The blue whale weighs up to 190 tons and can grow up to 32m long. It's quite simply the biggest animal ever to live on our planet. It reaches this huge size by feeding almost exclusively on tiny crustaceans known as krill. The worldwide population of blue whales was once thought to be as high as 300,000 individuals. That number was drastically reduced as commercial whaling pushed blue whales to the brink of extinction until they were protected by the international community in 1966. Worldwide there are now estimated to be only 10,000 – 15,000 blue whales.
Sri Lanka has recently come to light as probably the best location in the world for blue whale encounters. Sightings are regular enough for whale watching tourism to have begun from the ports of Mirissa and Galle in the South-West of the island during the calm season from December to April. Scubazoo were one of the very first teams to attempt to film these leviathans in Sri Lankan waters.
During February and March 2011, Roger Munns spent several weeks in Sri Lanka filming and photographing blue whales together with Scubazoo photographer Jason Isley. The blue whales found off Sri Lanka’s coast are a subspecies of Balaenoptera musculus although there is some debate as to whether they are B. m. brevicauda or B. m. indica. Whatever their classification they were extremely shy and difficult to approach in comparison to other whales we’ve worked with such as sperm whales and humpback whales.
Surprising for such a huge animal with so few natural predators. There were other significant hurdles to approaching the whales such as the lack of suitable boats. Sri Lanka has only just emerged from the shadow of its long civil war and, although it is opening up, restrictions on items like boat engines are still in place. To move quietly through the water you need a four-stroke outboard engine. These have been banned for several years for military reasons and are still virtually impossible to obtain. For large parts of the shoot we were reduced to using noisy and slow inboard engines or underpowered 25hp two-strokes – far from ideal. Add passing supertankers into the mix and you have one tough shooting assignment!
Despite the logistical and safety difficulties perseverance paid off and after spending over 200hrs out on the ocean the team managed to get rare underwater and topside HD video footage and photos of the blue whales in Sri Lanka. Roger said "as an experience it was unlike any other I've had in our oceans. On the few occasions I got close enough to a whale it seemed to take forever to pass through my camera's frame. Over 10 times my body length and probably 1500 times my weight I felt like a mouse must feel when next to an elephant. Truly insignificant to this massive beast."
Thanks go out to Chitral Jayatilake of John Keells and Daniel Fernando for their help and support throughout the shoot.