A joint effort to save our whales?

By Jithendri Gomes

Sri Lanka is definitely the go-to place for tourists interested in whale watching. With sightings promised all year round, they visit our country without hesitation. There is also an entire community that depends on these sightings for their livelihood. We hope to address the question of whether these great mammals and their existence is in danger because of ship strikes that happen off our coastline.

We referred to a study published by Oceanswell and authored by Asha De Vos titled, “Reducing the probability of ship-strike risk to blue whales in Sri Lankan waters”. The paper can be found on for further reference. It presents two solutions to this problem; shifting the existing traffic separation scheme and reducing vessel speeds.

Solution number one

“The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has identified the mitigation of ship-strike risk for blue whales off southern Sri Lanka as one of high priority following a report submitted by De Vos. Redfern et al. identified areas of potential blue whale habitat in the Northern Indian Ocean using habitat models developed for the eastern Pacific, where blue whale ecology is expected to be similar.

“Priyadarshana et al. assessed blue whale ship-strike risk using two years of survey data collected from the southern coast of Sri Lanka extending from shore out to 50 km in a 150 km band. Their results suggest that moving shipping lanes 28 km (15 nm) offshore would reduce the risk of ships striking blue whales by 95% while adding approximately 10 km (5 nm) to total transit distance between Asia and Europe.

“In 2016, the IWC Scientific Committee agreed that the combined results of Redfern et al. and Priyadarshana et al. would support a proposal to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to move the shipping lanes should Sri Lanka so wish. Moreover, this shift in the route would afford greater safety to whale-watching vessels that use these waters as part of the tourism industry. Further, as Sri Lanka’s fishing fleet is largely restricted to near-shore waters, they too currently overlap with the existing shipping lanes.

“A shift in the shipping lanes would reduce the number of small fishing vessels within the shipping lanes by around 70%, increasing safety to the island’s fishing fleet. Similar routing measures have been successfully implemented in Spain, US, Canada, and Panama explicitly for large whale conservation.

“While we have largely focused on collisions with blue whales, other species are also at risk from collision with ships. In November 2012, a Bryde’s (Balaenoptera edeni) whale was found bow-pinned on a container vessel that entered Colombo Port.

“Further, De Vos recorded a new and little known Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai) in Sri Lanka that typically occurs in near-shore waters. The risks to these species are still unclear and as such, it is important to take preventative measures to protect these and other yet to be discovered species in Sri Lankan waters.”

Solution number two

The study also presents: “A second means to reduce the likelihood of ship strikes is speed restrictions. Vessels like container ships, that are greater than 65 feet in length and travelling at 14 nm per hour (knots) or faster can kill a whale should a strike occur. Research on the effectiveness of mandatory vessel speed limits for protecting North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) along the US east coast showed that there were no vessel strike-related deaths reported in or near active seasonally. Managed Areas since the rule went into effect.

Conn and Silber showed a sharp rise in mortality and serious injury with increasing vessel speed. Further, they estimated that vessel speed restrictions of 10 knots reduced total ship-strike mortality levels of whales by 80-90%.

“In March 2012, a ship-struck blue whale was found bow-pinned on a vessel that entered the port at Colombo 18. AIS data indicate that this vessel was travelling at speeds between 16-21 knots throughout the duration of its transit between Chennai and Colombo – speeds in excess of those recommended for reducing lethal ship-strike.”

What are we waiting for now?: Asha De Vos

We spoke to Asha De Vos from Oceanswell about this matter as well.

“We submitted our study to all the relevant ministries. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), World Shipping Council, and the Maritime Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) took notice of our report and approached us. We have been working on it from 2012 and The New York Times did an article and a video on us, and they were the first to approach us. We also submitted a report late last year.

Asha De Vos

We were the first to shed light on this issue in Sri Lanka, but there are many countries that are already doing something about this.

“In terms of the whale watching industry, it is something that our country is currently earning a lot from. In fact, tourists visit Sri Lanka just to go whale watching. And now, there are towns that depend wholly on this practice and an entire community depends on it. And the industry is sustaining itself also because of these people. It is the responsibility of the government to take care of these populations as well.

We earn very well out of this industry and it is good for our economy. In return, we must look after them. It must balance out with protection offered by them.”

She also stated that the existing whale watching patterns do not contribute to the mammals moving further towards the shipping line.
“It is also one of the rarest occasions when conservationists and industries see eye to eye on the same matter. There have been no conflicts and for once, there are no delays. So what are we waiting for now? The industry draws many people in, so we must do something to protect them. It is time to look after the locals as well, they too are part of our country.” reads: “Bryan Wood-Thomas, Vice President of the World Shipping Council, said the group wrote to the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in 2017, affirming that all major international shipping organisations believed Sri Lanka should work with the United Nations to move its traffic lane. “This is one of the few cases in the world where we can physically separate ships from where the whales are,” Wood-Thomas said. “Yes, it adds a little distance, fuel, and money to shipping costs, but the extra cost is really minor.”

Photo: Lalith Perera

He said it was no small feat to get the majority of the world’s shipping companies to agree to move the shipping lane in Sri Lanka. (Report is available on For a shipping lane to be moved, the country whose waters are most affected must submit a formal proposal to the International Maritime Organisation, the United Nations agency that regulates shipping.

This needs to be further investigated: Howard Martenstyn

With these facts in mind, we also spoke to Howard Martenstyn, the author of “Out of the Blue: A Guide to the Marine Mammals of Sri Lanka, Southern India and the Maldives” and an independent marine researcher. “I don’t know if this has been identified as a problem as of yet. It has not been addressed by the government yet. The sea is not static. The quantity changes, the depth changes often, which means if we are to change the shipping lines, it would have to be done monthly.

