The warm waters around Sri Lanka are famous for sightings of whales. The swell during the monsoon season and Sri Lanka’s proximity to the continental shelf create the perfect conditions for krill—the primary food item of whales, to thrive on.
Krill are found in abundance off the western, southern and eastern coasts of the island. This is what entices whales, both resident and migratory to visit Sri Lanka every year. To date, marine biologists have identified nearly 80 species of whales, of which around 26 have been sighted in Sri Lankan waters. Some of these include the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus), Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca), Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus), Pygmy Sperm Whale (Kogia breviceps), Dwarf Sperm Whale (Kogia simus), Bryde’s Whale (Balaenoptera brydei), Melon Headed Whale (Peponocephala electra), Cuvier’s Beaked Whale (Ziphius cavirostris), Ginkgo-toothed Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon ginkgodens), Southern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon planifrons), False Killer Whale (Pseudorca crassidens), Pygmy Killer Whale (Feresa attenuata) and Short-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus).
On Monday afternoon (2 November 2020), residents of a few fishing villages on the Panadura coast found nearly 120 Short-finned Pilot whales stranded on the beach. Despite a province-wide curfew that was imposed in a bid to help contain the spread of COVID-19, locals donned their masks and came rushing to see how they could help. Not even a deadly virus and a strict curfew could stand in the way of the kindness and generosity that Sri Lankans are very much famous for.
Quickly springing into action and working overnight, sailors from the navy and the coastguard along with local volunteers managed to push back nearly all of the whales with the aid of the navy’s small inshore patrol craft. Local authorities braced for mass deaths as seen in Tasmania last September when about 470 pilot whales were stranded and only about 110 of them could be saved after days of rescue efforts. Fortunately though, the rescuers were able to push back nearly all the whales except two who died of injuries sustained during the beaching.
Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) confirmed to the media that Panadura saw the largest single pod of whales stranded in the island.
According to Oceanswell—a marine conservation research and education organization founded by marine biologist Dr. Asha De Vos, pilot whales are notorious for mass strandings. These species of whales are deep divers, and end up being stranded when they drift into waters with shallow, gently sloping sea beds.
Pilot whales—which can grow up to six metres (20 feet) long and weigh a tonne—are highly social. According to the navy, it is thought that the whales ended up on the beach after the group followed a desperate whale that had lost its course.