Coast Guards ensure smooth operation:
Mirissa teems with dolphins and whales
Struck by the freezing winter many people living in countries away
from the Equator now flock around destinations close to the Equator
where they can enjoy a warm environment. Not only people but even birds
migrate to such destinations, filling countries such as Sri Lanka with a
lot of tourists and migratory birds.
the Mirissa waters
personnel check passengers
|A boat close
to three whales
Unknown to many of us lots of fish and sea mammals also migrate close
to the Equator seeking the warmth of the sea water, filling the
environment with diverse species.
Therefore, the waters around Sri Lanka from the East to the South
have become an environment where we can spot sea mammals such as whales,
the giant in the sea, and also different kinds of dolphins, man's friend
in the sea, during different periods of the year.
This was known to Sri Lanka only in recent years and it kept Sri
Lanka among the famous whale watching destinations in the world marking
whale watching an industry in Mirissa in the South coast.
Many nature loving tourists who flock to the Southern part of Sri
Lanka during the season make it a point to embark on whale and dolphin
watching, as it gives them the pleasure of watching the sea mammals in
their natural environment.
As the demand from tourists for whale and dolphin watching was on the
increase, the industry which started with a few boats has now become a
thriving business for many tour operators in the South specially in
Mirissa, the most famous destination in Sri Lanka for whale watching
during the season which is from November to April.
Now Mirissa and the seas off Dondra are filled with crazy whale
watchers who wish to have a close look at the giant sea mammal who come
to surface to exhale, with a spout of water and
inhale fresh air before it dives into their natural environment, the
deep sea, and also watch the gestures of playful and human- friendly
dolphins during their excursions.
Mingling with hundreds of fishing boats, every day, dozens of boats
run by private tour operators at the Mirissa Fisheries Harbour eagerly
await to catch hundreds of foreigners coming there to board a boat to
embark on their most looked forward to voyage paying more than Rs. 5,000
to 6,000 or sometimes hiring boats at exorbitant prices to enjoy their
journey peacefully in the sea.
The foreign exchange earned through this industry is immense as a
growing number of foreigners make hotel bookings specially around
Mirissa targeting whale watching.
Tourism promoters have also identified whale watching as one of the
big tourist attractions in Sri Lanka as whales can be spotted during
more than eight months of the year around the waters of Sri Lanka
compared to other whale watching destinations in the world.
But the growth of whale watching as an unregulated industry posed a
huge threat to whale watchers as the entry of increased numbers of
mechanised boats became a factor for the whales to move away from the
According to Gehan de Silva Wijeratne, a wildlife author who helped
promote Sri Lanka as an eco-holiday destination, the narrow continental
shelf in parts of the south and east coast has allowed whales to come
close to the shore in the annual migration across the Indian Ocean.
But that opportunity of spotting these huge sea mammals close to the
coast was becoming a difficult as many operators handle it without any
concern about the behaviour of the sea mammals. Whale watching experts
also warned that due to this the tourist operators would have to go far
into the sea if the boats disturb the huge sea mammals coming close to
According to experts in the tourism industry loading an excessive
number of people into boats not sea worthy for the excursions and lack
of life guards and life saving mechanisms also pose a huge threat to the
industry and keep many nature loving tourists away.
Considering these factors, the Sri Lanka Coast Guard Department
(SLCG) has come forward to protect the industry from running into a
According to spokesman of the Sri Lanka Coast Guard Department,
Commander Rohan Joseph, with the approval of the Ministry of Defence, in
April 2012 the Department wrote to the Wildlife Department seeking their
approval to monitor the activities of whale watching vessels as they get
complaints from whale watching experts that the industry would run into
danger if there is no mechanism to monitor the activities relating to
whale watching industry.
In response to the letter sent to the Wildlife Conservation
Department, the sole authority in protecting wildlife, gazetted the
regulations on September 6, 2012 giving the Coast Guard Department
authority to monitor the activities relating to the whale watching
The Department of Wildlife Conservation is the state institution that
issues the licence for plying a vessel to observe sea mammals.
