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Mirissa Whale Watch II: now I know how Ishmael felt

Our second morning of whale-watching started as smoothly as whale-watch number one: we puttered out of the harbor around 7AM on beautiful morning, waving at the fishing boats cutting gracefully through gentle swells on their return from a pre-dawn expedition.


The crew passed around small plates of fresh fruit for breakfast, and all seemed well with the world.  One of the crew explained that yesterday, whales had been sighted relatively close to shore, but that today, the whales had returned to their more typical path further out, “grazing” in the deep ocean trenches.  There may have been some smug smiling among our family when we realized that we had seen this close-to-shore whale, while the other people on our boat anxiously scanned the horizon, wondering if today would be their lucky day.

Out into the deep waters we went; Mirissa’s cliffs dwindled to a thin line and then vanished altogether and it was just us, plowing through what the crew said were calm seas.  Calm rolling seas. Up and down we went, over swells that probably weren’t very big but weren’t very small, either.  Up and down, up and down, up and down. And then sometimes just for fun, a little side-to-side action when we’d shift direction in search of Moby Dick whales.

Plus? It was hot. Really, really hot. No breeze whatsoever and I had my eight-year-old sprawled across my lap, complaining that he felt “weird.” I popped half a dramamine in his mouth (I am nothing if not prepared), and then gave the other half to Liam, who had ignored our suggestion that perhaps he shouldn’t crouch on the deck reading (the final book in the “Mortal Instruments” series, apparently un-put-down-able) if he wanted to avoid being seasick.

“I am not seasick,” he insisted. “I just feel…weird.”

Apparently others on the boat were also feeling “weird:” I saw three or four people resting their heads on the boat railings, and a woman sitting near us got up with alarming frequency to hang her head off the side of the boat and vomit.  Lovely.

On and on we went, up and down, up and down.  The world looked like this (for full effect, wave your computer screen around as you look):


Do you see anything? Yeah. Me neither.  The waves, which only a few hours ago had seemed so picturesque now seemed diabolical.  And the slice of fresh mango I’d been served for breakfast was suddenly imitating the movements of the waves.

I tried, people, I tried. I kept my head up, looked out at the horizon, took deep breaths, but I had Caleb moaning in one ear and Liam moaning in the other, and that damn mango would not sit still.  I shoved the children off my lap and heaved myself to the little bathroom at the back of the boat just as the mango made a precipitous exit.

Post-mango, I felt much better, but my children and a handful of other passengers–judging from their pallid skin and hanging heads–were still feeling weird. We’d been on the boat now for about three hours and all we’d seen were a few dolphins, far in the distance.  It was ten o’clock, ten-thirty, eleven o’clock and nothing. Nothing, that is, but sunshine glittering up at us from the water and beating down on the deck.  Most of us huddled under the canvas shade stretched across the deck, which meant we were all squashed together, the last thing on earth (or sea) you want when you’re wrestling with mal de mer.

And mal is what that mer was, let me tell you.  I imagined all the blue whales of the world gathered in some thousand-meter canyon, laughing at our vain attempts to find them.

We’d occasionally veer more quickly in one direction or the other and everyone would perk up–maybe a whale-spout had been sighted….but then, nothing.

So we turned back. Five hours on the water and nothing.  But when we headed back for land, the breeze picked up, the boat stopped rolling, and the mood on board lightened considerably.  Even the Frenchwoman who’d spent the better part of the morning with her head hanging off the side managed a smile.

A little while later, Husband poked me. “We’re going back out,” he whispered. And sure enough: the shore line was behind us again, the boat was rolling again, the breeze had died down.


Yes. The guide explained that the fishermen had reported seeing a blue whale “in that direction,” (waving vaguely at the endless ocean) and so we were off again.  “We want you be satisfied,” he said, “so we will find the whale.”


But the only way I was getting off the damn boat was to swim, and given how far we were from land, that wasn’t an option. Plus I’m afraid of sharks.

On we went, heaving through the waves, which had picked up a bit in what was now the afternoon breeze.  The crew handed ’round a snack: one cream cracker and one gingersnap. Well, two gingersnaps.  Bon appetit, eh?

