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Ambassadors Programme

Explorer

Franco Banfi

May10

Swimming with whales in Sri Lanka

By Franco Banfi, Wednesday May 10, 2017
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus indica), Sri Lanka, Indian Ocean. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 320.

Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus indica), Sri Lanka, Indian Ocean. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 320.
© Franco Banfi

The southern coast of Sri Lanka may turn out to be one of the best hot spots for seeing blue whales. Here the continental shelf is at its narrowest. You can encounter depths of one kilometre being a mere six kilometres out.

Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) are the largest animals ever to have lived on Earth, bigger even than the largest of the dinosaurs. These giants (up to 33 metres long and weighing 180 tons) inhabit the open ocean, where they are found most frequently along the continental shelf edges and near polar ice.

There are some sub-species of blue whales. Those which live in the water off Sri Lanka might be a sub-species (Balaenoptera musculus indica) of the Pygmy blue whale or southern hemisphere subspecies (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda).

Imagine being ten kilometres far from the nearest coast on a small boat – with only three people plus the skipper aboard – looking for blue whales whose length can reach up to 25 metres. These encounters will make you feel really small and vulnerable. But you have nothing to fear from these gentle giants. As long as we are gentle and our swim is soft in the water, whales usually accept our presence with them; when they are annoyed, they easily plunge into the depth leaving us on the surface. It is a great privilege to swim side by side with such huge animals and look directly in their eyes: it leaves you breathless.

Sri Lanka blue whales don’t seem to migrate to polar waters. There are blue whales present around Sri Lanka all year round. They feed and calve in the warm tropical waters and they have a different vocal call to other populations so they are acoustically identifiable.

In-water activities with whales (snorkelling, swimming, underwater photography) are possible only after authorisation from the government. It is quite difficult to receive the special permit because Sri Lankan authorities are strict on conservation.

Like other whale species, blue whales were once hunted nearly to extinction by whalers who killed them to make products such as lamp oil and whale bone corsets. Blue whale hunting was banned in 1966 by the International Whaling Commission and illegal whaling by the Soviet Union finally halted in the 1970s, by which time 330,000 blue whales had been caught in the Antarctic, 33,000 in the rest of the southern hemisphere, 8,200 in the North Pacific, and 7,000 in the North Atlantic. The largest original population, in the Antarctic, had been reduced to a mere 360 individuals which is about 0.15 percent of their initial population. They became so scarce that whalers turned to other species, but blue whales have still not recovered to their normal population numbers.

Today, the greater challenges for blue whales all over the world is being struck by shipping vessels, tangled in fishing gear, swimming in micro-plastic chemicals, and suffering from noise pollution.


Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus indica), Sri Lanka, Indian Ocean. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/6.3, ISO 320.

Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus indica), Sri Lanka, Indian Ocean. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/6.3, ISO 320.
© Franco Banfi

Tail of blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus indica), Sri Lanka, Indian Ocean. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/8, ISO 320.

Tail of blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus indica), Sri Lanka, Indian Ocean. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/8, ISO 320.
© Franco Banfi