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Tuesday February 27th, 2024

Why Sri Lanka is a haven for blue whales

The biggest creature ever to live abounds on Sri Lanka’s porches. The elusive blue whale, twice the weight of the hugest known dinosaur, seems to like Serendib just as much as you and I do. The boon for science is comparably enormous, not to mention tourism.

It’s hard to resist listing some superlatives. Thirty meters long. Up to 200 tons in weight. Her heart the size of a Suzuki four-door, her arteries wide enough for children to crawl through. Her vocalizations are louder than a screaming jet engine. She can gulp down 9000 pounds a day and her surfacing spout could sprinkle the roof of a four-story building if it happened to be alongside.

Despite this glaring ginormousness, blues are rare to see. A scant few thousand remain on the planet and they range in deep seas, far from human traffic. We know precious little about them, their fascination notwithstanding. Sri Lanka may be poised to change all that, however. This past decade has established Lanka as one of the world’s premier locales for seeing blues and for studying them. Marine biology and the economy both stand to gain.

Working different sides of the street, two  Sri Lanka-rooted afficianados have spearheaded ‘discovery’ of our offshore blues in the past decade. U.K. amateur naturalist Gehan de Silva Wijeyaratne has done yeoman’s labor documenting, explaining and publicizing main concentrations of blues. Describing himself as a ‘connector’ linking science with commercial opportunity, he has helped brand Sri Lanka as a blue whale ecotourism destination. With her Sri Lanka Blue Whale Project, marine scientist Asha de Vos has pioneered sophisticated methods of mapping and predicting whale concentrations, beyond reliance on sheer observation. She is also implementing a photo census of local blues and working to ameliorate whale strikes by megaships that kill and maim.

While applauding tourist opportunities to view blues, de Vos and de Silva Wijeyaratne both fear disruption and damage to whales from excessive and aggressive tour boat practices. De Silva Wijeyaratne comments on the need for regulation and training for whale-watching outfitters: “In 2008, I launched the international branding of Sri Lanka as ‘Best for Blue Whale’,” he comments. “But I am anxious that Sri Lankan whale-watching conform to ‘best practices’: boats should not chase or disrupt feeding and socializing whales.” He stresses that sound practices benefit tourists as well as whales: “Keeping a distance may prolong encounter times, draw curious whales toward boats, and leave them comfortable enough for interesting social behavior. Regulation and continuous training in responsible whale watching is very important for the welfare of whales and viewers alike.”

Rumors of blues in Lankan waters have long circulated among fishing folk and local naturalists. It took sustained inquiry, however, to separate facts from fancy for a picture of the true phenomenon out there. Sperm whales, for example, are big enough to be misidentified as blues by untrained observers. It is now unmistakably clear, however, that Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see blue whales.

Why is this little island such a great place to view blues? Beneath shallow waters outward from Sri Lankan shores lies continental shelf: a gently sloping sea floor stretching to an edge where the bottom drops steeply into the deep. Blues here and elsewhere seldom spend much time on continental shelf, perhaps because their main food is scant there, perhaps also because it is too cramped there for maneuvering away from their main predator: orcas or killer whales. Blues do, however, enjoy cruising deeper waters at shelf edges. They may find lots to eat there and they may use the shelf edges in navigating. When a shelf is dozens or hundreds of miles wide, blues cannot easily be seen or studied even if they’re out there on the edge. Whale-watching excursions would require overnighting on boats. Sri Lanka, however, sits in the southernmost wedge of the Indian (sub)continental shelf, which just happens to ‘pinch in’  close to shore at three points, Mirissa and Trincomalee among them. This brings blue cruising lanes within range for whale-watching day trips and sometimes within sight of observers on shore, a true rarity in the world. At Trincomalee, moreover, a deep sea canyon cuts across the shelf right into the harbor, bringing blues even closer. (The third ‘pinch’ point, Kalpitya, has not so far turned out great for spotting blues, but does seem to be a hot venue for sperm whales).

Blues feed almost exclusively on krill, thumbnail-size crustaceans which swarm in huge orange clouds anywhere from the surface to a couple of hundred meters down. Blues swallow krill by the gazillion in massive mouthfuls. Feasting on such tiny creatures may, paradoxically, be part of the reason blues grow so huge, but that must be a story for another day. Krill feed on microscopic plants (phytoplankton) or on microscopic animals (zooplankton) which graze in turn on phytoplankton. The richest krill blooms arise in chilly northern and southern waters where phytoplankton and zooplankton thrive best because cold seas hold more nutrients—needed for phytoplankton photosynthesis–than tropical seas: another counterintuitive fact to explain some other day.

