One of the most unique populations of blue whales in the world today happens to live in an unlikely place. In 2009, Sri Lanka ended a deadly 25-year civil war that largely kept tourists, foreign scientists and researchers away from the surrounding waters. Since the war ended, tourism has increased rapidly and Sri Lanka has become one of the easiest countries in the world to spot these ocean giants. The hub of whale tourism is a small coastal town in the south called Mirissa.

Graceful giants

In 2007, whale tourism started with two boats. Now there are 35 and some say the industry has expanded too quickly. It’s understandable why people would want to catch a glimpse of this magnificent animal.

Even though it can take hours to spot one, once you do, you can’t help but be in awe of their sheer size. Its body seems to go on forever. When it surfaces, the blow is the biggest amongst all whales and can rise up to nine metres! Even the sound they make when surfacing for a breath is impressive. Sri Lanka is one of the only places where you can observe them underwater, although you do need a government permit to enter the water with them. Seeing blue whales underwater is even more impressive. It’s very difficult to get close enough to one and have conditions good enough to see its full body, but when you do, it’s a sight you’ll never forget and will make you feel very small. When a blue whale swims past, you can feel its power. It’s amazing how fast something so large can move and how graceful they are in their natural habitat.

More than just majestic

Along with tourism, research on whales has also increased, and while there is still much left to learn about the biggest animal in the world, dedicated scientists are finding out more about this unique population of blue whales. Most blue whale populations migrate vast distances, but in Sri Lanka they stay around all year long to feed, breed and calve. Blue whales in Sri Lanka also tend to be a bit smaller – growing only to about 24 metres – and hence are now known as pygmy blue whales. One scientist in particular, Asha De Vos, is dedicating her life to researching the exceptional blue whales of her native Sri Lanka.

One part of Asha’s research is trying to find out what the important areas are for Sri Lanka’s blue whales and if there’s any travel pattern they follow often. This is important because 25 kilometres off the southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and whales are known to swim inside them on a regular basis. Ship strikes happen regularly, and this is one of the biggest threats they face today.

Some scientists believe that the increase in whale watching boats could also be forcing whales to seek food farther out, pushing them right into the path of the big ships. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka there are not many regulations in place, and it’s common to see over 20 boats surrounding one whale during peak season.

According to Asha, tourism can also have a positive impact if well regulated. The economic value of tourism is obvious and whale watching has become a big industry. Hopefully, this will lead to conservation measures; shipping lanes can be moved and if we find out where the whales feed, these areas can be targeted for protection. While whales can thank their charisma and beauty for a lot of the conservation success stories in the past, there are more reasons to protect them – scientists are now discovering how important whales are for a healthy, balanced ecosystem. They play a vital role in the transportation of nutrients throughout the food chain, and in trapping carbon (see infographic below).

According to scientists like Asha De Vos, it might be time to rethink why protecting whales is important, as without them, our blue planet simply wouldn’t be the same.

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This article featured in Scuba Diver Australasia (Issue 7/2015)