Venetia Rainey travels to Sri Lanka and gets up close and personal with the largest animal to have ever existed: the blue whale.
In the age of David Attenborough, you don’t need to go far from your sofa to marvel at nature’s awesomeness. From the really small to the really smart, TV has given us the chance to sit front row at the greatest show on Earth.
What David doesn’t tell you though is what these experiences are like in real life.
The largest animals to have ever roamed the planet, blue whales reach up to 30 metres long and rarely come close enough to land for tourists to see them in a day trip. For most, they will only ever be seen through the eyes of another.
But where there’s a whale there’s a way (sorry), and visitors to Sri Lanka will be pleased to learn that between December and April, the island’s southern coast has officially been established as a haven for seeing the beasts as they migrate.
Getting to Sri Lanka’s self-proclaimed whale hotspot is easy: from Colombo, pick from either a regular bus or an irregular train heading south. Both take around four to five hours.
Although Mirissa looks scruffy upon first inspection, the action, as far as tourists are concerned, is on the beach; a pale curve of sand connecting two dramatic, rocky headlands. Mirissa comes into its own at night, with candlelit tables spilling onto the sand from every establishment and stall after stall of freshly-caught seafood to tuck into.
Picking a boat
The one thing you won’t find on the menu (hopefully) is whale. Regardless, every bar, restaurant, hotel and guesthouse will offer to take you whale watching.
The cheaper options (Rs 3,000 – 3,500) put you on a big boat with between 20 and 30 people sat on both the lower and upper deck. This can be crowded but is also more sociable. The more expensive options (Rs 4,000 – 8,000) mean a smaller boat (still with two levels), fewer people and more space.
Either way, remember that you’ll be out there for a while (at least five hours) and that tours start at the crack of dawn, so sleeping space can be invaluable. All boat operators give you breakfast, a life jacket and insurance (whatever that means).
Crucially, however, all the boats follow each other, so when it comes to the whales, everyone sees the same thing. A final thing to check is how long the boat will stay out if you don’t see anything. I heard tails (sorry, sorry) of people sticking around all day – not ideal if you have travel plans/aren’t that keen on boats.
The main event
First off, a packing list: camera/video-camera, sun cream, sunglasses, hat, waterproof bag, water, snacks. Wear flip-flops and bring a warm layer for the early morning. The boat’s crew should have seasickness pills if you need them.
It takes an hour or two to get to the whales’ migratory passage, so if you’re awake watch the sea carefully for jellyfish and ghostly shapes darting below the boat’s prow – pods of dolphins should be easy to spot throughout your trip.
You’ll know it’s time to wake up and get your camera in sports mode when the crew’s voices get louder, the engine’s growl takes on a new note of determination and your fellow passengers are clinging impatiently to the boat’s sides. It’s time.
Nothing can prepare you for your first sighting. A flash of greyish-blue blubbery back and then it’s gone, hidden once more beneath the glinting waves. Underwhelming? Perhaps a little, but not for long.
After that first glimpse, your eyes will be glued to the sea. It’s easiest to spot any sea action in cloudy weather, but your eyes begin to play tricks on you whatever the weather.
By this time you’ll be travelling in convoy. The journey out might have given you the impression that it’s going to be just you and nature, but it won’t be, so get used to the pack mentality with which the boats operate.
Eventually, there’ll be another sighting. This time it’s the real deal.
For photos, the money shot is the tail, so don’t worry if you or your camera is slow off the mark. Hopefully you’ll see the entire thing (not all at once) as it comes up for air, announces its arrival through its blowhole, and then sinks back underwater, the full length of its body slowly arcing above surface as it does. The performance ends with the tail, a two-finned behemoth that is flicked into the air with a final flourish before the whale plunges back into the sea’s depths. You’ll probably have a boat or five in your photos, perfect for giving a sense of scale.
If you’re lucky your leviathan will hang around to see what all the fuss is about; they can be curious creatures and are not afraid to pop up right next to you. If not, expect to spend a few more hours chasing them around. If you feel your driver is getting too close or harassing them, don’t be shy of making your feelings clear. This is a fairly new industry and needs all the checks it can get to stop it from becoming detrimental to the animals on which it relies.
The journey back is a good chance to do some more dolphin-spotting and check out other people’s photos. Pat yourself on the back, David would be proud.
> Learn more about blue whales and whale watching with Whales: Giants of the Seas and Oceans.
> See more of Sri Lanka with our range of travel guides and maps.