Sri Lanka sits in tropical seas of course, so if blues are finding krill here, something quite unusual might be happening. One explanation could be a tropically-rare abundance of nutrients in Lankan waters, due to its steep topography and monsoon rainfall. Some one hundred rivers and streams flush from Sri Lanka’s land surface into its surrounding ocean. Nutrients gush downward and outward, as if a mashed potato scoop were shedding organic gravy into a tasty offshore mush. Teensy plants synthesize the fertile slurry with sunlight so that krill can eat their fill and blues dine in style. Well, maybe: we really don’t know yet how much krill is out there.

De Vos thinks a substantial portion of Lankan blues may be residential year-round, not migratory like other blues, and therefore quite special. If she’s right, a nutrient soup supporting substantial krill blooms might be the reason. De Silva Wijeyeratne thinks that nutrient flow has something to do with blue abundance here, but gives more play to the theory that Lankan blues are mainly migratory like those elsewhere. The two theories need not contradict: it could be that some Lankan blues are migratory, some are residential, and some switch from one to the other depending on circumstance. Migratory Lankan blues would be special in their own way. Atlantic and Pacific blues migrate north and south. Northern blues catch the cold water krill blooms at high latitudes in springtime, then turn for warm equatorial waters where they breed and give birth. Southern blues do exactly the same but in the opposite direction on an opposite seasonal calendar whereby it is autumn (austral spring) when the warming sun brings krill blooms around Antarctica.

Anyway, as de Silva Wijeyeratne theorizes, migratory Lankan blues, if that is indeed what they are, would be special in a different way because they oscillate east and west, not north and south. They shun cold water. They pass Dondra Head going east into the Bay of Bengal in December/January and west into the Arabian Sea in March/April. Why, you ask? What is the biggest ‘seasonal’ event in the Indian Ocean region? Come on, you know this one. Yes, that’s right, of course. But what does that have to do with blue whale migration? Unfortunately, that too—you guessed it—is a story for another day.

(From the archives of Echelon Magazine)



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  1. sacre blieu says:

    An absolutely well composed article, and we await for more so. However, when one considers the highly polluted soup gushing from our rivers mostly during monsoons, it is surprising that these whales still habitat our waters , what with the haphazard whale watching crafts zig zaging in anyway they desire, like the wild life parks ashore. These two mentioned personalities are to be much admired for their work with dedication.

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  1. sacre blieu says:

    An absolutely well composed article, and we await for more so. However, when one considers the highly polluted soup gushing from our rivers mostly during monsoons, it is surprising that these whales still habitat our waters , what with the haphazard whale watching crafts zig zaging in anyway they desire, like the wild life parks ashore. These two mentioned personalities are to be much admired for their work with dedication.

Sri Lanka parliamentary committee says electricity tariffs should be reduced by 20 pct

ECONOMYNEXT — A parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Alleviating the Impact of the Economic Crisis has recommended to the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) that electricity tariffs be reduced by at least 20 percent.

A statement from parliament said on Monday February 26 that, following an analytical review of the figures presented by the Electricity Board, Public Utilities Commission, etc. and taking into consideration all other factors affecting the price of electricity, including considering the opinion given by experts that the existing electricity price can be reduced by about 33%, price of electricity should be reduced by at least 20% in the year 2024 so that the state-run Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) will not suffer any loss.

PUCSL officials have informed the Committee that by the end of this month, they can submit the necessary recommendations to reduce the electricity bill, according to the statement.

The matter was taken up for discussion when the committee, chaired by MP Gamini Waleboda, met in the Parliament on February 22.

Officials from the Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Finance, Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Public Utilities Commission, Industry Development Board, Enterprise Development Authority, Department of Population and Statistics, Department of Inland Revenue and from government institutions including the Micro, Small and Medium Scale Industries Board and a group of industrialists had also been called for the meeting.

“The Committee gave several directives to the relevant institutions and officials to identify the micro, small and medium scale industries that are directly affected by the economic crisis and to activate the local economy and increase the foreign exchange earnings by reviving the industry sector.

“The Committee pointed out that due to the increase in electricity bills, the number of electricity connection cuts reported across the island has exceeded one million. It was also emphasised that in order to alleviate the pressure on the industry and the society, it should be arranged to provide electricity connections again by charging only 50 percent of the outstanding charges at the initial stage with the concessional basis of payment of outstanding electricity charges on installment basis,” the statement said.

The committee was also of the view to allow the customer to pay the connection fee in installments so as to avoid discouraging new entrepreneurs to start micro, small and financial industries due to high charges for getting fixed electricity connection and instructed to review the new connection fee and work to reduce it as much as possible.

The committee chair has instructed the PUCSL to conduct an audit on the electricity consumption in the public sector as an approach to ensure energy security.

“The Committee recommended to the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank to start a loan scheme at subsidised interest for the purchase of solar panel systems with a view to promoting solar energy as a source of energy supply to industries. The Ministry of Finance expressed its agreement to provide refinancing facilities subject to a maximum as per the proposal made by the Committee to implement a loan scheme targeting micro, small and medium scale industrialists under subsidized interest rates.

