The Jewels of Sri Lanka

Latest update May 3, 2019 Started on February 1, 2019

I am going to continue project BLUEprint (supported by WDC) in Sri Lanka to host workshops to inform boat operators in Sri Lanka, safe whale watching around tourists and ultimately protecting the whales.

February 1, 2019
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We completed our outreach to the boat operators in both Kalypitya and Trincomalee.
The general consensus amongst the boatmen, was they had the same concerns as we did. The balance of offering a tourist the best whale watching trip versus the desire for individuals to get closer and closer, is a key dilemma. The influx of film crews and more boats each year going out in Sri Lanka, are a great threat to the cetaceans and need to be addressed.

We got some good footage, under license of sperm whales and pilot whales which we will share with whale protection organisations.

Unfortunately the OpenROV suffered a tech fault in the first days plus the currents were too fast in the ocean for easy operation, so we will use the unit on our next expedition or project, which will most probably be in Southern Spain.

Nice project! is there legislation there when approaching cetaceans?
In The Field

Discovering the fish markets up north in Jaffna, we see what catch the fishermen are bringing in.
The birds are circling above, enjoying the feast and the smell is pungent. The beaches covered in plastic and fish carcasses.

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In Trincomalee we bumped in Sampath who we worked with years ago in Mirissa.

He also is very concerned about the conduct of whale boat operators in Mirissa and for that reason moved to work in Trinco.

Sadly his reports of inappropriate behaviour continue in Trincomalee, around cetaceans.

There are only 7 boats operating here but large film crews continue to arrive and spend long periods of time on the water, viewing the animals.

They are still using my photo taken many years ago, to advertise whale watching.

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The water was delightfully clear on the last day.

Here are some shots from the trip so far.

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amazing images! did you get them with the OpenRov?

The fish market in Trincomalee

With a special filleting department

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Last day on the ocean.

The aggregation continues and we saw around 35 sperm whales.

We had a workshop with the local leaders of boat operators and supplied them with a laminate information sheet to take on board with tourists. One side shows the species of cetaceans found in Sri Lanka and the other, a distance and manoeuvre map of how to approach the animals. I explained that the whale must not be harassed and exhausted by constant persecution of lots of boats Each of the boat operators will have a guide on board to show to tourists when spotting whales and also to remind tourists of safety rules if asked to get 'closer' to the animals at any point.

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Today, our penultimate day on the open water we observed 3 groups of around 6,5, 3 individuals, likely all females from what I saw, heading in a southerly direction. It was up from yesterdays "zero" sightings, but the weather has also slightly improved. No more signs of breaching or extreme behaviour. This area certainly seems to have captured the imagination of international media and celebrity photographers alike. This is so different to the original sightings our team made when we witnessed the super armada 5 years ago. I hope all the data we have collected has traction when it comes to the debate on ensuring the future safety of this delicate area. These whales need protection during their breeding season, and limiting the harassment is vital to this.

Pictured below is Ranil Nanayakkara, field officer for Department of Wildlife and Conservation in Sri Lanka, with his Hydrophone, listening to see whether there are animals in the vicinity.

I'm adding this short film from 2 years ago which documents an event we saw about 5K directly off the "power station" in Kalpitiya. It demonstrates the importance of being able to read an unpredictable situation as it unfolds. It also shows another, natural, threat that the mating sperm whales have to endure, let alone from increasing threat from humanity, and our desire to view and document the worlds largest predator.

thats really interesting! we are looking for cetacean sounds, we are creating our own hydrophones because they are quite expensive. Do you maybe know where can we ask for long hydrophone recordings for an art project? TY

It's breeding time for the world's largest predator. This male came in 1 day ago to join the other 50 we saw this morning. Photographed under license. This is year 5 in a long term project to help protect a fragile environment,

which is this kind of whale? amazing Picture!! well done

Today there is a rough estimate of around 50-60 sperm whales.
We began to loose count, wherever we moved they showed up. OK, nothing like in previous years, but nonetheless they are here and they are mating. We saw at least 6 huge breaches, one was pretty much flying! Males are joining in with female groups of around 6-7 possibly more. The water is a bit milky but I am getting shots of 1s and 2s underwater. There are single females with young in tow, I swear I saw one suckling, but couldn’t, and wouldn’t get close to disturb them - thats not right unless they are right next to us.

