Interview with Kay Burn Lim
Text by Sienna Lakin
Featured Photograph by Tom Thurman
The blue whale is under threat.
After years of industrialised whaling, the impacts of human induced climate change and the encroaching tourism industry, this magnificent animal requires protection.
Photographer, diver and expedition leader Kay Burn Lim talks us through the experience of diving with the blue whale and how this has brought about a new appreciation for these animals as well as a concern for their well being. This is something that concerns us all. We must understand the importance of the blue whale as a player in countering climate change and as a crucial part of our underwater ecosystem and wider biosphere. If we can closely monitor their endangerment and protect the species, they can in turn help us in our battle against climate change.
“When I first started leading these expeditions to see the blue whale with my partner, Eric, we realised that the number of people that have seen a blue whale underwater was actually less than the number of people that have been in space!” says Kay Burn. “It is an incredible privilege to be in their presence. This is the largest known creature to have ever lived, far bigger than any dinosaur. I am extremely fortunate to have come lose to these giants and to have seen them underwater.”
On a recent visit to the Boola Bardip Museum in Perth, Australia, Kay Burn stood under a full- sized adult blue whale skeleton that they have on display and was awestruck. “While in the water, there is no size reference to what you are seeing,” Kay Burn points out. “It is simply blue water behind a blue whale. Standing there in the museum, however, it finally struck me just how huge these creatures are.”
The photographer shares his dismay at the shocking figures that are attached to the whaling era, with as few as 10,000 blue whales remaining from a peak of perhaps a quarter million in the early 20th century. Modern-day environmental pressures, such as ship strikes and the effects of climate change on their food source, present an ever-increasing danger to what is left of these beautiful giants. “It is my hope that by aiding others to see this almost mythical creature for themselves, they will in turn help bring awareness to their plight”, he says.
In the first six decades of the 20th century, around 360,000 blue whales were killed, slaughtered for oil lamps and to make soap and margarine. The populations around South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean and Japan’s coastal waters were completely destroyed. Other populations were reduced by 99 percent, brought to the very brink of extinction.
Threat to Survival
It became increasingly clear that the blue whale hunt was massively unsustainable. Protections for blue whales began in parts of the Southern Hemisphere in 1939. Under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, they had received complete protection in the North Atlantic by 1955. This was extended to the Antarctic in 1965 and the North Pacific in 1966 , finally giving blue whales blanket protection. At the same time, the use of whale oils declined significantly with the commercial development of the petroleum industry and vegetable oils likely saving whales from extinction.
New threats from human activity have since emerged, including marine pollution, noise from shipping, and the effects of global warming. Entanglement in discarded fishing nets, injuries from ship propellers, and the adverse effects of plastics in our oceans are all furthering this endangerment.
The impact which blue whales have on the environment is only now being fully understood. The whales’ feeding on krill and fertilisation of phytoplankton is a vital cyclical component in the balance of the Earth’s climate, since plant plankton absorb carbon dioxide at the surface and sequester it when they sink into the abyss. Thus, whales play a significant role in the maintenance of the Earth’s biosphere.
According to a study by a group of scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC), this nutrient cycle promoted by migration movements is a counteractive process in climate change-related greenhouse gas emissions. If pre-whaling numbers of blue whales alone were considered, the increased nitrogen concentrations would have enabled phytoplankton to sequester and absorb up to about 15 percent more carbon per year. The positive contributions to our climate, as forged over millennia, by blue whales have been undermined by recent activities. With the accelerating effects of climate change, we must act now.
One of the most pragmatic strategies to protect blue whales, indeed all large whale species, is to decrease ship speeds. If this is done in critical management areas and during seasonal periods coinciding with peak whale abundance, harmful or fatal collisions between ships and whales can be minimised.
With respect to pollution from boats, including noise pollution, human interest in the blue whale in itself poses a threat. The very nature of tourism around blue whales is further entrenching their endangerment. Sri Lanka is an Asian hotspot that provides a rare opportunity to interact with and photograph the blue whale. Kay Burn, as someone who organizes expeditions to witness the blue whale for documentary, photography, cinematography, and research-based work, is very much aware of the extent of the threats they face.
