Typical Sri Lankans: Our unique Blue whales can boost tourism, but regulation needed



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As marine biologists begin to learn more about the Blue whales resident in Sri Lanka’s waters, there is a need to regulate the whale watching industry that has spawned over the last few years as it is shaping up to be a considerable threat to the gentle giants. However, the biggest threat to the Blue whale population is ship strikes.


A public lecture on "Protecting the Giants of Our Ocean" was delivered by accomplished young marine biologist Ms. Asha de Vos, at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) recently. Ms. de Vos leads the first major study of the unique Sri Lankan blue whale and is committed to scientifically understanding the population in order to protect them into the future.


She shared her research findings and experiences to a full audience at the Kadirgamar Institute auditorium in a rich lecture full of new insights and knowledge into Sri Lanka’s blue whales, their behaviour, the grave and specific threats facing their existence, and how to protect them. The blue whale is globally ‘endangered’ due to it being hunted for its oil, meat, and other parts by humans in the past, the total global population being only about 10,000 (from a pre-whaling population of about 300,000).


"A considerable potential threat to the blue whales of Sri Lanka is the new and unregulated whale-watching industry. Guidelines need to be adopted and implemented, and these guidelines should look at all angles including how to approach the whales," said Ms. de Vos.


"Unfortunately, there is a common misconception that the best view of a blue whale is when you are as close as possible to it; this activity only serves to harass the animal. Moreover, such actions could cause the whales to move further offshore or to other areas where food is available. It would be unfortunate for us to lose our blue whales, which have resided in our waters for so long. The safety of the whales is of utmost importance as is the safety of the whale watchers," she said.


"There is an urgent need for the whale-watching industry of Sri Lanka to adhere to regulations and international standards, such as the licensing of tour operators, ensuring that all safety equipment is on board, and the limiting of the number of tours and the number of individuals taken on tours. Sri Lanka’s environmental and coastguard authorities have an important role to play in protecting these giants of our ocean," Ms. De Vos said adding that she was heartened by the fact that she and her research vessel went through strict scrutiny of the coastguard as she was embarking on a research expedition, but said that a lot more remains to be done in the conservation of blue whales in Sri Lanka.


Ms. de Vos began her lecture by sharing with the audience, an answer to a question she has been asked repeatedly in the recent past, "Is the blue whale population of Sri Lanka a new discovery, have they newly migrated to Sri Lankan waters?" She said the answer to this question is a clear, ‘No’. In evidence, Ms. de Vos shared the first map ever drawn of Sri Lanka, Ptolemy’s map of Sri Lanka (or "Taprobane" as it was referred to by the Greeks then) drawn in 150 C.E., and how he had marked the existence of a population of whales in the very coordinates that she herself had her most memorable blue whale encounter off Southern Sri Lanka. She also shared that over 1,000 blue whales were illegally hunted within the waters of the northern Indian Ocean by Soviet whalers in the 1960s and 1970s, which also gives an indication of the size of the blue whale population in Sri Lankan waters at that time.


Ms. de Vos emphasized the uniqueness of the blue whale population in Sri Lankan waters. She refers to them as the "Unorthodox Whales", because they display behaviours that are different to other populations – for reasons we are yet to fully grasp. The Sri Lankan blue whale is unique, first because there is a part of the population that is resident in Sri Lankan waters all-year round, while most other blue whale populations feed within higher latitudes (polar waters) and migrate to the lower latitudes for breeding and calving – this population engages in all these important activities within our waters.


The longest recorded blue whale in Sri Lankan waters is 25 m, which makes them 5 m shorter than those found in the Antarctic. Through the pioneering work of Ms. Asha de Vos, we are able to learn that the blue whales in the southern waters of Sri Lanka may be resident due to the existence of underwater features that possibly enhance productivity in the area. Ms. de Vos calls for more scientific research to be done to understand the blue whale population, so they may be managed and protected effectively.


Ms. de Vos said that the biggest threat to Sri Lanka’s blue whales off the southern coast is ship strikes, as they reside in the midst of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world; the most recent strike being on the 20th March, 2012 when a blue whale came into harbour on the bow of a ship. Blue whales being killed by ship strikes are not uncommon; there are reports of large, fast-moving vessels hitting and killing blue whales (and other types of whales) in busy harbours of the world. The masking effect caused due to blue whales communicating at the same frequencies as ship propeller noise, is detrimental. "It is like going to a café full of people talking. Suddenly you find it hard to hear because your chit chat is being drowned out by everyone else", said Ms. de Vos. She said that it is very important to understand the habitat of our blue whale populations to understand the role it plays in their survival. The science will guide decisions on how best to protect the whales within the shipping lanes. Despite its size, the survival of the blue whale in our waters depends on our actions.


 


Whale-watching expeditions were first commercially launched in 2008 by the government sector in collaboration with Walkers Tours. This was done with three rescue vessels and one research vessel from Mirissa and Galle. It was launched by former Chairman of the Ceylon Fishery Harbours Corporation, Asanga Abeyagoonasekera and his team in collaboration with NARA and NIFNE with marine mammal experts Arjan Rajasuriya, Chitral Jayatilake, and Anouk Ilangakoon. The need for regulation in whale-watching was emphasized by Abeyagoonasekera at the launch of this program, as well as the importance of developing water-based tourism in Sri Lanka. The program was successful and the 100th excursion was celebrated in 2009. The industry however has experienced an unplanned expansion with many unregulated, small-time whale-watching tour operators. The whale-watching industry in Sri Lanka has great potential for increasing tourism, however, its long-term sustainability is dependent entirely upon regulation and the implementation of laws on conservation.


The welcome address at the lecture was delivered by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Executive Director of the Kadirgamar Institute. Abeyagoonasekera said that he "strongly believe[d] that for Sri Lanka as an island, our greatest resource is the ocean resource, the area being seven times that of the land area - which will further increase to twenty times more after our claim from the Delineation of Outer Continental Margin". He also proposed the establishment of a Whale Conservation Fund for Sri Lanka to assist in the research and conservation of the unique blue whale population of Sri Lanka. Arjan Rajasuriya, veteran Marine Biologist and Research Officer at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), Sri Lanka gave an introduction to the speaker and shared memorable experiences from research expeditions he had undertaken together with Ms. de Vos.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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