Sri Lanka

Blue whales and beach bliss in Sri Lanka

Words Mark Daffey

Photos Mark Daffey

September 2016 from issue 47

Tags: animal encounter, beach, sri lanka, sun, sea and sand, whales

Blue whales and beach bliss in Sri Lanka

It was once an untouched paradise, far off the radars of most travellers. Now Mirissa is best known for some very large attractions residing in the ocean. Mark Daffey returns to the place he once called home for some unparalleled whale watching.

"Whale! Whale!” Our guide Wintiga points excitedly towards a tell-tale fountain of water billowing skywards. It rises like a plume of smoke above the water several hundred metres away, prompting our boat captain Ishan to press forward on the throttle. We watch as a huge body breaches the surface of the calm ocean, but from this distance we can’t distinguish the species. Already today we’ve seen grey and Bryde’s whales, and we’ve heard reports of humpbacks nearby.

“Blue whale!” shouts Wintiga. “It’s a blue whale.”

The creature leaves a mirror-smooth trail in its wake. It’s swimming in a southeasterly direction and Ishan guns the engine in an effort to overtake it. International regulations stipulate boats must maintain a safe distance of at least 100 metres from any whales, so Ishan steers the vessel along a parallel course, careful not to encroach on that domain.

Suddenly the whale changes tack and is making a beeline straight for us. I watch from the viewing deck atop the boat’s control room as the largest animal ever to roam our planet makes for our starboard bow. If it collides, it might sink us.

It’s too late for Ishan to back away, so he cuts the engine to avoid slicing into the whale’s body with the boat’s propeller. From my elevated vantage point I can see this is, without doubt, one formidably sized creature. Just how big it is though I’m not sure. The sun reflects off its leathery hide as it arches its back – its spinal ridge seems to go on forever. Eventually its dorsal fin appears and by the time the tail rises out of the water I’m wondering whether this animal is ever going to end. Only then do I fully appreciate how enormous it is.

“It’s diving,” Wintiga yells, and the torpedo-shaped outline slips silently into the depths of the deep blue sea. It could surface in 15 
or 20 minutes, but by then it might be miles away.

The whales many travellers come to Sri Lanka to see are the Indian pygmy blues. The name suggests a creature of diminished stature, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although these sea mammals are slightly smaller than the 30-metre-long giants found in the polar regions, they’re certainly no runts. An adult can be two-and-a-half times longer than a bus and weigh as much as 25 elephants. Even the flue – the misty spout of air and water erupting from a whale’s blowhole – can reach as high as a two-storey house, making them easy for whale watchers to spot. It’s also why they were so easy to catch during centuries past.

Sri Lanka’s whale-watching season lasts from late October through to April and the tiny fishing village of Mirissa is the main source of action. During the peak months of December and January as many as 30 whales have been sighted in one day. Sperm, fin, Bryde’s, humpback and even killer whales, as well as large pods of acrobatic spinner dolphins, are all seen regularly in this place where the warm coastal waters merge with the colder waters of the continental shelf, just 10 nautical miles offshore. This convergence of currents creates a cycle of rising nutrients that provides nourishment for millions of krill, the tiny crustacean baleen whales feed on. Nowhere else in the world do they venture so close to shore. Still, it’s the blues everyone comes to see.

Scientists are still learning about Sri Lanka’s pygmy blue whale population. Studies only commenced here in 2006, so there isn’t enough data to know exact migratory habits. Some believe they come to Mirissa each year from the Arabian Sea; others think they never leave.

Marine biologists only realised Indian pygmy blue whales passed by Mirissa at the same time every year early in 2008. By October, two companies had started operating tours. Now it’s difficult to count exactly how many boats cruise these waters in search of whales.

When I first came to Mirissa early in 2008, there were no whale-watching tours. My wife and I had travelled to Sri Lanka for a week’s holiday from the Middle East, where we’d been living and working for seven years. By that stage we’d made up our minds to return home to Australia, prompted largely by the arrival of our son. But before the economic realities of living in Australia took over we wanted to bum by the sea somewhere. Sri Lanka seemed as good a place as any.

After scoping various beach towns along the south-west coast – both Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna had been changed by the arrival of big hotels and large numbers of tourists – we set eyes on Mirissa and knew we’d found our place to live. Coconut palms fringed a dazzlingly white beach that swept from Mirissa Point to Parrot Island. The seas were calm and clear and I could count on one hand the number of people lazing on the sand. Apart from one small section, the beach was set away from the main coastal highway, meaning we wouldn’t have to listen to the blaring horns of trucks and buses as they travelled between Colombo and Matara each day. As a bonus, Mirissa Point at the beach’s northern end was home to a small, surfable reef break, although only a few locals were out riding it.

The town was a sleepy fishing village then and a fair chunk of its beachfront was occupied by two properties – the Paradise Beach Club and the regional headquarters for the Sri Lankan Coast Guard. A handful of other guesthouses, mostly empty and neglected, were sprinkled along the beach. Apart from the nightly buffets on offer at the club, the only other restaurants were two low-key establishments placed side by side whose menus were restricted to basic seafood dishes and Sri Lankan curries.