“Some years are better than others, some weeks are incredible while others may go days with no sightings,” he notes. “Such is the nature of this kind of expedition. These are endangered creatures and the ocean is vast. Having said that, El Niño does seem to have an impact on whale behaviour in general as it affects both water temperature and in turn the feeding grounds. This is true for all whale species. For something as large as an adult blue whale that has no known predators, the single greatest concern would be the sustainability of its food source.”
Unfortunately, an unregulated whale watching industry has developed over the past few years in Sri Lanka. Mirissa in the country’s south sees dozens of whale-watching boats chasing after a few whales, while in Trincomalee Bay in the north, unscrupulous operators run illegal ‘swim with whales’ tours. Trip leaders like Kay Burn use experienced licensed guides and obtain the proper permits from the government to get into the water with whales. Without a permit, swimming with whales is unlawful.
“Due to the huge interest in these creatures, illegal operators can crowd the whales and behave in a manner dangerous to both swimmers and the whales themselves,” says Kay Burn. “This is why licensing and enforcement need to be exercised. Sightings are usually kept secret.” Besides Sri Lanka, Kay Burn has also had the opportunity to see and swim with blue whales in Indonesia in the Banda Sea. Whales are seen there regularly as they migrate through the region. The animals have also be sighted in the waters of East Timor, a country that Kay Burn hopes to visit soon. When asked how he feels about the tourism industry regarding blue whale spotting and whether this has a role to play in their endangerment, he admits tourism in any form, whether land-based or underwater, walks a fine line when it comes to encroaching on Nature. “A healthy respect for what we are there to see is key to operating responsibly,” he says.
While Kay Burn believes other factors such as ship strikes and climate change are of much greater concern, he recognises that tourism, especially when unregulated, may cause whales annoyance when encroaching on their feeding areas and cause them to change their behaviours. “The Sri Lankan government does an outstanding job of setting out guidelines to protect its wildlife. The structures are in place,” says Kay Burn. “However, resources to police this in the open seas are limited. While the Navy does police the waters and I have experienced checks for permits, it is a vast area to cover. In the end, I believe that responsible tourists need to help by confirming that their guides are licensed operators and that the proper (limited) permits have been secured to obtain this rare privilege of seeing this massive creature.”
It is reassuring to hear that figures like Kay Burn acknowledge that a sighting blue whales, let alone diving alongside them, is a privilege and there are dangers he, amongst others in roles of responsibility, must be conscious of. As divers and underwater shooters, it is our duty to support the protection of blue whales, ensure we use responsible operators, and do what we can to spread awareness about the threats – both immediate and long term that these magnificent creatures face.
KAY BURN LIM
Kay Burn Lim is an award-winning photographer, drone cameraman, and underwater cinematographer. He has worked on various documentary series and his photographs have been featured in magazines worldwide. When not on filming assignments, Kay organises and leads exotic dive expeditions to see big animals.
Issue no.161 of AsianDiver, The Big Blue Book, commemorates the blue whale as our featured animal for 2022.
Concerns around the endangered Blue whale are highlighted and relevant topics such as; why they are endangered, applicable science and conservation ambitions as well as where you can find them globally and, more specifically, in Asia. Ultimately, the blue whale is under threat. After years of industrialised whaling, the impacts of human induced climate change and the encroaching tourism industry, the magnificent animal requires protection. This magazine hopes to also raise awareness on this important matter.
This issue is also a dual feature issue with half of its contents containing our 30th Anniversary of AsianDiver! This issue focuses on personal experiences from 30 divers around the world across three generations and with a special feature of the 30 most exotic species as well as the 30 best dive destinations.
In conjunction with ADEX Ocean Gallery Vision 2022, celebrate exactly 30 years with Asian Diver this September 2022!
Pick up your copy here