Vidya Deshpande, our resolute travel correspondent says sighting this giant creature in the sea is an adrenalin-pumping experience you don’t want to miss on a trip to Sri Lanka.
I am about 10 nautical miles out at sea, away from the Sri Lanka harbor town of Mirrissa in the south of the island nation. Standing on the deck of a trimaran (a yatchwith three hullsused for recreational purposes), I kept a sharp eye for whales, dolphins, flying fish, turtles and other such marine creatures.
The yatch belongs to a family-owned tour company run by Raja, his brothers and cousins, all former fishermen. and not surprisingly named Raja and The Whales.We, a group of fellow travellers, had been out at sea since 6.30 am and it was close to 10.30 am now. Four hours on the trimaran had lulled us into a sleepy frame of mind: it was hot and we were tired and thirsty. But the idea of sighting a blue whale, a ginormous creature that weighs about 200 tonnes equal to about 6 elephants or a large Airbus aircraft, was keeping our gaze on the blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
Suddenly right in front of our trimaran, a huge spout of water shoots up into the air. A whoop of delight went up and down the yatch and cameras, which had gone into sleep mode,were swiftlywhirring and clicking. It wasn’t a blue whale, but a fin whale, the second largest mammal on Earth, only slightly smaller than the former. The few seconds that it came up for a breath of air, throwing a spray of water from its blowhole, gave us the thrill of our lifetime.
Fin whales are mostly solitary creatures but sometimes travel in small groups. Our Free Willy, (let’s call her that) was alone. Fin whales can hold their breath about 15 minutes when they do a deep dive and so after one massive spray of water, we were wondering whether we will get another sighting. But our Free Willy was in a mood to oblige that morning. She popped up for afew more quick breaths of air, before disappearing into the depths of the ocean. Seeing the excitement on the deck, a couple of other whale-sighting boats also pulled up alongside to get a view of this gigantic creature.
All we could see was its brownish grey dorsal fin sticking out of its back and the flat head with the blowhole. To think that under that deceptive dorsal fin,were a mass of flesh and muscle, was hard to imagine.
The International Whaling Commission has strict rules about whale-watching, which includes keeping a certain distance, switching off engines, not instigating the cetacean (family of whales, dolphins and porpoises) and not pursuing or chasing the whale. The crew on board Raja and The Whales were very strict about following the rules. The ship captain pulled away from its path, a move that we greatly appreciated.
Just then, we were treated to a pod of twister dolphins, known for their acrobatic twisting displays, swimming alongside our boat. More ‘oohs and aahs’ followed as we clicked and looked at the twister dolphins in awe. Our morning of waiting had paid off.
Raja and his crew had actually stuck their neck out and taken us way beyond the nautical mile limit for whale-watching boats just to get a glimpse of this wondrous creature. And we were not unhappy that he decided to turn back and head for the harbor.
On the way back we caught a glimpse of a sea turtle pair and like Piscine Molitor Patel in the Life of Pi, we also saw many flying fish, but they didn’t fly into our boat, as in the movie!
It was almost noon when we docked Mirrissa harbor, but we were pleased as punch with our sightings. That morning not all the other boats that left Mirissa harbor were lucky enough to sight a whale. Indeed it was a quirk of fate that we found Raja and The Whales that morning, as we had booked with another whale-watching tour. Our tour company’s boat was under repair and they were not ready for sea. Our erudite guide in Sri Lanka made a smart decision to get nine of us on board the tour. That lucky break made our day.