Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Whale-watching and Dolphin-watching at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Mirissa Slideshow

Trip Report

Travel Destination – Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Travel Date – 24th Feb 2016 – 25th Feb 2016

Animal sightings – Blue Whale, Sperm Whale, Spinner Dolphin

Photography Equipment

Camera – Nikon D810 / Canon Powershot SX60 HS

Lenses – Sigma 50-500mm OS

A Whale of a time on the Indian Ocean!

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I reached Matara on 23rd afternoon and checked into the hotel located within Matara fort. The evening was spent strolling on the beach and photographing the sunset.

The Whale and Dolphin watching cruises started early in the morning from Mirissa. Mirissa was a 20 minutes drive away from Matara. Therefore, I had an early dinner and retired for the night.

24th February 2016

Next day morning, we set off from Matara at 5:15 am and in the absence of any traffic, reached Mirissa within 20 minutes. My tour agents, Jetwing Eco Holidays, had booked my whale watching excursions with Mirissa Water sports, an agency well-experienced in conducting the whale watching tours. At the agency’s office, the tourists got themselves registered for the tour and were provided with packed breakfast & sea-sickness pills.

The tour boat was decent-sized with 2 tiers and could carry approx. 60 passengers. The lower deck had seats while the upper deck required passengers to sit/kneel on mats. I chose a seat on the lower deck at the front of the boat. The tour started at 7 am, about half an hour later than scheduled. It was a bright sunny day and I looked forward to an exciting morning.

Bright and Sunny - Mirissa Harbour
Whee! We're going whale-watching - Terns
The coastline (incidentally, the southern-most point of South Asia) receded into the distance as we went further into the Indian ocean. The first hour was rather uneventful, though it passed by quickly, thanks to the anticipation and expectations of the sightings that awaited us.

Southernmost point of South Asia - Dondra Head Lighthouse
At the hour mark (about 8 nautical miles off the coast), we heard the words we were longing to hear “Whales ahead!!!” The words triggered a current of excitement through the boat as everybody strained their eyes to catch a glimpse of the whales. We were puzzled as we couldn’t sight anything. Then the crew informed us that the whales were a good fifteen minutes ride away.

The crew helpfully explained how they spot whales. Whales breathe air into their lungs, through nostrils called ‘blow-holes’, located on top of their heads. The whales surface and exhale the used-up air. The act of exhaling, creates a water spout which helps whale-spotters detect their presence from far away. The shape of the water spout helps in identifying the whale species as well.

As we got closer, we could make out the water spouts in the distance. To our thrill, we could see several water spouts which indicated that there was a pod containing several whales. The crew informed us that the whales were Sperm whales.

Awe at first sight - Sperm Whale
Thar she blows! - Sperm Whales
Sperm Whales are the largest of the toothed-whales. The head of the whale contains a liquid wax called spermaceti, from which the whale derives its name. They are known to grow upto a maximum of 67 feet (20 metres) and weigh upto 65 tons. Though, on an average, male sperm whales grow upto 55 feet (17 metres) in length while females grow upto 38 feet (12 metres) in length. (Source: Wikipedia)

Finally, we got close enough to be able to see the whales as they repeatedly surfaced for air, while swimming at a leisurely pace. The crew estimated the pod size to be about 20 individuals. The younger (read smaller) whales swam in groups of 4, while the adult whales swam alone or in pairs. The presence of several smaller whale groups allowed the boats to follow different groups without overcrowding.

An awesome sight to behold - Sperm Whales

Two's a company, Three's a crowd and Four's a pod - Sperm Whales
The first emotion on seeing these giants was that of wonder and awe. These were some of the largest animals to inhabit the planet, several times bigger than elephants, the largest land animal. Yet, they swam so effortlessly and gracefully in the ocean waters. My gaze moved from head to tail and back, again and again, as my mind absorbed the immense size of these giants.

Immense size  - Sperm Whales
An effort at close-up  - Sperm Whale
Taking photographs on the boat was tricky, to put it mildly. The boat was moving forward on the waves and at the same time rocking sideways. With both hands holding my heavy camera and lens, it was a challenge just to stand upright. There was risk of falling on the deck as well as the risk of falling overboard.

In spite of the challenge, I clicked away non-stop. The best photo-opportunities arose when the whales dived underneath. As they dived, they arched their backs and their tails were lifted clear out of the water. The tails of the diving whales were my prime subjects for photography.

