Whale & Dolphin Watching
Sri Lanka is becoming a major destination for watching Whales and Dolphins. From November to April you will see pods of upto a 1000 dolphins! Tours are done early mornings. Spinner Dolphins are the most common with Bottlenose, Risso and Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins being regularly seen.
November to December and March to April showcases the whales. Sperm Whales are the most common. The Blue Whale (largest mammal in the world), Minke, Melon-Headed and Dwarf Sperm whales are also spotted. Recently even Orcas have been photographed on the waters just outside Kandakuliya!
For Mirissa and Kalpitiya, the best time for the Southern (and Western) seas is between November and April, when they are relatively calm (and outside of the south-west monsoon during which the seas are too rough for going out). In calm seas the ‘blows’ or ‘spouts’ of marine mammals and the splashing of dolphins can be seen at a much greater distance than when the seas are choppy. In some years the South-west monsoon come early and the whale watching window closes by mid April.
In Trincomalee the North-east Monsoon finishes by February and when the South-west Monsoon is blowing, the ‘season’ off Trincomalee has begun. However, the data collected by naturalists suggests that the hypothesis by Dr Charles Anderson of a U-shaped migration between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea is correct. This means that sightings off Trincomalee should peak around March and by May almost all the Blue Whales may be gone. Whale watchers must also note that although on land there may not be strong winds, the South-west Monsoon is powerful and as you head further out to seas during East Coast ‘season’, choppy seas may be encountered. From what we know at present, it seems the window of time for sighting Blue Whales still remains as between December to April. It may not be a year round event.
There are peaks in the movement of whales in December-January and again in April. In January the whales are passing the South of Sri Lanka, eastward to the Bay of Bengal. In April, the whales are travelling westward, past the South of Sri Lanka, across the Maldives and on to up-wellings off Somalia, in the Arabian Sea around the Horn of Africa. The peak in Trincomalee will be when the whales have ‘arrived’ which should be around February and March. Off Kalpitiya, we still don’t have enough data for a pattern on Blue Whales. But the period from February to March has so far been good for records of Sperm Whales.
The seas South of Dondra Head are the best for whale and dolphin watching in Sri Lanka. This is because the continental shelf is narrowest around Sri Lanka to the South of Dondra (the southernmost point in Sri Lanka). The whale watching infrastructure is also at its best here.
Depths of one kilometre and deeper are found relatively close to the South of Dondra, approximately six kilometres or 40 minutes away. This may be the reason why both Blue Whales and Sperm Whales can be seen within sight of shore. Sperm Whales dive to depths of one kilometre or more to feed on animals such as squid which live in submarine canyons. As deep water is found close to Dondra Head, it is more likely that Sperm Whales will stray close to shore. Blue Whales feed on krill found within the first 30 meters of depth. But they will use deeper water when travelling. The depths and availability of food to the South of Dondra Head seem to create conditions favourable for seeing both species close to shore. Elsewhere in Sri Lanka (except Kalpitiya and Trincomalee) the continental shelf is further out and therefore whale watchers may have to travel five or six times that distance to reach the one kilometre depth contour.
The continental shelf is defined as the depth contour or isobar of 200m. The location of the continental shelf is important as the depth of water rapidly reaches a depth of one and then two kilometres or deeper beyond this.
The seas of Kalpitiya Peninsula became known for its large pods of Spinner Dolphins. Sperm Whales have been found traveling on a North-South Axis along the 400m depth contour. This is their typical feeding depth. Of a small handful of recent sightings of Orca off Sri Lanka, almost all of them have been from Kalpitiya.
Trincomalee has been known for a long time for its Blue Whales. Whales come very close to shore because of a submarine canyon which comes into one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. In March 2010, the first post war effort (led by John Keells Hotels) to explore Trincomalee for commercial whale watching were explored. Most of the Blue Whales here may be those passing the South coast, it remains to be seen whether Trincomalee will offer better viewing than from sailings off Mirissa.
For a broad variety of species and a ninety percent chance of seeing a Blue Whale, Mirrisa remains the best option. Also the infrastructure for whale watching is best developed here. From Kalpitiya, the whale watching is done from 18 footer speed boats. The frequency of sightings is less, but there is a greater sense of adventure.
There is a ninety per cent chance of observing Blue Whales off Mirissa. Pods of Spinner Dolphins are encountered regularly off Mirissa and very frequently off the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Sperm Whales are seen regularly off both Mirissa and Kalpitiya.
Most whale watchers set off from the Mirissa Fishery Harbour. The coastal strip from Hikkaduwa, through Galle, Unawatuna, Koggala to Mirissa has a broad range of accommodation including some of the most luxurious villas and boutique hotels in the island. This entire strip is within commuting distance from the Fishery Harbour at Mirissa. Galle is approximately a 40 minute drive.