Everything else.. Whale-watching in Sri Lanka: Watching out for our Whales!

Whale-watching in Sri Lanka: Watching out for our Whales!

2021 Feb 18

What experience is more awe-inspiring than watching dolphins and whales off the coastline of Sri Lanka? Those who have been can attest to the sheer beauty of the encounter, even if it is just to get a fleeting glimpse after hours of watching!

However, as the industry grows, so have questions about how ethical the practice of whale watching truly is. How is the field regulated, and how can we as the watchers ensure that we don’t harm our marine life?

Whale-watching: from the 1980s to present day

Small expeditions to see whales and dolphins can be traced back to the 1980s in Sri Lanka. 

Although local fishing folk had always been aware of the existence of aquatic mammals, it was only the findings of the research vessel ‘The Tulip’ in the 1980s that drew attention to their presence in Sri Lanka. The publications drew tourists, both local and international, to the coastlines.

This increased attention also included the interest of marine biologists and investors, which culminated in a significant burst of activity following the end of the civil war. The post-war boom meant that whale-watchers increased in number – from 620 people a year to approximately 80,000 in 2014. 

Currently, Sri Lanka is one of the highest-rated countries in the world when it comes to whale-watching experiences! 

Mirissa and Dondra Point are the best locations on the island for watching, as they are the closest to the continental shelf, but more recently, areas such as Kalpitiya and Trincomalee have also been rising in popularity.

How ethical is whale-watching?

A trip becomes unethical if it causes an animal to deviate from its usual behaviour – migration patterns, feeding or resting habits, or reproductive rates. It goes without saying that spotting animals in their natural habitat is more ethical than the concept of zoo-going. However, these excursions do have the potential to be harmful, especially to sensitive creatures such as dolphins and whales. 

Whale-watching trips can be dangerous to the safety of both the passengers and the animals if improperly carried out. It is rare, but not unheard of, for boats to collide with whales or dolphins when they’re travelling too close to the animals. According to research, this is also due to passengers searching for the perfect photo-op.

A related risk is that of numerous boats chasing whales or dolphins, which has been reported to cause the animals immense stress. An article by leading Marine Researcher, Anouk Illangakoon also warns that the disruption created by multiple engines on the water at once could be dangerous for animals that rely so strongly upon their sense of hearing. 

However, careful and considerate trips can actually contribute to conservation efforts, because they raise awareness on the value of these majestic sea mammals. Important work is also done by conservationists such as Asha de Vos, whose finding of whale excrement paved the way for her groundbreaking research documenting the movement of pods of blue whales.

Asha de Vos notes, the largest danger to whales is the possibility of large ships striking them, but we cannot entirely discount the harm that constant and intrusive whale-watching may cause.

With these dangers in mind, what laws and regulations lie in place to ensure ethical whale watching experiences? 

How are our whales legally protected?

Ranil P. Nanayakkara, a Conservation Biologist and Sustainable Tourism Specialist, summarises the three general principles of ethical watching: limiting the intrusiveness of expeditions, reducing the likelihood of direct harm, and raising awareness of the specific issues faced by the mammals.

Legally, conditions are more strongly set out in the Sea Mammals (Observation, Regulation and Control) Regulations No. 1 of 2012. These laws ensure that the whales’ migration paths aren’t blocked, and regulate the distances at which boats should stop once they see a whale or other sea mammal (100m for a whale, 50m for other mammals). Within this regulation, licences to take people out to sea need to be obtained from the Department of Wildlife Conservation, with proof that the vessel is sturdy and fully-equipped with safety equipment for all its passengers. 

As one would expect, there are also strong rules against disposing of waste in the ocean or attempting to feed the animals. The above ordinance also states that both tour operators and passengers need to be fully informed of the conservation measures and restrictions that come with watching the animals. Any of the conditions of the Act being breached will result in an operator’s license being cancelled by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Numerous NGOs and Government organisations work with individual tour providers to spread awareness about the importance of sensitivity when conducting such expeditions. 

What can you do?

An important part of booking a trip is carrying out proper research beforehand: 

  1. Does the tour provider have reliable accreditations? 
  2. Do they have a solid commitment to the rules that govern ethical whale-watching trips? The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) generally provides trustworthy accreditations. 
  3. Looking at reviews can be helpful to gauge how ethical a trip is.
  4. Do advertisements for the trip make dubious promises, such as the ability to touch the animals up close? 
  5. Keep yourself informed as to issues that could affect the animals, and remember to follow safety rules diligently!

It is important to remember that whale-watching is a privilege; a glimpse into the everyday lives of the world’s most majestic mammals – not a right that watchers are guaranteed. Whale-watching can definitely be an amazing experience, but don’t forget that we’re responsible for protecting the creatures whose space we are invading!