Dr Jo: Responsible Whale Watching in Sri Lanka

January 9, 2017 0 Comments

Today we leave for three whole weeks of fun and sun in Sri Lanka, so it only seems appropriate for a Sri Lanka article to set us on our way. Introducing Dr Jo Garrett, a friend who travelled to this beautiful island nation in 2016. She’s got some good smarts about her, and cares pretty deeply about this world we live in. On her trip, she noted the state of the whale watching trade in the country and wanted to share her thoughts. I know who we’ll be whale watching in Sri Lanka with now!

Dr Jo Garrett has a background and degree in marine biology and completed a PhD from the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Cornwall in 2016. She studied the contributions of a marine renewable energy device and shipping on the underwater noise in Falmouth Bay, UK. She lives in Falmouth, Cornwall and is a keen climber and cider drinker.

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Last year on my birthday I was lucky enough to be on the tropical island of Sri Lanka, and more specifically, in the coastal town of Mirissa. This small town on the south coast of the Island is world renowned for spotting blue whales, and as someone who loves sea life, this was the opportunity of a lifetime!


The Sri Lankan whale watching industry in Mirissa is quite new and has grown rapidly, along with tourism in the country, since the end of the civil war in 2009. Because the industry is young, and it is important to us to travel as environmentally conscious as possible, we wanted to ensure that we went with a responsible operator. Raja and the Whales were one of the first operators on the scene, starting in 2008, and highlighted on their website that they’d been involved in scientific research as well as following international whale watching guidelines.

I’d read beforehand that whales passing by Mirissa were threatened by a nearby shipping lane and fishing activity(1). It also became clear once we were there that there is a lack of regulation for the whale watching industry, adding to the local pressures and potentially threatening the new businesses and sea life.

Our trip began from Mirissa harbour, and we motored offshore. Amazingly, it turned out not to be too long until RATW spotted a Blue Whale for us. They follow voluntary guidelines on how to approach whales which includes guidance on speed, approach angle and to keep clear of the whale’s path.

Once we were closer to the whale, we remained stationary with the engine ticking over quietly and were told to keep our voices down. It was surfacing pretty close to us, spraying its breath into the air and gently rolling underwater.

Raja and the Whales have such a great reputation and have gained such experience that the other boats and companies keep an eye on them. Once they saw that we had stopped they headed swiftly our way until there were about 8 other boats. Most also stopped once close, but some continued, trying to get as close as possible to where the whale was surfacing. All of the boats then ended up surrounding the whale, which I found quite distressing. It was presumably even more distressing for the single whale, even if it is the largest species to have ever lived!


We motored away at this point. RATW clearly also weren’t keen on such harassment. They knew a good spot where we might spot spinner dolphins so we headed in that direction. Sure enough, we found plenty of dolphins and we were lucky enough to see them jump and spin. There were also local small-scale fishermen using long-lines of around 20 m, both groups were after the same thing- tuna!


After some time with the dolphins, we headed back towards shore with RATW promising to have another look for the whale for us now we were away from the other boats. Once they’ve spotted a whale from a distance, their experience allows them to guess where it’s going to surface next, how many times it’ll surface and the time interval between breaths.

They chose our spot, stopped moving and waited. This time the whale surfaced really close to our boat. What struck me this time was how wide it is! The length I expected, but the width really made me realise just how massive these animals are! We hung around for two sessions of surfacing, after that, the crew said that we were satisfied and we headed back to shore.

The RATW crew know that if they hang around for too long, they’ll be less likely to see a whale the next day. Their interest in responsible whale watching is not just for the benefit of the whales and the natural environment, but also for their business. Too many boats and irresponsible approaching practices are risking it for all of them if the whales permanently leave. This could also have repercussions on the whale population as the productive waters around the south coast of Sri Lanka offer a great feeding ground.


