June 2018


Dragon Dance of the Giant Blue Whales
June 2018




Exhaling and announcing to onlookers the commencement of the dragon dance

Serendipity is the phenomenon of discovering desirable surprises. Sri Lanka's natural world will throw many surprises to any keen spectator, if you have an open mind to immerse and observe.


Words and Photography: Priyantha Talwatte


Serene Trincomalee awaits the habitual explorers. It is known for having the fourth largest natural harbour in the world, the Naval Headworks Sanctuary, idyllic beaches and the Pigeon Island Marine National Park. Yet, the highlight of Trincomalee is the grand show of the marine giants played out in the deep seas in the bay canyon and adjacent waters about 22km, ten nautical miles east of Trincomalee harbour. Eastwards, towards the Bay of Bengal, in the comfort of a small fishing boat one can witness the dragon dance show of the blue whales. It is the play station of the world's largest creature to have lived on earth. Measuring 30m in length, and weighing 180 tons, blue whales are larger than any dinosaur, and are the planets longest living animals.


Whales are divided into two sub orders based on physical features - toothed whales and baleen whales. Baleen whales have baleen plates, made out of keratin. They are the larger of the suborders with whales born with two blowholes. Toothed whales which are smaller are born with a single blowhole. Baleen whales are the largest animals that live on earth, and eat some of the smallest but most abundant life in the ocean - plankton. They also eat small schooling fishes and a variety of crustaceans such as krill, copepods, and amphipods.


Whales regularly seen off the waters of Trincomalee

- Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus)
- Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
- Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus)
- Bryde's whales (Balaenoptera brydei)
- Orca (killer whales)
- Orcinius Orca False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens)
- Dwarf sperm whales (Kogia sima)
- Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris)
- Risso's Dolphins(Grampus griseus)


The toothed whales are hunters, capturing prey such as fish, squid and crabs with their teeth. The blue whales, Bryde's whales, humpback whales are baleen whales, while sperm whales, killer whales, false killer whales, and dolphins belong to the toothed cetacean's category.

The blowholes of the whale are located at the top of the head and act as a passage to the trachea where air passes and fill the lungs. It makes breathing easier with minimal effort, especially during times of rest and sleep. Additionally, the position allows the whale to take oxygen without having to lift its head above water or exert additional energy. This is a reason for the dragon dance sequence.


The traditional dragon dance has different dance forms such as the "cloud cave", "whirlpool", and "looking for pearls". It resonates well with the performance, one can witness when the blue whale surfaces for the breathing ritual. It is an incomparable phenomenon. The curtain raises, when the whale sprouts the air it inhaled in the previous surfacing through the blowholes. The first visual clue to know that the blue whale has surfaced could be witnessed from approximately a kilometre away. After surfacing it makes a slow and easy straight line wave pattern, alternating between submerging and surfacing in the shallow depths, breathing in a large quantity of oxygen to fill its specially developed lungs. This well-coordinated slow motion rhythmic sequence is the dragon dance, which lasts about two minutes on the surface. This leaves a patch of a whirlpool on each spot it submerged, leaving behind a unique water mark which dissolves quickly.


After about five to seven submerging sequences, the whale takes a giant leap with a propelling force to take its large mass body back to the depth of the ocean. This is the moment of truth for the keen observer where it raises its fluke (tail) and provides a lifetime memory freeze with magical backdrops of the surrounding seascape. It is called a blue whale fluking. The blue whale will feed and stay under the ocean for the next ten to twelve minutes until it resurfaces. A professional naturalist will reasonably await ten minutes and guess the whale's resurfacing direction.

The dragon dance of the whales is also complemented with whale songs...They sing these complex songs only in warm waters where they breed and give birth.


This phenomenon can be witnessed on the surface of the sea from the comfort of a boat. The more adventurous enthusiast could observe and photograph this dragon dance sequence from the air, or carefully submerge into the depths of the Indian Ocean and observe from underwater. The latter requires free diving skills. There are many professionals who would assist you with the more intense underwater diving and photography by obtaining permits from the Department of Wildlife Conservation.


The dragon dance of the whales is also complemented with whale songs. Humpback whales are the most vocal and their songs have the largest range of frequencies used by any animal - ranging from 20,000 - 9,000 hertz. They sing these complex songs only in warm waters where they breed and give birth.


Best season to see whales in Trincomalee is from May to September and an early morning start is recommended. The best experiences are always with professional naturalists who guide you and show you the magic of the whale dragon dance without disturbing the giants. Head to the bay area of Trincomalee during the season, if you are in search of a whale of a time.

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    Blue whales, the giants of the planet diving deep into Trincomalee

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    The theatre is set above the seas of Trincomalee bay canyon floor

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    The whale takes a deep dive

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    The dance usually lasts for about two minutes on the surface of the water

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    Researchers keep track of whales by their skin scars and shape of the flukes (tail)

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    The final dance ''the dragon chasing the pearl''

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