Archive for the ‘Whales’ Category

Sampur pilot whales stranding will remain a mystery

July 31, 2017

Published on SundayTimes on 04.06.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170604/news/sampur-pilot-whales-stranding-will-remain-a-mystery-243484.html

A pod of about 20 pilot whales stranded on Sampur beach in Trincomalee were pushed back to sea last Wednesday by some navy-men and locals.

Marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara, identified them as short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus). While this is rare in Sri Lanka, there have been occasions elsewhere when pilot whales have run aground. Mr Nanayakkara points out that in February more than 400 pilot whales washed up on a New Zealand beach.

The pod of about 20 pilot whales stranded on Sampur beach in Trincomalee

Beached whales die due to dehydration, or drowning when high tide covers the blowhole. In some cases, they die by collapsing under their own weight.
Available literature indicates that about 10 species of whales – mostly toothed whales are more prone to being stranded than others.
Why whales get beached in an apparent suicide mission remains a mystery. Many whales use echolocation to navigate, so one theory is that man-made sonar in ships etc. may be interfering with whales and/or natural brain wave activity causing them to become disoriented. Seismic activities on the ocean floor too could be contributory factor.

Most of the whales have close-knit family units, so another hypothesis is that a pod of whales can accidentally become stranded when attempting to come to the aid of a beached whale that is sending out distress calls.
A pilot whale pod can be made up of 20 to 50 individuals, but large super pods with hundreds of individuals too are frequent. They are primarily matrilineal or a female-based society with strong family bonds, so if one swims on to the beach, the others could follow. They have an acute sense of hearing according to marine researchers, making them more prone to stranding. In 1918, over 1,000 pilot whales got beached in New Zealand.

Although the pilot whale’s behaviour resembles that of larger whale species, it belongs to the oceanic dolphin family. Pilot whales are large, robust animals with a bulbous head and no discernible beak. They are black in colour. A male pilot whale can grow up to 5.5 metres (18 ft) in length, whereas adult females are about 3.7 metres (12 ft) in length.

The short-finned pilot whale primarily feeds on squid while certain species of fish and octopus too are included in their diet. They dive deep 300 metres (1000 ft) deep or more in search of prey and spend great lengths of time at depth. Pilot whales are also known as the ‘cheetas of the deep’ for their ability of high speed pursuit of prey deep in the ocean.

Super pods of sperm whales put on marine spectacle

April 6, 2017

The eight-strong orca pod get ready to charge towards the sperm whales. Pix courtessy Andrew Sutton

While observing a super pod of nearly 100 sperm whales, marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara witnessed a rare occasion when killer whales attacked the marine giants in the seas off Kalpitiya. It was an epic battle.

Sri Lanka is famous for wildlife spectacles such as this along with the largest gathering of Asian elephants, huge pods of blue whales and rare sightings of leopards.

One spectacle in the making is super pods of sperm whales (physeter microcephalus). The sperm while is the largest ‘toothed whale’ which can dive to depths of 3,200 feet in search of its favourite food – the giant squid. Female sperm whales and their calves live in pods of 15-20 members, while males tend to roam alone in cooler waters closer to polar regions. A super pod of whales is formed when such smaller pods gather for feeding, socialising or mating. March to April seems to be the time such super pods form and in 2012 the largest such gathering consisting of over 100 individuals was recorded.

Marine biologist Ranil Nanayakkara who has studied the sperm whale super pods from 2010, left Kalpitiya shores on March 23 to scan the ocean specially for sperm whales. It turned out to be their lucky day when they witnessed the sperm whale super pod about 15 nautical miles from Kalpitiya at 9.15 am after travelling for about one hour. “There were over 150 sperm whales on the ocean of around one kilometre. The super pod we saw consisted of 50 to 60 individuals,’’ Nanayakkara said.

