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Sri Lanka

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Extent of whale and dolphin watching

Tourism in Sri Lanka has been on the rise since the cessation of many years of unrest in 20091.  One of the fastest growing tourism industries is the whale watching industry, and Sri Lanka is rapidly gaining fame in the whale -watching world for the opportunities to observe blue whales in at least two different locations between December and July.  Other whale and dolphin species are opportunistically observed during tours, but blue whales are definitely the most frequent target of tours.

Target species, peak times of year and locations:

The three main whale and dolphin watching areas in Sri Lanka are Mirissa in the south-west, Trincomalee in the north-east and Kalpitiya on the northwest coast. The most frequently targeted species of whale for whale watching in Sri Lanka is the blue whale, which can be observed off the coast of Mrissa between December and March, and off Trincomalee between March and July.  Bryde’s whales and sperm whales are sometimes also opportunistically observed during trips that are focused on blue whales.  Whale watching platforms range in size from small boats seating 4-6 passengers to large double-decked vessels taking up to 300 passengers.  Even the Sri Lankan Navy offers whale watching tours! Tours sometimes head up to 20 km offshore, so vessels need to be large and powerful enough to cope with longer journeys and potentially rough sea conditions.

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Towns or harbours

Platform (motorized boat, swim-with, aerial)

Peak time of year to observe

Sperm whale (Physeter microcephalus)

Kalpitiya and Trincomalee

Motorized boat

March (for aggregations)

Blue whale

(Balaenoptera musculus indica)












Motorised boat

Some legal swim-with

As well as  illegal swim-with



Motorised boat

Some both legal and illegal swim-with

October-March (during the North-east monsoon)





Spinner dolphin

(Stenella longirostris)


Motorized small boats.


October to March

Additional information about whale watching opportunities in Sri Lanka can be found on the following websites:

Whale watching vessels off of Sri Lanka vary from small converted fishing vessels (most common) to double-decker vessels accommodating dozens of passengers. Photo courtesy of Kate Sprogis.

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Regulations and guidelines

Whale watching in Sri Lanka is officially regulated through the Sea Mammals (Observation, Regulation and Control) Regulations, No. 1 of 2012.  These regulations stipulate the conditions under which an operator can become licensed to take tourists out to view marine mammals in Sri Lankan waters, with an emphasis on safety measures and vessel registration.   The regulation also stipulates that all marine mammal viewing vessels should have a licensed guide on board and are supposed to adhere to the following:

  • Once sea-mammals are observed, the speed of the vehicle should be gradually reduced until the vessel is at a distance of 400 meters; with regard to whales the engine of the vessel shall be switched off from a distance of 100 meters from whales and at no stage should the vessel be closer than 100 meters from the whale; in respect of other mammals, the vessel shall not move closer than 50 meters from such mammals.
  • The vessel shall not change its speed or direction abruptly. When mammals are observed, the vessel should not ply in front of or behind the mammals and should also take care that the vessel at no time blocks the migratory routes of such mammals.
  • No artificial food items, light and sound waves and any other method of attracting sea mammals should be utilized to attract and lure them closer to the vessel.
  • Persons engaged in observing sea mammals should not be allowed to get into the sea or do anything which is harmful to the sea mammals, (although diving is permitted under special circumstances and with approval of the Director – General).

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Research on whale watching in Sri Lanka

Two studies published in 20122 and 20133  reported on the opportunistically observed behaviour of whale watching vessels in Sri Lanka, prior to the publication of the 2012 regulations.  These studies documented a sharp increase in whale watching activity between 2009 and 2011, and noted that boat approaches were often too fast, too close, and too unpredictable, eliciting avoidance responses from the blue whales they were targeting2,3. The authors link this persistent harassment to a shift in the whales’ distribution and a documented increase in strandings during the study period2,3.   A 2016 study examined the development of whale watching in Sri Lanka and concluded that despite the existence of a legal framework for regulation of whale watching, monitoring and enforcement of  the regulations was weak, and more effective enforcement is required to improve safety and enjoyment for both the visitors and the whales1, and to improve the sustainability of the industry. 

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Show / Hide References
  1. Buultjens, J., I. Ratnayke, and A. Gnanapala, Whale watching in Sri Lanka: Perceptions of sustainability. Tourism Management Perspectives, 2016. 18: p. 125-133.
  2. Ilangakoon, A.D., Exploring anthropogenic activities that threaten endangered blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) off Sri Lanka. Journal of Marine Animals and their Ecology, 2012. 5(1): p. 3-7.
  3. Ilangakoon, A.D., Impacts of Whale-Watching on Blue Whales (Balaenoptera musculus) off Southern Sri Lanka, in PROCEEDINGS of the Design Symposium on Conservation of Ecosystem (2013) (The 12th SEASTAR2000 workshop), N. Arai, Editor. 2013: Bangkok, Thailand. p. 45-50.

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