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Swimming with whales

I had wanted to go swimming with whales for a while, ever since I picked up freediving. I gave up freediving, but that’s another story. Having gone scuba diving with sharks and other big creatures, swimming with whales was an obvious next step.

Sri Lanka was a good candidate location. I could potentially visit Sri Lanka on the way to Kochi. So I was looking forward to the possibility of swimming with whales when I was invited to my friend’s wedding in Colombo. A couple of weeks prior to the trip, found that there indeed were options to snorkel with whales, and that the recent positive reviews for one of the operators, Muthu Tours, came from just days prior. Muthu advised me that it was whale sighting season and we could go snorkeling with them.

I flew to Sri Lanka and took a cab to Mirissa, the base from where I would go whale-sighting. I checked into my guest house, Margosa on a Saturday evening. As per our agreement, Muthu contacted me at 9.30 AM on Sunday. He had no information on whales that day, so he did not want to charge me US $300 to go out on a chartered boat and search for them with a low probability of success. Nevertheless he came and picked me up on his scooter. On our route, the police stopped us twice. One of them seemed to be chiding Muthu about something, but in a very friendly manner. The matter was resolved amicably in both cases. Muthu then connected me with some of his professional scuba diving buddies.

At the dive “shop”

He helped me get a discount on two guided dives. I learned afterward that my guide was only PADI Rescue Diver certified – not allowed under the rules for professional divers. He said that he had been diving for 25 years, and was completing his Dive Master certification the next year (two weeks off, at the time). In any case, the dives were good and I never felt unsafe. I swam in a school of snappers, got very close to some bumphead parrotfish, saw a few big moray eels coiled up inside crevices and some nice rock formations on the sea floor. Muthu picked me up and drove me back to my guesthouse once it was over.

At about 8 AM on Monday, Muthu told me that two fin whales had been sighted. At about 9.45 AM he picked me up in a tuktuk containing two others who had done this before. We went to another dive centre where we picked our masks and fins.

This day’s boat was uncovered. There were five of us on it – the pilot being the extra. Muthu held a black GPS set and stood in front. He was occasionally on the phone talking to others. He would give the pilot directions by pointing his arm until the boat turned to face the right direction. We mostly went on full speed. This went on for more than an hour. Then one of the other travellers spotted something shiny. We looked at where he was pointing. After a couple of minutes, for an instant, I spotted a shiny black top that stood out against the waves. We looked for it again but neither of the professionals saw it.

I had on my board shorts over my swimming trunks. I was wearing a shirt, hat and sunglasses. Next to me were my GoPro and the mask and snorkel that I would use. The fins were next to my feet. I mentally rehearsed the steps that I would take when we had to get into the water: take off hat, sunglasses and shirt (plus possibly board shorts if I had time). Put on mask and fins. Hold GoPro, put the attached loop around my wrist and fasten the clasp. Another half hour after the black shiny creature, Muthu saw something. “Sperm whale”, he said. He did not need to say more. This was not a boat of newbies. Clothes came off, masks and fins went on, bags were unzipped and cameras were pulled out. We saw the top of the whale and one fin, but its easily recognisable outline was not visible to us from above the surface.

Muthu took control of the engine and directed the boat. He told us when to jump into the water. We jumped and saw the massive body of the sperm whale about 20 metres away. The sperm whale’s head looks extremely non-streamlined; very different from that of most whales and of most fish as well. Its head is about as streamlined as a bus; and it looks even bigger. The head makes up about a third of a sperm whale’s body, it seems. In any case this one left me behind in seconds and was out of sight again.

Muthu called to us and asked us to hurry. We rushed back on board the boat. The boat moved ahead of the whale and we jumped in again. One of my fins came off this time and I spent a few precious seconds putting it back on. As I turned, the whale was pointed downwards at a slope. It moved its massive fin and dived down into the deep.

Back on board, Muthu told us that a sperm whale could stay down for 50 minutes. It just needed a few minutes at the top every time it came up. We kept going, but at a much slower rate. I was amazed. Muthu was trying to find the whale on its next surfacing. We had no sophisticated equipment like SONAR – just the visual of the direction in which the whale was pointed when it dived and a GPS – to find a whale in a vast ocean. This gave me a lot of respect for the whaling industry of two centuries ago – catching a sperm whale without even motorised boats would have been quite an effort. After 40+ minutes, we saw the whale again and got in another swim or two.

We then set off to find those two fin whales that had been spotted in the morning. Muthu has to make up to the other two – he had brought them out two days prior and they had spotted nothing. He promised to get them another sighting. We searched for hours. After a while I realised that my pattern-matching skills were working overtime. The patterns and colours of the tops of waves seemed to me to be fins of whales or orcas. Soon I was seeing them everywhere but we continued moving as though nothing was sighted – because indeed I had sighted nothing but waves. It reminded me of my experiences in Taiwan previously when mere minutes of solitary trekking in a mountain forest led me to see the shapes of people in the shadows of trees and hear human voices in random noises.

At about 2.30 PM, three hours after we last saw the sperm whale, we had still sighted no fin whales. Then we saw dolphins. What looked like a small pod of about ten spinner dolphins showed up. We jumped into the water but could see nothing. We tried a second time and again failed. We overtook the dolphins again. We now saw that the pod had at least fifty individuals. The spinners jumped out of the water in enthusiasm as they went. Not all of them made it out fully; some seemed to sink back in before their tails could emerge. These were small dolphins of a metre or so in length. We positioned ourselves in the path of the mass of dolphins and jumped again. A third time, the dolphins were not to be seen underwater. Muthu told us that they had dived underneath us and gone. The dolphins did not wish to play today. We headed back.

As we got close to a number of fishing boats, Muthu picked up a fishing rod with reel that had been kept erect at the back of the boat. He threw it in while the boat was still moving. Within minutes, a 40 cm long fish, with a green upper region and silver lower region was flopping on the bottom of the boat.

Muthu with his catch

It had been a hard day. The tops of my arms were now sunburned. At 4.30 PM, we still had not had a proper lunch; just snacks on the boat. A rusty nail pierced the sole of my foot as I walked barefoot on the beach. I now needed to head to Galle to find a hospital and get vaccinated against tetanus. We would have really liked to have swum with the dolphins.

It was a very good day nevertheless. Nature is unpredictable and those of us who have experienced it know to be glad for what we have seen. We did swim with a sperm whale!

Muthu dropped me back at my guesthouse and arranged a tuktuk to take me to Galle. A cop stopped him on the way again and checked his papers. He had them.

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