Together with Ranil, British author Philip Hoare and photographer Andrew Sutton were on the boat and it was a show of a life time. The larger sperm whale males had joined the super pod and they witnessed love making on a massive scale. The team witnessed foreplay — rubbing against each other, tail slapping, spy hopping, rolling over. Even researchers could see the animals’ aroused genitals and as they watched, a pair swam belly to belly under the boat.

The sperm whale is also famous for making sounds. It makes the loudest sounds of any animal and also emits morse-like “codas” used to communicate long distances. The sea is full of sound as well and Nanayakkara was listening to these codas using special ear phones.

The ocean was like an opera, said Nanayakkara.

A large male sperm whale that came to rescue the weaker pod

They observed a large male deviate from the super pod and swim rapidly northward. “When a sperm whale swims fast, its large head stays out of the water – so we could clearly say it was in a great hurry. Then several other large males started following the first one. Seeing several large male sperm whales moving northward we thought it could be an aggression related to mating, so we followed them,” Nanayakkara explained.

After travelling two or three kilometres, the team found the large males with a pod of about 10 females with younger whales. The males packed their bodies tightly and it was like several logs stacked tightly. The men in the boat also saw something else. One person in the boat alerted the others to a dolphin but to their surprise it was the unmistakable dorsal fin of an orca. The sperm whales had rushed to protect the pod that came under attack by the orcas.

The black and white orca (orcinus orca), is a mid-sized toothed whale. it is the largest member of the dolphin family and became a popular after being featured in the movie ‘Free Willy’. But the orca is not an innocent animal as it is an agile predator in the ocean also known as the ‘killer whale’.

“It was a pod of about eight orcas attacking a weaker maternity pod. The large males would have heard the distress call and had rushed to protect them. The males packed their bodies side by side tightly guarding the weaker whales from the predatory orcas,” Nanayakkara said. The water around the smaller pod was cloudy with orangish whale poop – a defense mechanism used by the distressed whales to conceal themselves from the predators.

Killer whale attacks on other whales have been reported on a handful of occasions previously. Working as a team, they usually challenge the weaker female or a calf to hunt it down. According to Nanayakkara, the orcas found in our waters is transient and they are born hunters.

“We had also observed an amazing communal defense mechanism used by the sperm whales where the males encircle the weaker females and young putting their bodies in front of the attacking killer whales,” Nanayakkara said. This is a known as the “marguerite formation”, named after the shape of the flower by that name. In this formation, the heavy and powerful tail of an adult whale is pointed outward, readying to deliver lethal blows to any incoming attacker.

Ranil Nanayakkara Listening to the songs of sperm whales

The researchers also experienced a somewhat scary experience. Since the marguerite formation was not effective, the whales started using the boat as a cover to avoid the orcas. They moved to the other side of the boat when the orcas charged and a collision could have been dangerous.

This ‘battle of the titans’ dragged on for more than an hour. The sperm whales finally made the orcas give up. Nanayakkara said there were about 20 killer whales at that time and it could also be the largest orca pod seen in Sri Lankan waters.

Nanayakkara said it was one of the amazing moments he had witnessed in his whole life.

Published on SundayTimes on 02.04.2017http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170402/news/super-pods-of-sperm-whales-put-on-marine-spectacle-234975.html

Know the sperm whaleThe head of the whale contains a liquid wax called spermaceti, from which the whale derives its name. Spermaceti was used in lubricants, oil lamps, and candles. Scientists have yet to understand its function, but believe it may help the animal regulate its buoyancy. Some also believe that the spermaceti has bio-acoustical amplification properties, enabling the whale to produce the loudest sounds of any animal.Mature males average 16 metres (52 ft) in length but some may reach 20.5 metres (67 ft), with the head representing up to one-third of the animal’s length. Capable of plunging to 2,250 metres (7,382 ft), it is the second deepest diving mammal, following only the Cuvier’s beaked whale. The sperm whale’s clicking vocalisation, a form of echolocation and communication, may be as loud as 230 decibels under water. The sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal on Earth, more than five times heavier than a human’s. Sperm whales can live for more than 60 years according to sources on the Web.Ambergris, a waste product from its digestive system, is still used as a fixative in perfumes.