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Yesterday, Saturday, brought out all the weekend boats to view the whales that are now gathering in the deep water off the north west coast.

Naturally, everyone wants to get their ultimate experience of seeing the worlds largest predator in its natural habitat, and this does put pressure on boat operators as tourists demand full bang for their buck. Wherever you go in world there are always good ops and bad ops, thankfully, most are good ops and the same is true here. In the 10+ years here, watching the meteoric rise of whale watching from south to north, there are always going to be ops who simply wish to grab the cash at the expense of the animal being viewed, and this is what project BLUEprint is about.

BLUEprint aims to advise and educate through talks and literature and fine tune boat handling skills where it can.

So, have we seen anything noteworthy with the animals themselves? Well yes. In the aftermath of a passing nursemaid group, one individual spat out a Ornate Dogfish (shark). The ornate dogfish (Centroscyllium ornatum) is not widely known. It is found in deepwater on the continental slopes of the Indian Ocean.

We also found a discarded Armoured Searobin "Peristedion miniatum" a type of Gurnard in the wake of this group.

Could this proliferation of uneaten deep sea animals floating around be an indication of a diminishing squid population, or is this pure bad luck on the rejected animals. Something to look out for while we are here

The most exciting thing to note was the arrival of BIG bull sperm whales, which certainly indicate they are here for one thing, and one thing only.

Sunday, there were only 2 other boats out and once again I found a large male leading a group of around 15 female whales . A total of 25 sperm whales were seen today, all in the same area we have been working in for 7 days now. I would also note that the groupings are getting larger on a daily basis, up from 2's and 3's to 20's+

Exceptionally strong currents did not help our OpenROV navigate.

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A splendid day today.

We only went 4K out from the shore and found first of a small pod of spinner dolphins.

Then we found sperm whales swimming alone, or in pairs and also in quads.

Here I am with the OpenROV and sperm whales.

Footage arriving later.

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A calm flat sea today but we saw ZERO.

Very strange.

But we used the time to use the OpenRov in the calm waters and learn its manoeuvring skills.

This was obviously much more complex than practising in a pool....!

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The sea was still green-ish today.

No Sperm Whales but a couple of Minke Whales sped fast, too quick to catch on film.

The Pilot whales were around in a pod of around 100.
So today we used our small video camera to capture these fast creatures. The OpenROV will be perfect for more sedate moments and sperm whales....and of course clearer water.

Day One

After an incredibly furious storm last night, we awoke to a still sea with no wind.

After one hour and only 5K from shore, we came across a large pod of sperm whales, many of whom were spy-hopping and turning on their sides.

On entering the water I found the visibility was, green and soupy and even when 2 metres in front of a sperm whale (as noted by the crew) I could still not see or record anything in the water.


But there were a few good topside photos to be had when a even larger pod of long finned pilot whales came through with a small pod of bottled nosed dolphins. After these pilot whales and dolphins arrived, we did not see the sperm whales again in this area. This probably caused the grouping of the sperm whales which we have seen in the past with Orcas.

The visibility should be better tomorrow.

Then we can get the cameras in the water.

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A nice welcome in the Blue Whale Resort in Kalypitya, of 3 towel whales.


We have arrived in Colombo with ALL 6 bags, plus two hand pelican cases with the OpenROV and my canon cameras plus lenses.

Jetwing Hotels are supporting the BLUEprint project (as in earlier years) and kindly helped us with all on ground transport and great hotel deals, including our first night in Colombo at Jetwing Seven.

I am a great fan of orchids but not so happy to wear them, garland fashion around my neck....

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This was the first BLUEprint trip, written by Vanessa Williams-Grey (WDC) in 2013.

I have just returned from an 8-day trip to Sri Lanka, where our small WDC team assisted marine biologist, Anouk Ilangakoon, in running a 2-day training workshop for whale watch operators in Mirissa on the south coast. This small village, with its palm-fringed coastline and harbour filled with a jumble of brightly-coloured fishing boats, has become a magnet in recent years for whale watchers intent on seeing blue whales.

Here, the continental shelf pinches in close to shore at nearby Dondra Head, creating ideal conditions for blue whales, sperm whales and a host of other whale and dolphin species; indeed during peak season (December-April), sighting rates are incredibly high. But success has not come without a price. Here, as many other parts of the world, whale watching has mushroomed and a massive influx of tourists and vessels has threatened to overwhelm the carrying capacity of the area. This has led to increasing concerns that the industry is growing at an unsustainable rate, threatening the safety and welfare of both whales and tourists.

