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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.

Dolphins in the Mirissa waters
Tourists buy tickets
Coast Guard 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 coast.

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 the coast.

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 danger.

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 industry.

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 Joseph said.

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 mammals.

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 Subasinghe said.

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