Howard Martenstyn

“Collisions between cetaceans and ships are known as ‘ship strikes’. This is a significant risk given that this category has the highest number of incidents in Sri Lanka and needs to be further investigated. The tremendous increase in vessel traffic around the island and the development of the port of Hambantota are cause for great concern because ships and great whales use the same channels to navigate and feed, especially in the south and southwest.

“Up until now, at least 17 stranding incidents may be attributed to ship strikes as being the possible cause of death (out of which 13 have been recorded between 2010 and 2012, starting from 1989). It is possible that besides ships, other smaller vessels can be involved and it is therefore more appropriate to interpret ‘ship strikes’ as any ocean-going vessel.”

He further stated that there has not been a scientific explanation for these strikes. “Whales are very shy animals. They shy away from all things and even prefer not be spotted or observed. We are yet to find out if these whales were alive when struck by ships.”
“Interestingly, 13 of the 17 possible ship strike incidents are with the three-year period 2010-12 and only one further incident was reported in the last six years. Although there were necropsies reported, there were no reports published to determine cause of death on any of these possible or probable ship strike specimens.

“As of yet, there is no confirmed evidence from any of the reports of ship strikes on living blue whales in Sri Lanka’s waters; it is not surprising that ships do not report such incidents even if they do occur. While it is not possible to know what actually happened in these strandings without actually witnessing the event or performing a necropsy, the massive injuries seen provide compelling circumstantial evidence.”

Photo: Howard Martenstyn

Much more research is needed: Dr. Hiran Jayawardena

We also spoke to the Chairman of the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC), Dr. Hiran Jayawardena. He also founded the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), a national institute vested with the responsibility of carrying out and coordinating research, development, and management activities on the subject of aquatic resources in Sri Lanka.

“The discussion around the traffic separation scheme actually started in the 1980s. With every stranding that is sighted and recorded, hypothetically, there are 15 more that go unrecorded. Whale deaths are impossible to keep track of and can only be approximated. It’s estimated at 290-300 whales currently. The attrition rate is not high enough for us to take drastic measures. This ‘threat’ is certainly not going to make the whales go into extinction and there is said to be declining casualties.

“I believe that the pressure caused by the whale watching boats is far greater than from the ships as they push the whales further into the sea while the ships do the opposite. We must begin by regulating these boats that go out to sea in large numbers.

“My fear is the threat that all this noise imposes on our economy. Especially the Hambantota and Colombo ports, as they may end up being white elephants. We are in severe debt because of them and with India building highly advanced ports, moving the shipping lines will create many economic problems. And we don’t need international parties pressuring us to sign this agreement or make any decisions at all. Much more research is needed in order for us to draw conclusions. We must also adopt different research methods and study the findings before making any decisions. And we hope to do one soon.”

His final thoughts were of a different nature. “We must learn to live with some casualties. Lots of people now die due to road accidents. Many elephants died with the establishment of certain plantations, but their numbers bounced back.”

He further presented a document titled, “National Stakeholder Consultations Maritime Activities Off The Coast Of Sri Lanka: The Case Of The Blue Whale Population Near Dondra Head”, where a group of senior officials and representatives from key government institutions, Sri Lankan and international industry bodies, NGOs, and other stakeholders met on 5 December 2018 to discuss the case of the blue whale population near Dondra Head.

Photo: Lalith Perera

At this conference, they too had identified the growing number of vessels at sea and weighed out the pros and cons of moving the line further south. They too concluded that “the option of a second TSS further south of the existing TSS be explored, and that the existing TSS be retained, that further analysis on any possible impacts on the current shipping service industries in SL should be undertaken and that additional information on whale population estimates and the impact of casualties on the population was needed”.

The need to regulate whale watching activities

We also spoke to Upul Liyanage, a scientist at NARA, about this matter. He too agreed that there isn’t sufficient information yet for us to make decisions and shared his thoughts on the matter.

“The ships do go above their habitat and therefore, it affects their behavioural patterns. As such, reducing the speed limits of these ships when passing through may be the best alternative in this scenario.

“There is also a lot of noise pollution because of these ships, especially at the speeds they travel. This too has a negative effect on the behavioural patterns of the whales. But we don’t need to resolve to move our shipping line; that must be looked at as the last resort.

“Ship strikes certainly aren’t contributing to their extinction. We are currently conducting a study to find the population size, as even that is currently unknown. With our findings as of now, we can say that it is quite large. Recordings of strandings are also quite less. And we cannot determine the cause of death of the ones recorded either because we lack the mechanisms needed to conduct post mortems, it can be anything from old age to various other reasons. But the possibility of them dying due to predators is less as the only predator is the killer whale.

“I believe it is far more important to look at their conservation, although we can’t deny this as a problem all together. We cannot present facts of how many accidents may have happened over the years as there is no proof. We can instead focus on regulating whale watching activities in Mirissa and making sure they observe the rules. It is something that can be done now. In Mirissa, the coast guard at least tries to keep watch but in certain other places, they even offer to dive in with the whales, which hinders their existence and behavioural patterns.”


With many marine researchers and biologists working on our ecosystem, it certainly gives us hope that a sustainable solution will be opted for. In the very least, these publications will create awareness and shed some light on the existing problems. They also offer solutions we can adopt.

More importantly, these publications will educate future generations and encourage them to be more aware as it is safe to say that the majority of Sri Lankans have very little knowledge on our marine environment.