We couldn’t imagine a better seaside town in which to spend six months, so we made enquiries about rental properties at the Paradise Beach Club. As luck would have it, the owner’s older brother had the ideal pad for us for the equivalent of about US$75 a week, and we moved into the upstairs part of his house. From August 2008 right through to February the following year, we lived in a flat with five bedrooms, a central living area, a poky kitchen and a balcony overlooking tropical gardens the owner personally looked after.

I soon fell into a pattern of working on a book manuscript each morning then spending the rest of the day on the beach with my wife and son. Every second day I’d get up early and surf at the point, regardless of the state of the waves. For half that time, I was largely on my own in the water. The local surfers waited until the monsoon season passed and the tides receded, and tourists only paddled out from November onwards.

On Tuesdays and Fridays my wife would shop for fresh groceries at the twice-weekly fruit and vegetable market. Once a week we’d catch a bus into 
Matara to buy dry goods, cheap Australian wine and beer in long necks. We didn’t own a television and our only internet access – spasmodic as it was – was through a neighbour or a friend around the corner, so most evenings we spent talking or reading on our balcony.

A regular procession of visitors stayed with us, and often we’d all go off travelling to see the Sacred Cities, wildlife parks and hill country that together make Sri Lanka one of the prettiest and most interesting islands on Earth. In Mirissa we’d laze about on the beach or take them on excursions to visit the Paravi Island Buddhist temple in Matara or to Galle Fort, where we’d sit and sip Ceylon tea inside colonial-era buildings that had been converted into cafes.

Every second day I’d get up early and surf at the point, regardless of the state of the waves. For half that time, I was largely on my own in the water.

When my younger brother arrived from Australia we’d trawl the coast for waves, usually ending up in Midigama or Ahangama, where fishermen perched on stilts in the shallows against streaky skies painted crimson and orange by the setting sun. On a couple of occasions we’d go snorkelling off the perfectly calm beach of Polhena, further south near Matara, and watch children splash in rock pools near the shore.

It was a slow, idyllic life and my wife and I seriously contemplated making Mirissa our permanent home. We could live comfortably, simply and cheaply, far from the everyday hassles and financial constraints of the Western world. However, like Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna further north, Mirissa has changed too.

Travellers have learned throughout the years that undiscovered paradises don’t remain that way forever. The secret eventually escapes, whereupon the backpackers move in. They are followed by developers with big ideas, deep pockets and very few scruples when it comes to preserving the essence of what initially made the place so appealing.

A concrete monstrosity is currently under construction in Weligama, up the road from Mirissa. Similarly tasteless projects are yet to reach Mirissa itself, but what’s certain is they will creep down the coast, following the tide of foreign visitors who have descended here en masse during the past two or three years.

The reasons for this influx are many. The recent completion of the Southern Expressway all the way from Colombo to Matara and another north to the international airport at Katunayake have knocked hours off the time required to make it this far south. Soon the two will link, and when they do Mirissa and the south coast will become even more alluring and accessible for those in search of sun-filled beach holidays.

For the entire six months that I lived in Mirissa, government forces were heavily engaged in a military offensive against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) rebels in the country’s north. Not long after we left, the Rajapaksa government claimed victory – the 26-year-old war was finally over – and foreign visitors once scared off by concerns for their safety no longer shied away.

The Russians discovered Sri Lanka after the national carrier Aeroflot began direct flights from Moscow to Colombo in 2011. Now nubile young Ruskies – only rivalled in numbers by the French – just a few threads away from being naked, frolic on Mirissa beach. Backpackers began trickling into the town after Lonely Planet listed its beach as one of the Top 10 attractions in its Sri Lankan guidebook two editions ago.

I’ve returned to Mirissa twice since our initial six-month stay. On my most recent visit, I was aghast to find sun lounges and umbrellas for hire on the beach. Restaurant owners have increasingly moved their dishes from the kitchen to the sand, where diners wearing boardshorts and bikinis can choose from trays of fresh seafood under a montage of coloured lights.

At least there are the whales – that won’t be changing. They’ll keep swimming up and down the coast just as they have for who knows how long. And more than anything these days – more than the slick new highways and dazzling beaches and warless times – it’s the lure of the whales that drives people towards Mirissa.

Get there

AirAsia flies from Australia to Colombo via Kuala Lumpur.
airasia.com

Mirissa is 240 kilometres south of Colombo. There’s no direct bus or train service, but you can hire a taxi at the airport for the three-hour drive – expect to pay about US$77 each way. Your hotel in Mirissa should also be able to arrange a car and driver to pick you up.

Stay there

Mother’s House on Beachside Road has bungalows and rooms costing between US$8 and US$30 a night, depending on the season. 
For bookings, call the owner Jayantha – a lovely guy – on +94 (0)41 225 3631.
An upmarket alternative is Hotel Silan Mo, opposite the beach on Matara Road. Rooms cost around US$77 a night and there are excellent views 
from the rooftop pool area.
silanmo.com

Get Informed

The Sri Lankan Consulate recommends applying for a Tourist Visit Visa online before you arrive. Thirty-day, double-entry visas cost about US$35.

Tour There

Mirissa Bay Watching (+94 (0)77 628 0862) offers daily whale-watching tours during the season from November to April.

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