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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Orcas of Sri Lanka

For this blog entry, WDC friend and colleague, Georgina Gemmell, introduces us to the orcas of Sri Lanka.

Very little is known about the orcas that are sighted off Sri Lanka’s shores each year, with only a handful of annual encounters, many questions surround this secretive population. But as more people take to the water to enjoy Sri Lanka’s rich whale-watch offerings, the opportunity to encounter and photograph these enigmatic visitors also presents an opportunity to study them; and now a pioneering citizen-science initiative aims to work with the public to begin to unravel some the mysteries surrounding this iconic whale.

Orca Project Sri Lanka (OPSL) is the first citizen-science project centred on studying orcas seen off Sri Lanka.

In addition to a sightings log, orca images submitted by the public are used as part of an on-going photo ID study, to identify and ‘track’ orca individuals.

The projects are the joint initiative of, and coordinated by, British naturalist Georgina Gemmell, head of eco-tourism for John Keells Chitral Jayatilake, and wildlife tourism champion Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.

Already, Orca Project Sri Lanka has revealed some interesting discoveries about these enigmatic visitors. The ID catalogue currently holds 9 identified individuals, and has provided the first confirmation that some orca travel all around the island, being sighted in Kalpitya (in the Northwest), Mirissa (in the South) and Trincomalee (in the Northeast). It appears that some individuals do indeed return to the island each year, with sightings being highest between January-December and March to April. The peak of the sightings tend to coincide with the Blue and Sperm whale season for the south and north, suggesting that the orcas may be in the area to predate on these species as well as the plentiful dolphins.

It is thought that the orcas seen off Sri Lanka may be a mammal-eating ecotype, with two documented accounts of predation and attempted predation towards Blue and Sperm whales.

It is hoped that with the support of the public, this exciting project will continue to grow and reveal more about this little-studied orca population, laying a foundation for further studies in the future and contributing to our overall knowledge of these iconic, complex and fascinating whales.

Orca Project Sri Lanka (pdf).