While the best chances of success lie with a booking aboard a well-managed commercial expedition, many people prefer a more relaxed, personalized experience. Should you choose to organize your own expedition, it is highly advisable to have at least one experienced whale-watching hand aboard. Ideally, this person should be able to take command of your vessel when in proximity to any mamals (or other marine wildlife) you come upon.

Threats to marine mammals from badly organized excursions are mainly the result of poor and insensitive boat handling. Restricting the animals’ freedom of movement is the cardinal error, to be avoided at all costs.

If you are fortunate enough to spot whales or dolphins on your trip, handle your boat with sensitivity and caution. Let the animals themselves be your guides; it is up to them, not you, to decide the agenda of your meeting. Their liberty should not be compromised in any way, no matter how apparently benign the intervention may seem to you. Expecting only safety of members of your party, the welfare of the mammals you are watching should always be your first priority.

In the absence of formal regulations, here are a few simple guidelines to help you get the best out of your marine mammal expeditions in Sri Lankan waters:

  • Never investigate physical contact – do not touch the animals!
  • Use appropriate angles of approach. Never approach cetacean from directly ahead or astern.
  • Switch off all sonar and depth-sounding equipment to avoid noise pollution.
  • Approach no closer than 50m (for boats up to 6m long) and 100m (for larger vessels). Leave decisions about making closer contact to the animals themselves; dolphins, in particular, will often oblige.
  • Friendly cetacean behavior (such as bow-riding) should be welcomed but never instigated or cultivated by feeding or calling out to the animals.
  • Do not drop food or litter, particularly plastic bags (deadly to many forms of marine life) in the ocean. Never feed animals in the wild.
  • Avoid sudden changes in speed, direction or noise level.
  • Do not chase, head off or encircle individual animals or groups.
  • Do not move through a pod or between groups so as to separate group members.
  • Take special care around mother/calf pairs, solitary calves and juveniles.
  • If unsure of the animals’ movements or intention, simply put your engine into neutral and enjoy their company.
  • Avoid spending more than 15-30 minutes in proximity to a marine mammal or mammals.
  • Contact should be abandoned if, at any stage, the animals show signs of becoming disturbed or alarmed. This is for the safety of your expedition party as well as the comfort of the animals.
  • When entering, leaving or operating within 400m of a marine mammal, travel at ‘no wake’ speed.

Where to go marine mammal watching in Sri Lankan waters

Trincomalee

The largest submarine canyon in Sri Lankan waters begins in Trincomalee harbor, and just 200m from Chapel Rocks. No other canyon in these waters runs so close to shore; and Trincomalee’s is also the only multiple canyon system in Sri Lanka. Created by  runoff from the country’s greatest river, the Mahaweli, this canyon complex makes ‘ Trinco ‘ a cetacean hotspot – and the best place in all Sri Lanka for land-based sightings.

The likeliest terrestrial vantage point for whales moving along the main canyon is Norway Islet, which provides a clear westward prospect towards Tambalagam Bay, where the declivity commences. From here one can follow the direction of the canyon system as it zigzags northward past Flagstaff Point (Swami Rock). Round Island is best for dolphins, which can be seen from there on most mornings. Both these islands are located in the outer Trincomalee harbor, known as Koddiyar Bay.

Konneswaram Temple on Swami Rock provides the best vantage point for whales, both near by and further out at sea. They are usually sighted feeding between the main Trinco canyon and the south canyon.

Whales and Dolphins are also occasionally seen from several other vantage points, mainly in the harbor. Land-based sightings are most likely during the morning hours.

In March and April, Trinco plays host to a wide variety of whale and dolphin species. This is the best time of the year to see beaked whales and the largest aggregations of Bryde’s whales.   Other times of the year, though, are also good: blue whales and sperm are present in their largest numbers between October and April, orcas are most frequently spotted in September, while March-June is best for pilot whales and false killer whales. Spinner dolphins are found almost daily in and around Koddiyar Bay during the morning hours, particularly near Round Island.

Deep-sea-dwelling beaked whales apart, there is no need to travel more than 22km (12nm) from shore at any time of year to experience Trinco’s marine mammal riches. Between July and October, prime conditions for whale watching prevail all along the coast north of the harbor, from Chapel Rocks to Kuchchaveli. From December to May, the prime sighting zone runs from south of Nilaveli to Foul Point lighthouse. This variation is due to the action of seasonal currents on the outflow from the Mahaweli River. Overall, the areas directly west of Elizabeth Point and Chapel Rocks are best for marine mammal sightings.

