Do you have a single most influential or defining moment when you knew that you wanted to work as a marine researcher?
I cannot pin point one exact moment as I have always been obsessed with nature, but on a trip to Africa, I realised my corporate life though financially lucrative was keeping me from pursuing a passion that would enrich my soul. I decided then that the rest of my life needed to be meaningful, resigned my job and returned to Sri Lanka!
Tell us more about the work that you do and how it helps support marine conservation.
Education is my key objective and it has been my wish to focus on sharing my knowledge with school children. I work on the theme of ‘you have to love something if you want to save it’. For example, I use my skills at photography to get the attention and curiosity of readers to entice them to read the associated text and learn about these awe-inspiring animals and the fascinating habitat they live in. Furthermore, I have created my own website www.slam.lk which is dedicated to promoting conservation of oceanic wildlife and natural heritage through information, education, and advice on ethical and safe enjoyment.
What are the biggest challenges currently faced by marine life and how do we overcome them?
Human beings are the biggest challenge as we unwittingly or sometimes with full knowledge contribute to the destruction of our environment. In many instances ignorance leads to actions that are negative to the environment, marine life and subsequently us.
We just don’t realize enough the importance of the fact that the oceans do not need our help as much as we need the oceans for the future survival of generations to come. To overcome this we need to have several programs to raise awareness such as inclusion in school curriculum and information available to decision makers.
What are the main difficulties in enforcing the regulations and guidelines in place to protect sea life?
Enforcement at sea in several areas is recent to Sri Lanka and so the main difficulties appear to be lack of proper procedures and the setting up and training of new enforcement units. Offenders need to be dealt with in a fair manner. There is also the challenge of changing the behaviour of experienced Sri Lankan fishermen that there are now laws in place and that illegal fishing practices and improper behaviour in the presence of marine mammals will be dealt with.
Enforcement has failed to attract necessary Sri Lankan government support because many politicians are partial toward the immediate needs of local communities for both economic and political reasons.
You spend much of your time at sea. Please describe a typical day for us.
A typical day starts the evening before with arrangements to go out to sea the next day, desktop planning and equipment checks. All time devices such as my watch, SLR camera, GoPro, GPS are adjusted. I wake up quite excited an hour before departure which allows me to actually look at prevailing weather conditions against forecasts and review my expedition plans. After a safety check and turning on my GPS tracking, my boatman and I would head out to sea uncertain what time we will return that day which would depend on sightings and sea conditions.
Once we reach the depth at which we would start our targeted search we would shut off our engine as we reviewed what we had observed and had discussed our strategy. The path we would travel along is based on highest probability of sighting species of interest. We would travel scanning the sea till we get a sighting and cautiously approach to observe and record information. The amount of time spent at a sighting would depend on the species. Various strategies and approaches are tried to understand more about their behaviour. Sometimes staying with the animals for long durations can realize amazing accounts. During our travel to seek out marine species we would stop from time to time at hot spots indicated by oceanography elements and historical sighting records. This strategy also yields excellent results from time to time. At sea all day under harsh conditions and sometimes encountering passing storms is part and parcel. On a typical day we would get around 4 to 6 sightings and return to shore around 1-2PM.
After returning and before the end of the day all of the information recorded is gathered into my computer, organized and entered into my log book for further analysis and entry into the MMDD – Marine Mammal Distribution Database when time permits. In certain instances a separate A4 Single Sighting sheet is filled with all the details.
What inspired you to write your award winning book “Out of the Blue”?
Clearly it was the lack of available information that became evident with the development of my personal research book. For years I had been studying the subject and seeking out answers and documenting them. It was in 2011 when my work was first seen by peers in the field when Dr Hiran Jayewardene who had heard of my lone research invited me to present my work at the International Symposium on Marine Mammals in the Indian Ocean. From the acknowledgements and feedback I got from my presentation I realized that I had gathered much knowledge and needed to share it for future generations. The only reservation I had about publication of such a book was that whale watching regulations were not in place and so released the book soon after.
Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?
Take responsibility each and every time you go out to sea. Ensure that best practices are being adhered to. If not, lodge complaints with owners, authorities, TripAdvisor, etc. Do not reward bad operators by using their services, whatever the cost.
Be educated so that you can enjoy more of the natural world but in an ethical and safe manner. The more you learn, the more your fascination and passion. Simply, one must love it to want to save it. Also, get involved if you wish in a research or conservation program.
What has been your best natural world experience to date?
A one-month trip to Africa in 2000, after many years in corporate world, transformed my mode of thinking and brought into sharp focus the elements that were important to my life. It was the most enriching expedition of my life and forever changed my priorities.
I returned to Africa two years later and spent another 3 months, which precipitated my early retirement to follow my dream. All in all my travels took me from the southern tip (Cape Point) up to the equator (Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda). Besides the several wildlife park experiences, I had some of the most exhilarating experiences rafting down the Orange River, passing through the scenic Kalahari, flying over the Okavango Delta, watching the largest herd of elephants in my life on Chobe River, seeing two of the largest canyons in the world (Fish River Canyon and Blyde River Canyon), white water rafting Grade 5 rapids on Zambezi River and in Uganda, spending time with a gorilla family on Virunga mountain, to be in the midst of the Serengeti migration in Tanzania and Kenya, paragliding over Victoria Falls and other activities such as dune boarding, fishing (which I do no more), penguin and seal watching, quad biking, etc. I couldn’t help but tune back into my natural soul for adventure, the outdoors and the natural world.
Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?
My natural world hero is Dr. Hiran Jayewardene who can safely be considered the father of marine life in Sri Lanka. No single person has dedicated more of his time to this field in terms of protection, legality and funding, both nationally and Internationally. Part of my foray into this amazing marine world would not have been possible without his inclusion, guidance and generous encouragement. His selfless contribution makes him a man worthy of admiration.
Dr. Hiran Jayewardene, an International Lawyer, is Sri Lanka’s most senior and foremost specialist in integrated marine affairs management. He is the Secretary-General, Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC), Convenor, Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM) and Founder Chairman, National Aquatic Resources Research & Development Agency (NARA) initiating whale watching and research in Sri Lanka, early 1980s.
What is your dream natural world destination that you haven’t visited yet but would like to?
The island nation of Palau (population 22,000) in the western Pacific Ocean that is on the same latitude as Sri Lanka. We have much to learn from Palau, a renowned global leader in protecting marine ecosystems and ethical tourism. In addition, Palau has got the cooperation of other nations in the region to encourage sustainable development and protect fragile ecosystems in Micronesia.
Besides being the first nation in the world to declare a shark sanctuary within 200nm, its extensive reefs and lagoons are designated as no fishing areas. Needless to say whales, dolphins, dugongs and other species are also protected thereby allowing stocks and diversity to recover and re-balance essential ecosystems.
I would love to spend much time exploring the dense jungles and its extensive reefs, estuaries and parts of the territorial waters. In comparison to Sri Lanka, Palau is way ahead in protecting marine environments and has more species of coral and fish. It is said that much of Palau remains free of environmental degradation so it would be good to see how this is being achieved.
What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?
Respect for marine life and their environment is of utmost priority. Watch them, learn from them but do not upset their natural equilibrium. At sea we have the opportunity to observe intelligent alternate species and stimulate senses that an ordinary working day won’t do for us.