Scientists, marine biologists, ocean educators, whale researchers and conservationists have pointed out that the Government mechanism established to be implemented to supervise and monitor whether tour and boat operators approached whales responsibly as per the laid down guidelines, was lacking.

The blue whale population in the northern part of the Indian ocean and other marine mammals such as porpoises and dolphins (some of which are endangered species at risk of extinction – due to high levels of toxins in their blubber, the limited availability of prey and whaling) are found concentrated mostly in the southern part of Sri Lanka as opposed to other maritime areas belonging to the country.

Meanwhile, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) pointed out that in the most recent case of a whale being beached ashore during this month, the fact that it had been split in two was proof that the creature had died as a result of a collision with a ship.

Explaining that whales die all around the ocean surrounding Sri Lanka, a scientist at NARA, Upul Liyanage highlighted the lack of facilities to conduct post-mortems on recently deceased whales, rotting whale carcasses and whale skins which are washed ashore, in order to ascertain the exact cause of death.

“Foreign research studies have also shown that whale carcasses sometimes wash out to sea and are found thereby in areas further away from where it originally died,” he said.
Hotspots for sighting marine mammals include Mirissa, Trincomalee and Kalpitiya. Whale-watchers focus on particular species.

The behaviours of the whales involve migratory patterns and specific feeding times. The negative effects on cetaceans include the presence of the vessels frequently interrupting and taking attention away from their activities such as foraging, feeding (causing the cessation of feeding), socializing and breeding, and the noise the vessels produce which thereby reduces the ability of whales to detect prey, communicate and navigate. The violation of whale-watching guidelines thus leads to a significant disturbance to the marine mammals.

The peak season for whale-watching is from September to April. The abundance of whales and the diversity of the whales are not uniform and continuous throughout the year. There are months where there are few or no whales and others where there are plenty. During the peak season, there are large numbers of clients. Cetaceans require a wide berth.
Whale-watching in Sri Lanka is a thriving industry which has no regional competitors (like India), operating solely on money, Liyanage noted while adding that whale watching tour operators had to cater to all.

“Some whale-watching tour operators charge Rs 6,000 to Rs 6,500 per head while others especially boat operators charge Rs 1,000. The tourist guide puts the clients on to a boat and gets a big cut from the boat operator. Therefore, the boat operator charging a small amount such as Rs 1,000 cannot afford to go too far out to show the clients whales but instead has to resort to showing those in the ocean area closer to the shore,” he explained.

A certain local tour operator has stated in their official website guidelines on how to responsibly approach whales, porpoises and dolphins. The website contains a link to ‘Be Whale Wise Marine Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers and Viewers’ which are meant to be followed in order to help reduce the impact of vessels including those such as power boats, sailboats and kayaks on the cetaceans and by those who engage in sport fishing. Fisher folk are advised to remove gear and tackle including nets and lines if whales approach while fishing.

The guidelines include slowing down by reducing the vessel’s speed gradually to less than seven knots when within 400 metres of the nearest whale, being quiet and lessening noise, minimizing wake and wash, holding course, avoiding sudden or abrupt course changes, not approaching or positioning one’s vessel closer than 100 metres to any whale and to place the engine at neutral.

The guidelines also insist that the whales must be allowed to pass if one’s vessel is not in compliance with the 100 metres approach requirement, keeping clear of the whales’ path. They have also been told to cautiously move out of the way if whales are approaching the boat or pass without stopping, not to drive through a pod, not to approach the whales from the front or the back and to always approach and depart from the side thereby moving in a direction parallel to the direction of the whales.

There is also emphasis to stay on the offshore side of the whales when they are travelling close to the shore, not to disturb and not to swim with, touch (including jumping over them) or feed them.

Swimming and diving with the whales is on occasion done in secrecy and is illegal and not allowed. However, special permission is given for filming or other educational and research related purposes and must be obtained from the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Rules and regulations with regard to whale-watching have been prepared with the combined efforts of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), NARA, the Sri Lanka Coast Guard/Department of Coast Guard (SLCG), the Sri Lanka Navy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation (CFHC). They are presently being revised to limit the number of boats, including commercial whale-watching vessel operators and private recreational vessel operators and passengers in the boats that go for whale-watching at any given time.

Occasionally one boat will carry 50 to 100 passengers and if 100 clients travel the income is Rs 600,000 which goes not to the big corporate entities but to the common man in the community whose livelihoods involve tourism and the ocean.

Also taken into account is the distance that needs to be kept and maintained between the whales and the boats at all times, to limit the speeds of the vessels when travelling closer to the whales, to prevent approach from the front or the back and to keep to the sides. Another emphasis is to limit the time spent with these behemoths and leviathans and about how to responsibly approach the whales.

For filming of whales, permission must also be obtained from the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the National Film Corporation of Sri Lanka, the SLTDA, NARA, the SLCG, the Navy, the IUCN and the CFHC and the Department of Wildlife Conservation which should be there to guide them while at sea.

Scientists opined that as far as maritime law was concerned, the path used by the whales is also a shipping route even though not all the ships taking the lane came to Sri Lanka.  Experts say that ideally whale operators should not be in operation in such areas because commonly there have been and are instances where the whales, sometimes 10 to 15, have been and are being chased after by people on boats and the whales go near or under shipping vessels to seek protection and the ultimate result being whale-ship strikes.
Scientists have called on the government to develop Trincomalee and Kalpitiya as a means of reducing the pressure on Mirissa and proposed that the amounts charged to go whale-watching be increased to USD 100.

“The SLCG and the Department of Wildlife Conservation does not have the capacity to guard all and look into aspects such as whether everyone is wearing a life jacket while engaging in whale-watching in the sea. The government should streamline funds and earn an income from this and allocate a portion for research, training of tour and boat operators, the improvement of facilities such as those in the harbours which is an aspect which comes under the purview of the CFHC and most importantly for monitoring,” Liyanage remarked.

Presently research is being done by the Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Sciences and Technology of the University of Ruhuna.