Sri Lanka has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, beset with problems from terrorism to flooding. But in the wake of the contentious ending of the war in 2010 with the Tamil Tigers, this verdant island is experiencing a new tourist boom founded largely on its exquisite beaches, where one may spend weeks doing nothing but drinking lime sodas in the sun.
However, I found another prospect more appealing – especially after the frenetic demands of appearing at the island’s Galle Literary Festival.
For some years now, I’d heard stories of whales seen off Sri Lanka’s coast, not least from my brother-in-law, Sam Goonetillake, founder of the Helplanka charity, which was set up to assist the orphans of the 2004 tsunami.
For a dedicated “whalehead” such as myself, these tales were impossibly alluring. The southern tip of the island is surprisingly close to the deep waters of the continental shelf, and here swim giants: blue whales, the largest animals that ever lived. It is a unique situation: nowhere else do these whales come in so close to land, or are so reliably seen.
Their presence, confirmed by such naturalists as Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, has encouraged the eco-tour specialists Jetwing to start dedicated whale watching trips, using boats supplied by Mirissa Water Sports, a company set up with European funding in the wake of the tsunami. With the prospect of adding this animal, the holy grail of whale-watchers, to my list, I joined forces with photographer Andrew Sutton in the search for whales.