Such consequences are possible. In western Australia, local dolphin numbers declined with increases in the number of dolphin watching operators2 and the method of approach has been found to have a significant effect on whale behaviour too. When whale-watching vessels approached Southern Right Whales in Argentina appropriately, the whales were more likely to react positively and approach the vessel themselves(3). Other effects from whale watching include changes to breathing patterns, vocalisations, the distance between individuals and time spent on different activities e.g. resting and foraging(4).

In Mirissa Harbour, the numbers of whale-watching boats have increased from only a couple prior to 2008, to 30 in 2013(5) and over 40 at the time of our trip. Buultjens et al.,(5) also reported, from interviews and fieldwork, that there appeared to be no official limits to the number of boats. This unlimited increase is potentially having an effect on the whales as has been found in dolphins with increases in boat number(6).

One of the reasons whale-watching vessels affect cetaceans is because of the underwater noise produced. Hearing is an important sense for marine animals in particular whales and dolphins which use sound to communicate, navigate and find their prey. Sound travels further and faster underwater than it does in air, particularly at low frequencies which Baleen Whales use to communicate. In fact, Blue Whale calls can be heard from 200 km away(7)! Boats produce underwater sound at these low frequencies which can be very loud to whales underwater.


Regulations were introduced by the Sri Lankan government in 2012(5). Operators are now required to hold a licence, regulate vehicle speed and viewing distances and are also required to make passengers aware of the need for conservation measures. However, it’s clear from our trip that either the regulations are not sufficient or they are not enforced.

Buultjens et al.(5) identified that there was considerable variation among tour operators regarding their potential impact on the whales. They highlight the optimum number of vessels for a sustainable industry needs to be determined and there is a need for formal training for the crew. However, they also highlight that local communities need to be involved in the management and expensive licences should not deter local fishing families whilst also not representing a barrier to the wealthier hotels. I certainly understand this last recommendation, Raja and the Whales are a local family organisation and benefit from the fishing experience in the crew. Regulations for the Southern Right Whales of Peninsula Valdes were developed over a 5 year period in which all stakeholders, including whale watchers, participated(3). If whale watching is developed responsibly it can be sustainable, support local economies and promote conservation(3).

After carrying out the research for this blog, I am even more appreciative of the experience we had with Raja and the Whales who obviously genuinely cared about their own business, the whales and the local natural environment while giving us an incredible experience. I would urge anyone who is planning a whale watching trip to go with a responsible operator.


1 Randage, S.M., Alling, A., Currier, K., Heywood, E., 2014. Review of the Sri Lanka blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) with observations on its distribution in the shipping lane. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 14, 43-49.
2 Bejder, L., Samuels, A., Whitehead, H., Gales, N., Mann, J., Connor, R., Heithaus, M., Watson-Capps, J., Flaherty, C., Krützen, M. 2006. Decline in Relative Abundance of Bottlenose Dolphins Exposed to Long-Term Disturbance. Conservation Biology 20, 1791-1798
Arguelles, M.B., Coscarella, M., Fazio, A., Bertellotti, M., 2016. Impact of whale-watching on the short-term behavior of Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) in Patagonia, Argentina. Tourism Management Perspectives 18, 118-124.
4 Senigaglia, V., Christiansen, F., Bejder, L., Gendron, D., Lundquist, D., Noren, D. P., Schaffar, A., Smith, J. C., Williams, R., Martinez, E., Stockin, K., Lusseau, D., 2016. Meta-analyses of whale-watching impact studies: comparisons of cetacean responses to disturbance. Marine Ecology Progress Series 542, 251-263
5 Buultjens, J., Ratnayke, I., Gnanapala, A., 2016. Whale watching in Sri Lanka: Perceptions of sustainability. Tourism Management Perspectives 18, 125-133
6 Constantine, R., Brunton, D.H. & Dennis, T. 2004. Dolphin-watching tour boats change bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) behaviour. Biological Conservation, 117, 299-307.
7 Širović, A., Hildebrand, J.A. & Wiggins, S.M., 2007. Blue and fin whale call source levels and propagation range in the Southern Ocean. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 122, 1208-1215.