The Blue Whale is the sort of creature that captures the imagination of every child. I remember having a book when I was young that illustrated the size of a Blue Whale with a diagram of ascending larger things… man, horse, elephant, bus, aeroplane… then a behemoth of a whale – a shape that didn’t look familiar to anything I’d ever seen and a size that was just too big to comprehend. Nothing else in that book was as mind-blowing as that diagram at the time.
Still a child, my parents took me for my first visit to the Natural History Museum in London. Stepping into the Whale Hall for the first time was like becoming the little person on the diagram in that book. Surrounded by large mammals – rhinos, elephants, hippo, giraffe, yet all of them looking pathetically small, because looming over everything was a huge mothership of a replica Blue Whale.
Fast-forward 30+ years, and we’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka. It’s a busy schedule as we plan to look for wildlife from the north to the south of the country in a range of habitats, as we look for endemic birds, leopards, elephants. My partner wanted to incorporate some time to relax on the coast somewhere – a bit of luxury at the end of the trip. A bit of research threw up something I hadn’t previously known. I’d always thought that to see a Blue Whale I’d need to visit the west coast of the U.S, or Iceland, get on a boat and hope for the best. But it turned out that the waters south of Sri Lanka are probably the most reliable place in the world to see them. The decision was made instantly, and we booked a hotel in Mirissa.
When the end of our holiday arrived, we arrived in Mirissa to find an atmosphere very different to the places we’d visited up until that point. Lots of beach bars, hippies, back-packers and an overall laid-back, chilled but very friendly and welcoming atmosphere. We boarded a boat early in the morning, having queued to sign-up, sign disclaimers and be issued with sea-sickness pills. I’d anticipated seeing all kinds of life on the way out to the waters that the whales were likely to be seen in. In fact, once we’d left the harbour with its Whiskered Terns and House Crows, there really was very little else to see. Once we’d seen a pod of Striped Dolphins, I began to lose track of time, and Conny began to lose control of her stomach, turning to the pills and hiding in the shade.
Eventually the boat slowed and we spotted a distant water spout. The skipper manouvered the boat so as to end up moving parallel to the whale at a very respectable distance. When it next surfaced for air it was as if in slow motion. It reminded me of a huge nuclear submarine surfacing (of course, I’ve only ever seen such things on TV) because the water never stopped pouring off the back of the whale, such was the volume it had displaced. After two or three such visits to the surface for air, the final visit was different, and it was clear that the arched back meant that this time the whale was going deep. Its enormous tail raised itself from the water before pointing downwards like an arrow, marking the direction the whale was headed.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the size of the next thing we saw. Right across the path of where we’d watched the Blue Whale swim just two minutes previously, came a cargo ship bigger than any ship I’ve ever seen, moving at speed. Suddenly the Blue Whale, the largest creature ever to have existed on this planet, seemed very small and vulnerable. Once the ship had passed it didn’t take long to spot another Blue Whale. Looking away towards where the cargo ship had arrived from it became apparent that the first whale’s close encounter with the cargo ship was no coincidental near-miss. At equal distances from each other towards the horizon was a line of equally large vessels. All of them were surrounded with barbed wire and various anti-piracy measures, each of them showing very visible signs of their own vulnerability, despite their immense size. Each time one of them passed we’d see another Blue Whale until we’d seen five individuals in all. Given that the Blue Whales in that region of the Indian Ocean seem to be present so habitually it would seem (to someone as ignorant about maritime things as me!) easy to move the shipping lanes further away, and maybe in time, this will happen.
On the way back to shore we had a bonus sighting. We’d already seen the largest mammal on the planet, and now we found the largest fish in the world drifting right beneath our boat – a Whale Shark. This was over as quickly as it began, and in a mad scrabble I only had chance to snap a few ‘click and hope’ pictures with a compact camera.
It was a spectacular way to end the trip.