Searching for Whales off Sri Lanka’s Southern Coast

The sea near Mirissa and Dondra Head in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province is known for its population of dolphins, whales, and other creatures of the deep. We headed south to find some adventures in the waters there, hoping to spot the giant, majestic mac daddy of them all – the largest animal ever to have lived on earth: The blue whale. Your trip to Sri Lanka may not be complete without trying to spot one of these colossal cetaceans, as it’s one of the only places you can do so.

We weren’t the only people with this idea, though. When we arrived to Mirissa we found that due to the influx of tourism in the area, the prices for whale watching tours have risen as much as Rs.2,000 (about $16) in recent months. In fact, only three weeks before we arrived the entire community that offers these tours hiked their fees up to Rs.6,000 per person. For some reason every company pledged to charge this fixed fee. Why go to one company over another? Where’s the free market spirit?

Just when we decided that Rs.12,000 (around $95USD) was too much for us, Captain Wimal approached us in a local diner. An enterprising fisherman, Wimal told us that he could take us whale watching for only Rs.4,000 each – a considerable savings. He then resorted to some rather odd marketing techniques, which included showing me (not Eric) dozens of photos of unsuspecting bikini-clad tourists who had taken his “tour”. All the while, he kept saying that these were photos of his boat…but no, just mostly naked sightseers. But we decided to go with him anyways because it was such a deal, and we were sure to have a good story this way.

So the next morning (in modest clothing), we hopped on a tuk-tuk bound for the marina with the goal of catching some whales in our sights. We were pleasantly surprised that another group had signed up for this outing as we joined a nice French family that was waiting on the boat. Also on board was our trusty first mate, who assisted the captain with readying the vessel for our voyage.

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Once the larger tour companies’ boats weighed anchor we followed suit, heading straight south into the Indian Ocean. Around six kilometers out the sea drops to a depth of one kilometer, which is where our giant friends are supposed to hang out in their migration pattern between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

It wasn’t long before we spotted a pod of very cheerful-looking dolphins sprinting through the water with great speed. In our small fishing boat we were able to ride right alongside them, which was an experience in itself.

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Next we set out in pursuit of the big guys. We searched for a very long time, the first mate keeping a watchful eye on the horizon for any signs of life. Captain Wimal continually called out to the whales, “Oh, whaaales!? I looove you! Come hee-ere!” to no avail. But it reminded us of Dory. Remember Dory?

After an hour or so, the captain received a phone call and we whizzed over to a large cluster of the official tour boats. They all share information, so when a whale does surface it doesn’t take long before everyone knows. Unfortunately this also means that the sound of motors (and hundreds of tourists barreling toward them at once) scares the whales under as quickly as they arrived. And this time, that’s exactly what happened.

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But twenty minutes later, a whale did surface on our right side. It was a blue whale. OMGwesawabluewhale.

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Well, at least we’re fairly certain that’s what it was. We were given a chart with all of the species in those waters, and it surely looked like one.

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Wimal was all smiles and insisted that it was, so we’ll go with it.

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The rest of our journey was largely uneventful except for a tail that peeked up over the water (too quickly for a photo). But our mission was accomplished, so we were ready to head north to hill country!