Having a Whale of a Time in Sri Lanka

Mirissa Marina

We recently took our first trip to Sri Lanka.  Growing up on the opposite side of the globe, the only thing you would hear about Sri Lanka was the ongoing civil war, which dragged on for more than a quarter of a century, resulted in between 60,000 and 100,000 deaths, and displaced nearly 300,000 people.  So I wasn’t sure what to expect.

From the limited part we were able to see on a long weekend, Sri Lanka is an island paradise.  To be sure, Sri Lanka faces the same challenges as many developing countries, but we were surprised by the smooth, uncrowded roads, good infrastructure, unspoiled scenes of nature, and happy, friendly people.

Breaking Wave

We arrived at about 3 in the morning and fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing in the bay; we woke up in a reasonably priced but beautiful resort and enjoyed a morning stroll along pristine beaches lined with spectacular cliffs and verdant greenery.

DSCF2170

Unfortunately, the rainy weather over the previous few days had left the sea a bit rough – we could see coral near the surface out in the bay, but there were 6-foot swells that made swimming out to them a delicate proposition.  Still, I managed to swim out between the breakers with a GoPro, and managed to capture some cool shots of the coral – in spite of the limited visibility underwater – and some of the waves crashing overhead.

Coral in Weligama Bay

Breaking Wave

I also discovered that beyond the far edges of the bay, there was a pretty decent current moving in the direction of the open sea.  Toward the bottom of the GPS track below, where I turned toward the beach, I could still barely make out the sea bottom…and I noticed with every stroke, I was making little to no forward progress.  Let’s just say I got a good workout that day!  Yes, it’s fun to joke about rip currents.

weligama

That evening, I had some fun with my new camera and took advantage of the lack of city lights, taking some long-exposure photos at the beach to make night look like day:

Night Exposure

But the best was yet to come.  Because the waters south of Sri Lanka are home to the world’s largest mammal, the blue whale.  And for a reasonable price, you can hop on a boat and go out and see them.  So that’s what we set out to do – on my 48th birthday.  So we hopped on a boat and set a course for the open sea.

whale

For awhile it was just dolphins, which were pretty cool, but we probably went about 18 km on a pretty slow boat without seeing any whales, and were a bit worried that we wouldn’t see any at all.

Dolphins

We eventually ended up right astride the Chennai-Colombo shipping lane – there was a steady stream of giant container ships and tankers heading by in both directions.  About 500 meters away, we spotted what was practically a small gray island poking out of the water, and the white plume of a blow (exhalation of air and mucus) appeared above it.  The boat edged closer and the whale decided to dive, giving us the classic “whale tale” photo.

Blue Whale

Blue Whale

We waited for about 15 minutes to see where the whale would resurface, to no avail – so we fired up the boat engine, and within 5 minutes, spotted another. Again, as we got closer, it dove.

Blue Whale

This repeated for about 20-30 minutes, until we suddenly ended up in an area where we must have been surrounded by a dozen blue whales – as the boat moved into the area, you could literally look in almost any direction and see one of nature’s largest creatures calmly feeding on the krill which flourishes in the waters south of Sri Lanka. And this is where I made my move, taking this “bucket list” item to the next level.

Preparing for the Chase

Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought any swim fins with me. The guys on the boat kept yelling, “swim faster” and finally one of them jumped in and realized that yes, I was swimming reasonably fast. But it turns out that blue whales are a little bit faster!

Chasing the Whale

Chasing the Whale

There are companies that will take a lot more money from you, put you on a speedboat, and tell you that they have the whales “come to you” – all that I can imagine is that they would drop you in the path of an oncoming whale.  I didn’t want to disturb these gentle creatures any more than we already had.  It wasn’t quite the experience that these people had, but still a truly unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I couldn’t believe that at one point I was no more than 100 meters or so from the heaviest animal that has ever lived – at 30 meters long, almost 17 times as “long” as me, and 1250 times as heavy – gracefully sliding through the waters of the open ocean with scarcely a ripple.

Open Sea

Happy at having seen probably 30 or so blue whales that afternoon but exhausted, we made our way back to the town of Mirissa.  It turns out that three days is much too short a time to experience Sri Lanka.  But by this point, I already had my mind on a completely different trip I was about to take, because that morning there had been a few calls made from my bosses back home, and as we cruised into the harbor, I received a text message confirmation:  immediately after my return to Chennai, I would be heading out to assist in the tragic Nepal Earthquake.  The quake had struck just the day before, while we, completely unaware, had been enjoying our first day on this island paradise.  I’ll share more about that later.

Fishing Trawler

To see the other photos I took in Sri Lanka, mostly with my shiny new Fuji X100 camera, check out this album on Flickr.

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