We went lurching in one direction and then another.  No whales. The whales had sensibly all gone out for lunch, which is what we should be doing. Or they were napping. Or they were half-way to freaking China.

The ocean offered us a consolation prize:


 But no goddamn whales.  We’d now been on the boat for seven hours. Several of us had vomited at least once, others more frequently.


On we went.  For a little while, a few other whale-watching boats stuck with us, but one by one, they came to their senses and went back to Mirissa, whale-less. But not us, oh no, we had the dedicated crew; we had the persistent crew.

And then–miraculously–came the call: “there she blows.” And indeed, there she blew. A whale. An actual freaking whale:


Yep. After seven and a half hours on the boat, we saw a whale. Or maybe just a big honking rock. Who knows.

Apparently this whale had her calf swimming alongside her, but I never saw it –the other passengers, frantic in their desire to see a whale, crowded to the side of the boat and blocked my view. Thus you get only this picture of a whale-rock and not some magnificent National Geographic-worthy shot of cetacean maternity.

And while yes, magnificent ocean creature and wow nature is amazing and blahbittyblah, you know what mattered most when we saw this whale (and her ostensible calf)?



Continue Reading · on April 5, 2013 in environment, Kids, Travel, Uncategorized

Mirissa Whale Watch I: Tail Up!

We just got back from a family trip (different from a vacation, remember that) in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is one of those places that I’d never really thought about before, other than knowing it used to be called Ceylon, and is the little earring that hangs off the southern tip of India.

I had been casting about for a spring break trip–we didn’t have a lot of time, we didn’t want to spend a lot of money, and we needed to please all the constituencies (see above on “family trip”)–and Sri Lanka fit the bill perfectly.  Off we went, on a flight that left two hours late, with one child exhausted from two nights performing in his four-hour long school play, and the other child with strep throat and a system full of antibiotics.  We were accompanied on this flight by a chorus of infants doing a roundelay of misery pretty much from the moment they entered the airplane until the moment they disembarked.

All woes were forgotten (mostly) when we reached Mirissa, a tiny surfing town on the southern tip of Sri Lanka:


Here’s why I chose Mirissa:


My children still haven’t recovered from the Bataan Death March through Paris museums two summers ago, so a culture-vulture trip wasn’t going to work–but I wanted more than just sitting on the beach. Thus: whales. One of the major migratory routes for blue whales, sperm whales, and all manner of other fishy mammals, goes along the Sri Lankan coast, and although the end of March is near the conclusion of the migration season, we’d probably still be able to see at least Something Big.

Whale watch day one went like clockwork.  Up at dawn, onto the boat, sunscreen applied, and out into the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Caleb regaled me with whale facts: a blue whale’s heart is the size of a small Volkswagen, a whale’s tongue can weigh almost two tons.  We spent a few minutes wondering about a two-ton tongue and then: dolphins off the port bow!

Ooh, and ahh, and aren’t the dolphins cute, but where are the whales?

As if in response, gleaming endlessly out of the water, a dark blue back, with a ridiculously tiny dorsal fin:


I looked out at this creature and realized why old seafaring maps are decorated with pictures of sea monsters; I also gained a much deeper appreciation for what it meant to be a whaling ship in the 19th century: scanning the ocean for a whale is the aquatic version of looking for a needle in a haystack, even if the needle does weigh upwards of 100 tons.

But fate and cetacean were willing, so day one of whale-watching was a big success: dolphins, flying fish, and a blue whale who dove and surfaced with regal disregard for the cluster of whale-watching boats bobbing the requisite 100 meters away.  At each dive, the guides on the boat called out “tail up! tail up! tail up!” so that we camera-laden tourists could get the money shot:


We were on the water from about 7AM to 11AM and as we put-putted back to the harbor, we applauded ourselves for having the foresight to make a second whale-watching reservation the next day.  If we saw a whale on this outing, then of course we’d see more whales the next day. Right? I mean, what could go wrong with that plan?


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Continue Reading · on April 5, 2013 in environment, expat, family, Kids, Travel

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