As with all our trips down south, we were up early in the morning and heading down the E1 highway to Galle. But unlike many of our trips down south, this time we were traveling as a pack. Together with my cousins and cousins in law, we were speeding long the highway in the wee hours of the morning with the hope of reaching the Galle Navy Base by 6:00 AM.
The Galle Navy base is situated in the vicinity of the commercial Galle Harbour. One of the most active ports in Sri Lanka, the Galle harbour is a natural harbour that has been recognized by the International yacht societies as one of the world’s best attractions for yachting. Galle harbour has been Sri Lanka’s most important harbour until the artificial harbour was built at Colombo in 1873. Along with the construction of the Galle Fort, the harbour was one of the major ports in the Indian Ocean for over 200 years.
When we arrived at the Galle Navy Base, slightly behind schedule, we were greeted by some very friendly Naval Officers who gave us directions on how to get to the dock. Since I’ve never been to sea before, I was super excited and looking forward to the voyage! The closest I’ve come to setting foot on an actual ship was when we visited the Doulos Book ship when it docked at the Colombo port.We made our way through the dockyard towards the pier where we met the “Princess of Lanka”.
Until the main land supply routes were cleared and restored after the war, the Princess of Lanka, a passenger craft belonging to the Sri Lanka Navy, played a critical role in ferrying thousands of security forces personnel, civilians and goods between Trincomalee, Kankesanthurai and Thalai Mannar ports. On 30th January 2011, she set sail on a new journey when the Navy launched the Whale Watching Project from the Galle Port. The Princess of Lanka is a 40m long vessel. The 2682.04 horse power MTU 16V 396 TE 74L engine gives her a top speed of 31 Knots and a cruising speed of 28-30 Knots. The Upper Saloon has a seating capacity of 24, while the lower salon has a capacity of 276. The ship has been modified to suit the needs of the new clientele in order to provide them with luxury and comfort whilst on the open sea. Passenger safety and wellbeing is top priority to the Naval Crew who man the vessel. They are also highly trained to be on par with the finest in the hospitality industry.
The Navy operates cruises from Galle and Trincomalee from November to April and May to October respectively. Scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, the ship sets sail at 7:00 AM on a 4 hour long cruise on which the passengers are provided with a snack pack and drinks. Local passengers are charged LKR 3,500/- and children between the age of 6-12 are charged LKR 2,000/- while foreign passengers are charged USD 60/- (roughly LKR 9,000/-) for the experience.
Wikipedia defines Whale watching as “the practice of observing Whales and Dolphins in their natural habitat”. Similar to bird watching, Whale watching is mostly considered to be a recreational activity. A study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimated that roughly 13 million people around the world have gone Whale watching in 2008. The industry employs around 13,000 workers and generates USD 2.1 billion per annum in tourist revenue worldwide.
As the ship approaches the area popular for spotting Cetaceans the Captain instructs the passengers to put on their life jackets and move to the viewing deck. The excitement amongst the passengers is hard to describe. For many, Whale watching is a novel experience! Thus, they rush to find the best vantage point as the crew keeps an eye out for their safety. Once you’re on the deck, the waiting game begins. Everyone is scanning the water for a puff of water or a hint of black skin breaking the water.
The act of a Whale jumping out of the water is known as breaching. Scientists are yet to pinpoint the exact reason for Whales to breach, but the popular notion is that it is a mode of communication over a long distance. The acoustic signal of a Whale breaching is quite intense and because sound travels faster in water than through air it could be a quick way to transmit a message. For example, Humpback Whales are extremely active above the surface of the water. Known to be social animals, the male Humpback is famous for singing complex songs. Both sexes of Humpbacks often breach, and slap the water with their fins or tail flukes. Scientists have also observed that they use different techniques based on the situation. You can find a fascinating documentary done by the BBC if you’re interested in learning more on the subject! Another theory suggests that it is a competitive display amongst males. Others suggest that it could be a way to stun or scare prey while further theories propose that breaching is a warning for perceived threats like predators or “unwelcome attention from vessels”.
Pods of Spinner Dolphins, famous for its acrobatic displays where it spins along its longitudinal axis as it leaps through the air and Bottle Nose Dolphins, the most common and well-known members of the family of oceanic Dolphins are common in the seas towards the South and South West of Dondra. Spotted Dolphins who display their characteristic spots have been sighted towards the South West of Mirissa.
The Blue Whale is the largest animal known to have ever lived. It just so happens that this colossal sea creature is the most common type of Whales spotted in the open sea towards the South West of Weligama. Despite its large size, Blue Whales feed on some of the smallest marine life found in the sea. A single adult Blue Whale can consume up to 36,000 kg of tiny Shrimp like crustaceans called Krill. They can swim at a maximum speed of over 30 km/h but are known to gracefully cruise the oceans at 8 km/h.
The short-finned pilot Whales are very sociable and are seldom seen alone. Actually, part of the oceanic Dolphin family, they exhibit behavior that is closer to that of the larger Whales. These Whales are black or dark grey with a grey or white cape. They have grey or almost white patches on their bellies and throats and display a grey or white stripe which runs diagonally upwards from behind each eye. They have also been spotted towards the South West of Weligama.
Another member of the oceanic Dolphin family, the False Killer Whale is the fourth largest Dolphin and share characteristics that are common to Orcas, AKA Killer Whales. Though they belong to different genera within the family Delphinidae they display similarities in appearance and are known to attack and kill other marine mammals.
During the recent past, Orcas have been spotted towards the South of Mirissa! Yes, the original Killer Whales! But you won’t hear the theme song of “Free Willy” playing in the background! Very little is known about them as there have been only a handful of encounters thus far.
Apart from the marine life, we were also able to spot a few large container ships en route to Colombo Harbor. Getting up close to these gigantic vessels that cut across the ocean may not be as astonishing as spotting a Whale, but is a worthwhile sight nonetheless.
While heading back to shore, I struck up a conversation with some of the crew members, who educated me about Whales and some of their encounters with regard to sightings. They also shared with me some accounts from their experiences during the war.
“Nature did not put whales on this earth to splash kids while stuck in a pen.”
– Jane Velez-Mitchell