Elephant in the Room

My Encounter with a Blue Whale

Vivek Menon is executive director and CEO, Wildlife Trust of India
Page 1 of 1

It turns to present its flank towards the boat and a fine spray mists the horizon

I MUST CONFESS that I too, in the past, have fallen prey to the Blue Whale. The last time I woke up at 4.20 am, a mind full of mutilations and blue whales, was eighteen months ago in Mirissa. What in the 80s was a small, self-contained fishing port a hundred kilometres south of Colombo in Sri Lanka, with trawlers bringing in mullet and snapper, butterfish and tuna, is today a bustling tourist trap. A line of red beach umbrellas guard the tideline from the ebb and flow of humanity that would happen later in the day. Surfers with their large hobbyhorses tucked underarm, lovers with their trophies tacked onto their arms and large families running temporarily amuck on the dirtied sands of the local beach. But it is too early for all that. As I stumble through the pre-dawn umbra towards the sea, I can actually hear the lap- lap of the tide, the shrill avian neighing of the Brahminy kite and the wind whistling in the palms. Someone has switched on a radio and a new Bollywood song greets the first-light-at- sea. A blue and white boat has been readied for us to watch whales. I have been fortunate to watch humpbacks off Cape Cod in the US, sperm whales off Kaikoura in New Zealand, and fin whales in the Arctic off Norway aboard whale-watching boats. When seasick, I have watched the leviathans from the safety of the shores; walking amidst nesting arctic terns and golden onion-domes of Solovetsky Monastery in Russia, looking for white belugas breaching, or combining a gorgeous sunset palette with a bouquet of red wine watching southern right whales in Hermanus in South Africa. Each one an unforgettable and a sensuously spiritual experience. But to see the largest of them all, in fact the largest creature to have ever lived on earth, I have had to come to the emerald isles. For it is in Sri Lanka, better than anywhere on earth, that you can see the Blue Whale up close and personal. For any teenager racked with existential angst or for that matter any adult trapped in la vie quotidienne, I would greatly recommend seeing a Blue Whale in Sri Lanka. It beats the maniacal intensity of the Russian online game any day. And it provides you a refreshing puff of life while you play it, and not the empty finality of a curatorial led self-annihilation.

The Blue Whales are not playing a game of their own. Theirs seems to be a curious game of Russian roulette with ship traffic. There are perhaps as few as 10,000 of these giants left in the world today and they move in zones where nearly 50,000 merchant ships also ply. While the whales feed normally at around 100 feet below the surface of the water, they need to come up every 10 minutes or so to breathe. They rarely breach completely like humpbacks and what you see at sea is their flat back with sometimes the U-shaped head, the tall spout of life-breath, a slight arch of the back and then the deeply divided flukes of the tail as the animal dives in search of food. For creatures of their bulk, they move swiftly when travelling. They can reach up to 50 kilometres an hour although they cruise at much lower speeds. While normally they are found solitarily or in pairs (especially mother-calf ones), they congregate where their favourite food, tiny marine microorganisms called krill, are abundantly found and then gorge on these plankton, lunge-feeding on as much as 3,500 kg in a day. Mirissa in winters is one such congregational habitat. Mirissa is also right in the way of ships that pass from Africa to the rest of Asia, and with the new port in Hambantota, the ships come calling right amidst the Blue Whales. Blue Whales mutilated and killed by ships have become a common occurrence in the region and their game of survival with ship strikes eerily seems to mirror the problems faced by the largest terrestrial being on the continent, the Asian elephant, with train hits. The fate of both behemoths once threatened by whaling and ivory poaching now seems equally fraught with the metal monsters that they share their habitat with.

My fascination with whales is not without reason, despite being a non-swimming, non-diving terrestrial ecologist with a passion for elephants. The first is logical. If the elephant, the largest being on earth, holds me in thrall, the Blue Whale whose tongue alone weighs a few hundred kilograms more than the whole Asian elephant, must hold a more gargantuan pull. What caused Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, to call the Blue Whale musculus or ‘mouse-like’ I can’t bring myself to imagine. I suppose the specific name was a reference to the muscular nature of the beast and not the rodent, but surely he was aware of the possible irony in his Latin.