Mirissa whale boats to be reined in

February 22, 2017

whalegraphicMore regulations and guidelines will be imposed on whale-watching boat operators in Mirissa. Licenses will not be issued to vessels this year as part of the measures planned, wildlife officials say.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation says regulations will be updated, while the Ministry of Tourism wants to upgrade the infrastructure.

Sri Lanka is famous as a popular spot for whale watching, especially blue whales. Trincomalee, Kalpitiya and the southern sea off Mirissa are the ideal locations. The commercial whale watching industry at Mirissa started in 2008 and soon drew converted fishing boats. Some operators sail too close to the whales and put tourists at risk, while harassing the massive mammals.

To regulate the industry, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance was updated in 2012 with 14 guidelines. But now after taking the advice of whale experts’ the DWC is planning to introduce a new set of guidelines, said Channa Suraweera of the marine division.

Activists say the number of vessels needs to be controlled, considering the chaos in Yala.

Regulations require whale-watching boats to get approval from the DWC. Suraweera also said licences will not issued to whale watching boats this year for the season that lasts until October. Monitoring is done with the support of the coast guard and the navy.

Suraweera said the DWC too will increase monitoring, revealing that a ticketing system will be introduced in Mirissa.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickrema Perera said about 500 will be recruited to the Department of Wildlife and some of them could be assigned to monitoring whale-watching.

The Tourism Minister’s Secretary, Janaka Sugathadasa, said the industry should self-regulate for the sake of its own sustainability. The Tourism Ministry officials have also met whale-watching tour operators, Fisheries Harbour Corporation, DWC, local councils, and other stake holders recently.

Sri Lanka has a unique position to promote upmarket whale-watching tourism, so it is also important to upgrade the infrastructure, Sugathadasa pointed out. He said a separate jetty has been proposed and a pre-feasibility study will be soon started.

Sugathadasa also agreed the number of boats should be controlled.

Published on SundayTimes on 19.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170219/news/mirissa-whale-boats-to-be-reined-in-229587.html

The commercial whale watching industry at Mirissa started in 2008 and soon drew converted fishing boats. (File pic)

A whale of a problem; Saving sea giants or saving industry

May 19, 2016

Article published on 07.02.2016 on SudayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160207/news/a-whale-of-a-problem-saving-sea-giants-or-saving-industry-182223.html

Scientists and economists debate major step of shifting shipping route

A Blue Whale hit by a ship in Lankan waters

There was heated debate over the problem of saving whales off Sri Lanka from ship strikes as a three-day forum last week heard the faster speeds at which ships now travel pose a heightened danger to these huge endangered creatures.

A major maritime organisation, however, declared none of its members had ever experienced a ship strike on a whale
A busy shipping route runs through the ocean off southern Sri Lanka which has been identified as an area in which the giant blue whale and many other whales are found in abundance all year around.

A proposal by conservationists to shift this shipping route, known as the Dondra Head Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), 15 nautical miles (nm) southward is hotly opposed by shipping industry representatives who argue the country’s economy would suffer if this were to happen. Some conservationists too question a shifting of the shipping path.

Last week’s consultative forum organised by the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) focused directly on this issue under the title, “The Environmental Health of the Ocean: First International Expert and Stakeholder Conference on Marine Mammals with special Reference to the issue of Ship-strikes and the IMO Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head”.

The Chairman of the Scientific Sub-Committee on Ship Strikes of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Dr. Russel Leaper, said whenever a whale path overlapped a shipping route ship strikes were possible. As ships become bigger and faster, the time a whale has to dodge an approaching ship decreases so ship strikes have become an increasing threat to whales, Dr. Leaper explained.

Dr. Thilak Priyadarshana of the University of Ruhuna and a group of international researchers who published a paper last year called “Distribution patterns of blue whale (Balaenopteramusculus) and shipping off southern Sri Lanka” advocate moving the shipping lane.

