Avid snorkelers and divers in Thailand will be no stranger to the diverse array of wildlife beneath the waves of the Land of Smiles. But it’s the common anchovy that brings one of the most miraculous creatures in the oceans to the nation’s shores. It is peak season for Thailand’s largest mammal: the Bryde’s whale.
“The best method to find these whales is using experienced eyes,” says Jirayu Ekkul. “An experienced observer or whale watcher can distinguish the whale’s blow or even a surface feeding from up to two to three nautical miles away […] Our crew can spot the whale 30 to 60 minutes away before our boat reaches the area.”
18 Tonnes and Ready to Eat
Each year, the Bryde’s whale comes close to the Thai shores to feed on the abundant fish. A 14-meter miracle of evolution that can grow to 18 tonnes, the Bryde’s whale is found not far from the most populous city in Thailand. Jirayu Ekkul is the one to find them.
The best season for Bryde’s whales is in September to December but Jirayu runs his tours from April to January – and he almost always seems to find them. “We have run for over five years now and we are the first and only commercial, dedicated whale watching operator established in this country, registered with Department of Tourism,” says Jiayru, conservationist and Wild Encounter Thailand owner.
We are creating a radio network, asking about whale sightings from fishing trawlers because they are all over the gulf and stay overnight in the sea.
The tour is a full day, from early morning to late afternoon, where guests can cruise along the coastline of the upper Gulf of Thailand to search for the Bryde’s whale. Travelers who find themselves in Bangkok will find a convenient tour with Wild Encounter Thailand, which takes them from the capital to the sea to the whales.
Jiayru is one of the best in the business at finding Bryde’s whales, and he’s bringing in help from around the Gulf. “We are creating a radio network, asking about whale sightings from fishing trawlers because they are all over the gulf and stay overnight in the sea. So, we have got more eyes and ears in the sea […] and can cover more area.” The Gulf of Thailand is a large area to to be sure, but closer to the shores is best. In the past the whales have been caught so close to Bangkok that they skyline can be seen in the background.
Big Jaws for a Big Feed
Unlike sperm whales or other cetaceans that hang about in pods, the Bryde’s whale is solitary and relatively elusive.
“Only the cow and calf will stay together for certain period of time,” says Jirayu, adding that socialization and social structure are still difficult to discern. “But lately we have observed a few younger whale tend to be hanging around in small pod or a pair, which is very interesting for us.”
The Wild Encounter Thailand Tour, a lifetime World Cetacean Alliance member, is probably the pest place on earth to see Bryde’s whales and their trap feeding. “Trap feeding is when the whale reaches the surface, drops its lower jaws like a hinge, and opens up their mouth wide,” says Jirayu.
The fish are trapped inside the whale’s massive jaws, which slowly sink back down into the water. “This brings most of our clients from around the world, especially wildlife enthusiasts and photographers.” Sea birds come down to help themselves to the anchovies panicked by the massive whales, circling, calling, and diving.
Saving Thailand’s Biggest Mammal
Jirayu’s is conservation-minded, taking time on the tour to explain to guests the importance of protecting the Bryde’s and the challenges that are faced. Last year, it was estimated that 55 Bryde’s whales – all of which were given names – spend their year feeding near Bangkok, with six reported deaths. The culprits could be everything from traffic to pollution, but those are not very sustainable numbers. “Apart from the educational and responsible whale watching, we also working closely with government authorities such as the Department of Marine and Coastal Resource for scientific research and population surveys.”
“The species of our whale here is a smaller ‘coastline’ species which is different than those who live offshore,” says Jirayu, adding that the most unique and striking feature of the whale is its rostrum, or head, which has three distinct ridges.
There are other cetaceans to be seen along the Wild Encounter Thailand Tour. “Some of our clients come solely for the rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. And there are Finless porpoise and Pink Humpback dolphin too.” Even birdwatchers will find something to love in the months from November to March, as shorebirds migrate their way through the gulf.
As ever, there is a tree of life – a parade of animals and natural events – that make sightings like the Bryde’s whale possible, and responsible tourism from people like Jirayu mean that the curious, trap-feeding, 18-tonne beasts of the deep will be around as long as there are people who care and do something about it.