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SRI LANKA WILDLIFE NEWS1.pdf

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Is Southern Sri Lanka the world's top spot for seeing blue and sperm whales? South of Dondra in Sri Lanka, may turn out to be the best locations in the world for seeing blue whales. Furthermore, it may also be the best for seeing both blue whales and sperm whales together. This view is based on recent observations and a theory of a migration of whales by marine biologist Charles Anderson. During the season, a Blue Whale is easier to
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    Is Southern Sri Lanka the world's top spot for seeing blue and sperm whales? South of Dondra in Sri Lanka, may turn out to be the best locations in the world for seeing blue whales. Furthermore, it may also be the best for seeing both blue whales and sperm whales together. This view is based on recent observations and a theory of a migration of whales by marine biologist Charles Anderson. During the season, a Blue Whale is easier to see to the south of Dondra, than a leopard in Yala. In April this year, South of Dondra, we had a hundred per cent encounter rate for the highly desired but usually difficult, Blue Whale. Both the largest baleeen whale and the largest toothed whale are within sight of shore. Sri Lanka could be the world's top spot for watching Blue and Sperm Whales together. Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne thinks its time to publicise this internationally. The ascendancy of the Galle-Mirissa coastal strip to being an international hot spot for Blue and Sperm Whales, has just begun. This is the story . <Story continues below the pictures>    For over a hundred images of whales and dolphins, see   http://www.jetwingeco.com/index.cfm?section=page&id=1066 <Continuation of article>   In April 2008, I was able to see for myself how easy it was to see a Blue Whale in the seas south of the area between Mirissa and Dondra Head. It was easier than seeing a leopard in Yala. I ended April with over a thousand images of Blue and Sperm Whales and Long-snouted Spinner Dolphins, which were good enough to keep. On twenty two whale watching sessions in the first twenty six days of April, Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist Anoma Alagiyawadu saw Blue Whales every time. Seeing a Blue Whale during April seemed to be almost guaranteed. Almost as sure as seeing an elephant in Uda Walawe National Park. Due to the calm seas, between December and April, there are is an outstanding window of opportunity for observing Blue Whales and Sperm Whales close to shore. Marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson believes that sightings have peaks in December and April because of a migration of whales. The Deep South of Sri Lanka may be one of the world's best locations (amongst the top two or three) for watching Blue Whales and Sperm Whales. Two of the most sought after marine mammals. In fact for seeing both Sperm and Blue Whales together, it may even turn out to be the best location in the world. This has not been my discovery. But it has been my privilege to be involved with those who have made this discovery during my own quest to develop whale watching in Sri Lanka. Many people have been involved over three decades in efforts to develop whale watching in Sri Lanka. They could each tell their story from different perspectives. This article is the story from my individual perspective of how Sri Lanka finally acquired the infrastructure and information to become pre-eminent as a whale watching destination.    Whale watching will raise a series of issues for environmentalists, legislators and people in the travel industry. These are best addressed ahead of the next whale watching season. Before I go into this let me first explain how difficult it had been for whale watching to get off the ground. As a nation, Sri Lanka has spent nearly three decades in failed attempts to position itself as a whale watching destination. Much of this was a result of an erroneous assumption that the whale watching had to be undertaken from Trincomalee. Secondly, there was a paucity of data available to help develop whale watching as a commercial activity for tourism. Thirdly, there were no boats suitably kitted out, big enough and powerful enough for leisure activities in the seas. Fourthly, the cost of product development was very high as I discovered when chartering fishing boats for our initial forays out to sea.   The flurry of interest in marine mammals and whale watching began with the arrival of the research vessel the 'Tulip' in the early 1980s. They found Blue Whales close to Trincomalee, something which of course had been known to the locals. But they publicised it locally and internationally. I remember as a teenager attending a public lecture on their work. The Blue and Sperm Whales of Trincomalee featured in the film Whales Weep Not  produced by James R Donaldson III. He was present when the film was recently more screened at the Galle Literary Festival in January 2008. The Blue Whales of Trincomalee also featured in the second of ten chapters in the book 'On the Trail of the Whale'  published in 1994. This book was written by Mark Carwardine, a Briton whose name is synonymous with international whale watching. When I met him in October 2007, I mentioned that Blue Whales were being seen off the southern shores of Sri Lanka. But at this stage, I was still not sure as to how easy and reliable it was. In 2001, I began asking marine scientists about developing commercial whale watching. A special supplement on Cetaceans by the British magazine 'Bird Watch' in 2001 listed Trincomalee amongst the world's top spots for whale watching. But I knew Trincomalee was not viable. My desire to see and photograph Sri Lankan marine mammals was further stimulated when Rohan Pethiyagoda asked me to proof read Anouk Ilangakoon's book the ' Whales and Dolphins of Sri Lanka'  which was published in 2002.   