Cautionary whale tale: 3 hours of nausea lead to un-see-worthy whale spotting

A crew member on the whale watching cruise points to a barely visible whale in the water.  Ashley Rowland/Stars and Stripes
A crew member on the whale watching cruise points to a barely visible whale in the water. Ashley Rowland/Stars and Stripes

Cautionary whale tale: 3 hours of nausea lead to un-see-worthy whale spotting

by: Ashley Rowland | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: November 28, 2014

I should have started worrying when the crew passed out motion sickness pills before we even left the harbor.

But the indigo blue sea was calm, and a crew member told us we would have a smooth ride as we settled into our seats on the double-decker boat for a sightseeing trip deep into the Indian Ocean for several hours.

Most importantly, he said we were 99 percent guaranteed to spot a whale.

As with many other tourists to Sri Lanka’s palm tree-studded southwest coast — famous for its swaths of postcard-perfect beaches — a whale-watching cruise was expected to be a highlight of our vacation.

In Unawatuna, our beach town base, posters of gracefully leaping whales with boatloads of presumably happy tourists snapping photos in the background were plastered along roadsides and in restaurants and stores.

We had come near the end of the annual monsoon season, with its frequent short-but-heavy storms, and a few months ahead of prime winter whale-spotting season. Still, our hotel manager assured us, as we booked our whale-watching trip with his help, that we were virtually guaranteed to see a few of the sea’s giants — though maybe just three or four instead the dozen or so expected during high season.

He assured us that the spotty weather would be no problem.

“The whales like playing in the rain,” he said.

Perhaps we should have smelled a sales pitch, but maybe whales really DID like the rain. They’re water creatures, after all.

The day before our cruise was stormy, and I worried that our breakfast excursion would be canceled by weather. But as our driver pulled into the harbor of tiny Mirissa, a scruffy fishing village with a burgeoning tourist industry, around 7 a.m., skies were overcast but the water was as smooth as glass. Fishmongers gathered in the parking lot and haggled over silvery, still-wriggling heaps of tuna and shrimp, some brought to shore by weathered men just back from two-week fishing trips in equally weathered boats.

Our fellow passengers included some three dozen foreign tourists and a large group of Sri Lankan children and parents who appeared to be on a field trip. As we pulled out of the harbor, another crew member warned that while no problems were expected, we could run into squalls at any time. And as we were going to see animals in the wild, anything could happen.

I had assumed the motion sickness pills were an unnecessary precaution. On our boat was a Sri Lankan child who appeared to be no more than a year old and an Australian couple who were probably in their 70s. Surely the tour company wouldn’t send babies and the quasi-elderly into rough, potentially dangerous waters.

But as soon as we pulled out of the harbor, the waves grew choppy and rough. The carefree mood on board quickly dampened and the chatter of excited children quieted. About 20 minutes into the trip, the vomiting began.

For the next hour or so, the crew spent most of its time passing out plastic bags to seasick passengers, collecting used bags and then passing out more. About halfway through the trip, one crew member brought out a large tray of neatly arranged sandwiches — our promised breakfast during the cruise — prompting a few wry laughs and a fresh round of retching.

We finally arrived at our destination, an empty expanse of ocean about an hour from land, where our boat, along with three other identical tourist boats and two Sri Lanka Coast Guard vessels, circled slowly. Some of the heartier passengers stood at the edge of the boat, clutching tightly to the railing — and to their puke bags — looking in vain for whales as the boat rocked violently.

Others, myself included, stayed in our seats because we were too queasy to stand up.

Despite the haggard conditions of the passengers, nearly all of whom had thrown up, our crew seemed determined not to return to dry land until we got our money’s worth and saw a whale.

One crew member perched on the bow, scanning the waters for about an hour. Finally he pointed to a spot about 50 feet from the boat.

There were two puffs of water, maybe five feet high. Then we saw the shiny gray spine of a whale gracefully arching through the water — for about five seconds.

And just like that, our wildlife encounter was over.

And all we had to show for our hours-long trip were a few blurry photos of the ocean with an unidentifiable and barely noticeable speck of gray in the middle.

I don’t know that my trip was representative of the average whale-watching cruise. A few weeks later, I found reviews of the excursion company that described similar experiences, from mass seasickness to cruises with zero whale sightings. One reviewer said the crew kept his boat “hostage” on the high seas even as the seasick passengers voted to turn around.

But I also spoke with a number of travelers who gave their trips glowing reviews. One German tourist — a repeat visitor to Sri Lanka — described his cruise in almost reverential terms, saying it was the best thing he had done in the country.

For me, it was the worst $50 I ever spent. The next time I go searching for whales, I’ll be using my remote to find them on the Discovery Channel.

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