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A dream comes true with the blues

by Mark Brazil

My last great wildlife adventure of 2010 began in darkness to the sound of waves crashing on an idyllic beach.

My alarm woke me at 3:30 a.m. and, eager with anticipation, I rose quickly. Outside my guesthouse room, the swishing sound of a breeze in the tall coconut palm fronds overhead reminded me of rain on calm water. The night air was pleasantly cool, though another hot, humid day was on the cards. At 4:15 a.m. I stepped into the back of a friend’s tuktuk (motorized three-wheeler with a bench seat behind) and we set off westward along the coast.

Leaving Tangalle, my face bore a foolish grin; I was filled with a sense of disbelief — could I really be on the south coast of Sri Lanka?

My visit had been a long time in the planning, and many years in the imagining. Earlier in life I’d heard of Sri Lanka’s ancient “tanks” (reservoirs) culture, and had dreamed of seeing it for myself, along with the archaeology and natural history of this island country. Now the dream was coming true — but with an added dimension I couldn’t have imagined all those years earlier.

In 2008, a discovery was made in southern Sri Lanka of a migration of leviathans that is only now becoming more widely known, and I was eager to witness it. Two hours and three police road blocks later, my little tuktuk puttered its way into Mirissa, a small port town in the very south of this teardrop-shaped country just barely north of the Equator.

Soon after, I boarded a small vessel, joining a four-man Sri Lankan crew and a larger complement of, for the most part, European travelers. There were some 20 of us, representing nearly 10 different nations, all of us eager to get offshore.

Just after 7 a.m. we pulled out of the harbor on a voyage that we were told would last for up to 2 1/2 hours. I soon realized that, wildlife or not, the antics of the multiracial passengers were going to be fascinating, with stereotypes so much in evidence as to be comically entertaining.

I had located a corner of railing near the bow where I could lean back on a bar, brace myself against the boat’s rocking motion and raise my binoculars unimpeded. From there I knew I would be overly exposed to the sun, but that very exposure would mostly keep away the already territorially feuding French and Germans; it was a position that gave me great views forward, while I could also steal glimpses back toward my fellow travelers.

I am a fan of railway stations, airports and other sites of human gatherings, where “people-watching” is of never- ending interest.

On this occasion, there had been much posing and bravado among the men of various nationalities as we set off, some of whom seemed to want to show off their sea legs. This, though, did not last overly long.

Within a short while, many of their children, then their wives, and finally the men, were donating their breakfasts to the ocean as they succumbed to sea sickness. This trip was far from the most professional seagoing expedition I had joined, but what it lacked in that department it made up for in success.

We had each been given life-vests, but no safety briefing — in fact, there’d been no briefing at all. We knew we were heading offshore, but no one was told where; and while our goal was tacit, no details were revealed.

Meanwhile, I was scanning the horizon ceaselessly looking for flocks of terns. These delicate, diminutive gull-like birds are often a harbinger of excitement. True to form, a prominent gathering of terns over what must have been a surfacing school of fish soon led us to the first dolphins of the day.

Our keen and eager local spotter was on to them at the same moment as I called them out. There was, surprisingly, no general announcement, no description nor any information given, but the process of infectious osmosis soon had everyone clustering at the rails (even those who had been lying prone merely moments before) and admiring the splashing shapes nearing the bow.

On board, territories were becoming squeezed and friction was evident as freshly energized passengers were elbowing each other for better views and blocking those behind them. As the flock of terns dissipated, we moved on from the dolphins (which I had worked out must have been bottlenose) and continued on an unexplained route out to sea. No maps were shown, no explanation given: We simply headed southeast, on and on, well out of sight of land.

I had my GPS out and was checking our route and our distance from port: 17 km, 20 km, then 25 km. The steady passage of bulk carriers, tankers and container vessels told me that we were crossing a major shipping lane. We reached 35 km offshore! Out there I reckoned that to the west the nearest landfall would be the Maldives, and to the east Sumatra, while a word with our spotter confirmed that we were approaching the continental shelf, where the depth would plummet to 2,000 to 3,000 meters beneath our keel.

Blow! At last our sun-scorching journey was rewarded — big time!

As we approached, a cloud of rising mist of exhaled air was released once more, tall and columnar. It was clearly the exhalation of one of the great rorqual whales, among the largest creatures to have ever lived on Earth.

It slipped away, leaving an oval slick of calm water on the surface — a whale “footprint.” Repeated blows, then brief sightings of a very long, sleek, blue-gray back with a tiny nub of a dorsal fin almost at the base of the tail, the thick tail stock itself and finally the dark, uniquely shaped flukes clinched the identification — a blue whale!

Excessive hunting in the first three decades of the 20th century almost exterminated this species, virtually annihilating its estimated population of about 350,000 individuals by up to a staggering 99 percent. We will never know the numbers exactly, but thanks only to a ban on hunting blues in 1966, they didn’t die out completely. Their recovery is ongoing, but at such a slow pace that they remain one of the rarest creatures on Earth.

Blue whales are a mammal-watcher’s equivalent of a Holy Grail, or, should you recall my piece of Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010 (jtimes.jp/tiger) , a metaphorical “tiger.”

Each new year begins filled with dreams, and among mine for 2010 was a deep desire to see a blue whale. It was fulfilled as an early Christmas present on Dec. 22 — cutting it fine for a New Year’s dream, but wonderful and overwhelming nonetheless.

As our first animal slipped away, we saw another blow and followed that. It eluded us, but we lucked into a third and eventually had stunning views from as close as about 50 meters away as it recharged its oxygen “batteries” and made a shallow dive, its flukes just breaking the water.

For an animal that averages nearly 25 meters in length and weighs 100-150 tons, this was a dramatic range. Then at 11:15 a.m. (long after I’d anticipated being back in port), I sighted a distant double blow off our port bow; almost as soon as we sighted their backs, we spotted two more off to starboard — bringing our total to an astounding seven blue whales.

Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined we might see more than one; then, on our way back to port, as if to cast a dusting of sugar-icing over our cake of whale sightings, I caught a glimpse of an immense shape half rising, half emerging and corkscrewing from the water before splashing back in a great gout of spray. My natural-history dream for 2010 was realized in the biggest possible way (and I still have the sunburn to prove it).

May this Year of the Rabbit fulfil your dreams and bring you an appreciation of the very many signs of the natural world around you.

Mark Brazil, naturalist and author, has written Wild Watch for 29 years. Between global travels, he organizes and leads wildlife excursions around Japan. His latest book, “Field Guide to the Birds of East Asia” (A & C Black), describes, illustrates and maps all of the birds of Japan (as well as Taiwan and Korea and adjacent regions of eastern China and northeastern Russia). His earlier “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Japan” is also available. To easily obtain copies, please contact him at markbrazil@world.email.ne.jp or via wildwatchjapan.com.