What’s the future for Sri Lanka’s’ lost’ population of whales?

This is the same sperm whale pod Blue Planet filmed off Sri Lanka but flocking tourists are constructing it less of a safe place for these stunning animals

These transcendent, haunting images taken by photographer Andrew Sutton in the water of the western Indian Ocean come close to understanding something of the magnificent and enigmatic sperm whale, an animal which still remains fairly unknowable to us, for all that we have exploited it for 500 years.

Don’t tell the other cetaceans, but I think sperm whales are the most beautiful mammals on the planet.

For millennia they have swum in every ocean, occupied only with their physical and cultural egoes. They still hang there, dreaming. And according to the scientist Hal Whitehead, we are to be able to even have an inkling of those dreams.


Whitehead, who began his work find sperm whales off Sri Lanka, has done much to advance our knowledge of why, as much as how, these animals exist.

He wonders why they have such big brains and if they think about their existential existence. Might they, like us, have even evolved notions of religion to explain their life on earth?


These are wild ideas, I know, but these wild animals encourage them. Sperm whales turn you a little crazy. They go beyond the superlatives- the biggest brain, the deepest diving, the largest-toothed carnivore- to become something else. Theirs is a matriarchal society governed by loyalty and a sense of collective individualism in which their system of communicative clicks has only one virtually extrasensory role. Whatever they are, they are linked by voice, and their selves.

Imagine yourself in association with such an animal; to place yourself in physical proximity with her. This is what Sutton’s photographs do. Blue Planet Live might get us close to the action.


But there is something contemplative and, I would suggest, even spiritual about a deep, still photograph that speaks of these deep, still denizens. Diving with Sutton, I have expended time in the water with these animals in Sri Lanka, and the Azores. We’ve been echolocated by them. We’ve even seen them beinghunted by killer whales.

Yet for all these close encounters, we are left with a sense of distance- even when a whale is barely a metre away( on one occasion in the Azores, we were nearly squashed between a pair of them ). The water connects us physically, but unplugs us, too. There’s a gulf of natural and human history between us.


It is one of the many ironies about the great whales- whom we nearly reduced to extinction in the last century- that, as huge as the issue is, so few of us have seen them. That, as big as they are, they now rely on diminutive humen for their continuance.

Sri Lanka has been seen as a possible location for the original Eden, although its recent history has hardly borne that out. Whale-watching from the island has only recently taken off, after the end, in 2009, of the war with the Tamil Tigers( the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE ), which restricted tourist access to its waters.

Trincomalee, on the eastern coast of the island, close to the Jaffna peninsula, was particularly affected. Now it is a magnet for whale-watching, as is the southern tip of Sri Lanka and the rapidly expanding resort ofMirissa, where there have been accusations of harassment of whales.

The discovery of a third cetacean hotspot on the island is now presenting new problems. Kalpitiya, a peninsula on the west coast of Sri Lanka, has been a kite-surfing venue for a decade or more. The presence of frequently-seen megapods of balletic spinner dolphins- up to 2,000 strong- has also drawn tourists. It would be hard to deny anyone the pleasure of these cetaceans- a single dolphin’s trajectory recreated here, like the phases of the moon, in a composite image.


Meanwhile, manta lights glide through the same warm waters.


Since 2010, the Sri Lankan marine biologist Ranil Nanayakkara has been observing unusually big pods of sperm whales off Kalpitiya from February to April. On one occasion, he counted at least 300 animals in one group.

Unlike western nations, Sri Lanka has never had a culture in the utilization of whales as a resource- until now. The whales that come to this part of the Indian Ocean each spring have hitherto escaped unwanted human attention. Indeed, sperm whales possess their own culture which has seen this sea as a safe place in which to pasture, socialise, mate, or even to sleep.


Sutton is working with Vanessa Williams-Grey of Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s( WDC) Project Blueprint to mitigate the effects of human-whale interactions in Sri Lanka. In 2011 there merely involved three or four whale-watch operators along Kalpitya’s 50 km stretch of coast. When I lasted visited, in 2017, there were 20. Now there are at least 90.



WDC’s solution is to set up workshops for responsible whale-watching with local operators and to discuss ways that the fishing community can work around whales. In that process, they’re learning new contexts. Nanayakkara spoke to some of the elder fishermen, who have been working the water for decades. They recall that the Kalpitiya peninsula was ” ferociously controlled” by the LTTE who monitored catches. Breaking these statutes risked a death sentence.

Ironically, a violent war helped preserve a fragile peace for these animals. One angler observed that the komoduwa – the sperm whales-” appeared to get stronger in numbers, indeed even stronger than before the war when there was more unregulated fishing in the area “. Others recall that before the widespread employ of outboard motors, the whales were gathering in such dense numbers that the fishermen detected it difficult to get out to sea and back.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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