IN 2008, I ATTENDED an informal gathering in Londons Victoria held by renowned Sri Lankan naturalist and CEO of JetwingEco, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.
The aim was to inform the gathered media about an event that takes place off the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka in the region of Galle, accessed via a small port called Mirissa.
From December to March there is an annual migration of cetaceans, most notably pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda - nothing small about the name) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). They follow the line of the continental shelf, which is only nine nautical miles south of Mirissa and Dondra Head and, coincidentally, on the main international shipping lane.
This event was first noted by marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson a few years back, but Gehan, with his love of nature in Sri Lanka, was the first to promote the location as a premier destination for whale-watching.
The pygmy blue is a sub-species of the blue whale, found in the Indian Ocean and southern Pacific. At up to 25m long, it is the smallest of the three commonly recognised sub-species, hence the name.
First noted in 1966, it is distinguished from these other sub-species by its broader and shorter baleen plates, and a shorter tail that gives it a longer body in front of the dorsal fin, and a larger head relative to body size.Sri Lanka is still recovering from the recent troubles, and making a determined effort to get back on its feet, so taking anything like a video camera and underwater housings into the area is sensitive.
I had visited on a shoot for Sri Lankan Airlines in 2003, so I recognised that there would be official red tape with which to cope, plus the responsibility of being in water with cetaceans.

USING PREVIOUS EXPERIENCES of filming pilot whales in Gibraltar, and humpbacks and whale sharks in Tanzania with WWF, combined with fellow-photographer Chris Walters experience with blue whales in Baja, we formulated the trip.
I presented myself with validation at the Sri Lankan High Commission in London to get the visa, which was straightforward, though it did entail a further mandatory visit on arrival to the Departments of Information and of Foreign Affairs in Colombo to get our media passes validated.
Instead of joining one of the bigger whale-watching boats, we boarded a small glass-fibre fishing-boat. This was locally owned and operated by Chi and Ras of Mirissa, which has a brisk yet seasonal trade in whale-watchers but is predominantly a fishing port.
Our shooting schedule would be from 7-4 daily, bearing in mind daylight and weather conditions.
Tropical sun, salt, wind and seawater did their level best to destabilise us - factor 50 was a must, as was a dive-skin, hat and water. This was no luxury tour.
A lot of the worlds trade passes east-west through the shipping lane, and at 13 nautical miles out to sea youre hard-pressed to see land, so watching out for whales as well as huge container ships becomes second nature.
The first thing we noticed was the warmth and incredible clarity of the water. Whale-watching is often associated with plankton blooms, feeding and mating, which doesnt allow too many great underwater photography opportunities. So this beautiful royal blue colour reflecting back at us was fantastic.
Chris noted that in Baja, even when right next to a blue whale, you couldnt see your hand in front of your face, let alone the entire length of a whale basking in the sunlight, so we were both pleased that shooting visibility was probably 30-50m.
Anoma Alagiyawad, the naturalist for the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, signalled the first blow from my first blue - and there were not just one but four of them, all in front of the whale-watching boat Spirit of Dondra.

WE MADE OUR WAY ACROSS, very cautiously, sited ourselves within lens-range of the animals, and began to work out the best approach. The blues were very calm, just moving westward slowly as a pod. Sightings of up to seven animals in a group have been noted.
My first experience of seeing four of the largest animals ever to have lived on our planet was something to savour.
Chris and I slid slowly into the water about 15m away from them. What you see on the surface is like an iceberg - only the smallest amount of the animal is on show, but under water its enormous size reveals itself in a realm of dappled sunlight.
Huge, serene and hanging from the surface, the first blue was ready to slip into the depths at any moment, and slip it did.
We had seen a few flukes earlier on, silhouetted against a blue sky on the horizon as the whale dived effortlessly into 2500m of water below, but this blue had stolen my eyes, and took them with it down and out of view.
The compulsion to follow overtook the urge to depress the shutter button, and rightly so. Its not all about the picture, but the memory you take back.
Each encounter our boat had followed the same pattern - the sighting, a cautious approach from the side with distance, a slow intercept to avoid upsetting the animal, and the quietest water-entry we could manage.
Pilot whales can be inquisitive, but these blues were much more likely to disappear before engagement, and this is what happened 90% of the time.
You would see the whale coming toward you, then it would raise its fluke and descend, all the while appearing still to be approaching.
Within 90 seconds it would be part of the bigger blue, like an apparition blending into the deep.
On day three we met Spirit of Dondra while its occupants were viewing a very friendly pair of blues. One was playing upside-down in front of the boat, raising its fins and rolling happily without distraction.
The whale-watchers shutters flapped and snapped. Over the radiophone, we heard that this had been going on since their arrival an hour earlier. What a treat!
We waited for everyone to get their fill of images, and watched the Spirit depart for Mirissa, leaving us alone with these animals. It turned out to be quite a day.
We were able to stay with them for the better part of five hours. In some cases they turned and checked us out under water. This was not what we were expecting, but it enabled us to get some shots that werent on the menu.
While we ate our biscuit and coconut lunch, one of the animals decided to surface not 3m away from us, its arrival signalled only by a deep resounding exhale that took us by surprise.
It was hard leaving that day, knowing that we could get better images but no longer having light on our side.

SUBSEQUENT DAYS FOLLOWED a similar pattern, with moments when other species tried to muscle in.
We had some inquisitive manta rays turn up; spinner dolphins always seemed to be at hand; other dolphins showed off at distance; and tuna, marlin, short-finned pilot and sperm whales also began to get in on the act.
On the last day, we turned up as usual in the shipping lane, and were told that no blues had been sighted, but that a pod of sperm whales was coming through. We went upwind of the main whale-watchers, and were rewarded by two pods of about 15 in total coming toward us.
We stayed with the main group for another four hours and, though it was pretty rough, we were able to work out where they were likely to be, and move to a place of intercept.
Halfway through the encounter, one of the bulls breached 6m or so from the boat, enabling us to see its jaw open, and right down to the fluke.
This was an incredible experience. We continued to see the breaching out on the horizon as the pods moved through.
By mid-afternoon we were able to get to the spot where the whales would simply come up to us, accept our presence, wink and move on.
Being eye to eye with a sperm whale left me with only one question: who was keeping an eye on whom
The waters of southern Sri Lanka hold a key reason for visiting this special island. Recent history aside, Sri Lanka has some of the oldest UN heritage sites, the highest concentration of leopards, many primates, excellent bird-watching, the finest teas and, very probably, some of the best whale-watching on the planet.
Gehan is looking into other areas where the continental shelf comes close to the Sri Lankan mainland, and where more pods of sperm whales have been sighted regularly.

Andrew Suttons trip was made possible by the Sri Lankan Media Department and Tourist Bureau, JetwingEco and Sri Lankan Airlines.