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  • Arthur Max

Living Oceans

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

The waters off Sri Lanka are among the world's richest for whales and dolphins.

A few hours drive from Max Wadiya is Mirissa, the home port of a fleet of whale-watching boats. They stalk the highly endangered blue whale, the largest creature that has ever lived on earth. On the way to the whales’ feeding grounds, 10-12 nautical miles offshore, you might find a pod of bottlenose dolphins escorting your vessel.

Spinner dolphin

In the north is the channel off Kalpitiya, where spinner dolphins in massive schools play alongside and under the small boats of camera-laden watchers, leaping from the water with a spin to earn their moniker.

Anyone who has witnessed these marine marvels can only be saddened by the news that Japan has resumed whale hunts in the southern oceans.

Commercial whaling has been banned by an international "moratorium" since 1985, yet Japan defies the ban by claiming its hunts are for legitimate scientific research. In all those years of killing thousands of whales, the Japanese have produced exactly two peer-reviewed reports.

Instead of science labs, the product of these whaling trips usually ends up as whale steaks in specialty food shops.

The whaling expedition this year has not drawn much attention, setting out as it did during the opening days of the crucial Paris climate change summit, though it was condemned by the U.S. commissioner to the International Whaling Commission.

Why do we care about whales?

Whales and dolphins are not dumb animals. They are highly sociable, living in families, or pods. Some whales communicate with others over thousands of miles. Both whales and dolphins show cognitive skills and use complex collaboration to hunt. Dolphins, like us, mourn their dead.

The health of these animals is indicative of the well-being of the oceans, and therefore of us all.

A few years ago I met Roger Payne at the biannual International Whaling Commsision meeting in Agadir, Morroco. In 1970 Roger released a recording of the songs of humpback whales, demonstrating for the first time to the broad public the ability of whales to communicate.

At Agadir, Roger was giving the Commission his latest research showing that sperm whales feeding in the Antarctic had consumed high levels of toxic metals. That's exactly where the Japanese intend to harvest more than 300 whales this year.

Roger told me the concentration of metals was “jaw-dropping.”

Extracting pieces of blubber from nearly 1,000 whales with small darts, Roger and his team found cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury and titanium.

The results showed the oceans are loaded with these dangerous toxins, making their way up the food chain, at the top of which is – guess who!

Think of how many people live from the ocean, how much of the food we buy at the supermarket derives from the sea. It could be argued, Roger says, that the pollution of our oceans with chemicals, plastics and metals is “the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species.”

That's something to ponder as you watch these magnificent animals frolicking in Sri Lanka's waters.

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