Whale researcher Dr. Asha de Vos too believes the whales off Mirissa are vulnerable to ship strikes. She said the blue whale population off southern Sri Lanka is unique as the whales appear to be staying in our waters throughout the year, a fact that could be attributed to a rich feeding ground.

Dr. de Vos showed the forum photographs of the whale that carried into harbour in 2012 and the horrific underwater images taken by photographer Tony Wu showing a blue whale carcass with a gash cut by a propeller on its tail that could have come from a ship strike.

“Less than 10 per cent of ship strikes are getting reported as the dead whales could sink or be found at a bad stage of decomposition after long time drifting and the reason for the death cannot be confirmed,” she said. “In some cases, in particular involving large vessels, captains might be unaware that a collision with a cetacean has occurred,” Dr. de Vos explained.

“The whales are in these nearshore areas because these areas are productive and have food. Imagine if there was a bus driving through your kitchen, how would you feel? You would have to go there to get food despite the danger of getting hit.

“The solution to this problem is simple. Shifting the shipping lanes a few nautical miles south of its current position will not really affect the shipping industry but will have huge gains for a species that is very valuable to our economy.

In fact, shipping lanes have been shifted to stop ship-whale collisions in many other parts of the world, so Sri Lanka is not doing anything out of the box or innovative. We will just be doing what is right,” Dr. de Vos stated.

Shipping industry representatives at the forum said they feared moving the shipping route would harm associated industries.

The close proximity of the shipping route to the southern coast of Sri Lanka, in between the two major ports of Galle and Hambantota, brings the opportunity of business from ships passing near the service ports, said Captain Ranjith Weerasinghe of the Company of Master Mariners.

“But ‘out of sight’ would result in ‘out of mind’, so a shift would affect Sri Lanka economically,” he told the IOMAC forum.

“Currently about 1,000 ships per month call for services off the port of Galle as a direct result of having the Traffic Separation System in our coastal proximity.

If this route shifted 15nm it would make the westward passage from Rondo Island coming out of Malacca straight through the Bay of Bengal a direct course to the north of the Maldives, making that the obvious position for shipping services, losing Sri Lanka an opportunity,” Captain Weerasinghe pointed out.

“None of our 275 members, the vast majority of Master Mariners of Sri Lanka, whose sea experience ranges from 12-40 years of sailing, has had a ship strike on a whale ever,” Captain Weerasinghe declared.

Based on the University of Ruhuna study, the NGO, Friends of the Sea, lobbied to push the Sri Lankan government into submitting a proposal to shift the shipping route last year but the government wanted to study the proposal further.

“It is true that we need to conserve the whales, but we should also look at our national interest,” said IOMAC Secretary General Dr. Hiran Jayewardene. He called it as a campaign to prevent ships coming to the ports of Sri Lanka.

“We need hard facts to evaluate whether ship strikes are a very frequent occurrence off southern Sri Lanka that can affect the blue whale population,” he said. “Even if we move the lane further south, what is the guarantee that it will not affect other populations of whales?” Dr. Jayewardene said.

The Director of Research of the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), Howard Martenstyn, also said there was not enough evidence to determine the ship strikes is a major threat to whales off Mirissa. Commenting on the 2012 incident where a Bryde’s whale carcass was dragged into harbour on the bow of a vessel, Mr. Martenstyn said that could have been a drifting dead whale carried by the ship.

He said the photograph of a gash wound on the whale could not definitely show whether the whale died due to ship strike or whether a drifting dead whale had been struck with a propeller.

Mr. Martenstyn pointed out there was no significant increase of carcasses found on the southern coast, saying if the whales off Mirissa were regularly hit the number of dead whales found in these areas should show an increase.

Dr. Russell Leaper of the IWC said the accuracy of Sri Lankan whale ship strike records would be reviewed by a panel of international experts over the next few months before being entered into the IWC database and this would resolve some of the confusion between researchers in Sri Lanka over these records.