"Under the instructions of the Director General of Sri Lanka Coast
Guard, Rear Admiral Ravindra C. Wijegunaratne, the SLCG is now playing a
major role in whale and dolphin watching in the Mirissa area by
monitoring the implementation of Sea Mammals Observation, Regulation and
Control Regulations, No. 1 of 2012 made by the Minister of Agrarian
Services and Wildlife under Section 30 of the Fauna and Flora Protection
Ordinance," Commander Rohan Joseph said.
To ensure that the Regulations are adhered to by boat operators and
tourists engaged in whale watching, the Sri Lanka Coast Guard have
deployed personnel from the Rohana Coast Guard base to monitor whale and
dolphin watching activities in Mirissa area since September 2013.
"Now Coast Guard personnel are involved in making sure that boat
operators, crew and the tourists adhere to safety precautions prior to
departure and also abide by the regulations," he said.
The SLCG has deployed two dedicated Coast Guard crafts to monitor the
activities of the boat operators and the tourists and to assist boats in
distress at sea.
"Through our monitoring activities we ensure that they abide by the
conditions laid down in the Regulations. The Regulations clearly mention
conditions such as the distances to be maintained, method of approach,
and boat speed to ensure that the mammal's natural habitat and behaviour
is not disturbed," Commander Joseph said.
"Since there was no documentation about the tourists boarding whale
watching vessels, the SLCG has also initiated a mechanism to get a list
of tourists boarding the vessels before they start their excursions from
Mirissa. That will ensure that no illegal migration takes place under
cover of this industry," he said.
"As the safety of the crew is primarily a responsibility of the boat
operators, the Coast Guard has taken the initiative in educating the
boat crew on safety aspects and the basics of lifesaving," Commander
According to Regional Director, Southern Region at SLCG Rohana, Lt.
Commander A.P.K. Subasinghe, from the date they started monitoring whale
watching vessels, 18,061 tourists have gone to the sea for whale and
dolphin watching excursions from September 1 to December 31 , 2013. Out
of which 16,784 were foreigners.
On January 2, 2014, the day we visited Mirissa, 926 tourists had
arrived at the Mirissa fisheries harbour for whale watching excursions.
"That is the highest number of tourists on single day for whale
watching and 24 boats went on whale watching excursions," he said.
"We ensure that all boats have life guards and that the tourists are
provided with life jackets when they leave Mirissa. Apart from that we
also check whether they have the necessary documents with them to run
these services," Commander Subasinghe said.
At sea, the Coast Guard personnel check whether operators adhere to
the Regulations with regard to sea mammal observation.
According to the regulations once sea-mammals are observed, the speed
of the boats should be gradually reduced till the vessel is at a
distance of 400 metres.
With regard to whales, the engine of the vessel should be switched
off at a distance of 100 metres from the whales and at no stage should
the vessel be less than 100 metres from the whale. In respect of other
mammals, the vessel should not move closer than 50 metres from such
The Sunday Observer clearly saw how boat operators violate these
regulations to entertain the tourists by chasing after the whales on
their first appearance, compelling the huge mammal to dive into the sea.
"We watch the way the operators behave in the sea and we also receive
complaints from other operators if one operator violates the
regulations. We raise these complaints with the operators when we meet
them on monthly basis and warn them that their licence will be cancelled
if they continue to violate the regulations," he said.
Many boat operators who want that the industry to continue told the
Sunday Observer that they were happy to see that Coast Guard personnel
were monitoring and regulating whale and dolphin watching activities in
the Mirissa area.
Statistics show that the whale and dolphin watching industry is now
booming in Mirissa as tourists are satisfied that their safety and
protection is looked after by Coast Guard personnel.
"We have a cordial relationship with the operators and we help them
to handle this industry in a more professional by way of educating and
providing them training as we think that would be a plus point for the
industry to continue in the area without crashing," Lt. Commander