Whale Watching in Mirissa Sri Lanka
WHALE WATCHING IN SRI LANKA
Whale watching in Mirissa Sri Lanka has become a trend for adventure seekers. Why would people watch whales? For their size or just for the joy of going out to deep sea in an island known as “a teardrop in the Indian ocean” where electric blue skies reflect on warm turquoise seas. Maybe both! Before we board that boat, let’s see what whale watching Sri Lanka is all about.
Whale watching is the practice of observing whales in the sea in their natural habitat. While some do it for scientific or educational purposes, today the emphasis has shifted to providing a recreational experience for visitors. As in most parts of the tropical world, whale watching in Sri Lanka is an organized activity.
WHALE WATCHING IN MIRISSA
Mirissa (last 3 letters pronounced as “ser”) is a quiet, sleepy coastal town on the very Southern tip of Sri Lanka. The route to Mirissa from Colombo on the Matara road promises some of the most breathtaking coastal scenery, not just waves and water but inlets, little islands and mangroves that are natural marine habitats for rare flora, fauna and endangered marine life. Whale watching Mirissa is very popular with tourists from all over the world. It all began around year 2009 when Mirissa became an identified top spot for this activity. Today, whilst the Mirissa town itself still retains its village charm, the coast has become a hive of activity due to the presence of pods and pods of whales of all varieties and sizes that come close to the shore in season. It is not uncommon to see mothers with their calves in a concentration of possibly ten whales within a quadrat of a half kilometer square.
KNOW YOUR WHALES!
Like everything else, whales come in sizes. Whilst they could be found in the deep oceans, inhabiting all of the world’s oceans and numbering in millions, most whales do venture close to shore during a certain seasons when the waters are warmer and small fish abound, travelling vast distances from colder feeding areas seeking warm shallower waters for calving and mating. The largest in size, the blue whales could range from 98 ft. (30m) and the smallest, the pygmy species could be only 11 ft in length (3.5m). Think of predators and one would picture a tiger or a leopard but whales are also classified as predators. Their food ranges from very large animals to microscopic plankton. Known as non-aggressive gentle animals, whales have been around for over 50 million years!! As for their intelligence, everyone knows that dolphins have a very high intelligence quota almost second to human beings, but of whales not much is known. One thing is sure, the whale you sight today could be spotted by your grand-kids some day – somewhere, as whales are known to have a life span of up to 100 years.
HOW WHALES ATTRACT THEIR MATES
Blue whales sing! Their “songs” are recorded through seafloor seismometers and whale acoustic recording packages designed to track and observe this phenomenon. They sing to attract potential mates. Although inaudible to the human ear, the singing pitch of a blue whale could cross vast expanses of the ocean. Whales sense their surrounding environment by echo-location. The higher the frequency, the longer the transmission distance, enabling blue whales to locate potential female mates or judge the distance of other male competitors with great accuracy. The exercise of “singing” takes up most of the air in their lungs. Come to think of it, how else could such large, clumsy creatures impress females and even other male whales? Singing to attract females is not only a speciality of whales, if you know what we mean!
BEST SPOT FOR MIRISSA WHALE WATCHING IN SRI LANKA
The best period for whale watching in Mirissa is between November and April with December to March being the preferred months as during this season, the seas are fairly calm and several pods of whales arrive to feast on small fish that come close to shore. Visitors can be taken on Mirissa whale watching expeditions by boats specialized for this activity or flight tours through the sky and over the seas. Mirissa whale watching is an experience by itself as it offers plenty of sightings of blue whales, sperm whales, hump back whales and also hundreds of spinner dolphins. Since Blue Whales are rare and the largest mammals in the seas, this promises to be an unforgettable experience. Visitors could witness whales serenely gliding around, perfectly comfortable with “human sightings” from a safe distance a few nautical miles off the shores of Mirissa. No other spot off the cost of Sri Lanka can display a uncountable number of a variety of these sea creatures as at Mirissa, with a concentration of possibly ten whales within a quadrat of a half kilometer square. There is a double boon to whale watching in Mirissa as it also boasts plenty of sightings of dolphins leaping and tumbling about in frothy waves- an awesome sight.
TIMING – HOW LONG IT TAKES FOR A MIRISSA WHALE WATCHING TOUR
Expeditions normally start very early in the morning. Boats depart by 5 am, maybe a little earlier or later, fully equipped with food and drink to sustain a 4-5 hour journey. Boats reduce speed significantly when at a distance of about 400 metres from the sighting distance and switch off their engines completely when they are at 100 metres away from the whales. When quiet reigns, the usual sighting rate is 90% . One reason is that whales need to surface to breathe. They breathe through blowholes located on their heads, which means they could even be submerged in water and only allow the blowhole to activate itself before they dive back into the deep. Be prepared to observe much activity in the water as whales jump above the water and land back, slapping the water surface with their tails. It is believed that slapping the water surface with their tails signifies a warning signal to others to be on alert (watch it – humans around!).
WHAT ABOUT AERIAL TOURS FOR MIRISSA WHALE WATCHING?
Offering competition to all those boat operators are quite a few aerial tour operators to Mirissa. Aerial tours by domestic planes or helicopters offer a vastly different experience with large windows offering an unrestricted view of pods of whales and dolphins. Most domestic flights start from the Koggala airfield closer to Mirissa whilst there are also services starting from the Ratmalana airport closer to Colombo. There is no close-up of the mammals as in boats – yet, other factors make an aerial tour memorable. For one thing, it offers an excellent aerial view of the Southern coastline, mountains and significant sights such as the majestic Dutch Fort in Galle. The flight drops to about 250 metres above the ocean when it reaches destination, and offers plenty of time for visitors to spot a variety of whales and dolphins. A naturalist on board would explain the different species as they emerge. Due to its maneuverability, the flights return again and again to the spot where the best sightings are without much disturbance to the mammals. Here again, the whole tour would take half a day from start to finish.
BEING A PART OF NATURE
Sri Lanka places great emphasis on nurturing and preserving nature. Where whales and sea creatures are concerned, the Department of Coast Guard, Sri Lanka has taken a good part of the responsibility in ensuring the safety of the behavior, migration patterns and breeding of these adorable mammals.
HOW TO SPOT A WHALE WATCHING EXPERT
With plenty of whale watching tours to select from, private tour operators are found vying with the other to provide attractive packages. Only some may possess professional training on how to conduct a whale watching tour. The Sri Lanka Navy conducts a training program designed to turn those with general knowledge and experience into experts in the field. Such personnel have both theoretical and practical knowledge on marine mammals as well as skills and experience on sea vessels. Not to be outdone are the locals with years of experience conducting whale watching tours in Mirissa who also have an excellent knowledge of international whale spotting regulations
THE SAFETY FACTOR
Mirissa whale watching is a perfectly safe activity since it is conducted by experts well versed in safety aspect and well experienced with the sea and its moods. Beneath the admirable casualness of boat operators lies their capability and expertise. All boat operators adhere to regulations and controls established by the Sri Lanka Coast Guards who regularly monitor whale watching sites to ensure that all goes well. Though there is a proliferation of whale watching boat operators in Mirissa all equally good in their own rights, some of them are better trained, e.g. the Sri Lanka Navy which also provides whale watching tours in Mirissa during the November to April season, adding a few extra touches such diving teams, medical equipment and better food to their standard features.