“Compared to other areas where shipping lanes have been moved to reduce risks to whales, Sri Lanka has a very strong case,” Dr. Leaper said. “Of all the whale and ship strike problems I have worked on in other areas this is probably the clearest case of the highest risk and also the most straightforward action that could reduce risk.

“We see that moving the passing shipping further offshore could only benefit Sri Lanka. As well as protecting whales it would greatly reduce the risks to whale watching vessels. This is an accident waiting to happen which would have serious consequences for Sri Lanka’s tourist industry.

“Shipping safety would also be improved with lower risk to coastal fishing boats, lower risk of collisions between large ships and less chance of oil spills along the coast. It also allows more space closer to shore for ships using Sri Lankan ports.”

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, who led an aggressive media campaign to brand Sri Lanka for whale-watching, said whale-watching generated much more money than whale watching bookings alone would suggest as customers used the full spectrum of accommodation and other services.

“So whale watching is now a key element for tourism in the south and any move to protect these whales is welcome by the tourism industry,” he said. “The Indian Ocean blue whale population is low due to extensive illegal whaling in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s.

Furthermore, like many long-lived animals, population recovery can be slow. Therefore every individual that is saved by reducing ship strikes will help conserve these intelligent and sentient beings and help the livelihoods of people in the south,” Mr. Wijeyeratne said.

Sri Lanka’s whalesNineteen whale species have been recorded in Sri Lankan waters by the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), and there are in total 28 species of marine mammal, including dugong, off our shores.There are two kinds of whales: those with teeth and those that are toothless but have special plates called baleen to filter food. The giant blue whale is a baleen whale. The sperm whale, the largest toothed whale, can live in super pods of more than 100 creatures, a spectacular sight.

Off Mirissa, once in a while, are sightings of orcas or so-called killer whales. This is probably the most intelligent marine mammals and, sadly, is often a feature in large aquariums, trained to perform tricks. They have won hearts in films such as Free Willy.

Whales are slow breeders so if a number of individuals are killed in a short period of time the recovery of the population is slow.

Moving whales out of the fast lane

December 13, 2015
Missed chances in preventing ships from killing mighty mammals 

Image of whale came to Colombo harbor by attached to a ship

Sri Lanka missed a November 27 deadline to submit a proposal to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that would save endangered whales off the south coast from being killed or maimed in the busy shipping lane offshore that is also a feeding ground for the giants.

Known as “ship strikes”, these accidents are a growing concern in the seas off the southern coast where one of the world’s largest shipping route cuts across rich blue whale habitat.

Some marine biologists propose shifting this shipping lane 15 nautical miles southwards as a solution but shifting a shipping route is difficult and needs much coordinated international action – and Sri Lanka is anxious not to damage its business interests.

A country wanting an international shipping lane moved had to apply to the IMO for permission by November 27 for consideration next year but lobbying by conservationists failed to move the Sri Lankan government.

The international NGO, Friends of the Sea, launched a campaign to persuade the government to submit a proposal to the IMO before this deadline but the Merchant Shipping Secretariat, the shipping administration arm of Sri Lanka, which has to make this request formally to the IMO on behalf of the government, was immovable – at least for now.

“We welcome any move to save whales but we also need to look after the economic impact of shifting the shipping routes leading to the Hambantota and Colombo ports,” the Director-General of Merchant Shipping, Ajith Seneviratne, said.

“A special committee of stakeholders such as National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) and other researchers will be set up to evaluate the need and we will move forward accordingly,” Mr. Seneviratne said.

Body of blue whale hit by a ship on Sri Lankan waters (c) Tony Wu

Body of blue whale hit by a ship on Sri Lankan waters (c) Tony Wu

Ceylon Shipping Corporation Executive Director Dr. Dan Malika Gunasekera warned of the economic implications of such a move.

