KALPITIYA ­­­The Sea, The Islands and the Lagoon


by Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda

A splash of movement. A leaping thud. A flying twist of silver, gleaming in the sun. The sea was full of shapes in shades of grey, skimming through the deep. There were dolphins everywhere, gliding in from every side. In formations of three, four and five, some rode before the boat and, disappearing beneath, they cut across the bows. Like torpedoes streaking through the sea, their fins rose and fell in curving arcs. Shooting through the waves at gathering speed, they could have outpaced the boat with ease, but chose to stay. They seemed to have no fear, coming within touching distance, barely a hand's breadth away.

They somersaulted through the air, vaulting backwards, forward and upside down. They spun from left to right and right to left. Holding their audience enthralled, they executed double twists, triple twists, belly flops, flips and barrel rolls, all at breathless speed. Their repertoire was endless. Some were artistes, some were acrobats and others were athletes.

There were at least a hundred. Each group followed in the other's path. Sleek and slender with long, thin snouts, they were five to six feet long. These were the Spinner Dolphins of Kalpitiya. Kalpitiya, once 'Calpettyn', takes its name from the Dutch fort built there in 1667. The fort sits at the tip of a peninsula on the north-western coast of Sri Lanka. A long arm of land stretching out into the sea, the Kalpitiya peninsula is 30 miles long and four to five miles wide. Running almost parallel to the mainland, its bony fingertips end in a series of long, thin islands. With the Indian Ocean on one side and the Puttalam Lagoon - the largest in Sri Lanka - on the other, the Kalpitiya peninsula is a place where two ecosystems meet: a changing landscape of flat coastal plains, salt pans, thick mangrove swamps, eerie salt marshes, vast sand dunes and shallow expanses of water. Governed by the winds and the tides, it is a unique environment with its own distinctive plants, grasses, birds, fish, reptiles and mammals.

Known for their love of tropical waters, Spinners are usually found in the warmer parts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean. Although by habit they are ocean-going, in Sri Lanka they are also seen within reach of the coast. The first recorded sighting is thought to have been in 1872 and they have been seen off the island's shores for more than

Immensely social animals, Spinners usually travel in large numbers and, off Kalpitiya, hundreds have been spotted at a time. Sometimes in the early morning they can be seen feeding just beneath the surface, spread out across the horizon, as far as the eye can see. Their preferred food is the Yellow-fin Tuna and to a lesser extent, Skipjack. Although Spinners are seen throughout the year, it is during the tuna fishing season, from September to October, that the greatest number gather. Clearly, these species are still found in numbers off the coasts of Kalpitiya. Overfishing, and especially the catching of young fish, will change all this. Soon, perhaps, there could come a time when the dolphins will no longer come.

The lapping calm sharpens speeding silhouettes. Tints of green and blue accentuate the streamlined forms. Through the water they appear pencil slim. The colours light up the gleaming grey; the deeper the hue, the greater the contrast. The ocean has never been so still, the colours never so clear. Accompanying the boat is a small group of Bottlenose Dolphins. From above, they seem to be swimming in slow motion.

Along with the Spinners, Bottlenose Dolphins are also a common sight off the peninsula. More sedate and stately than the Spinner, the Bottlenose is not usually given to acrobatics. Between eight to ten feet long, it is larger, heavier and longer than the Spinner. Males, however, can sometimes grow as much as 12 feet. More than 75 years ago, the English naturalist W.W.A. Philips had reported the presence of Bottlenose Dolphins in his classic guide, Manual of the Mammals of Ceylon (1935). Seen right from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, the Bottlenose Dolphin is particularly abundant in the seas off Sri Lanka. Found in the deep sea and in coastal waters, they are regularly sighted off the island's western and southern coasts. Unlike the Spinner, however, they gather in much smaller numbers. The pods seen near the coast rarely consist of more than 12 animals, while those which inhabit the deeper seas rarely number more than 25.

Friendly and curious by nature, Bottlenose Dolphins also like to swim with boats. Riding the bows, they cut in and out from either side. Like many other dolphins, once they become accustomed to the boat and its occupants, they are quite happy to travel along. The force of the boat makes it easier for the dolphins, reducing the drag. The bow wave creates a low pressure area which acts as a slipstream, and they take turns to ride in its wake, peeling off and swapping positions. The coastal species have a limited range, along overlapping sections of the coast, from which they rarely stray. The waters of the Kalpitiya peninsula appear to be their home. Although naturalists have known of their existence for so long, it is only in the last few years that the dolphins have captured the public imagination. One of the most captivating sights of Kalpitiya, they are also its biggest attraction. It is an attraction which could easily disappear.

Dolphins communicate with each other through a series of high-pitched clicks, screeches and whistles. Their language is sound and they are highly vulnerable to its tones. Some of it can be heard by humans, but most of it cannot. Under water, where it travels much faster, sound is so much louder than on land. Here, it is a dangerous weapon. Many boats will also mean many engines and more sound, and each engine will pour out more and more oil. All across the island's southern waters, hordes of boats are putting out to see the whales. The same fate lies in store for the dolphins of Kalpitiya. As tourism develops, the seas will become a highway for speeding boats, every one competing for the closest view.

Where they once felt safe and free, the dolphins will feel hunted and pursued. The waters, which were once their home, will be home no longer. It is a characteristic of living things that when threatened, they can always disappear. When they do, part of Sri Lanka's living heritage will vanish forever.


Pictures by Devaka Seneviratne

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