Raja and The Whales: Spotting Blue Whales in Mirissa
Our last stop in Sri Lanka is the beach town of Mirissa, the very southern tip of the country. This is the only city in Sri Lanka in which we will be staying more than one night, and only hours after arriving here we knew we made the right choice. We spent the afternoon hanging out in a reggae shack on the beach, drinking beers and mingling with people from all over the world.
We did choose Mirissa for more than just the amazing beach atmosphere. Mirissa, and Southern Sri Lanka in general, is one of the best places on the planet to observe whales, particularly blue whales, in their natural habitat. Whale watching in Sri Lanka is not only one of the best places to observe whale, but it is also one of the newest spots to try your luck. Sri Lanka was not a very popular place to visit until their 26-year long civil war ended in 2009, and whale watching, at least as a tourist attraction, didn’t even exist until a few years ago.
With the increase in tourism also came a steady stream of whale watchers from all over the world. This has caused untrained, inexperienced fisherman to decide on a whim to open a whale watching business. In Sri Lanka, if you have a boat, you qualify. We didn’t
realize just how bad it has gotten until we witnessed first hand some other boats aggressively chasing and harassing a whale with a fleet of five or six boats.
This played a big part in which company we chose to book with. Raja & The Whales does it differently and they do it right. Besides having a business name that could double as a indie rock band, he also participates in international whale research and follows international whale watching guidelines. He only uses two boats, and always ensures that his first priority is the whales. His introduction and briefing that he gives on board confirms that we made the right call hiring him. His knowledge of whales, particularly in Sri Lanka is unmatched by any other outfit in town. He is also part of a group of activists who are trying to change the current freight shipping lane around Sri Lanka to prevent whales from being hit. Last year alone, 32 whales were killed by cargo ships, some are even dragged all the way to shore by ships who haven’t even realized they hit a whale.
The first hour of the tour is uneventful, but the crew serves coffee and fried egg sandwiches, making the time pass much easier. The scenery leaving the Mirissa harbor at sunrise is absolutely stunning. So many fishing boats surround us, all a different bright color.
The first stop on our trip will be in an area known for having a lot of spinner dolphins. Raja wastes no time using his skills to find a group of dolphins swimming near by. The crew teaches everyone on board a great system of watching so that everyone is able to see. If the sighting is currently on your side of the boat, you kneel to watch (there are kneeling pads), and if the sighting is on the other side of the boat, you walk over and stand behind the person kneeling. It is a much better way to do it then they time I tried whale watching in Mexico and was nearly thrown overboard by an over-weight lady from Chicago who just had to get the perfect shot of a whale on my side of the boat.
After about 30 minutes of watching dolphins jumping in and out of the waves, we are on our way again, this time to the main event: Whales! Raja makes sure to remind everyone on board to keep their expectations in check, as whales are unpredictable, and there is never a guarantee of seeing anything. Being a fan of whales myself, I have always been wanting to see both a blue whale and a killer whale(orca) in the wild. In Sri Lanka, blue whales and sperm whales are the most common, and while Raja has spotted orca’s before, this isn’t the season for them here, so today I have narrowed my goal of seeing my first blue whale.
We spend about 2 hours cruising around, in relatively calm waters, scanning the ocean. We are looking for whales surfacing from dives. As you know, whales are mammals, and need to surface several times an hour to breathe. When they surface, they blow water out of their blow holes, which we can spot from a considerable distance away.
This is where having Raja really makes a difference. Each species of whale has a different average time spent underwater before surfacing for air. When we spot our first whale, Raja immediately recognizes it as a sperm whale and knows sperm whales can be below water for as long as 45 minutes. We watch it dive from a distance as we slowly approach and prepare to wait 30-45 minutes for it to resurface.
What I found interesting is that about four other boat companies flew over to the whale when it initially surfaced, but after 15 minutes, they all left. We stayed, and sure enough, 45 minutes later, that same whale surfaced about 200 meters from our boat. Raja positins our boats to create a nice, safe alley for the sperm whale to travel in between. The whale swims right up to the boat, and his blow of air sends mist spraying all over our boats.
This is the closest I have ever been to a whale in the wild. It is incredible how large this sperm whale is. I can’t even imagine being this close to a blue whale! The whale slowly passes by our boat and decides to put on a show for us. It dives right in front of my camera and I capture the moment on video perfectly. (my Father-in-law would be proud!) The screen capture from the video is shown below, but you can watch the entire highlight video here (or at the top of this page).
The whole boat is ecstatic. Even the crew, who see whales every day, seem to be in awe about the moment. I of course have mixed feelings, as although the dive was amazing, I still want to see a blue whale. However, our time is up for the day and we begin to head back. Just when I start to accept that I won’t be seeing the world’s largest animal, I hear some commotion from the front of the boat. A blue whale has just surfaced! Raja follows the same routine as last time, and although we don’t get as close, we get close enough to see it with our own eyes and watch it slowly descend back into the ocean.
My wallet would love to tell you that after seeing this whale that I have finished my whale watching days, but the opposite is true. I still need to see an orca, and I think there will be more blue whales in my future as well. Just Googling the different places in the world to spot whales in the wild gets me excited to travel more.
If you’re heading to Sri Lanka and want to take in some whale watching, currently Raja & The Whales is one of the best in the world!
Disclaimer: I was given no discount or preferential treatment to give this review. In fact, the opposite is true. I had to book weeks in advance since they sell out so quickly, and I paid full price.