The shipping lanes cross a feeding ground, said the former NARA head, Dr. Hiran Jayawardene, who was instrumental in the creation of the international Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head through the IMO in 1980 to reduce the risk of oil tanker collision and avert marine pollution on the south coast and tourist beaches.

Dr. Jayawardene said he had tried to find a way to mitigate ship strikes on whales when he had been chairman of NARA but the previous regime had blocked him, concerned that this could harm its pet project, the Hambantota Port.

The Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC) and the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), which operates under his guidance, will continue studies on ship strikes in Sri Lankan waters, Dr. Jayawardene said.

The Friends of the Sea based its push on a research paper led by Professor Thilak Priyadarshana Gamage of the University of Ruhuna that revealed the world’s highest densities of blue whales were observed in the current shipping lanes, peaking along the westbound shipping lane.

Dr. Gamage’s research, based on whale sighting reports on 35 survey days, suggest risks of ship strikes could be reduced by 95 per cent if shipping were to transit 15 nautical miles further offshore.

Blue whales usually migrate but the blue whale population off Lanka’s southern coast stay year around, so protecting that habitat is vital.

Two leading whale researchers, Asha de Vos and Anouk Illangakoon, also agree that ship strikes are the major problem for the blue whales off the south coast but they want more research to be done on correlating whale deaths to ship strikes, and on the secondary effects of moving sea lanes, before a request is put to the IMO.

Ms. Illangakoon worries that unregulated whale-watching activities harass the whales and drive them further offshore right into the shipping lane.

She says sighting and stranding data (information on whales found washed up on beaches) before and after the inception of commercial whale-watching indicate there has been a change in areas of sea where whales are found and a corresponding increase in fatal ship strikes along the southwest coastline.

Although these findings are based on limited data she recommends that human activities are quickly regulated to mitigate adverse impacts on these endangered blue whales.

Ms. Illangakoon wants more research to be carried out on whales and links to ship strikes before proposing a change in shipping routes.

“My reason for saying so is that the waters around Sri Lanka (not just in the south) are prime marine mammal habitat containing a multiplicity of species and they are not all confined to coastal waters.

Whales certainly do occur well beyond the current shipping lane and we might create another problem or exacerbate the present problem by blindly shifting shipping lanes,” she said.

Ms. de Vos, who has long been researching blue whales off Mirissa, says ship strikes are the biggest threat to these whale pods and is positive that she can come up with recommendations next year regarding a shifting of the shipping lanes.

“My work is really focused on reducing the risk of ship strikes from occurring and I am working very hard to scientifically show what alternatives we have,” she said.

“At the moment, the science I conduct uses field data and remotely-sensed data to build simulations that can give us a sense of where the whales are most at risk and how much at risk they might be.

“I am very excited that we are on our way to getting some great results that can help with important management decisions of this nature not only in Sri Lanka, but also in other parts of the world where whale strikes are a known problem,” she said.

When whales occasionally wash up dead on our beaches it is difficult to ascertain whether they died from ship strikes or of another cause.

It is not known with certainty how many whales have died after being hit by ships and disappeared into the deep.

“It is very difficult to conclusively find out the reasons for death whales. Often the carcases that washes ashore are badly decomposed.

Those that washed nearshore in good condition are cut by people in search of amber,” says Dr.Rekha Maldeniya, a research officer attached to NARA.

Professor Gamage’s paper, published earlier this year, states that there was an increase in instances of blue whales being washed up dead on Sri Lanka’s southern and western beaches: there were nine in the two years to 2012 and several of them had injuries consistent with being hit by ships.

In that period, 15 whales – of them, 11 blue whales – are thought to have died from ship strikes around the island. From January to May last year four blue whales were found dead on our beaches with the cause not known with certainty.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson revealed that the recently-concluded Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Council of Ministers that met in Indonesia in October took a decision to have a regional workshop on whales and carry out research in Sri Lanka.

The IORA Centre of Excellence, housed at the Institute of Policy Studies, is to organise the workshop, which will also discuss conservation and the whale-watching industry in the region.

