Sri Lanka is renowned for its ancient Buddhist architecture, manicured tea plantations and golden beaches. But the country has acquired another claim to fame: A small patch of sea off its southern coast is now regarded as the best place in the world to watch blue whales. From a base in the Maldives, marine biologist Charles Anderson had speculated about the migration of large whales from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. The strait separating Sri Lanka from the tip of India was, he reckoned, too shallow for the passage of such huge creatures.
So in 2007, he traveled to Dondra Head, the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. There, the continental shelf is narrow, and less than four miles from the shore, the sea is more than a half-mile deep. Climbing to the top of the 176-foot Dondra lighthouse, he promptly had his theory confirmed.
Let the Tours Begin
Commercial whale watching began in 2008, and nowadays, several specialized boats are based at Mirissa, an hour’s drive east of the well-known town of Galle. The whales are routinely sighted in the three-mile stretch of ocean between Mirissa and Dondra Head, the peak times being December and January as they head east and April when they return. (Besides the blue whales, this is also considered to be the best place in the world to spot 65-foot sperm whales.) Both of the Harper-recommended Aman properties in Sri Lanka, Amangalla in Galle and Amanwella in Tangalla, organize whale watching trips for their guests.
Most people know that blue whales are the world’s largest creatures. But at 100 feet long and weighing up to 200 tons, they are also the biggest creature to have ever lived, more than twice as heavy as the largest dinosaur, Argentinosaurus, which lumbered across what is now Patagonia around 95 million years ago. A few other blue whale facts are worth bearing in mind:
- It weighs 6,000 pounds at birth
- Its heart is the size of a family car
- Its tongue is the length of an elephant
- It eats four tons of krill a day
- It can swim at more than 30 miles per hour.
During the early 19th century, whalers ignored blue whales, as they were simply too big, too powerful and too fast to be tackled until the advent of steel ships and explosive harpoons. Between 1900 and the 1960s, about 360,000 were slaughtered. Today, there are thought to be anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 cruising the oceans of the world — 3 to 11 percent of the population in 1911.
The blue whale is also the most beautiful of its kind: smooth, streamlined and a serene slate-blue in color. The only creature that is close to it in size is the similarly elegant 90-foot fin whale.
Whale Watching off Dondra Head
Having already seen humpback and gray whales in Monterey Bay, I first encountered a pod of fin whales in the Antarctic’s Bellingshausen Sea. The difference was immediately apparent: These leviathans were not only twice the size, but they were really fast! When they spouted, the plume of spray rose 30 feet in the air. I remember feeling the water freeze on my face and scraping a thin layer of ice from my cheeks. Looking down, I could see crystals of whale spray beneath my fingernails.
Watching the blue whales in the calm tropical water of Sri Lanka is a very different but equally stirring experience.
Although blue whales tend to be solitary, here, on migration, they are commonly found in groups of 10 or 12. Boats can sometimes approach to within 100 feet, which, given the size of the creatures, feels extremely close indeed! Watching the immense animals slide effortlessly beneath the smooth water of the Indian Ocean is an unforgettable wildlife epiphany. If you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity, it is an encounter not to be missed.
Read more about Mr. Harper’s recent visit to Sri Lanka in the May 2012 Hideaway Report.
[Originally published in May 2012]