Blue whale blues

Every whale death is a tragedy, but a dead blue whale is a big loss in every sense of the word. A young blue whale – its beauty and future potential cruelly extinguished - is arguably the greatest loss of all.  I was really concerned, then, to hear a few days ago of another blue whale washed up on the beach at Midigama, on the south coast of Sri Lanka: the third in the area in as many months.  These palm-fringed beaches are a slice of heaven and it seems plain wrong to see this whale – at around 10-15 metres, small in blue whale terms – lying dead on the sand.

Reports suggest that the whale had a 5-metre-long gash running down its throat pleats and under its left flipper. Whales have been fatally struck by vessels in these waters on an all-too regular basis, as blue whales and other species have the misfortune to make their home within one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.  At the moment, there are many unknowns, but samples have been taken and hopefully, we may eventually learn why this young blue whale died.

Sadly, just a fortnight ago, another blue whale washed up dead at nearby Kathaluwa beach, and in early March, yet another blue whale was found on the beach at Dikwella, to the east of the well-known fishing village of Mirissa.  Just days before that March death, two blue whales had been observed in the area, both in poor condition; one looking emaciated and the other with injuries suggestive of orca attack.

Taken together, these deaths – and the earlier sightings of whales in poor condition – suggest that all is far from well with the local blue whale population. This is a matter of great concern of course, not only to conservationists but also to the local community, which in recent years has developed a whale watch industry around these gentle giants and the many other whale and dolphin species found in these waters.

Back in 2012, in response to concerns that this new industry was developing too quickly, WDC launched Project BLUEprint, in partnership with SriLankan Airlines and local eco-tourism companies. We started to engage with the whale watch operators, offering support and training in responsible whale watching and at the same time, encouraging fit-for-purpose regulations, with proper monitoring and enforcement provisions, as these elements go hand in hand. Last autumn, we staged a successful two-day training workshop in the region, which was attended by around 90 operators and stakeholders. 

There is still some way to go before all local operators have sufficient training and experience to allow them to offer truly responsible viewing practices across the board – and equally, whilst regulations are in place, they are not yet as robust as they should be. Nonetheless, things are moving in the right direction and several local operators currently offer an experience that is on a par with high-quality whale watching elsewhere in the world. And, crucially, there is growing awareness within this community that they cannot protect their livelihoods without first protecting the whales in their waters. Fostering this sense of guardianship over the blue whales and other marine life in the region is absolutely essential of course and thus is a large part of Project BLUEprint’s remit.

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Ships that pass through the area of Midigama need to be warned to slow down for the whales who inhabit those waters and show far more consideration for marine life than they have up to now. The whales are getting injured because of their recklessness. One question would be just who has jurisdiction of the waters in that area to regulate traffic of ships passing through. They really need to slow down. Get the word out.

Is it possible to ask ships/boats in the area to put guards around the propellers?

The ships need to slow down, they are a bigger problem than the whale watching boats. Putting guards over the propellers won't help because the whales are being hit head on by the big bulge at the front of the ships.

Thanks for your comments and you have all picked up on the complexity of the issue. Any modifications in shipping routes and speeds must be put forward by the nation which controls the specific waters and passed through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to ensure the practices are safe. The IMO has been taking great strides in trying to improve awareness of the issue of whale ship strikes but each country must initiate these actions and provide its own data to present. Data collection and monitoring is expensive and time consuming and not easily obtained in many countries. And even in those countries where it is available (like the US, for example), it can take years to get regulations in place. Propeller guards have been useful in specific circumstances but would not reduce the risk of blunt trauma. To date, the only reliable mitigation available is to have ship slow to 10 kts or less when transiting areas of known whale habitat, or to avoid these areas when possible. Additionally, whales in different areas behave and respond to vessels differently. It is possible that the blue whales off Sri Lanka may require special mitigation considerations as compared to blue whales in other areas. The first step in dealing with these issues is documenting the co-occurrence of whales and ships, reviewing stranding data, and conducting thorough necropsies to determine the cause of death. We are encouraging those in the area to thoroughly examine the carcasses for human impacts, as they are not necessarily all visible externally. Our work with the whale watching operations in Sri Lanka can help us document the baseline data needed to look at habitat use as well. Thank you for your interest in this issue and continued support of our work.