are unmistakable because their single blowhole (blue whales have two) is not positioned centrally and the breath is exhaled at an angle. My first ascent up to the crow's nest in the Gulf of Mannar had been christened with a pod of about fifteen sperm whales clustered around the bow of the boat like a logjam. I couldn't believe that there were so many whales laid out beneath my feet and rendered naked from blowhole to flukes by the crystal clarity of the water. From a kayak I have been used to seeing tantalising sections of submerged whales as if through a magnifying glass: now I was getting my first panorama of whales! All the while we were in the presence of sperm whales the deckhouse resounded to their staccato clicking that was captured by the hydrophone trailing behind the boat. Theirs is a world as reliant on sound as ours is on sight and which tantalises research with its complexity.
These were my first ever encounters with sperm whales and by the time we reached the waters off the Great Basses Lighthouse I had seen so many that they were becoming as familiar to me as humpbacks. Now I was ready for some blue whales, perhaps with some more dolphins for dessert. We had already encountered three species of dolphins in one day (striped, bottlenose and common) and I was eagerly anticipating seeing more species for the first time." Big blow at 11 o'clock " I bellowed. It was as perpendicular as my lofty perch and probably just as high. As we got a little closer to the whale I could see the prow of it's enormous gothic arch-shaped head ploughing a furrow of foam through the water. It's broad polished surface described a creature of enduring power and speed. Bisecting the head I could clearly see the cutting edge of the ridge that leads to the fleshy splashguard that surrounds the muscular blowholes. They open and shut in the blinking of an eye and it's foul-smelling rocket-propelled breath shoots out at over 700 kilometres per hour. With a trail of misty wraiths hovering in it's wake the mighty blue whale raised its flukes and slides back into it's world of enduring mystery.
"Another one at 3 o'clock. and another one. it must be a cow and a calf". My crewmates at deck level are sighting their own whales and it's getting hard to keep up with the action. Some sperm whales surface to join the party and I'm treated to the largest toothed whale on the planet appearing in the same frame as the largest baleen whale. Beyond the whales I can see the distinctive acrobatics of a large school of spinnerdolphins. Their exuberant behaviour very accurately mirrors the excitement welling up inside of me. I look back to the Great Basses Lighthouse and the heat-hazed land beyond, and recall the wonderful terrestrial experiences that I've had in Bundala and Yala. What an incredible and bounteous juxtaposition that is. There can't be many places on earth where you can expect to see an elephant walking along a beach with plumes of whale breath sprouting on the horizon.
We had another expected treat in store for us. We sighted a large group of Risso's dolphins and I was informed by my crewmates that they are very difficult to approach, and are certainly not interested in bow-riding as many dolphins are. Sure enough they tantalised and teased as I tried to capture any discernable shapes in the viewfinder of my camera. We could see that there was some very boisterous interaction taking place which suggested mating or fighting. or both. The heated exchanges became so intense that we were able to drift right up to the melee of flippers and flukes. It was obvious that several males were competing for the attention of one or more females. It was no holds barred as they viciously gnawed at each other providing clear evidence for the cause of the scars and lacerations that are such a distinctive feature of the Risso's dolphin. After numerous previous encounters with this species the crew of the "Oddysey" were amazed to witness this kind of behaviour at such close quarters. As for myself, I was beginning to think that anything is possible in this sceptered isle.