Mirissa is a quaint little town in the southernmost part of beautiful Sri Lanka, famous for its pristine beaches and whale watching. Since the civil war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka has become a popular holiday destination in South Asia and pulls tourists from all corners of the world to its beach towns, biodiversity rich rain forests and scenic hill countryside. It is easy to settle in to the relaxed vibe of this country. The locals are hospitable, polite and very welcoming and the food is to die for.
I was in Mirissa, to celebrate the end of 2015 with friends and with the added, super exciting agenda of witnessing the world’s largest mammal in its natural habitat. Most people call this activity ‘whale watching’ but when you’re actually tagging a single whale and scramble to spot her a few times in the span of an hour, well, it doesn’t feel like the leisurely and pleasurable thing called ‘watching’ anymore.
That’s OK though, the whales (or even the dolphins and orcas we were promised we would see) are not to blame. They simply weren’t in the mood to put up a show that morning and preferred to have a late start, giving the afternoon batch of watchers the most amazing spectacle of marine life.
In any case, this only means that just like my national park experiences of zero tiger sightings, I now have a perfectly valid reason to try my luck with the whales again. Also, this was a good test run to be better prepared for next time. Even though I had done a bit of research on photography tips for whale watching, I wish I’d also found information on what to expect on the boat.
So in the spirit of being helpful to future travelers, here are the top 4 things to keep in mind when you go whale watching in Mirissa:
Take the early morning trip – In a country like Sri Lanka, even when you’re visiting in the best season of the year it’s going to be hot, and out at sea it can get pretty bright. So start early, book yourself on the first shift and make sure to carry sun block, sunglasses, a hat / cap, some cash and your camera. You won’t need much else, so travel light (Water and refreshments are provided on the boat). We started out at about 6:45 in the morning and by 8:30 we were baking in the sun, occasionally blinded by its reflection on the water.
Prepare for sea sickness – If you’re not used to taking boat rides in deep sea and are generally prone to feeling sick, then this would be something to prepare for. I honestly had no idea how my body would react because I don’t remember the last time I was on such a boat or so deep in the sea. Even in calm waters, it got pretty choppy and felt like I was sitting on a camel that was practicing lunges. The deeper we went into sea, the lurchier it got. The only thing that helped was being completely empty stomach.
The only sip of water I took, also made me throw up – and I missed a great photograph opportunity, when the whale was closest to our boat. On the flip side, in that sun, if you don’t hydrate yourself, you’re bound to feel a headache coming on pretty soon. SO decide which option is best for you – either don’t eat or drink until you’re on your way back, or make sure you’ve taken some medication for the sickness.
Choose the right lens. Shoot in ‘burst’ mode – Know that there will be no time – zero seconds – to change a lens or adjust settings drastically. The appearance of a whale lasts between 10 to 20 seconds, depending on how large she is, and if you get into changing lenses you’re bound to miss the sighting completely. The most likely lens you will need is a telephoto or zoom, because the whale tends to appear quite far from the boat, and make sure you’re shooting in the ‘burst mode’ so that chances of getting good shots are highest. All my whale shots above are on a fully zoomed 250 mm telephoto lens on burst mode. So, only if you’re lucky like those other boats, will you not need to zoom in that much.
The major challenge of using this lens in a non-stationary situation, is to be able to minimize shake and get a sharp shot. But that gets trickier with the boat wobbling constantly. It can also get a bit disorienting when the boat moves quickly to come closer to a whale sighting – and locating the whale on a fully zoomed view finder can cost you a few seconds. Again, the only thing that makes this easier is shooting on ‘burst mode’.
On the flip side though, with plenty of sun, at least you don’t have to worry about exposures. I don’t think I would have got any pictures had I started adjusting my exposures manually. But then that’s subject to your photography skills and by all means test that out when you’re out there.
Choose a ‘front & center’ vantage point – If you can help it, try and find a spot that gives you a nearly 360 degree view around the boat. Our boat had these floor mats lined against the railings of the upper deck and while even a place along either sides of the boat are good, I had trouble getting a clear view straight ahead, as that is where the whales mostly appeared.
Many larger boats had these cushy seats on the lower deck, in rows like on an air plane, but they have only a 3 sided view and I’m not sure how much you can see when the whale appears on the opposite side from your seat, or when you’re in one of the back rows…. Then again, I haven’t sat on that boat and it may actually be perfectly suitable too, but it looked like there would be several obstructions to the view.
So that’s it! My 4 things to remember when you go whale watching in Mirissa!
If you’ve learnt something I didn’t on your whale watching trip, I’ love to hear about it. Until then, ciao!