The Sunday Times contacted the IMO to clarify Lanka’s chances of obtaining a shift in the shipping route in order to prevent whale strikes.

The IMO said the United States, Canada and Panama had previously submitted ship re-routeing requests in order to protect marine mammals and these had been adopted by the IMO.

Sri Lanka still has a chance to submit a maximum six-page proposal of a by December 25 but it is unlikely the country would do so, and it appears the opportunity will have to be taken next year.

With several researchers working on similar objectives, it is important that there is a co-ordinated effort to build a case to the IMO.

Protecting this population of blue whales will be beneficial for Sri Lanka, not only for the whales’ value in Nature but also for economic values as the whale-watching industry depends on the continued presence of these prized cetaceans.

Why can’t whales escape ships? 

Asha de Vos answers an oft-asked question: being good at manoeuvring in water, cannot whales get away from ships bearing down on them?“Sometimes the whales might not see the ship as an oncoming threat because the ocean is so noisy and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the ship is coming from,” Ms. de Vos said. Noise pollution can disorient the whales.

They could also be engaging in activity that is important to their survival and concentrating more on that than on moving out of the way of oncoming traffic. For example, if they are in an area with lots of good food, the drive to forage could override the need to move away from the noise. Or they could be mating.

A whale might not hear the oncoming vessel until it is too late due to the “bow null” effect. Since a ship’s engine is located at the back of the vessel, if the vessel is large, a “bow null” effect is created that means the bow blocks the noise of the engine from whales that are in front of the vessel.

Beaked whale with Sinhala name retakes its place in history

February 23, 2014
Push to honour Prof. P.E.P. Deraniyagala for his research

This week, an enigmatic whale first described studying a specimen found in Sri Lanka has been reclassified as a new marine mammal species. The whale species – member of a family known as beaked whales for their elongated beak-like snouts – bears an interesting history.On 26 January 1963 a specimen of a dying 4.5m-long, blue-grey female beaked whale was washed ashore at Ratmalana. After carefully studying its form and structure, marine scientists led by Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala (Director of National Museum 1939-1963) declared it to be a new species of beaked whale belonging to the family Ziphidae.

Dr. Deraniayagala named the whale Mesoplodon hotaula for its pointed “beak” (in Sinhala, hota means beak and ula means pointed”).The skull of the holotype- the term for a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based – was kept in the National Museum Collection.Two years later, however, the Mesoplodon hotaula was re-grouped into the related ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, Mesoplodon ginkgodens, by overseas scientists and the Mesoplodon hotaula name was dropped.

Beaked whales are deep divers that are believed to be able to dive to 1,800m (5,900 feet).A total of 22 beaked whale species have now been identified but most of them have not been studied alive in their oceanic habitats. Identification of most have been based on dead or dying whales that have been washed ashore.

As belief began to grow again that the whale found in Sri Lanka was a distinct species, a visiting research scientist at the University of NSW in Sydney, Australia, Dr. Merel Dalebout, wrote to the Director of the National Museum in Colombo inquiring about the possibility of taking a DNA sample from the whale to make comparisons with samples taken from elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

Researcher Dr. Manori Goonatilake inspecting the specimen Deraniyagala collected in 1963

Dr. Manori Goonatilake, Assistant Director National Museum, became involved in the study. With the permission of Department of Wildlife Conservation she had sent the DNA samples taken from the holotype’s mandible bone, tooth, and skull using a special hand drill without harming the external appearance of the specimen.

Artist Gamini Ratnavira’s conception of a pod of Hotaula. Courtesy ‘Mammals of Sri Lanka’ by Asoka Yapa/Gamini Ratnavira

The scientists managed to find seven specimens of this species including the Sri Lankan specimen. The haul included three whale carcasses from the United States and one each from the Republic of Kiribati, the Maldives, and Seychelles.

