EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this review carried incorrect contact information. We apologize for the inconvenience caused.
Note: photos are from a previous trip.
Although almost everyone I know has been whale/dolphin watching over the past couple of years, I myself embarked on the journey only a few days ago. Being a weekday, the popular mode of transport to go whale watching in Mirissa, the Navy Boat*, wasn’t in operation, leaving us to choose one of the smaller trawler boats.
[* EDITOR'S NOTE (INDI): I've been on the Navy Boat that leaves from Galle and my recommendation is to avoid it. It's a big cruise type liner and everybody sits inside. People start puking and, being an enclosed space, it gets unpleasant fast. It also starts in Galle and thus takes forever to even get to Mirissa. I'd recommend getting a smaller boat from Mirissa itself.]
We booked our tour through ‘Whale Watching Mirissa’ and a call was enough to make a booking. On the day prior they message you and confirm meeting time and place. You need to be at the Mirissa Harbour (Mirissa is about an hour away from Galle) by 6:30 AM, after taking an Avomine tablet to combat potential sea sickness.
We were the only locals on the boat (and predictably, the last to get there) which seated around 30 people, and a few more on the upper deck. There were sturdy wooden benches fixed onto the bottom, and a life jacket for each available.
I had imagined the bigger boat option to be a boring one and the smaller boats to be the best option for one simple reason: smaller boats could get closer. Ten minutes into the journey, and holding on to the bench in front of me for dear life, I was slowly doubting my assumptions. Forget the whales, the ride is an experience in itself. The waves were slightly rough, and every single one of them was felt as we bobbed up and down. Being nearer the water also means that the vastness of the ocean is felt quite profoundly. It’s something of a life changing experience really, to feel at the mercy of an element that we usually just gape at from a balcony somewhere. The journey to the deep sea – 900m – took over an hour.
There was a Chinese girl in front of me, puking through the entirety of the tour (“eya peththa aran nathuwa athi, peththa gattha nang ohoma venne naa”, was how our guide put it), and I was trying hard not to feel ill, as paranoid thoughts of having to stay afloat in the manner of ‘Life of Pi’ flooded my head.
The rest of the passengers seemed totally calm and chilled though, so I’m guessing this is not the common experience.
The operators of the boat/guides didn’t speak much English, which I’m thinking might be boring for the tourists as they don’t get any additional info. It’s also a lost opportunity in terms of marketing the experience- perhaps the tourist board can print up leaflets, or have an Info Stand at the harbor for those interested. We were all given a nice pack of food and a bottle of water, but having no place to keep them, most of these were discarded. Eating wasn’t on anyone’s priority list anyway given the choppy ride.
Nearly two hours into it, and suddenly the boat starts speeding up. You notice other boats come into view as everyone veers towards one direction (they communicate the minute they spot a whale) and the whole spirit changes. A whale’s presence is denoted by the famous water spout and for about half an hour this was all we saw. Even the guides themselves can’t really guess where they’ll reappear, so you need to keep your eyes peeled, and then look when they shout “There, whale!” and point. However, perseverance paid off, and soon we were able to see the huge tail of the blue whale give a swish and disappear. We were lucky enough to see it happen twice. And that’s it. But in that moment, it felt surreal.
Further in, (or around, by this time I had lost all bearings) we came upon a group of dolphins. It’s such a different experience to the whale sighting, as dolphins are sweet and playful. There were around 30 of them. And after that, a bonus sighting of a shark! The smaller boat advantage became really obvious (once the seas got calmer, of course) as the creatures were all mere feet away from us, and we were able to follow them for longer. Unfortunately, clutching a camera is a challenge due to the slippery deck and bobbing boat, and also you don’t want the one time you see a whale to be through a lens, so I apologise for the lack of pictures.
All in all, it takes about 5 hours. Be sure to take large hats and wear sunscreen. And be prepared for an experience of a lifetime.
Tour booked through http://www.whale-watching-mirissa.com/. Rs.3000 per head for locals, and Rs.6000 for foreigners. Mirissa harbor is about an hour away from the main town of Galle.