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Dolphin and Whale Watching in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is well known for its breath-taking sightings of whales and dolphins. Both species can be spotted at Dondra Point, Kalpitiya and Trincomalee. However, whales are best seen in the deep waters off Dondra head, which can be accessed via points on the southern coast in Galle, Hikkaduwa, and Mirissa and is thought to be the best place in the world to view the famed blue whale and sperm whale. Trincomalee comes in at a close second place for whale watching. Kalpitiya on the other hand is a haven for spotting the ever playful dolphin species that swim in our seas. We will look at some interesting facts about the whale and dolphin species which frequent our waters.

The Blue Whale (Balaenoptera Musculus)

They are the largest animal species known to man amongst present day animals and those from palaeolithic times and far outweigh the largest dinosaurs found to date. They are believed to be capable of growing up to and over 100ft., 31m in length and weigh up to and over 180 tonnes (200 short tons).

At the turn of the century blue whales were nearly hunted to extinction and a worldwide trading ban was implemented in 1966 and illegal whaling completely halted in the 1970’s. The northern populations have not seen much growth up to this point but the equatorial populations have sprung back to near pre whaling numbers. Despite these conservation efforts they are still on the endangered list which shows the damage caused by unregulated human activity.

They are baleen whales which means that they don’t have teeth but rather feed off krill which they feed on by gulping large amounts of the organisms with water and then filtering the water out through the baleen plates in their mouths.

They are usually a deep blue on their dorsal surface and a brown-orange to yellow on their under surface. They have three subspecies namely; balaenopteramusuculusmusculus, Balaenopteramusculus intermedia and Balaenopteramusculusbrevicauda also known as the pygmy blue whale.

Fin Whale (Balaenopteraphysalus)

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

It is also known as the finback whale and razorback and is second largest whale after the blue whale at 25-27 m (82-89ft) in length and 70-80 tonnes in weight. They are streamlined and have a slim body line like a racing yacht and are capable of swimming very fast in comparison to their size. There are also well documented reports of fin/blue whale hybrids.

Bryde’s Whale

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Bryde’s Whales have two or possibly three different forms. The larger variety going by Balaenaopterabrydei and the smaller variety known as B. Edeni or Eden’s whale and it was initially thought that the newly discovered Omura’s whale was also part of this species which was also incidentally spotted in Sri Lanka and caused much hype but it waslater classified as its own species. These whales are intermediate sized rorquals which can grow up to 45ft (13.7m) and above in length and can range from 13-25 tonnes. They have two rows of baleen plates and feed on shoals of small fish such as anchovy.

Sperm Whale (Physetermacrocephalus)

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Known as the largest toothed whale and the largest toothed predator in the world, the males can grow up to 20m (66ft) and weigh up to 57 tonnes and are the inspiration behind the story of the notoriousalbino sperm whale “Moby Dick”. They show significant sexual dimorphism where the males are at least three times heavier and twice as long as females. They are the second deepest diving whale species and dive to over 2km deep in search of prey; mainly the colossal squid and occasionally small sharks.

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

Also known as orca and blackfish, they are scientifically classified as dolphins though they are called whales and grow to be 6-8m in length and around 6.5 tonnes in weight and are usually entirely black with characteristic white markings which vary somewhat in shape depending on the subtype of killer whale. They are apex predators and are very intelligent having unique vocalizations, social hierarchies, learned behaviour and the second largest brain of any existing mammal. They are very playful and for these reasons are held captive in marine parks for entertainment purposes. The famous film “Free Willy” is based on one such Orca.

False Killer Whale (Pseudorcacrassidens)

It shares a lot of features in common with the killer whale including its feeding habits and its shape but it is slightly smaller ranging from 4-5 m in length and 1.2 tonnes in weight and is coloured entirely in a deep brown grey with no markings. They approach human swimmers and divers in a rather playful and open manner.

Short Finned Pilot Whale (Globicephalamacrorhynchus)

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They can easily be mistaken as long finned pilot whales but have shorter fins and fewer teeth than their counterparts. They are rather stocky with a rounded bulbous heads. They are 3.5-5.5m in length and are 1.7-3 tonnes in weight. They are usually seen in large pods and don’t mind being approached by vessels but hardly break the surface entirely and only stick out a small part of their head for breathing and observation purposes which is called "Spyhopping".

Longman’s Beaked Whale (Indopacetuspacificus)

Also known as the Tropical Bottlenose Whale and the Indo-Pacific Beaked Whale, it is extremely rare to spot this beaked whale. They are believed to range from 6.5-9m in length. Reliable measurements of weight have not been obtained yet. They live in rather large pods and despite being rare, have been caught as by catch off the shores of Sri Lanka.

Spinner Dolphins (Stenellalongirostris)

Credit/source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyFSPtJmU1I

Spinner dolphins are highly acrobatic and get their name from the spinning they do along their longitudinal axes when they leap out of the water. They are comparable in size to humans in both length and weight and have a characteristic beak or rostrum.

Bottle Nose Dolphins

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This is a common name for both the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiopsaduncus) and the Common Bottlenose Dolphin(Tursiopstruncatus) seen off Sri Lankan shores. They are larger than the spinner Dolphins and vary in length from 2-3.5m and are normally upwards of 200kg and are grey in colour with a rostrum. They have the second largest brain to body ratio of all mammals which is in second only to that of humans and is attributed to their extremely high intelligence.

The Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (Stenellaattenuata)

Striped Dolphins (Stenellacoeruleoalba)

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

It is similar in size and shape to the Pantropical Spotted Dolphin which it shares its habitat with but has distinctive thick dark and light bands of colour running longitudinally along its body.

Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus)

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This dolphin is also known as the Monk Dolphin and Grampus and does not have a significantly noticeable rostrum unlike the other dolphins mentioned above and can grow to about 4m in length and 500 kg, making it the largest amongst the species bearing the name "Dolphin".

The Sri Lankan seas truly abound with mammalian oceanic diversity and are a treasure cove for marine biologists and interested observers alike. Come and experience these magnificent beings in their natural habtat.