The committee has also recommended that raw materials that must be imported from abroad and impose tax concessions on such raw materials be identified to ensure the supply of raw materials required for the smooth running of micro, small and medium scale industries. Copper, lead, aluminum and other industrial scraps used as raw materials in various domestic industries currently being sold by the CEB to external buyers and other entities should also be issued to micro, small and medium scale industrialists recommended by the Ministry of Industry and the Industrial Development Board, the committee has recommended.

The definition used by the Department of Population and Statistics for micro, small and medium industries and the definition used by other institutions such as the Industrial Development Board and the Central Bank for those industries are different from each other, which is an obstacle in making policy decisions, the committee had noted, directing the Department of Population and Statistics to support to the policymakers by releasing statistical data based on a common definition.

“The committee also recommended that the Credit Information Bureau should take prompt action to remove their credit information from the blacklists so as to facilitate access to credit facilities for micro, small and medium scale industries facing financial crisis to activate their balance sheets and to review all existing laws and procedures for registration of micro, small and medium scale industries as well as to obtain licenses and introduce a simple system.

“The committee informed all the parties to establish a steering Committee headed by the Ministry of Industry to implement the recommendations given by the Committee and to report its progress within a week,” the statement said. (Colombo/Feb27/2024)

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Sri Lanka sets up fund to help children of Gaza

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is mandated to provide education, health, relief and social services, and emergency assistance to refugees. (Pic courtesy UNWRA)

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s cabinet of ministers have approved a proposal by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to set up a fund to help children caught in the war in Gaza, a statement said.

The government will contribute a million US dollars and use funds allocated by state agencies for Ifthar celebrations.

Public contributions are also called.

The Presidential Secretariat is requesting public donations citizens for the “Children of Gaza Fund” to be contributed to account number 7040016 at Bank of Ceylon (7010), Taprobane Branch (747) by 11th April.

Deposit receipts should to be forwarded to 0779730396 via WhatsApp. (Colombo/Feb27/2024)

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Top US official calls for inclusive reforms, deeper defence ties with Sri Lanka

ECONOMYNEXT — United States Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma in discussions with Sri Lanka officials had called for inclusive reforms and stronger human rights and also discussed deeper defence and maritime cooperation.

The United States remains committed to the economic growth and prosperity of Sri Lanka, statement from the US Embassy in Colombo quoted the official as telling government, civil society and economic leaders during his February 23-24 visit to Sri Lanka.

“Verma met with President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry to discuss progress on Sri Lanka’s IMF program, including inclusive economic and governance reforms aimed at keeping Sri Lanka on the path to sustainable economic growth.  Deputy Secretary Verma stressed the vital need to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. They also explored opportunities to deepen defence and maritime cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka, including strengthening the Sri Lanka Navy’s capabilities to safeguard national security and promote a more stable Indo-Pacific region,” the statement said.

 On February 23, aboard the SLNS Vijayabahu, one of three former U.S. Coast Guard cutters transferred by the United States to Sri Lanka, Deputy Secretary Verma said: “I am pleased to announce that the Department of State has notified Congress of our intent to transfer a fourth medium endurance cutter to Sri Lanka.  The Department obligated $9 million in Foreign Military Financing to support this effort.  We look forward to offering the cutter, pending the completion of Congress’ notification period.  If completed, this transfer would further strengthen defense cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka.  The ship would increase Sri Lanka’s ability to patrol its Exclusive Economic Zone, monitor its search and rescue area, and provide additional security for ships from all nations that transit the busy sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.” 

 Participating in the announcement at Colombo Port were Sri Lanka State Minister of Defense Premitha Bandara Tennakoon, Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy Vice Admiral Priyantha Perera, and U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung, who remarked, according to the statement: “The United States has previously transferred three cutters to the Sri Lankan Navy, which deploys these ships for maritime operations and law enforcement missions, countering human trafficking and drug trafficking, while supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster response efforts. The eventual transfer of a fourth vessel would be just one more point in a long history of cooperation between Sri Lanka and the United States in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” 

Verma also visited the site of the West Container Terminal (WCT), a deepwater shipping container terminal in the Port of Colombo. The WCT, currently being constructed by Colombo West International Terminal (CWIT) Private Limited with 553 million US dollars in financing from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, will provide critical infrastructure for the South Asian region, the embassy said.

“Operating near capacity since 2021, the Port of Colombo’s new addition will be the port’s deepest terminal and aims to boost Colombo’s shipping capacity, expanding its role as a premiere logistics hub connecting major routes and markets, boosting prosperity for Sri Lanka without adding to its sovereign debt,” it said. (Colombo/Feb27/2024)

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