“You are guaranteed to be seeing them, no problem.” Our skipper smiled and nodded vigorously to assure us of his claim. I’d never heard of certainties before when it comes to wildlife, particularly wildlife like this – elusive, once-in-a-lifetime, glimpse-if-you’re-lucky creatures living as far as its possible to be from human company. Ghn beamed with confidence. We were keen to believe him, and the day was as good as we could hope for – bright skies, calm water, and a guide who’s been fishing these waters all his life.
In the harbour there were crested terns. I amused myself in the first half hour heading out and south of Mirissa trying to keep my binoculars steady enough against the swell to identify seabirds – dark shearwaters cresting the waves and some sort of tern plummeting from height. Briefly a flying fish cleared the water, momentarily on the birds’ plane. If you were able to keep going from here in a straight line, the next stop is the Antarctic.
The first hour was silent. Some were busy being sick as inconspicuously as possible, but most were fixed on the ocean ahead, scanning from near to horizon for any signs. The crew came round, slopping weak, early morning tea into mugs as best they could. “We are looking for the blow,” Ghn said, facing us, with one hand on the wheel and memory steering. “It is 30 foot high or more.” He is full of impressive facts, and it’s easy enough with these leviathans, because they really know how to do big: tongues the weight of elephants, hearts like cars, blood vessels wide enough for a human to swim through, a mouth with the capacity to hold 90 tons of water, and males with the longest penis of any organism (between 2.5 to 3 metres, if you’re asking).
It is only in recent years that we’ve begun to know anything of substance about blue whales at all. Once the target of commercial hunting (like pretty much all whales species), these 130 foot, 173 tonne mammals have become one of the great fascinations of the modern, high-definition documentary age: we adore their cinematic scale, revel in privileged access to a little of that unfathomable oceanic secrecy. As a child this was what I wanted to see first and most when we made yearly trips to the Natural History Museum – the staggering life-size cast of a blue.
Despite its size, though, the vastness of this whale’s deep-sea home makes it extremely difficult to see. Until a decade ago, that is, when marine biologists made the remarkable discovery that one blue whale population (a ‘pygmy’ subspecies, a little shorter than others) makes a yearly migration from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea and back, taking them through the deep waters of the continental shelf and unexpectedly close to the southern tip of Sri Lanka. There is nowhere else in the world, in fact, as far as we know, that blue whales come this close to land.
Since 2008, Mirrisa has become a busy tourist spot between December to April, and blue whales are now stars of an ecotourist cetacean phenomenon. It’s blue whales you are most likely to see, but there are also sperm, fin and Bryde’s whales in these krill-rich waters, and several species of dolphin. Ghn’s boat was one of twenty or thirty out that day pursuing blue whales. Even in the excitement of immense expectation, I pondered the impact of all these boats – and more each year – on the whales themselves. What must all this commotion sound like to creatures whose hearing is so acute it is thought they can sense each other up to 1,000 miles away? Wildlife on this island can do so much for a country still recovering from civil war and a tsunami, still suffering poverty, but if there are no regulations put in place, there will certainly be complications in the future.
Shouts from the front of the boat drew my attention and I saw it immediately – a great white spume of surging water-mist. The boat sped up, as did the others around us. The whale was gone, but Ghn cut off the engine and crossed his arms. Nothing for several minutes but gentle plashing against the hull. Another blow broke surface 300 metres or so away, but we did not move. Other boats roared off. This is Ghn’s tactic – others can make the wild whale chase, but he will gamble on the luck of waiting it out.
I saw it as the crew did and shouted, “There! Over there!” A quick acceleration and sharp turn. Stillness again. And then the whole of its lithe, long body rolled out of the water just ahead of us, tipping itself back down towards the deep, first the snorting blow hole, then the great length of its back, the dorsal, the bulk of everything turning without even a splash, right to the very tips of the 25 foot flukes.
We saw five or six blue whales that morning, but none like that. I cannot comprehend how these mammals are so wonderfully at home in this realm, descending to such depths that I shudder at the blackness. But right then I wanted to slip down and take to the vastness, piece together the size of whale magnificence.