Other prime observation zones off the east coast lie in the regions surrounding the submarine canyons of Passekudah, Batticaloa, Kalmunai and Oluvil. Batticaloa canyon, easily reached from Passekudah or Kalkudah, is the best of these. At present, there are no commercial operators in these areas, though that situation is certain to change now that life along the east coast of Sri Lanka is now returning to normal following the end of the country’s long civil conflict in 2009. Watching seasons and species to be observed are similar to those at Trinco.

trinco

The Southern Seaboard

Dondra Head canyon off Matara and Little Basses canyon off Yala are the hottest spots in the south for both whales and dolphins. Between October and May, they are the best places (apart from Trincomalee) to see blue whales. Sightings are commonest east of the canyons in October-November and west of them from March to May.

Besides blue whales, the whale-watching seasons on the south coast provides opportunities to see Bryde’s whales, sperm whales, orcas, false killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins and Risso’s dolphins. The sperm whale season is generally between November and May. More generally, the best watching is during two intermonsoonal periods, the best month of all being April. At Little Basses, the sea can be quite rough except during the two intermonsoonal periods.

As the Northeast Monsoon current begins flowing in December, aggregations of krill and other zooplankton generated by upwelling in these canyons are carried westward as they rise toward the surface. Whale sightings are therefore most frequent in an area 4-13 km (2-7nm) west of the canyon walls at this time. December to April is the peak commercial whale0watching season at Mirissa.

The best period for whales and dolphins on the west coast of Sri Lanka is during the latter part of the southeast monsoon in August and September. Unfortunately, the seas are far too rough for the average enthusiast to see the large concentrations of marine mammals that often appear here at this time: false killer whales, melon-headed whales and pygmy killer whales are all present, as evidenced by fisheries records from the 1980s and 1990s.

Squid weighing around 22kg have been caught off Beruwala and Hikkaduwa in August-September, suggesting that food resources for odontocetes are abundant. This is also a time when high concentrations of phytoplankton from monsoon river runoff, helped by strong upwelling currents, will have generated abundant life father up the food chain. In other words, the larder of the sea is full at this time, and great numbers of pelagic seabirds migrate to Sri Lanka’s west coast to feed on the teeming plankton and baitfish. Sailors who brave these turbulent waters –particularly fishermen, who must put out to sea all year round, calm seas or rough – testify that, as we might expect, many whalesand dolphins are also attracted to this seasonal abundance.

mirissa

The Northwestern Seaboard

The first and second intermonsoonal seasons represent the peak of cetacean activity round Kalpitiya Peninsula and the Puttalam archipelago. A board range of species, such as sperm whales, blue whales, pilot whales, Risso’s dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, as well as some of the largest concentrations of individuals of a given species in Sri Lankan Waters, are to be seen here at this time. April is the best month of all. Two of the hottest spots for cetaceans in this region are off Thalawila and in the Bar Reef area. Both areas support coral reefs in the shallows and have interesting underwater photography.

The largest and most consistent aggregations of spinner dolphins, not only in Sri Lanka but in the entire Indian Ocean, are to be found west of Kalpitiya Peninsula in an area stretching from Udappu to somewhat north of the Bar Reef. Pods of spinners on their daily commute can often be seen travelling along a longitudinal transect between 3.3 and 7 km (1.8-3.8 nm) from the shore. This transect is known as the ‘dolphin line’.

Humpback dolphins can also be seen regularly, all year round. They are mostly sighted in the Bar Reef area to the north and regularly enter the estuary with the rising tide. Bottlenose dolphins occasionally accompany humpbacks on their excursions into Puttalam Lagoon during March and April (the cuttlefish season); two dolphin feeding areas of note are (1) north of Bouy No. 2 in Dutch Bay and, (2) at the mouth of Puttalam Lagoon, where they are found at high tide and spend many hours feeding. Both locations are about 10 min from Kalpitiya town. There is no need to travel the length and breadth of the estuary in search of dolphins, since these feeding areas provide clear land-based sighting opportunities from nearby islands.

kalpitiya

The Northern Seaboard

This seaboard is presently the least explored area around Sri Lanka due to the recent civil war. The best location for whales and dolphins in this region is the Mullaitivu canyon area, located 15 km northeast of Mulaitivu and beyond Pedro Bank. Besides a great variety of cetaceans, this is the best region for sighting bottlenose dolphin, Risso’s dolphins and common dolphins in abundance.