The war between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers inadvertently created a sanctuary off Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s Eastern seaboard. Here blue whales congregate in the tens – a tiny fraction of a species the population of which may have declined by 99% in the 100 years between the invention of the harpoon gun and IWC protection in the 1960s.
The whales seek out plankton-rich water in which to feed. This turns the water green and reduces visibility to near-zero, making it impossible to photograph an animal approaching 25m long. In order to photograph the whale I had to wait on the outskirts of the green zone, trying to predict when and where a blue whale would emerge into clearer waters. Even then, the whales were evasive, staying right on the edge of visibility.
These, the best images of a pygmy blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) from an 11-day safari, were snatched on the last possible dive of the trip.
“If ever there is something that is named incorrectly, it is the “pygmy” Blue whale. This is an old 25m female who was diving deep into the 3000m canyon to feed on krill. As those waters are very murky with plankton it is impossible to get any good images. So we hung out in the blue water hoping for the feeding whales to come through whilst carouselling back round to the canyon. After 11 days waiting I got this image. It seems impossible to convey the sheer scale and character of these incredible animals. Sri Lanka is unrivaled as one can see 25-50 Blues in any one day which is absolutely unique. This is the unintended consequence of the naval blockade that was enforced by the military conflict with the local Tamils. This resulted in the area of Trincomalee being afforded virtual marine reserve status since the 1980’s.”
I have also included some aerial shots I took from a very old beat up plane, which was expertly piloted by the inimitable Chris Cooper. We took off from the San Diego Navy airbase alongside the latest F16s but our 1950’s 2 seater plane looked more like like ‘Dusty’ from the kids animation film ‘Planes’. However, Chris chose this special plane for it’s doors and wing construction. The passenger door can be pinned back in-flight and one gets an unobstructed view to shoot images as the wing is above the door. I still needed to shoot at exceptionally high shutter speeds, whilst Chris steeply banked the plane at a 180 degree angle circling above the Blue whales. The issue though is timing. Isn’t it always? Whilst the plane was circling Chris was also trying to get the timing right for when the whale rose to the surface to take in air, so i could get clean shots near the surface but I was very demanding and also wanted the light on the right side too and this also needed polarising on my lens which constantly needed changing. This is all happening whilst we were travelling at some speed and flying with our wings perpendicular to the ocean, trying to focus on the whale, whilst doing everything possible to minimise camera shake from the wind coming at me through the door. It was just a little challenging. All of this was whilst having only a frayed distressed seat belt and my foot pinned above the door frame being the only thing keeping me from joining the whales in the drink 500 ft below. It was an incredible experience and we got to witness some fantastic feeding behavior but I think I might get a more secure seat belt next time…..
There is some conservation good news too. The resurgent numbers of Californian Blue whales are a recent success story in the Pacific. Their population has rebounded and is steadily increasing on the back of the shipping lanes having been purposely shifted a few miles away westwards from the Blues normal migration routes up the West Coast. This has reduced ship strikes, their biggest threat, significantly.
It just shows a bit of thought and a little common sense can go a long way in conservation efforts and never more so when it contributes to preserving the biggest animal that has EVER lived on this planet. These are not the pygmy versions like their Sri Lankan cousins, who are still bigger than any dinosaur that has ever lived which is just a little food for thought….