A dive in motion  - Sperm Whale
The tale of a dive  - Sperm Whale
A short clip of Sperm Whales and a fleeting glimpse of a Blue Whale

After taking my heart’s fill of photographs, I put the camera aside and observed these magnificent animals for a long time, as they surfaced and dived. The whales had enthralled us for slightly more than an hour. We were so fascinated and spell-bound, we did not realize how time had flown by. Soon, it was time to say goodbye to the whales and set off in search of the spinner dolphins. The Spinner Dolphins are found much closer to the coast than the whales. Therefore, we turned back towards the shore.

The spinner dolphins get their common name from their behavior of leaping out of the water and spinning in the air. There are different schools of thought on why these dolphins spin. Some believe this behavior to be a part of courtship display, some consider these spins to be acts of communication while some others believe that dolphins spin to get rid of parasites. Whatever be the reason for the spinning behavior, the spinning dolphins made for a spectacular sight.

After a half-an-hour ride, we got our first glimpse of the dolphins from a distance. The crew used the clock position to indicate the direction of the dolphins. They shouted ‘Three’o clock !!!’ and everybody looked ahead to the right. There were a few dolphins swimming on the surface. Soon the shouts came loud and fast, ‘Eleven’o clock !!!”, ‘Nine’o clock !!!’, ‘Twelve’o clock !!!’, ‘Two’o clock !!!’.

Enter the dolphins  - Spinner Dolphins
The dolphins were coming in from all directions, left, right, front and back. Everywhere we looked, there were dolphins. The dolphins numbered in the hundreds as they surfed the small waves. Watching their synchronized swimming over the waves was a stunning spectacle. The dolphins were playful and were not shy of the boats in the area. Some swam alongside the boat while others swam under the boat.

Flying in from all directions  - Spinner Dolphins
Here, There, Everywhere  - Spinner Dolphins
However, we were yet to see the spinning behavior of the dolphins. And very soon, one of the dolphins obliged, as it leapt out of the water, spun several times in the air, before falling back into the water. The acrobatic display of the dolphin sent a thrill down my spine. It was a sight to behold.

Leap, Spin, Dive, Land and Splash!  - Spinner Dolphins
Soon other members of the pod also started spinning, though not all at the same time. They repeated their spinning behavior again and again. Photographing the dolphins was not an easy experience due to several reasons, including the rocking boat, fast movement of the dolphins and not knowing from where the dolphins would surface. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable experience photographing these beautiful and athletic animals. After an amazing display lasting over 45 minutes, the dolphins finally swam away.

A short clip of Spinner Dolphins at their athletic best

Athletic, Acrobatic, Graceful, Playful and Powerful - Spinner Dolphins
As we made our way back to the shore, there was a mood of happiness and contentment in the boat. Not only did the trip meet our expectations, it far exceeded it. The mighty Whales inspired awe and amazement, while the playful Dolphins stole our hearts.

I had one more whale watching tour planned for the next day. I wondered whether I would be able to see the Blue Whale.

25th February 2016

After the registration formalities, the tour started at 7 am in the morning. It was cloudy and windy day. Because of the winds, the ocean was a lot choppier than the previous day. And sure enough, a couple of passengers became sea-sick. It was sheer misery for them as there was nothing they could do, but vomit repeatedly.

As far as the whale-watching was concerned, there were no whales in sight even after an hour’s ride. In such circumstances, the crew venture out further into the ocean, until they sight the whales.

As we went further into the ocean, the waves got higher. The boat rocked to and fro as it navigated over the choppy waters. Every now and then, we got soaked by a high wave. Some of the passengers moved to the back to avoid getting wet. I stayed put, as it was a unique experience to be soaked in such a manner. Though, I ensured that my camera and lenses were safe from the salt water, in a water-proof cover.

There were no whales in sight even after the two hour mark. On enquiring I was informed that we had travelled 16 nautical miles out into the ocean, twice the distance travelled yesterday. But within half-an-hour, we heard what we were craving to hear for the last two and a half hours, ‘Blue Whale ahead!’. The words were a huge relief to the ears.

Soon, we were riding alongside an adult Blue Whale. The first adjective that comes to mind when looking at the Blue Whale is ‘Gigantic’

Gigantic - Blue Whale
The undisputed giant of the planet - Blue Whale
Blue whales can grow upto a maximum 30 metres (98 feet) and weigh as much as 170 tonnes. These whales are bluish-grey in colour with a lighter shade underneath. Blue whales are the largest and heaviest animals on the planet. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Sperm Whales had inspired awe whereas watching the Blue Whale was a humbling experience. By it’s sheer size, the Blue Whale made me realize how tiny humans really were.