THE SECOND REASON is a practical one, as cetaceans are one of the only forms of marine life that readily jump outside water and present themselves to you! For someone who does not swim, they are one of the largest and most easily visible oceanic life forms. But more critically, my tertiary reason is intensely, personally, spiritual. And for that, I must rewind a decade ago to the temperate waters of a summer in Alaska. I was residing with friends at their portside home in Juneau in their guest cottage. One morning, Joel came early to the cottage, before breakfast. “Come. Come fast, Vivek,” he exhorted, gesturing me towards the shore. “Come with me in the kayaks.” He pointed to two single-man boats that I had never before got into, let alone manoeuvred. “But I don’t kayak, Joel. In fact, I don’t swim at all!” ‘What!?” he yelled in exasperation as he felt an obvious chance slipping away. “Do you trust me?” Foolishly, but fortuitously, I murmured assent. He gave me a basic lesson in kayaking, one that lasted all of ten minutes and then pushed the vessel with me in it out into the sound. I paddled for my life as taught moments before. Forward stroke first; catch, propel and recover. Sweep stroke for turning, draw stroke to keep close to Joel’s boat. Within moments we were clear of the shore, and then I heard them. Early mornings in an Alaskan sound can be eerily silent. The slight slap-slap of the kayak paddles were for a while the only sound and then came the Fwooosh! Whooosh! of a dozen whales surrounding us. They were humpbacks, a whole pod of them lazily crawling along with a white flipper often breaking surface. I wonder what they made of the two of us, two frail beings sitting dumbstruck in absurdly fragile craft in the midst of their morning séance. And then a young one breached. Completely slipped out of the water and was suspended in the air perhaps a hundred metres or so away. I sucked my breath in involuntarily and braced for the impact of its descent back into the sea, but it seemed to slip back in as well without too much ado. The kayak with its non-swimmer aboard had survived capsizing. And five minutes later, as we paddled back ashore, I was filled with a grand wonderment. Not scientific lust nor sequential, logical, methodical thought, but a great, inexplicable cloud of wonder and spiritual ecstasy that in that moment made clear my life’s raison d’etre. The whales had given me my reason for being.

Back in Mirissa, the boat has now reached an hour out into the sea and the huddle of orange-life-jacketed visitors churning uneasily in the ocean is brought to life by the exultant shouts of the watch-out. “Ehi talmas, balanna, Look there, whales!” All eyes swivel towards his outstretched hands, and fifty, perhaps seventy metres away, a behemoth surfaces from the deep. There is no splash, no surge, just a quiet appearance. At first sight it looks dark, almost black and then flecks of blue, grey and steel stand out. This is not the giant among Blue Whale populations, for the Indian Ocean form is the smallest and known as the pygmy Blue Whale. A pygmy is only 50 feet or so and a mere 50 tonnes in weight. Perhaps the latest in the evolutionary line of Blue Whales, the pygmy evolved in frigid Antarctic waters, turning tropical in its habits over time. It is also supposed to be the only Blue Whale that sings regularly and frequently. People gasp as the whale turns to present its flank towards the boat and a fine spray mists the horizon. It is a single, vertical spout unlike the divided bushy plumes of a humpback. The line of the back totally dwarfs our boat, and for a moment we wonder whether we would be dragged nether by the swell. Dozens of coordinated camera shutters pop inside the boat, the younger ones turn their backs on the spectacle to take the now obligatory selfies, and the watch-out shouts again. The whale is beginning its dive. Water churns in crests of white foam and the tail stock springs erect, fanning out the flukes momentarily before slipping languidly into the deep.

As we turn back, I feel I can hear the low, dipping moan of a whale song. I really should not have heard anything without a hydrophone in the water and it must surely be my imagination. Three pulses, nay four! Is this the famed song of the pygmy? Or is it a wail for help that rises in a low sonic boom that spans the churning waters and reaches right into my soul?