Pygmy blue whales are most commonly spotted along Sri Lanka’s southern coast

Friend of the Sea urges Sri Lanka and the World Shipping Council to shift lanes 15 nautical miles south to stop deadly whales strikes

Each year, the estimated 300 whales feeding near the Southern coast of Sri Lanka are hit over 1.000 times by up to 300 meters long carrier vessels. 50 of these strikes are likely to be lethal for the rare Pygmy blue whales. 2016 could be the ‘year of no return’ for the whales in the area, unless the Sri Lankan authorities, in collaboration with the World Shipping Council agree to submit, before the 27th of November deadline, a proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to shift the current lanes 15 Nautical Miles South.  Proposals submitted after this deadline would be enforced only 24 months later.

Friend of the Sea has urged the Sri Lankan Government, the World Shipping Council and the top ten shipping companies (NYK, Maersk, Evergreen Marine Corporation, CMA-CGM, MSC, Hapag-Lloyd, APL, Cosco, Hanjin, and CSCL) to submit the proposal to IMO to shift the lanes 15 nautical miles South. The international NGO has offered its help to coordinate a meeting between the parties in the next few weeks.

“The shipping industry has greatly reduced its environmental impact over the years,” explains Paolo Bray, Founder and Director of Friend of the Sea. “It is now time to deal with its silent impact on whales which are being decimated by ship strikes. Shifting the lanes 15 nautical miles South would reduce whales’ strikes by over 90 percent. The artisanal fisheries and the whale watching industry, which is driving tourism in the area, would also benefit. Coastal pollution would be reduced. Ships would in the end have to add only an average five miles to their trips. By meeting the November 27 deadline, Sri Lanka could become an example to be followed globally in environmental protection and whales’ conservation.”

It was previously believed that blue whales fed exclusively in polar regions, where waters are rich with nutrients and dense with krill. But in 2003 marine biologist Asha de Vos spotted six feeding blue whales. An already dwindling population was hammered by illegal Soviet whaling in the 1960s. Pygmy blue whales are most commonly spotted along Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Ship traffic between Africa, the Middle East and Asia all converges here. Ship strikes have escalated since Hambantota harbor was built, observes marine biologists.

According to Asha de Vos the local species possess some distinct features that set them apart from their Antarctic cousins. For example they are 15 feet smaller than Antarctic blue whales and they use a unique dialect to communicate with each other. In fact it was this call signature that allowed scientists to confirm that Sri Lanka’s blue whales don’t migrate to Antarctica, like other populations. There are behavioral differences as well. For example, they “fluke up,” or lift their tails high in the air before diving, more often than blue whales in other populations.