I studied the charts more intently and with Charles teaching me to read them, the realisation swept over me, that what I had misinterpreted as hard evidence for a wide shallow basin was no evidence at all. In fact the location of the edge of the continental shelf was wide open. There was absolutely no data available at that time to us or anyone to know conclusively where the continental shelf lay. I instinctively knew that Charles with his deep experience was onto something. I was astonished by the idea that the continental shelf could be pinching into the Kalpitiya Peninsula as it does at Dondra.
That night, long after the others had turned in, I waited in the 'ambalama' thumbing through the charts. Occasionally I stared out to sea, immersed in thought, a shiver of excitement running through me. I knew that Charles had led me onto another big stoy.
The next day, on March 25, 2009, Charles, Dallas and I went dolphin watching from Alankuda and saw around 600 Spinner Dolphins. I returned to office as there was a business to run. But I knew I had to come back to nail the story with evidence. I needed to get the whales and get the depths.
On March 24, 2009 I had realised I needed to get the whales and the depths to confirm Charles 's insight that the continental shelf was close and that explained the presence of whales straying to the dolphin line. I was elated that on February 24, 2010 I had finally found the whales.
But I decided not call or text anyone yet with the news that there was conclusive evidence that Kalpitiya could be a whale watching hotspot. In my heart, I knew I did not have all the pieces together. The depth soundings I had taken with Dallas with a fish finder effective up to 700 feet was Mickey Mouse data. It did not prove anything. Driving back, that Wednesday, I knew that the only chance for any meaningful data lay with the National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA). What followed was a remarkable series of fortuitous meetings.
The next day, on Thursday, February 25, I attended a meeting at the World Bank convened by Sumith Pilapitiya. I looked around for people who could help me in the search for the missing data. I homed in on Dr Malik Fernando, a marine biologist and asked him if there was any data available on depths off Kalpitiya and where the continental shelf may lie. Malik told me how he had swum with Arjan Rajasuriya from NARA in the area where they had thought the continental shelf plunged into a deep abyss. Dallas had also told me on the last visit that with his experience as an angler, sailor and diver, that the continental shelf was close. But visibility in water does not go beyond a hundred feet. No one can peer down to a few hundred metres and see the edge of the shelf plunging a kilometer or two deep.
So although there were clearly others who shared the Anderson theory, I only had gut feelings to go by.
I desperately needed hard data. As if reading my mind, S.A.M. Azmy, Head of the Environmental Studies Division of NARA joined us and introduced himself. I asked him whether there were any data, any recent data at all of depth soundings off the Kalpitiya Peninsula. He explained that the search for oil had resulted in the sea floor being mapped. I asked him whether it would show the 1,000m and 2,000m isoclines. He confirmed it would and in fact said that they would have that for all around the island.
On February 26, Azmy pulled out a chart which showed in remarkable detail the depth contours off the Kalpitiya Peninsula mapped for exploration of oil. There in front of me were the depth contours which showed that the continental shelf was indeed very close and that the edge of the shelf, where it rapidly plunged to 1,000 and 2,000m was parallel to the peninsula. It was the north-south axis at E 79 35 the Sperm Whales had hunted on and for which I had taken GPS readings. I could not believe how well it all fitted together. Wow!
Technically speaking the continental shelf is defined as the 200m isocline and here that was as close as 4 nautical miles. The 1,000m depth isocline which I use as a benchmark for whale watching was 9 nautical miles away. I was probably the first person from the general public to see this chart which had been published internally in October 2009. The data simply had not been available when Charles had first convinced me to re-consider my view. The data had come out seven months later and I suspected that few in marine biological circles were aware of it.
M.A. Ariyawansa, the Head of the National Hydrographic Office (NHO) introduced me to his team and to their amusement I rushed over to a pile of maps on a table and began thumbing through feverishly. Out came an untitled map simply which showed the 200, 1,000 and 2,000m depth isoclines around Sri Lanka and the outer limits of the exclusive economic zone. It showed the continental shelf pinching in three places.
Trincomalee with a submarine canyon which has been known for some time and shown in the Admiralty charts. Dondra, again shown on the Admiralty charts but its significance for whale watching unknown until Charles had explained it to me in August 2003 and only one other place - the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Sri Lanka therefore has only three places which in terms of the location of the continental shelf are positioned ideally to be whale watching hot spots because the whale and oceanic dolphins need deep water to come close in.
I had now found the conclusive evidence which connected the dots to show that Kalpitiya was one and in fact the last of the three whale watching hot spots to be recognized as such. My role once again had been to listen to scientists and to go out and do the field work and connect the dots to make a big story to bridge science with commerce.
The NHO team were helpful, courteous and genuinely interested in their work. They gave me a print-out of the Mannar depths and a custom print-out of the chart showing the continental shelf. I came out of NARA clutching the remaining evidence why Kalpitiya can be a whale watching hot spot. The chart with the continental shelf was dated January 2010. My timing had been perfect. A few weeks earlier and the chart may not have existed.
Of the three records of Orca sightings since 2008, two have been at Kalpitiya, photographed in March 2008 by Senaka Abeyratne and on January 31, 2010 by Maithri Liyanage. It is likely that Kalpitiya could rival Mirissa for the diversity of species of marine mammals. However, Mirissa may remain the top spot for watching Blue Whales because the migratory movement postulated by Charles takes them past Dondra twice. I saw no Blue Whales on the two days I was whale watching at Kalpitiya. In contrast on Wednesday February 24, Anoma Alagiyawadu, the Jetwing Lighthouse naturalist observed what he believed to be seven different Blue Whales from Mirissa.
It is too early to conclude where Trincomalee, Mirissa and Kalpitiya will rank in terms of overall species diversity, the likelihood of seeing Blue Whales and Sperm Whales, etc. But what is very clear is that we have a scientific basis for concluding that Sri Lanka has three key sites for whale watching because of the proximity of the continental shelf, the marine mammal species diversity and logistics. The three sites could result in Sri Lanka emerging as the leading whale watching destination in the world.
The appetite to go after whales from Kalpitiya and not to dally with just the dolphins will grow. Serious whale watching will now start from Kalpitiya. A trail has been blazed.
In Kalpitiya as elsewhere, legislation or guidelines will need to come in for the safety of the whales as well as the whale watchers. But legislation must be intelligent, practical and simple, to allow the whale watching industry to grow and create livelihoods. Whale watching in Sri Lanka can easily grow to be worth several billion rupees of revenue each year. Wildlife can pay its way.
(Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays. He can be found on www.jetwingeco.com, Facebook and Flickr)