Sri Lanka has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, beset with problems from terrorism to flooding. But in the wake of the contentious ending of the war in 2010 with the Tamil Tigers, this verdant island is experiencing a new tourist boom founded largely on its exquisite beaches, where one may spend weeks doing nothing but drinking lime sodas in the sun.
However, I found another prospect more appealing – especially after the frenetic demands of appearing at the island's Galle Literary Festival.
For some years now, I'd heard stories of whales seen off Sri Lanka's coast, not least from my brother-in-law, Sam Goonetillake, founder of the Helplanka charity, which was set up to assist the orphans of the 2004 tsunami.
For a dedicated "whalehead" such as myself, these tales were impossibly alluring. The southern tip of the island is surprisingly close to the deep waters of the continental shelf, and here swim giants: blue whales, the largest animals that ever lived. It is a unique situation: nowhere else do these whales come in so close to land, or are so reliably seen.
Their presence, confirmed by such naturalists as Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, has encouraged the eco-tour specialists Jetwing to start dedicated whale watching trips, using boats supplied by Mirissa Water Sports, a company set up with European funding in the wake of the tsunami. With the prospect of adding this animal, the holy grail of whale-watchers, to my list, I joined forces with photographer Andrew Sutton in the search for whales.
An hour before sunrise, we left our hotel and hurtled down the road in a tuk-tuk. Passing fishermen balancing huge boxes of fish on their bikes, we pulled up at the harbour, where Rasika, our boatman, was waiting. Our vessel was hardly luxurious: a 19ft fibreglass boat, barely more than a canoe, scruffy with rough repairs. But its 25 horsepower outboard motor was surprising powerful.
We slipped out of the harbour and towards an unseen horizon, studded with the lights of dozens of fishing boats already out there. If we'd carried on, the next land we would have would have been Antarctica, 10,000 miles away.
As the sun rose, I looked down into the deep blue, its swell shadowing whatever might lie below. Lulled by the boat, I fell asleep under the surprisingly comfortable prow, listening to the waves lap at the hull.
Suddenly the mood changed. Five miles away, or maybe more, the horizon had been broken by what looked like a head of steam – as tall as a house. Rasika's English may have been uncertain; what he was saying was not: "Whale!"
I've watched whales around the world, from Cape Cod to the Azores, from the Bay of Biscay to New Zealand. But in a decade of cetacean-spotting, I'd never seen a blue whale. Now I was about to have my first encounter with an animal as big as a jet plane, and just as loud. Fifteen minutes later, the whale broke the surface barely 50 yards from our bow.
I let loose a profanity. It was not a profound response, but how do you react to an animal so huge? The snout, with its massive blowholes, ploughed through the water, followed by the whale's extraordinary bulk.
Slim and enormous at the same time, the blue whale is almost impossible to comprehend. Yet beyond the massive size – these animals can reach up to 100ft or more in length – and the sheer span of time it takes to arch through the water, I was most astounded by its colour. It really was blue – a deep, petrol blue mottled with grey, the same colours as the sea and sky.
That day, we were blessed. Before most people back home had begun their breakfast, we'd seen a dozen or more blue whales, eating their own breakfast of krill. A blue whale will consume six tons of these tiny shrimps daily in order to sustain its great bulk. And that, above all else, is why they were here.
The meeting of the warmer coastal waters with the colder waters of the continental shelf creates a cycle of rising nutrients called upwellings. The rich, rotting matter from the ocean bed feeds the krill, and the krill feed the whales. It's an efficient exchange, a marker of oceanic fertility.
However, it was salutary to see a procession of giant container ships on the horizon, 20 nautical miles from land. That the whales chose to feed between the island and the world's busiest shipping lane seems symbolic of the effects humans have upon them.
For all their size, these animals depend on us, and our actions. In the 20th century, blue whales were nearly driven to extinction by extensive hunting. Around 360,000 blue whales died in those years – many of them taken in these same waters, often by Soviet whaling fleets deliberately under-reporting their catch. As a direct result, now only 15,000 or fewer blue whales remain worldwide.
Sri Lanka's tourist board boasts that only in this country can one see the world's biggest land mammal, the elephant, and its largest marine mammal, the blue whale, in a single day. Jetwing's well-informed naturalist, Anoma Indragith Alagiyawadu, says that as news of the whales spreads, whale-watching – already increasing by 20 per cent each year – will expand at an even greater rate. Even during my stay, a former naval boat, the Jetliner, was pressed into service for whale-watching.
The success of Sri Lanka's whale-watching industry brings problems. Unregulated operators may stress the whales and even drive them away. Asha de Vos, an impassioned young Sri Lankan marine biologist, says that she and other scientists are asking for strict guidelines to be enforced, limiting how many boats can be allowed to approach whales, and how closely. Without such stringent regulations, de Vos fears the whales might simply leave the area.
And that would leave scientists and visitors alike bereft. To say goodbye to these animals so soon after their "discovery" would be a shame indeed – a loss to Sri Lanka, and the rest of the world.