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In Search of Big Blue

Having quickly exhausted anything mildly of interest in the coastal town of Unawatuna, I learned that just down the road, in a town called Mirissa, one could hire a boat and go blue whale watching. Yes, I thought, blue whales!

The prospect excited me because 1) I had never seen a blue whale and there are only a handful of places where one can catch site of these, the largest organisms that have ever existed—and 2) it wasn’t Unawatuna.

So, around 4:30am I made my way to the main road in the dark and caught a public bus bound for Mirissa. With the usual screeching stops and neck-wrenching accelerations of a bus in Sri Lanka, we rolled and yawed down the road in a rapid lurching-stop, lurching-go motion. Seriously, some of these drivers must be on some heavy cocktails—they have an almost-maniacal, single-focus stare with what appears to be red coals burning in their eyes. I could go on about driving in Sri Lanka… but later, in another post.

As good fortune would have it, I made it to Mirissa and headed down to the harbour to find my boat. As usual, at these kinds of less-than-tidy harbours, you may find yourself walking amidst potholes filled with water, garbage, stray dogs, rusting cars and half-sunk boats to get to your vessel. It’s always a relief to find what you are actually seeking.

It was a nice-enough boat, one of many nice-enough boats lined up in a row. Climbing aboard, I was surprised to see PFDs (not the CSA version we know, but PFDs nonetheless) being handed to each of us as we boarded. I thought this was rather unusual. I mean, PFDs on a boat in a Asia are fairly unusual to start with. Being told to wear one is even more of an oddity. But there you go, just sitting there tied to the dock and required to wear PFDs.

But still, I was nagged by this odd requirement. I mean, the sun was shining, the water was calm and we were tied to the dock. Yet, here we sat, bundled up in our PFDs in the tropics. I was thinking that these guys took safety seriously. Right. Seriously, I should know better. I guess, I could also look at my tendency to believe in things at first-glance as being indefatigably hopeful, or, perhaps it’s just some sort of genetic Canadian naivety. I dunno. But like so many things in life that appear solid up-front, my notion of safety was about to dissolve quickly.

Joining me for the three-hour tour was a middle-aged woman from England who was passionately afraid of the sea and a young Russian couple who clumsily boarded the boat adorned with plastic bags filled with plastic-covered supplies. It’s funny, but when I remember this couple I think of plastic. Many Russians have light skin, but this couple had a ghoul-like shade to them. Or to borrow a nautical term, they appeared to be two sheets to the wind. And they were. The really dark sunglasses they wore may have added to the effect. There were also three Germans joining us.  I mean, you have to have Germans—they’re ubiquitous on the world travel circuit. Then there was our crew, a seemingly non-descript lot of Sri Lankans, and me, the Canadian. I wonder what they thought about me? Maybe one of them is writing on their blog about a Canadian photographer who was sweating profusely in his PFD while the boat was still tied to the dock.

With our spartan cadre of guests we threw our rope tethers off and left the harbour without complication. It was also smooth sailing from the breakwater out to the point where the big Indian Ocean waited. It was at this point where I got my first look at the day’s open ocean, and still sporting my orange PFD, thought, hmm, this thing is actually starting to feel okay. Once we got past the point and protection of the land, we encountered a strong onshore wind that was whipping up a fairly jagged sea. Apparently the blue whales were way out past the shipping lane, about 10 kms off the coast, so it was bash, bash, bash all the way out to the channel. In short order, the two pale Russians who were laying down on the upper deck of the boat (for maximum stomach-flipping effect) were now a remarkable teal-white and despite the violent tossing of our craft, they managed to slither down the stairs to the back of the boat to convulse among the subtle smells of diesel, engine exhaust and the head. And that’s where they remained for the duration of the trip. There’s nothing quite like a good, stomach-expelling bash of a boat ride.  No blue whales for the Ruskies.

