Chasing Whales in the Tropics

For most of us here in Singapore when we hear of whale watching, we think that this is an activity that can only be done in some faraway country, and where it’s usually winter weather. For myself, I’ve been on whale watching cruises in Australia and Iceland, and it’s not a totally pleasant experience due to rough seas and below freezing wind chill. So rejoice as I share with you that you can actually see whales in Thailand just 2 hrs drive from Bangkok (in the wild, not in an aquarium) in warm tropical waters, and get a suntan  while doing it.

This is my last blog on Samut Songkhram, and you can read my previous blogs on Amphawa and Mae Klong by clicking on the links. Besides just hanging out in Amphawa and feasting on seafood, or dodging trains at the Mae Klong Railway Market, you can also take a boat out into the Gulf of Thailand and look for whales.

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We started out early in the morning at 7am. A 45 minutes drive from Amphawa brought us to the small jetty cum seafood restaurant where our boat was waiting for us.
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A chart hanging on the wall showed us the types of whales and dolphins that are endemic to Thailand’s seas. I never knew there were so many varieties that are living here. The whales that we were going to see that day are Bryde’s whales which grow up to a length of 15m. They are the on the top left corner of the chart, second from top.
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The jetty was located at the mouth of a river with many fishing villages surrounding it.
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One of the fishing villages we passed by as we headed out to the open sea.

On the way out to the Gulf of Thailand, we also passed by kelongs which farm oysters as I’m told.

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One of the many kelongs where fisherman rest and haul in their catch.
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An oyster kelong. The oysters are reared on the long wooden poles sunk into the sea floor.
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Looking out for the elusive whales. Our boat captain was very confident that we will get to see them. I was not so sure then, since my luck with seeing whales hasn’t been great.
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Steering the boat with your feet and looking out for whales at the same time, a very essential skill as a boat captain.
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Besides our boat, there were another 2-3 smaller boats ferrying tourists to watch the whales.

After more than an hour of sailing, our captain said that a whale had been spotted and we sped to it’s location. We were probably less than 20km from the shore.

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The first sight of the whale is it’s water spout as it exhales through the blowhole at the top of it’s head. Whales are mammals and they don’t have gills to breathe like fish. They need to come up for air periodically.

These Bryde’s (pronounced as Bru-dess) whales are resident in the Gulf of Thailand, and the best times to see them are from September to October when they display their lunge feeding behavior more frequently (and I’m told the seas are calmer during this period of the year). Because this is during the monsoon season and the flooded rivers carry nutrients down into the Gulf of Thailand where it attracts the anchovies and also the whales closer to shore.

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This is what we came to see, the lunge feeding behavior of the Bryde’s whales. The whale would swim upwards and open it’s huge mouth to scoop up hundreds of anchovies with it.

Once we found the spot where the whale was, it was hard to predict when it would come up to breathe or feed. We only had a split second to see the whale come out of the water and open it’s mouth. And trying to get a clear shot on a rocking boat with a long telephoto lens isn’t very easy. However, if the whale was feeding, it would open it’s mouth for several seconds as it filtered out the anchovies using it’s baleen, before closing it and sinking back into the sea.

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The anchovies which were aplenty in the sea around us. They would jump out of the water when our boat approached and seagulls would try to catch them as they jumped out of the water, or from the whale’s mouth. It sucks to be at the bottom of the food chain.

After about an hour with the single whale, our captain informed us that more whales were spotted further out, and off we went to find them.

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There were 6 whales around our boat and it was really exciting to see so many of them breaking the water surface at once. The seagulls were having a field day as this meant more food for them, as the whales fed.
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2 Bryde’s whales feeding at the same time. They seem to move together in pairs, even though there were 6 whales in total. Another pair would be feeding close by. We could see them swimming in circles rounding up the schools of anchovies before rushing in to scoop them up in their huge mouths.
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Sometimes they appeared right in front of us and one of them even swam underneath our boat.
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Besides swimming upwards, sometimes they swim sideways to scoop the anchovies.
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Another pair of Bryde’s whales having a feast.

After about 5 hours on the boat where we had our lunch onboard, we headed back to shore. It was a really fruitful trip, and we didn’t have to brave long flights, rough seas and cold weather for this.

Some Observations

From what I gather, there are 2 licensed whale watching conservation tour operators whom you can contact for tours and they arrange pickups from Bangkok too. For ourselves, we had chartered a boat privately for the trip through local Thai friends. Whether it’s a tour or a private charter, I see that the boats used are basically wooden fishing boats that have been converted into a sight seeing boat with an upper observation deck. Don’t expect well organized and well fitted ships that you find in commercialized whale watching tours elsewhere. It’s best to get your own travel insurance before setting out and make sure the boats have serviceable life jackets onboard.

The boats don’t have any radar or sonar, so spotting of whales is by visual means and the boat captains will radio each other if they have a sighting.

Not many people know about the whales as they only appeared in large numbers from 2011 onwards. This is one of the best kept secret activities that visitors to Bangkok and even the locals don’t know about. I’m not sure if it’ll stay this way as more people start to know about it, or there will be efforts to restrict the viewings due to conservation.

 

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