February 20, 2013
We’re picked up at our hotel before 6:00 a.m. for a whale-watching tour and driven down the hill to the posh Paradise Beach Hotel, where we sit around drinking tea in a large dining room with a varied assortment of people carrying binoculars and waiting for the trip to begin. Our first conversation is with a couple from Rome, who, because they were in Colombo, had to get up even earlier than we did – and look a ghastly grey-green color after their nightmare of a chauffeured ride. Used to Italian driving – which they believe to be safe and systematic – they are shaken by the chaotic anarchy reigning on Sri Lankan streets and need more than a strong cup of tea to recover from the trip.
After a longish wait we pile into vans and are driven down to a harbor, jammed with the early morning traffic of restaurant and bar owners, shopping for fresh fish that has just come in off the boats. I admire the way the drivers are able to navigate the narrow lanes crammed with obstacles, often backing out of impassable dead-ends, without once loosing their cool or relaxed, friendly manner.
Boarding a newish boat, comfortingly lined with life savers, the passengers choose their places, and prompted by the crew to use the life vests set out for this purpose, receive breakfast packages containing cheese sandwiches, cake, a hard-boiled egg, two pineapple slices, two bananas and a large bottle of mineral water. Silence descends during breakfast, and the boat moves out over sizable waves past fishing boats so narrow and high they have wooden attachments on one side to prevent them from capsizing.
Navigating waters with high swells and strong currents in narrow, unmotorized boats is a courageous undertaking and one in which it’s extremely difficult for fishermen, who work on a profit sharing basis, to survive. As larger, technologically better equipped boats travel into the deeper waters offshore syphoning off fish that would otherwise have come in closer to land, the fishermen in smaller boats are left with less chance of a catch and often with no other recourse but to enter restricted territories and to poach the protected tuna reserves. In order to pay their rent to the boat owners, who themselves are under duress to stay on top of mortgage payments to the bank, the fishermen – under tremendous pressure to bring in a profitable daily catch – get themselves tangled up in a net of fines they are incapable of paying, further exacerbating the poverty they were trying to escape.
An hour from land, the water unexpectedly jumps to life with splashing, frolicking, playful dolphins, diving and swimming alongside our boat until, just as suddenly as they appeared, they lose interest and swim away.
A look-out at the front of the boat alerts us to a whale spouting water in the distance, and everyone on board cheers at the sight of an immense blue whale surfacing, but as our boat races towards him he dives back under, trailing an enormous blue fin into the water. The boat navigator explains that when a whale dives away, it often stays underwater feeding for 10-20 minutes before resurfacing again. Anxious to spot him when he reappears, we restlessly scan the horizon for another spout of water.
The southern tip of Sri Lanka is a favorable spot for sighting whales so close to land because of its proximately to the continental shelf. The earths’ rotation from west to east brings the cold waters from the ocean floor up to the surface carrying nutrients (upwellings) and attracting krill, which in turn draw blue whales, which, at certain times of year, can eat up to 40 million krill – the equivalent of about 3,6000 kilos a day. Blue whales weigh an estimated 200 tons, (twice or three times the weight of a dinosaur) and need more than a mouthful of fish to support their enormous size of 24-30 meters. Not only are they the largest and heaviest, they are also amongst the loudest animals on earth, (only sperm whales are louder) and their heart beats can be heard more than three kilometers away. Scientists believe they use a series of clicking, groaning sounds to communicate with each other across vast distances, navigating the dark ocean waters with their sophisticated specialized hearing, which functions like a sonar navigation system.
Tragically only approximately 10,000-25,000 blue whales – of an estimated 35,0000 are still in existence today; the others were decimated by whalers hunting them for oil. It wasn’t until 1966 that the International Whaling Commission declared them an endangered species worthy of protection, which didn’t prevent Soviet ships from continuing to poach them on the sly. Blue whales move about the world’s oceans alone or in pairs and have been spotted in groups of up to 60, migrating to the polar waters in summer and returning, swimming many thousands of kilometers, back to the Equator in winter.
– It’s like a first date, the Sinhalese women sitting on the railing next to me says, looking out to sea at the spot the whale just disappeared from with a nostalgic sigh, you wonder when he goes off if he will ever call, and even if you know you shouldn’t do it, you sit by the telephone and wait.
So we wait, chatting at the railings, and before long there is a 2nd, a 3rd and a 4th sighting. Each time a whale signals its whereabouts by shooting a tremendously high spout of water into the air, our boat readjusts its course and races towards it with the passengers, caught up in the excitement of whale fever, cheering.
Deshani the Singhalese woman who has lived in LA for the past 28 years, coming back whenever it was safe enough, is no fan of Michael Ondaatje, because she finds his writing tendentious, which she says is a logical result of his Tamil heritage.
I’ve just finished reading his book: Running in the Family, a hilarious account of an idiosyncratic family descended from a colorful mix of the islands’ population, Tamil, Sinhalese, Dutch (hence his name) and English. Deshani claims that families like the Ondaatjes are responsible for funding the terrorists and prolonging the war. Apparently the expat community was blackmailed by the insurgents – who had agents everywhere in the world and actively threatened to kill their family members still living in Sri Lanka if they didn’t regularly donate monies to the war effort.
– The war started, she explains, in 1958 when the official language was changed from English to Sinhala. The Tamils – who refused to learn it and were consequentially excluded from government and official jobs – founded the separatist movement in the wake of the riots caused by the Sinhala Only Bill; the rest is history. In the north, the Tamil separatists used women and children as human shields and because the government was wary of harming them, were able to wreak havoc on the country for more than two decades. It wasn’t until the government forces broke through the human shields – accepting the casualties they created in the process – that the terrorists were defeated and the war ended. War is never clean, Deshani says philosophically, shrugging her shoulders; what happened here is no different to what the United States had to do in Afghanistan to get through to the Taliban. I admire our president for stopping the war and cleaning up the country. Thanks to his courage, tourism is flourishing, roads are being rebuilt, foreign investment has returned to the island and after almost three decades the country is finally getting back on its feet. It’s unfortunate that the government is corrupt and accepts bribes, but then, she rationalizes pragmatically, politics are always corrupt.
Deshani’s nephew, who is studying law in the United States and has been actively following the conversation, admits – when Christof asks him if he’ll come back to help rebuild the country once he’s finished with his studies – that it’s more than unlikely.
– The political system is so corrupt it’s impossible to make a difference. My grandfather was a lawyer and was elected as a mayor, a position he took on with great idealism. He laid down his office once he realized how deeply nepotism was woven into the fabric of life, and, unwilling to compromise his ideal of serving the people honestly, was forced to recognize that it takes more than energy and idealism to change an ingrained system of cronyism.
Back on shore we go down to the beach where the waves have swelled to such heights that not a single surfer is out riding them, although oddly a young European couple apparently undaunted by their height is swimming far from shore, apparently unaware of the ripping undercurrents which repeatedly catch the woman and pull her under, sweeping her dangerously close to the sharp outcroppings near the cliffs. A strong-bodied local tears off his sarong and is just preparing to rescue her when her boyfriend manages to swim out and, encasing her in his arms, safely pulls her back to shore.