Spotting marine mammals in the Gulf of Thailand
Whale watching is a pastime many would associate with Alaska, Australia, or the Maritime region of Canada, but the Gulf of Thailand is a feeding and breeding ground for a resident population of several dozen Bryde’s Whales. These leviathans, which are up to 14-meters long and can weigh 18-tonnes, are the largest of four marine mammals in the gulf—the others being the Irrawaddy dolphin, and two much rarer species, the finless porpoise and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin.
In Thailand, Wild Encounter Thailand is the only company that offers argosies to spot these cetaceans, and few sights in the animal kingdom are more spellbinding than the sight of a Bryde’s whale breaking the water’s surface to open its cavernous maw, which remains agape for a minute or two, as fish try to leap out while seabirds dive and screech in a bid to snap up some live supper in mid-air.
From the first downpours of the monsoon season in May, until the end of the calendar year, Wild Encounter Thailand does outings almost every Saturday and Sunday. But the peak season for sightings is September and October, because that’s when the anchovies, and other small fish the whales feed on, are most plentiful. The pier for their converted fishing trawler, which can accommodate up to 40 guests, is only an hour’s drive from Bangkok, in the province of Samut Sakhon.
The company’s founder and main guide is Jirayu Ekkul, a man with lots of experience both above and beneath the waves, as an underwater photographer, NGO worker, and a consultant on sustainable tourism enterprises that aim to help locals navigate the high tides and shoals of launching similar odysseys within the kingdom.
The company prides itself on being an eco-sensitive venture. For one thing, they do not use any electronic devices to track the creatures—all the spotting is done by eye—and they make the tours as educational as possible.
Jirayu, a fluent English speaker and self-taught expert in marine biology, begins every tour by briefing all his guests. First he showed us a map of the Gulf of Thailand, with the five big rivers feeding into it, before giving us some historical facts about one of its largest inhabitants, the Bryde’s whale (pronounced “Brudas” after the Norwegian whaler who first discovered them, only to promptly turn around and try to harpoon them).
Jirayu explained that these largely solitary animals tend to forage by themselves. The only pairs one is likely to encounter are mothers with their calves. At the age of two or three, already skilled in survival techniques, the calves will go their own way.
We were only 15 or 20 minutes out to sea when the crew spotted a small pod of Irrawaddy dolphins. Unlike other dolphin species, these hump-headed creatures have no beak, and are not renowned for their leaping ability. However, they are incredibly fast swimmers, coming up to gulp down some air every minute or so, their whole bodies rising up out of the water in spumes of foam. That scene whetted our collective appetites for more cetaceans, a category that includes both whale and dolphin species.
It was just after a Thai buffet lunch onboard when the excited cries of the crew had us scrambling for the bow. Some 20 meters away was the dorsal fin of a Bryde’s whale slicing through the water. Soon it vanished beneath the waves. Everyone had their cameras out, craning their necks to see where it would surface next.
With a hiss the whale spouted a fine mist of water as it resurfaced to draw another breath on the other side of the boat. Each time it breached, its grey back slid up and across the surface for perhaps a dozen seconds, making it easy to catch a glimpse but hard to take the perfect photo.
The next few hours drifted past without any more whales but, to make up for our mild disappointment, on the way back to port a pod of perhaps 10 Irrawaddy dolphins burst from the waves in front of the boat. It was late afternoon and the horizon had darkened to deep blue, the sunlight coming down in shafts through the clouds as the dolphins streaked through the water—two or four of them breaking the waves at the same time.
For more details, or to book a whale watching trip, visit: www.wildencounterthailand.com