By Roshenka de Mel
The graceful marine giants that grace Sri Lanka’s coastal waters have become one of Sri Lanka’s key attractions and assisted in enhancing the country’s reputation as a whale and dolphin watching hotspot. However in a presentation organized by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka, renowned cetacean specialist Anouk Ilangakoon cautioned that Sri Lanka’s whale watching industry is at present unsustainable.
Why are whales special?
Explaining the physiological and physical adaptations that have made whales unique, Ilangakoon drew attention to the fact that whales are warm blooded mammals that have evolved to thrive in extremely cold aquatic conditions. Their hydrodynamic shape achieved through a streamlined body and blowhole a.k.a nose being situated on the top of the whale’s head opposed to the front of it, along with the development of the mammal’s thermoregulation abilities in addition to their well developed sense of sight and hearing, clearly demonstrate how whales have physiologically adapted to their marine habitat. The classification of whales is split across two sub orders. Suborder Odontoceti have a single blowhole and include many dolphin species, whereas Suborder Mysteceti include many marine whales who have paired blowholes and use a keratin like substance called baleen as a feeding filter.
Further elaborating on what is special about whales, Ilangakoon explained how whales are the only mammals to give birth to their young tail first. The reason for this is due to the fact that the young whale if birthed head first would try to breath as it enters the water and would drown. One of the most remarkable elements of the behaviour and social adaptation of whales is their affinity to assist each other in times of need. Often found in large groups or smaller cohesive groups, whales that encounter the dangers of shark attacks or in instances when one whale is injured, are known to surround the attacked or injured whale in an effort to protect it. This instinct to stick together and protect each other was often exploited by whalers in past times, who upon harpooning a whale were aware that the rest of the group would surround it in an effort to assist it and this would enable them to unfortunately harpoon more whales.
Ilangakoon stated that for years only fishermen and sea farers were aware of whales in Sri Lankan waters and systematic studies only commenced in the 1980’s. Sri Lankan waters attract 27 species of migrant and resident whales, a number that not many countries can boast. Ocean waters below 40 degrees south are considered a sanctuary and Sri Lanka unlike many other whale spotting destinations has a year round abundance of whales and dolphins frequenting our waters especially the shallow coastal waters of the South West. With no way of acquiring just how many whales frequent Sri Lankan waters, Ilangakoon highlighted the most common species of large whales are Blue Whales, Fin Whales, Bryde’s Whales, Sperm Whales and Humpback Whales. The most common dolphin species in Sri Lankan waters are the Bottlenose Dolphin, False Killer Whale, Spinner Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Stripped Dolphin and Spotted Dolphin. Also noted more rarely in Sri Lankan waters though is the Finless Porpoise, Common Dolphin, Fraser’s Dolphin and the Indo Pacific Humpback Dolphin. Ilangakoon also explained that Killer Whale sightings are becoming more common in Sri Lanka.
In outlining the key threats to whales and dolphins in Sri Lankan waters, Ilangakoon stated that the biggest threats to large whales stem from ship strikes, whereas small cetaceans are threatened by the fishing industry. Smaller dolphins often get entangled in nylon nets which are left by fisherman for long periods of time, by the time fishermen check the nets, the captured dolphins have perished. Fishermen have also taken to harpooning smaller cetaceans and young calves have been caught by harpoons in the past.
There has been an increased consumption of dolphin flesh which is supplied by coastal fishermen to more inland areas. The fishermen themselves will kill the dolphins but won’t eat them due to superstitions, what they do is transport the fish to markets where the dolphin flesh is chopped into pieces and sold under the pretense of being Dugong (a species which has virtually been eaten into extinction according to Ilangakoon).
In regard to the sustainability of Sri Lanka’s whale watching industry, Ilangakoon explained that it just is not sustainable at present. The main problem she highlighted was the fact that whale watching received massive publicity through extensive marketing campaigns before any proper infrastructure to protect and manage the entire process was put in place. There are currently no licensing schemes, no regulations or codes of conduct put in place and no monitoring of whale watching underway at present. Ilangakoon stated “from 6 boats in 2009 to more than 13 at present, we are going about whale watching in the wrong way, with no infrastructure and regulations in place, the whale watching industry is not sustainable at present.”
Ilangakoon explained that measures to improve infrastructure have not been acted on therefore the tourism and travel companies that promote and make use of the activity should take it upon themselves to introduce and implement voluntary regulations and codes of conduct. Ilangakoon said that 10 million people across 500 destinations spend USD 1 billion on whale watching activities across the globe, those parties benefiting from whale watching in Sri Lanka should preserve this resource (the whales) and take the steps to ensure sustainability of the industry for the benefit of both the whales and the tourism sector. At present Ilangakoon stressed that the entire approach to whale watching is faulted and threatens both whale and watcher. Using photographic examples depicting tourist boats surrounding whales and images where boats were headed directly towards the whales, Ilangakoon explained that at present approaches by boat operators, the whale is completely surrounded and trapped by boats that are too close to it and this doesn’t give the whales adequate room to breath. Apart from causing immense discomfort to the whale, this also poses a threat to whale watchers who with a single flick from a whale’s tail fin will be exposed to a boat shattering force. Ilangakoon also drew attention to the lack of safety measures being adhered to by tourists. She highlighted that often watchers do not wear life vests and travel far too close to the whales. Fast, head on approaches have also been identified as a problematic approach that needs to be fixed. By steering the boat towards the whale or dolphin in an effort to get a close look, the risk that the animal will dive under and upset the boat is high. Also such an approach also has no benefit to the watcher as it provides next to no viewing opportunities. Ilangakoon warned that the present approach to whale watching in Sri Lanka is conducive to an accident waiting to happen, if corrective steps are not made, it will only be a matter of time before a boat gets too close to a whale and there’s an accident.
Responsible whale watching
In order to protect Sri Lanka’s whales and dolphins as well as watchers whilst they are in boats, Ilangakoon emphasized that basic rules and codes of conduct for responsible whale watching should be applied by the travel trade and boat operators who make money from the industry. There should be no unnecessarily close boat encounters of a confronting nature, watchers should respect the whales as wild animals and not swim or feed them, whales should not be approached at high speeds from 100m and whale watching as whole will have to be done in a manner that protects both whales and watchers. Improved regulatory measures will not only serve to protect the resource of Sri Lanka’s marine life and ensure we continue to attract whales and dolphins to our waters, correct codes of conduct also ensure a higher quality experience for the watcher that is safer and enables them to take the photos they want whilst having a satisfying experience without harming the whales.
If whales and dolphins are harassed in Sri Lankan waters, Ilangakoon stressed that they are intelligent enough to feed during the night or move away from Sri Lanka’s south coast and roam through other areas of the Indian Ocean. Ilangakoon warned that if whale watching measures were not improved and the sustainability of the industry was not considered then sightings would diminish and we would drive whales and dolphins away from Sri Lankan waters. Ilangakoon highlighted that a joint effort was needed in creating awareness about responsible whale watching and its importance. Ilangakoon stressed that until more formal regulations are put in place, the travel trade will have an important role to play in the immediate facilitation of better codes of conduct for the whale watching industry in order to ensure the its sustainability.