Unlike the Sperm Whales that swam on the surface for a long time, the Blue Whale dived after spending a minute or so, on the surface. Each dive lasted for approximately 17 minutes. Therefore it was a waiting game followed by a couple of minutes of hectic activity,

Photographing the Blue Whale was proving to be a herculean task. Due to the choppy waters, the boat was rocking from side to side. So much so, when I aimed at the water, I ended up photographing the sky several times! The Whale slapped the water a couple of times with it's tail. I managed to grab a few images of the Blue Whale. After 3 or 4 sightings in 45 minutes, we turned back in search of Spinner Dolphins.

The tail slap - Blue Whale
The final glimpse - Blue Whale
After an hour’s ride, we spotted a group of 15-20 dolphins as they rode the waves. But within no time, they disappeared out of sight. There were no more dolphins to be seen anywhere. That sadly signalled the end of the dolphin watching session. It was a big disappointment when compared to the previous day’s sighting. I felt sorry for the other tourists who had missed the dolphin show.

The difference in the tour experience between the two days, clearly illustrated how unpredictable nature and wildlife sightings can be. The saving grace, as far as I was concerned, was the Blue Whale sighting. It was my first ever sighting of a Blue Whale and that made it memorable.  The memories would remain with me for a very long time.

The entire Mirissa experience was a dream come true, thanks to the Blue Whale, Sperm Whale and Spinner Dolphin sightings. It was definitely worth a visit. And I had already started planning for my next visit!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sanctuary in the City: Trivandrum

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Sanctuary in the city!

I was in Trivandrum in November 2015, visiting family. I had been to Kochi the previous week, enjoying the beautiful flora and fauna at Parambikulam and Munnar. Since there weren’t too many sanctuaries around Trivandrum, birding was not on the cards during my stay there, just family time indoors.

Parambikulam Sunset

Munnar: Chinnakanal Waterfalls
The weather in Trivandrum was unpredictable, raining heavily in the early mornings and hot & sunny for the remainder of the day. The weather was another reason, I preferred to stay indoors.

The first morning in Trivandrum was a lazy one. I woke up late and had a heavy breakfast. As I was chatting with my Aunt, I heard the calls of a bird. The calls aroused my curiosity and I went to the door to check. It was an Oriental Magpie Robin (OMR). It sat on the road near the gate. Even though the Oriental Magpie Robin is a commonly sighted bird, I could not resist the temptation to photograph it, one more time. I rushed back, into the house, to get my camera.

When I returned, the OMR was no longer near the gate. I managed to sight it on a mango tree in the opposite compound. I clicked a few photographs before it flew out of sight behind some leaves. Then, from the corner of the eye, I noticed some movement, on a branch higher up on the tree. When the bird finally came into view, I was stunned, shocked, amazed… etc. all at once.

Let the birding begin: Oriental Magpie Robin
It was a male Asian Paradise Flycatcher (white morph)!!! This bird, especially the male, is very shy and elusive. I had managed to photograph this bird for the first time in Parambikulam, the previous week, after 2 years of missed opportunities. And now, to sight it in Trivandrum, from the comfort of the home, was beyond belief.

Elusive Beauty: Asian Paradise Flycatcher (male)
I gathered my wits and started photographing the beautiful bird with the long tail feathers and streamers. The bird remained in sight for several minutes until it finally disappeared.

The Asian Paradise Flycatcher sighting got me thinking that,
1. Today could be my lucky day and  
2.  If I was patient and watchful, I could actually be birding from home

I plonked myself firmly on a chair next to the first-floor window and started to keep watch. Very soon a Black Kite appeared and perched itself on a coconut tree nearby. It spent a considerable amount of time surveying the surrounding area, presumably for food.

Flight check: Black Kite

Take-off: Black Kite
Straight ahead, a few metres away, stood a Papaya tree. The tree bore a few ripe papayas and several unripe ones. The ripe papayas could potentially attract birds towards it. Therefore I kept a close watch on it. And I was duly rewarded for my close watch.