However my   attempts to go out to sea for whale watching began only in 2003, after listening to a lecture given by Chris and Genevieve Johnson of the research vessel 'Odyssey'. On the 5th June 2003, in the superb monthly lecture series of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), they gave a lecture illustrated with images and video clips. Listening to them and subsequently having viewed some of their material on the web, I felt that whale sightings were possible anywhere along our coasts. Duncan Murrel, an award winning wildlife photographer was aboard the Odyssey during its Sri Lankan leg. On the 2nd of July 2003, at our invitation, he gave an illustrated talk at the Barefoot Gallery in the Sri Lanka Natural History Society-Barefoot-Jetwing lecture series, further whetting an appetite for whale watching. Subsequently, I set out to sea from Negombo with Duncan Murrel, a few journalists and a team from the Jetwing Blue Oceanic. We had chartered a fishing boat for the trial run. We saw nothing. Gazing out to the featureless open sea I realised it was like searching for a needle in a haystack. In August 2003, Sunela Jayawardene, the architect of Vil Uyana, went with Jetwing Naturalist Chandra Jayawardana to look for whales off Kirinda, and came away with nothing. A few years later I tried again with my team and I managed to see just two dolphins. Our wildlife watching out at sea with clients also produced no whales. It seemed like a hopeless task.    In August 2003 I was at the British Birdwatching Fair where I discussed with Charles  Anderson how we could combine leopard safaris with whale watching in the Maldives. With regard to Sri Lanka, I felt that we had to wait until someone independently came up with the required infrastructure of boats suitably kitted out and fast enough for whale watching. Meanwhile, the time and energy of the Jetwing Eco Holidays turned to branding Sri Lanka for The Gathering of elephants, Butterflies and Dragonflies and other eco-tourism products where the cost of product development was modest and much of the infrastructure was in place. The one notable gap in infrastructure was the field skills. We focused on filling the gap. However, my collection of books and papers on marine mammals grew steadily. Over the next few years we discussed whale watching on and off when we met at the British Birdwatching Fair. Charles was developing a theory that there was migration of whales between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea which took them near the shores of Sri Lanka. He believed that the whales, especially Blue Whales and Sperm Whales, will be travelling past the south coast in January from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. In April, they would pass the south coast on the return journey travelling west to the Arabian Sea passing Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He had first suggested this theory in a paper published in 1999 which reviewed strandings in the Maldives. Having reviewed his records up to mid 2002, a total of over two thousand sightings, he refined his hypothesis further in a paper published in 2005 in the 'Journal of Cetacean Research and Management'. One of the key catalysts of the development of whale watching off the Southern coast was the involvement of Simon Scarff and Sue Evans with Mirissa Water Sports. Mirissa Watersports was set up in December 2005 with assistance from the Building a Future Foundation (www.baflk.org) to help tsunami affected youth. Twelve youth were given the use of the 'Spirit of Dondra', a 54 foot boat, fitted out for recreational activity. They were to operate as a partnership and run a commercial enterprise. Sue Evans' a sailor and her husband Simon Scarff' an angler were asked to help voluntarily with English, marketing and skills development. On 11th April 2006 Simon Scarff was training the crew in sport fishing when he photographed some whales south of Dondra Head. These were identified as Blue Whales by Anouk Ilangakoon. Simon's article was published in the March, April & May 2006 issue of the Sri Lanka Wildlife eNewsletter which is compiled by me (see www.jetwingeco.com for past copies). Charles Anderson who read this began a dialogue with Sue Evans who had already advised the crew to maintain log of sightings.   The stream of sightings by Mirissa Water Sports communicated by Sue suggested to Charles more evidence for his theory of a migration of whales which could be seen from the southern coast. In April 2007 Charles Anderson climbed to the top of Dondra Lighthouse to look for Blue Whales. Charles had decided on Dondra Head because here the continental shelf is at its narrowest with the one kilometer depth being encountered a mere six kilometers out. Elsewhere in the southern half of the island it is between four to five times that distance to where the continental shelf ends abruptly and the 200 meter depth contour (200m isobath) plunges to a kilometer or more (see Chart No 813 published by the British Hydrographic Office).   On his second visit with Anoma Algaiyawadu to the Dondra Lighthouse, Charles and  Anoma phoned me within fifteen minutes to say that they had seen the first Blue Whale. I was excited that it had been so easy and realised that this was another   
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