And so Project BLUEprint was born. Launched at last year’s World Travel Market as a partnership between WDC, SriLankan Airlines and eco-tourism companies, Jetwing Hotels and John Keells Group (who kindly sponsored our visit), the project promotes responsible, community-based whale watching in Sri Lankan waters. Mirissa, as the most popular destination, was the obvious focus for our first workshop and I’m pleased to report that this was a great success!

Ninety people attended, mainly local whale watch skippers and crew members, who were joined by representatives from the Sri Lankan Navy and Coastguard, the tourism industry, research community and other stakeholders. The workshop was conducted in Sinhala, the local language, and covered all aspects of responsible vessel handling and safety protocols. The sessions were planned to be as interactive as possible and several lively discussions took place! Afterwards, several operators commented that they were so pleased to have a forum for discussions as only rarely did they all come together. The following day, around 70 skippers and crew attended a practical boat training session where classroom theory was put into practice.

Feedback from the workshop has been overwhelmingly positive. Naturally, we hope that we have encouraged the local operators to embrace responsible boat handling but, equally importantly, to regard themselves as a community rather than merely individual operators. Only by working together can they hope to develop whale watching in a sustainable manner; recognizing that protecting the whales and dolphins they encounter in their waters also means protecting the livelihood of each and every member of their community.

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How much hand luggage can we get away with on Qatar Airlines.

We fly tonight.

Canon Cameras, OpenROV tether, GoPRO, countless cables, Nauticam underwater housing, lens.....!


As well as using the OpenROV, I will be using my Nauticam housing underwater.
I have a permit to be allowed to enter the water with the whales and always exercise my approach with caution, hanging back until the animals come into my field of view.

There are also 2 GoPro 7 on board with me.

I use my faithful Beuchat long fins made of carbon fibre to free-dive in and did some strength work with them in the pool this morning.

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After receiving the Trident and reading through the Quick-Start guide, the initial set up was very straightforward.

I checked that the remote handset did “all the right things”: operating the propellors and camera, as well as verifying the file sizes etc. As I am a Mac user, I had to download the Android app so that I could access the handset and retrieve the files - all was very smooth.

We took the Trident to a friends pool so I could assess how long the battery lasted and check my handling of the Trident in water. We left it in the water for about 2 hours, and spent the time becoming accustomed to the controls, which were all very simple. I checked how the depth indicators and headings were displayed on the handset and also realised I could control the Trident with “swipes” on the monitor, though this could prove tricky on the water with wet and salty hands. The only small issue was the monitor being visible in strong sunlight, so I need to work out a simple mechanism to secure the handset and create a small hood for open water visibility.

So the files were good, impressive quality once I had them on the computer. My feeling is that for our subject we weren’t going to need the on board lights as they would not be needed for illuminating large animals such as sperm whales or even fast moving spinner dolphins.

It was time to practise with the OpenROV at my friend's pool in the neighbouring village.
It was all very straightforward and easy to use. In fact an incredible piece of kit.

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Our OpenROV arrived today in our village of Cazalla de la Sierra, Sevilla, Andalucia.

A sturdy pelican case, meters of tether and the operator.

So now time to learn the unit, practise in the local swimming pool and become an great OpenROV operator.

We are obtaining our licence permit to use the unit on our expedition in Sri Lanka.

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Expedition Background

One of the main reasons for our visit is to promote responsible whale watching with the local crews - skippers and naturalists - which we had already initiated back in 2013 and 2015, and with the increase in popularity in this area, it is critical to ensure that the crews have good clear instructions of how to handle their craft near these animals. In partnership with WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation), the DWC (Department of Wildlife and Conservation in Sri Lanka) with field officer Ranil Nanayakkara and backed by our other stake holders in country as well as from home we are hoping to lay the ground out for future visits to establish the area as an official MPA (Marine Protected Area).

Our visit will include 2 workshops: one on the North West coast and the other on the North East coast, during which we will give all attendees a simple laminate guide showing boat proximity to animals as well as a basic ID chart, so the the animals can be recognised and explained to whale watchers.

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