In the helter-skelter of the Indian Ocean’s waves, our 40-foot craft now felt like 3, and at times, I swear, I thought our whole venture was just going to fall over sideways into the sea.  The previously PFD-inspired safety of our voyage had evaporated as I was literally hanging on with white knuckles to prevent accidental ejection. Ah, yes, witness the photographer at sea with a camera in one hand and the other on a piece of the boat that I kept assessing for its connectedness to the rest of the boat. It was simple: hang on liked a crazed-bastard or be thrown into the sea. Can you imagine if we had had little old ladies on our voyage? Our middle-aged, English mate with water anxiety was doing her thing by laying supine on the floor trying desperately to undo the effects of tortured-ocean and rattled-boat with little success. She was deathly silent; I can’t imagine what kind of PTSD shock she was in, but apparently the prospect of seeing Blue Whales will make people do just about anything.

And we kept going out into the Indian Ocean. And so far, no blue whale sightings. Just a jumble of an ocean. And that’s where doubt, your greatest enemy in life-threatening moments, starts to creep in like a black storm cloud. I thought, really, are there any whales out here at all or is this just a ruse to separate me from my rupees? Another thought was how much can this boat take? And another was do these guys even know what they are doing? We were now passing through the channel where massive freighters, the more reasonable vessels to be aboard, were moving quickly and there was definitely a foreboding feeling in the thick salt-air.

But sure enough, just as we crossed the “dark” channel, there was a spout of water. And then another over there. And, wow, another one over there. We had found our whales in the churning sea and the boat would change course to follow the nearest whale-spray. Like many whales, blue whales will swim for a while breathing on the surface, and then dive deep with a flip of their fluke. They only stay on the surface for a minute or so, and when you see the fluke, you know you won’t see that one for awhile.

When we were sitting in the calm of the harbour, I had been wishing that I’d brought my 400 mm telephoto with me. But, with a boat pitching 30 degrees or more, and only one hand to shoot with, a wide-angle lens and the vague hope of getting a reasonable shot was my best option. Sophisticated wildlife photography went over the side of the boat. Basically, I shot in the general direction of the whales with one hand and hoped for the best. For the most part, it worked. I mean, it might not be Nat Geo but you get the idea that, hey, that’s a whale. In the above photo, you can see the fluke of the blue whale with a couple of remoras attached to it. Talk about sticking power. It must be weird to be a remora—one minute you’re at 350 feet, and the next you are being swished around in the tropical sun. Bizarre. But then again, the ocean is full of strangeness.

The whales, though, were a welcome sight because 1) I actually saw them and 2) I knew that was our maximum advance into the Indian Ocean and that soon we would be heading back to the coast with a following-sea. Sweetness.

I’ve had better sightings of whales (and consequently better images) in other locations mostly because the whales show more of themselves, or do something spectacular like breech. The blue whales that day, despite their size (with hearts the size of a Volkswagen and an aorta large enough for an adult to swim through), were quite hidden beneath the roiling sea.  I saw and heard a few of them blow, I saw their backs, and I saw some flukes with remoras attached to them.

So was it worth it? Well, let’s see…I survived to have fun writing about it, and I was close enough to hear the breath of one of the most spectacular creatures that has ever lived. So, there, yes, I’ve convinced myself. It was all worth it.

As we headed back to port, the Russians continued to remain disabled at the back of the boat. The Germans were, well, German and had survived by continually smoking during the trip. The English woman was catatonic I believe. I was sweating a lot. And the previously moribund crew had now jumped to life with expressions of whale-glee. “Did you see that?” they said. “Amazing, wasn’t it”? “We’ve never seen that many whales before. You are so lucky. You must be so happy”?

I’ve been doing this travel-thing for a while now, as a traveler and a guide, and I can smell a tip-prep a mile away. But there’s nothing like the prospect of cash to get one motivated is there? And so, the empty chatter continued until I put my hat over my eyes and fell asleep to the sound and the movement of the rolling sea.

Back at the dock, I handed out the perfunctory tip and removed my “life-vest”. Saved.

G

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