Balaenoptera musculus is the largest animal that ever lived and makes even the largest dinosaur look small. Steve De Neef takes you behind the majesty of this great creature. (Text by Steve De Neef. Images by Franco Banfi)

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.

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.

1. Because of their size and speed, blue whales were largely safe from early whaling as they were too fast and big to hunt with hand harpoons. The advent of the exploding harpoon gun in the late 1860s allowed for their commercial exploitation.

 

2. More than 360,000 blue whales were taken by whalers in the Southern Hemisphere from 1904 to 1967, and the Antarctic and North Atlantic populations were most likely depleted to the low hundreds by the time whaling was banned.

 

3. The total global blue whale population has declined by at least 70 percent, though 90 percent is a more likely estimate. The formerly very large Antarctic population declined over the same period by as much as 97 percent.

 

4. Today, blue whales need all the protection they can get. The global population is estimated at around 10,000 to 25,000, which represents only 2 to 11 percent of the total pre-commercial exploitation population.

For the rest of this article (Scuba Diver Issue 7/2015, AA No. 84) and other stories, check out our past issues here or download digital copy here.

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