Knocked by a whale into a tailspin

How often does one get hit by a giant whale and live to tell the tale? Sri Lankan born Dr. Bishan Rajapakse recounts his horrifying ordeal at Bondi Beach in Australia 

It was a normal day on Sydney’s picturesque Bondi Beach. Bishan Rajapakse, a Sri Lankan born medical doctor was with his friends enjoying the waves and the sun on his surfboard. At about 9.30 the surfers were suddenly surprised at the sight of a dark patch that approached them. “It’s a whale” somebody shouted.

Bishan Rajapakse at St Vincents’ Hospital in Sydeny

The giant whale was only few yards away and Bishan turned to have another look while trying to catch a wave. ‘Bang’ was all he remembers, but a video someone shot from the beach shows Bishan’s surf board going up in the air like a toy having been hit by the whale’s large tail.

Bishan lost consciousness but thankfully for him his friends were close and the lifeguards quickly came to his rescue. Bishan was rushed to the hospital and received treatment for shoulder injuries. The incident, which happened early this month, soon became hot news, being picked up by the international media. A video of the moment the whale hit Bishan went viral on social media.

The Sunday Times caught up with Bishan via Skype shortly after he left hospital. Bishan says that he saw the whale approach and the next thing he knew he was waking up on the beach. “I just remember this magnificent whale slowly coming to the right of me and coming for another look. I just kind of felt like talking to it like a dog or an animal, and saying ‘hey’, and that was it.”

The whale was a Southern Right Whale, a common sight from the Sydney coast at this time of year; but they rarely come this close to the beach. “I’ve seen whales in this area, but this is the biggest I’ve ever seen. It looked so massive at close range,” said Bishan, likening its size to that of a mini bus.

Spotted: Surfers get close to the huge Southern Right whale, a common sight from the Sydney coast at this time of year; but the whales rarely come this close to the beach (Reuters)

Several people who witnessed the whole episode from the beach were amazed that Bishan survived with only minor injuries. Bishan however stresses that the whale was not aggressive. “The whale was floating and would never have meant to harm me. It was purely an accident,” said Bishan who adds that they were too close to the whale. He also points out that this is a good lesson for others, for attempting to get closer to these gentle giants is not safe as their movements can be unpredictable.

A 38-old- medical doctor by profession now based in New Zealand, Bishan was born in Wellawatte, Colombo. His father, also a medical doctor went abroad for studies and then on foreign assignments. He was just six months old when they left, but Bishan has nurtured a strong love for the country, coming back in 2006 to do post-tsunami work. He was in Sri Lanka until 2010 doing research on improving mortality and morbidity from pesticide self-poisoning in many areas in Sri Lanka.

Having travelled extensively in Sri Lanka, Bishan is fascinated with the country’s wildlife.

A good lesson for Sri Lankan ‘whale watchers’

Bishan’s ordeal is a good lesson for Sri Lanka too where reports of whale watching boats getting too close to the whales have been rife. Whales are gentle giants and usually not violent, but if they make a sudden turn or dive, an accidental touch could easily topple a boat. Regular whale watchers have complained that although some boats now provide life jackets, they are not in good condition. Such an unfortunate accident may endanger Sri Lanka’s reputation as a top whale destination.

Last year Whale Watching regulations that laid down the minimum distances to get closer to a whale as 100 metres and that stipulated that a boat should not ply in front of or behind the mammals, or block the route of the whale were passed by Parliament. But how they will be implemented remains to be seen.

Published on SundayTimes on 28.07.2013

ABC - arial view of whale - me and chris

An arial image taken few minutes before the accident (c) ABC/Flickr

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