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Head in a spin – my incredible spinner dolphin encounter

Sri Lanka is home to at least 30 species of whales and dolphins, from the ocean giants (blues and sperms) to lesser-seen beaked whales and copious numbers of dolphins. WDC has been working for over a decade to support the whale watching industry there. We developed Project BLUEprint with Sri Lankan partners to equip local people with the knowledge, tools and training they needed to develop and sustain a responsible whale watching community that has the interests of the whales at its heart. A longer-term goal is to see the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, the Gulf of Mannar, designated as a marine protected area (MPA) to keep them safe.

Andrew Sutton is a WDC ambassador and professional wildlife filmmaker with a deep love of this region. In this guest blog he takes us along for a ride with him, and more than a thousand spinner dolphins

Over to Andrew …

Spinner dolphins have always been a challenge for me as a photographer. When I first saw them ‘doing their thing’ whilst we were transporting our dive gear along the southern Tanzanian coast, I vowed to capture a spinner dolphin in full flight and have relished this challenge ever since.

Spinner dolphins Sri Lanka Drew Sutton

If you are able to make a donation, it would mean the world right now.

No exaggeration

This spring, I returned to Sri Lanka in my role as WDC ambassador working with Project BLUEprint, a joint project instigated back in 2012 between WDC and in-country partners which promotes responsible, community-based whale watching. Following a two-year absence due to the pandemic, I wanted to monitor the annual gathering of sperm whales which appears to take place every March, and also run some workshops to keep local boat operators up to speed with responsible whale watching techniques.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve seen some of the largest aggregations of sperm whales here, as well as a genuinely mind-boggling number of spinner dolphins, so when people talk in terms of ‘hundreds’ or even ‘thousands’, these are by no means fantastical numbers in these waters!

But this spring threw us some unexpected curve balls: bad weather in the Bay of Bengal and large storms off southern India seemed to conspire against our schedule. There was also the sinking of the Express Pearl in June 2021, which spilled large quantities toxins and plastic nurdles (the small plastic pellets that are used to make most of our plastic products) into the coastal waters north of Colombo. Maybe these two events combined to keep the larger whales at a distance? Thankfully, neither seemed to deter the spinners, and reports of short-finned pilot whales, orcas, whale sharks and even a blue whale kept the Kalpitiya marine ‘draw’ alive.

 

A magical sperm whale encounter
A magical sperm whale encounter © Andrew Sutton

Surrounded by spinners

Each day, as we headed out to deep water to track sperm whales, we’d hear the local dolphin watch operators using their mobile phones to direct boats to the areas where the dolphins were. One such day, we found ourselves drawn toward a huge cloud of sea birds, working relentlessly on what turned out to be a school of tuna.

We had to stop and investigate.

It was a moment of total engagement, an aerial bombardment. After an hour or so of this mesmerising scene, we could see two other boats on the horizon, approaching slowly. Through my binoculars, I could see the water around their boats was glimmering and frothing in the sunlight, dotted with the plosive white splashes of leaping spinner dolphins. The pod was slowly heading our way and the spinners seemed to fill the horizon.

Throughout the week, guests at our hotel had reported seeing pods of spinners which they estimated could have numbered 2,000. I wasn’t hugely surprised by this as I’ve seen those numbers before in these waters, but on a daily basis, this did seem exceptional.

Within 20 minutes, the first leaps were already beyond us and we were swept up in the moment as the pod began to surround our boat. We were soon joined by a boat carrying conservation biologist and Project BLUEprint collaborator, Ranil Nanayakkara, and his students.

Boat operators are trained to cut their engines and respect the dolphins © Andrew Sutton/Eco2
Boat operators are trained to cut their engines and respect the dolphins © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

Captured on film

Suddenly, the water was alive with every size of spinner dolphin you could imagine, from tiny ghostly-pale newborns in maternal groups, right up to boisterous elders. So numerous that they put me in mind of the old yarns about sperm whales being so abundant that fishers could walk across their backs to reach their boats.

You simply couldn't escape the incredible sounds made by such a large group of dolphins - not just the ‘splash and splat’ as they hit the water, but their chattering was quite audible from our boat.

We switched off our engine and just drifted, which allowed us to clearly hear the clicks, whistles and calls as this massive group passed by. Some sounds penetrated the hull and were amplified, adding depth.

You can enjoy a taste of the experience in my video ...

Inspiring guides

These entertaining dolphins are found around the Sri Lankan coast, but these waters off Kalpitiya offer a totally different experience to the better-known whale watching sites off Mirissa and Trincomalee. It's more remote and these boats are run by families who have fished the Gulf for generations. They really know these waters, compared to some of the ‘Johnny-come-lately’ operators in other areas. I think it's this intimate knowledge and their genuine joy at encountering whales and dolphins which impresses their passengers and offers something unique and very special.

boat being pushed off beach
Sugat's crew launch their whale watch boat © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

We’ve got to know some of the operators, including Sugat and Joseph who have become friends. Their extended families work along this coast, so responsible whale watching practices are passed on organically through these connections.

As the morning progressed, the pod continued to ebb and flow around us as we drifted. There were long minutes when we thought they’d gone, then they’d suddenly reappear.

Spinner dolphins
Being surrounded by 2,000 dolphins was an initmate experience © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

Sometimes, I’d begin to wonder whether they’d exhausted all their leaps and then, ‘thwack-thwack-thwack’, they would begin hitting the water all around us once more.

Kalpitiya is truly one of the best places to really indulge in a few days of calm, intimate whale and dolphin watching.

Project BLUEprint is collaborating with B.E.A.R (Biodiversity Education & Research) and my company, Eco2, to provide operators with ID charts and teeshirts promoting responsible whale watching. My thanks to the Sri Lanka Tourist Promotion Bureau, Blue Whale Resort (Kandakuliya) and Thilanka Perera and Ranil Nanayakkara of B.E.A.R.

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