Whale watch war at Mirissa


The vessel ‘Raja and the Whales’ approaching the other boat while sandwiching a whale.

by Suresh Perera

A nasty incident where a whale watching vessel carrying a group of tourists was rammed and battered with projectiles by another boat at sea off Mirissa was reported last Thursday, but a police official in the area said he was aware of the attack, though no formal complaint has been lodged.

"I was informed by wild life officers that the confrontation happened after two persons on the boat attempted to dive, which is not permitted on whale watching tours", says Weligama OIC, Nilan Lasantha Buddhika.

The vessel, ‘Mandala II’, had on board a group of four tourists, with tour leader and photographer Patrick Dykstra and Howard Martenstyn, Director of Research at CRIOMM, when it was targeted by another boat, ‘Raja and the Whales’.

"On our return to shore, we did report the incident to the Coast Guard at Mirissa and also to the police", said Martenstyn, a Sri Lankan born Canadian with dual citizenship, who was on board as an independent observer.

"As we wanted to ensure that the Coast Guard was kept informed, we briefed them on the telephone before going to their station", he noted.

"I was also told by wild life officers that this was an unauthorized tour", the OIC said.

"It was not", Martenstyn shot back. "My GPS track shows that our boat, skippered by G. P. H. Nihal Premakumara and Seneviratne, sailed from Weligama to Mirissa to complete whale-watching formalities".

"We were given the all-clear by the Coast Guard as we adhered to the legal guidelines", he explained.

"We then headed out to sea and located a blue whale in the company of another vessel. Thereafter, we were on our own with the whale for about 25 minutes with no other boats in the area", recounted Martenstyn, an observer researcher.

"It was at this point that ‘Raja and the Whales’ approached us and placed their vessel on the other side of the whale (at 10:35 hrs), thereby sandwiching the marine mammal in violation of best practices", he asserted.

Photo evidence shows that they were also observed violating whale watching best practices without regard for the safety of the passengers and concern for the blue whale thereby tarnishing Sri Lanka’s whale watching industry and jeopardizing lives, he noted.

On police claims that two people on board the vessel attempted to dive, which led to the confrontation, Martenstyn said: "At no time was a passenger or anybody from either boat in the water, though one person, a passenger on our vessel, was in a wetsuit. They can’t prove there was diving".

Asked whether he could prove there was no diving, he replied "It cannot be proven either way, but I can assure you that there was nobody in the water though one person on board the vessel had diving gear".

On what led to the attack, he said that based on what he gathered, the vessel ‘Mandala II’ used for the excursion was noted for putting swimmers in the water. I believe they thought it was a ‘guide boat’. That was, perhaps, the reason it was targeted.

"I was also told that this was the third attack at sea on whale-watching vessels", Martenstyn noted. "This is endangering lives".

He said that during the tour, he observed that many passengers were not wearing life jackets, and when the whale surfaced, the passengers were leaning over the starboard side which looked very unsafe and dangerous including the possibility of ‘man overboard’ with no life jacket on.

This is substantiated with photo evidence. In one photo a passenger is seen standing next to a crewman over the safety railing without a life jacket and taking video, he asserted.

At 10:52 hrs, the vessel ‘Raja and Whales’ was within 100 meters of the blue whale violating best practices that they themselves publicize. This caused the whale to dive, he recalled.

"In a bid to study the behaviour of this particular whale, Patrick was getting ready to fly the drone camera and had the drone in his hand at the stern of the boat when the vessel came and rammed our vessel at 11:02 hrs. The crew then verbally abused the passengers on board our vessel and thereafter started throwing ice balls and raw eggs", Martenstyn claimed.

He said that one of the eggs caused damage to the drone. Although the foreign passengers were hit by the projectiles, there were no injuries. Crewman Seneviratne was also hit. The passengers on both boats have video and photographic footage documenting in detail the entire incident, including the impact of the ice and eggs hitting the people and the drone camera.

"‘Raja and the Whales’ departed at 11:10 hrs and we immediately reported to the Coast Guard and on our return and also lodged a police entry", he said.

"I was told the police are conducting an inquiry today (Sunday)".

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