Finally, after a series of DNA and morphological analyses it was recognised that these seven specimens belonged to a distinct species of beaked whale. So 51 years after its discovery off Ratmalana the whale regained its first scientific classification, Mesoplodon hotaula, given by Professor Deraniyagala.“Now it turns out that Deraniyagala was right regarding the uniqueness of the whale he identified. While it is closely related to the ginkgo-toothed beaked whale, it is definitely not the same species,” Dr Dalebout says in an article on the university website.

It has been suggested that the common name of the species be “Deraniyagala’s beaked whale” to honour the late scientist for his finding. This is perhaps the only marine mammal carrying a Sinhala name in its scientific name and is a showcase of Sri Lankan researchers’ talent in the field of natural history.
The smelly whale carcasses that wash ashore once in a while grab our attention but are often soon forgotten. This new discovery highlights the Importance of studying these carcasses when they come to light, as studying them in the vast ocean is difficult

New research on jungle giant

Dr. P.E.P.Deraniyagala, director of National Meuseum from 1939-63, was a pioneer in zoology and paleobiodiversity (the study of extinct animals in prehistoric time through studying of fossils) and his research led to the finding of clues of the existenceof species such as the lion, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and gaur (giant wild cow) in Sri Lanka.

At a memorial to Dr. Deraniyagala held a few weeks ago to honour the late professor’s services to his country, scientist Kelum Manamendrarachchie revealed a plan of conducting further research on the “vil aliya”, described as a separate subspecies of the Asian elephant.According to Dr. Deraniyagala, the vil aliya (scientifically classified as Elephas maximus vilaliya) is a subspecies of the Asian elephant that inhabited the flood plains in the current Somawathie National Park Region and was bigger than elephants elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

These elephants fed on grasses and other vegetation on marshy areas and shallow water which are very nutritious, so they grew larger. The vil aliya’s foot became larger, which is believed to be an adaptation more suitable for a life in marshy areas. Plans are underway to perform DNA analysis on specimens collected by Dr Deraniyagala.

Published on SundayTimes on 23.02.2014 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140223/news/beaked-whale-with-sinhala-name-retakes-its-place-in-history-86675.html 

Knocked by a whale into a tailspin

July 31, 2013
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 
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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 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130728/plus/knocked-into-a-tailspin-54559.html

ABC - arial view of whale - me and chris

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

Over 100 sperm whales gather in Kalpitiya, onlookers puzzled

April 19, 2012

A sperm whale of Kalpitiya Dives (c) Upali Mallikarachchi

An aggregation of over 100 Sperm Whales in seas around Kalpitiya left many onlookers puzzled. This unusually large aggregation was first recorded around the Bar Reef area of Kalpitiya. Upali Mallikarachchi of Marine & Coastal Resources Conservation Foundation who witnessed the large gathering last weekend, said, these Whales were seen swimming North on Saturday.

Whales are capable of sensing sound under water, and there is also speculation that sound waves and shock waves generated by the underwater earthquake last week, could trigger this sudden aggregation. Another phenomenon is underwater drilling during oil exploration too could have an impact.  The whales eventually dispersed by breaking into few groups, said naturalists who had gone to observe this unusual gathering.

A mature Sperm Whale male can grow to 20.5 metres (67 ft) long. The block-shaped head of the Sperm Whale is one-quarter to one-third of the animal’s length which makes it easier to identify. Large aggregation of Sperm Whales has been recorded even in the past, but the timing of this gathering also puzzled the Whale Watchers.

But marine biologist and whale expert Asha de Vos says that large aggregation of whales is not that uncommon. Tropical waters are the ideal habitat for maternal groups of Sperm Whales, and sometimes, maternal groups come together, enlarging the aggregation. Asha says that, in the past, she has also seen areas where there were about 40 whales. However, many whale watching operators say they feel an unusual increase in whale sightings leaving questions for Marine Biologists.

Part of the gathering at Kalpitiya (c) Upali Mallikarachchi

A pod of Sperm Whales in Kalpitiya (c) Upali Mallikarachchi

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