An Asian Koel (female) perched itself on the tree and started feeding itself on the papaya. The bird was partially hidden by the leaves. But the white and buff spots, on the brown bird, was distinctive and helped in the identification. After the Koel left, a White-cheeked Barbet appeared and started to have it’s fill of the ripe papaya. After the Barbet, came the turn of the Lesser Flameback Woodpecker. Soon, the Woodpecker was joined by a Rufous Treepie as they jointly worked on the papaya. After a short while, the birds left and the papaya tree was deserted.

Asian Koel (female)
Papaya flavours: White-cheeked Barbet
Lesser Flameback Woodpecker and Rufous Treepie
I turned my attention to a coconut tree nearby. On the topmost leaf were perched four Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. This was my first ever sighting of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. The Bee-eaters were very active as they hunted for food.

Bees, Butterflies and Dragonflies on the menu: Blue-tailed Bee-eaters
A unique characteristic of bee-eater behavior is that, while hunting, they return to the exact spot from where they take off. This behavior makes the task of photographing these birds, in flight, just a bit easier. One needs to focus on the spot from where they take-off and start clicking when they return back to the exact same spot.

Synchronized gazing: Blue-tailed Bee-eaters
I observed the fascinating behavior of the richly coloured birds for a very long time. The birds were very successful in their hunting and returned with butterflies, dragonflies and bees. Capturing their in-flight photographs was a thrilling challenge and kept me busy the entire afternoon.

Rich Colours and Spread wings: Blue-tailed Bee-eaters

Blue-tailed Bee-eaters
Late afternoon, I climbed onto the terrace in the hope of spotting more birds. I could do no wrong that day!! First up, came a Common Myna, followed by a Purple-rumped Sunbird and finally a Common Tailorbird. The Sunbird and Tailorbird were very active as they hopped around and photographing them was a herculean task.

Common Myna
Purple-rumped Sunbird

Common Tailorbird
Soon, I returned to the first-floor window and saw a new visitor on the papaya tree. It was a fruit bat a.k.a. flying fox (because of their resemblance to foxes). The bat hung upside down and feasted on the papaya. Unlike the birds, which took small bites out of the papaya, the bat took out big chunks of the fruit. The bat stayed for an hour and completely finished off the fruit.

Fruit Bat
Lip-smacking yummy: Fruit Bat
The light was fading fast and I called it a day. It had been an unexpected but thrilling day, without doubt. The Asian Paradise Flycatcher sighting had been the highlight of the day.

The next day morning, I woke up much earlier and took my spot by the window. The bird sightings started with the Black Kite and Lesser Flameback Woodpecker. They were much closer than the previous day. This was followed by the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and then a Red-whiskered Bulbul.

Black Kite
Lesser Flameback Woodpecker
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Blue-tailed Bee-eater
The bird sightings were not as frequent as the previous day. Therefore, in the afternoon, I climbed onto the terrace, which turned out to be a good move. All the action that day appeared to be happening in the high skies. Hovering around were black kites, occasionally chased by crows and sometimes chasing away the crows themselves. There were a couple of black kites having a go at each other.

Air wars: Black Kites
The Chase and Retreat: Black Kite vs House Crow
Higher up, I could sight a couple of raptors as they soared in the skies. The raptors were too high, as a result of which I could not identify them easily. My best guess is that, one was a Brahminy Kite and the other was a Common Buzzard.

Closer to the ground, perched on a tree-top was a Loten’s Sunbird. It was a fair distance away but the long curved beak was unmistakable. Thereafter, a Southern Coucal and a Black Drongo appeared and disappeared just as fast. Though I was able to photograph the Southern Coucal, the Black Drongo flew away before I could get a photograph.

Loten's Sunbird
Southern Coucal
In the late evening, the bird sightings increased slightly. A Black-headed Golden Oriole and a couple of Cormorants flew past. They were out of sight before I could click any photographs. A few Rock Pigeons perched themselves on a roof nearby, in order to quench their thirst. On another roof was a trio of Common Mynas as they chattered away excitedly.

Rock Pigeons
House Crow
Common Myna
The sun was setting fast and I returned to my spot by the window. The last bird sighting was a White-throated Kingfisher. Coincidentally, it was perched on the same mango tree from where the bird sightings had all started, the previous day. An apt location for the final bird sighting.

White-throated Kingfisher
The past two days had been a most thrilling experience. To sight so many birds when least expected, that too in a city, from the comfort of a home, was an unbelievable bonus. It felt like being in a sanctuary in the middle of a city!.