(© Clem Onjeghuo)

All Aboard, in Search of the Big Blue

“The blue whale has become mythical, deified by virtue of its elusiveness and sheer, incomparable size.”

by Henry Wismayer

Six am at the Mirissa dockyard, and a cavalcade of minibuses is arriving in the pre-dawn gloom.

From all along Sri Lanka’s south coast, the tourists now disembarking bleary-eyed at the quayside have come to join people like me, who’ve traipsed here along the kilometre-long lane from Mirissa village. And as I watch them arrive one after another, the book on my lap describes the thing that’s lured them here. On a well-thumbed page, the first line says it all:

“The largest animal ever to have lived on Earth…”

In truth, Mirissa’s blue whales caught me by surprise. I was just doing what anyone coming to Sri Lanka for the first time instinctively does: pick a beach and head for the coast. On paper, you see, this coastal village in Sri Lanka’s far south didn’t appear to need cetaceans to pull in the punters. A horseshoe bay of fine sand, fringed with slender coconut palms, it is, like many Sri Lankan beach-spots nowadays, a destination on the make.

Ever since the Tamil Tigers’ 30-year insurgency was crushed in 2009, ending thirty years of attritional civil war, tourism in Sri Lanka has been going through the gears. Immediately west, in two-mile wide Weligama Bay, large resorts on a scale previously confined to the vicinity of Colombo, sit incongruous above the palm tree horizon. Further still, in Bentota and Hakkiduwa, the devastation wrought by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 has been buried beneath a slew of hotel-building and glossy brochure promotion.

For the time being, Mirissa, three-and-a-half hours by train from the Sri Lankan capital, exudes a more laid-back, independent traveller vibe than its more conspicuous neighbours. By day the beach fills up with visitors come to sunbathe and to surf. In the evening, fairy lights coiled around tree-trunks spill constellations over plastic tables, as the ramshackle restaurants and reggae bars take over the sand. By the tideline, coracles loaded with seafood — snapper, king prawn, dory, tuna — are dragged onto the waterfront, and the tourists feast.

Mirissa’s beach by night.

The ocean that yields this ocean bounty is super-abundant. Off Dondra Head, Sri Lanka’s southernmost cape with its chalk-white lighthouse, immediately east of Mirissa, deep submarine canyons draw upwellings of krill and zooplankton close to the shore. This bonanza lures the fish, which lure bigger predators in turn. Sperm whales, pilot whales and dolphins are regular visitors, so much so that Mirissa could probably have cultivated a thriving line in tourist boat-trips even without the headline attraction.

But, for an increasing number of visitors, the blues whales are the thing, the region’s extraordinary USP. In imaginations occupied by dinosaurs, mastodons and giant sloths, there’s something barely comprehensible about that headline — not just the largest creature of today, but the largest ever. Its dimensions become indelible the moment you hear them: 100 feet long; weighing up to 200 tons; an aorta big enough to swim down. The blue whale has become mythical, deified by virtue of its elusiveness and sheer incomparable size.

The gravitational pull the whales have started to exert on visitors to southern Sri Lanka is not without problems. Fuelled by the cessation of war, Mirissa’s rush to cash-in has become a scramble. In 2010, the government deployed bulldozers to raze the illegal shacks that had started to proliferate along the beach. On the lane that leads down to the beach from the main Galle-Matara road, signboards advertising whale-watching trips jostle for attention at the roadside. New outfits, unregulated and, in too many cases, uncompliant with the rules for safe whale-watching, are springing up all the time.

And for now, it seems, the demand is only set to rise, for who wouldn’t leap at the chance to see a blue whale?

Not me, for one, despite some misgivings. Which is why, one dawn last spring, I found myself sitting outside the office of Mirissa Water Sports, thumbing through an encyclopaedia of Sri Lanka’s marine wildlife, while my fellow day-trippers congregated outside in the first orange flecks of sunrise.

The auguries for the day ahead are good. On the wall outside the office, a signboard declares that between two and ten blue whales has been spotted on each of the last ten days.

Outside, the quayside is abuzz. The smell of the ocean drifts over from the fishing-dock, where men with paunches are haggling over the night’s haul, spread over the concrete in a metallic patchwork of flank and fin.

For decades, fishing was the sole economic activity on this stretch of shore. Only in the 1980s, when a World Wildlife Fund research vessel called the RV Tulip spent two years cataloging the country’s megafauna, did Sri Lanka’s whales come to be known outside the realms of fisherman anecdote.

Tourist boats line the quayside of the Mirissa dockyard.

Soon we are barging out into the bay in the Tulip’s historical wake. Our boat is a fibreglass vessel around 40-feet-long, with rows of seat on the lower deck and a viewing platform above, where a crew of three spotters stand sentinel beneath a plastic awning.

The waves grow higher as we nosed towards Dondra Head. For the rest of the morning the boat pitches in the chop, crashing resolutely over bow-waves sent our way by the hulking grey silhouettes on the horizon — tankers and container-ships rumbling through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Don’t worry, one of the spotters tells me, we don’t need calm water to spot a blue whale. When they surface to breathe, their exhalations send water-spouts up to 30 feet into the air.

After a quiet first hour, the ocean comes to life. At one point we have spinner dolphins bow-riding, a group of obsidian-black pilot whales cutting across our path, and dozens of flying fish erupting from the water like explosions of quicksilver. “Too much centrifugal force up here,” harrumphs one British man to no one in particular, both hands clasped on his telephoto lens. A group of Dutch girls, their hangovers suddenly forgotten, let out a collective squeal of delight.

Then, a cry from the bow that recalls the whalers of old: “Whale! One o-clock! Far!” For a while, no one sees what the eagle-eyed spotter, hanging over the rail to communicate with the pilot in rapid Sinhalese, has spied. Then a sudden vaporous cloud erupts from the water, plum ahead, which coalesces two minutes later into an enormous grey hump, around 500 feet distant, that can only be a blue whale. And we chug deferentially forward.

The first thing that grabs you when you approach a blue whale is the vividness of the colour. The blue tinge to their skin, barely perceptible out of water, appears just beneath the surface as a dazzling ultramarine. All that can be seen of our whale, when we near him, is the blow-hole and the comparatively puny dorsal. But the shimmering blue shadow betrays its true footprint — twice as long as the boat at least.

For a while it lingers 100 feet off our starboard side, its huge body rising and falling as it fills 5,000 litre lungs. Then it arches, a whole island on the move, until flukes as wide as a light aircraft’s wings break clear of the water dripping a curtain of pearls.

Then, with the merest ripple, it is gone, back down into the blue.

(NOAA Photo Library)