An experience of a lifetime with ChomWhales

Created on August 10, 2016 By Areerat Worawongwasu

See whales and other magnificent sea animals in their natural habitat while helping conserve these creatures through this educational experience with the Love Wildlife Foundation.

Birds soar through the brilliant cobalt skies. Underneath, the sea is calm. A gentle breeze runs through my hair. A fishing boat sails by our vessel slowly, as if to revel in the tranquil beauty of the morning. In the distance, I see a burst of bubbles, creating effervescent white sea foam. Our captain points to the bubbling and steers the ship towards it. Once we are 100 meters away, he spins the wheel skillfully, bringing our vessel to a pause. The bubbling starts to diminish, gradually revealing a glassy sea surface.

Suddenly, there are are ripples in the water. There is a pause as we watch in anticipation. Then, the waves crash and echo. Moments later, a mouth emerges. I gape, transfixed. A majestic whale appears from the surface of the water. It opens its enormous mouth wide and lunges through a shoal of small fish.

Where is this? Iceland? Norway? Alaska?

The answer may surprise you. In fact, what I have just described was a Bryde’s Whale lunge-feeding in the Gulf of Thailand. When Thai people go whale watching, we often travel abroad to faraway places. However, there are beautiful whales in our very own seas! Most Thai people do not even know there are whales in our country. Whales often reside in deep waters, so it is a rarity to find them naturally living in such shallow waters. But these majestic creatures are in fact a common sight for Thai gulf fishermen and have even been a part of the local culture for centuries.

According to Dr. Kanjana Adulyanuosol of Thailand’s Marine and Coastal Resources Research Center (MCRC) in Samut Sakhon Province, "Many Thai people respect the whales as 'gods of the sea' - owing perhaps to their huge size and mysterious life history." According to her, "in some areas, if a dead whale is found, the body is buried following a Buddhist ceremony similar to that conducted for humans. In the past, when the skeletons of the whales were found, people brought them to deposit in the temples or government institutions. About a hundred whale skeletons, both Bryde's and Omura's whales, are kept in Buddhist temples and institutions - including a 100-year-old specimen in Nakhon Si Thammarat Province in southern Thailand."1

ChomWhales is a sustainable educational tourism project by the Love Wildlife Foundation. Every year, a team of enthusiastic volunteers partner with local seamen to organize whale-watching trips in the Gulf of Thailand. These trips teach people about the marine life of Thailand and allow people to see these beautiful animals without disturbing their natural habitats. Visitors can not only see whales, but also other rare sea animals such as pink dolphins and the famous red-footed booby birds. We are even partnering with Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST) this season so that we have more expert information about the birds of the Harbour.

ChomWhales works with two local boatmen, Captain Lek and Captain Jaroon. This allows us to to highlight local knowledge such as traditional fisheries during our trips as well as bring income into local communities. Captain Lek and Jaroon are very close to the sea and its creatures. Lung Lek has even given the whales names such as Mae Khao Niew (sticky rice mama). During our volunteer training trip, I had the opportunity to interview Captain Jaroon about his experiences with whale-watching:

Aree: How long have you been organizing whale-watching trips and how did you first get involved?

Captain Jaroon: I’ve been captaining whale-watching trips for over ten years. Before that, I was a fisherman. I’ve always seen the whales and dolphins, but wanted to explore and learn more about them. Most Thai people don’t even know that there are whales in our country! I organized a few trips, and word got around. In the past decade, there’s been a surge of interest in whale watching, so I’ve been able to make a living out of captaining these trips.

In the past decade, there have been more and more people discovering that there are whales in Thailand and venturing out to see these sea mammals in their natural environment. While it is wonderful that people are choosing to see whales out in the wild rather than captivity, where they suffer, a lot of the whale watching activities that are happening currently are actually detrimental to the whales themselves. Some organizers value taking pretty photographs over the comfort of the whale and go in too close to the whales, making the creatures distressed. Some travellers also litter or try to feed the sea animals, which is detrimental to the environment.

Whale watching is a sensitive activity for the ecosystem. ChomWhales has therefore established appropriate guidelines for all its trips, to ensure the wellbeing of both travellers and marine life. The knowledgeable volunteer staff will also educate you about marine life and conservation throughout the trip. Your newly gained knowledge will be tested in a fun game-show style quiz. There will be prizes!

Each of the trips also helps document information about the behavior of whales. While other baleen whales have been extensively studied, there is significant lack of academic research of Bryde’s Whales. ChomWhales travellers can help change this by entering data onto online database for monitoring dolphins and whales in tourism areas, developed by Prince of Songkhla University, through their smartphones.

I interviewed P’Noom, a long-time volunteer with ChomWhales, about his experience with the project:

Aree: How did you first get involved with ChomWhales?

P’Noom: I become interested in whale-watching firstly because I am a diver. I kept hearing about the Bryde’s Whales but had never seen one, so when I heard there was a project developing educational whale-watching trips, I decided to volunteer. I have been diving for four years now, and I think that Thailand has such abundant wildlife. I have dived in other countries as well, and none of them compare to Thailand for me. It’s a shame that we don’t conserve the beautiful nature that we have. As Thailand continues to industrialize, we keep destroying the very resources that make our country what it is in the first place.

Aree: In your opinion, what policy changes could be made to allow for the improved conservation of whales and other marine life?

P’Noom: Bryde’s Whales are truly majestic creatures, and I think it’s great that there’s been a boom in people wanting to go on whale-watching trips. However, I think there should be greater efforts to enforce restrictions on these trips. A lot of the tourism actually causes more harm than help. At ChomWhales, we focus on responsible tourism, but a lot of travellers still value comfort over sustainability. Each of our trips costs 2000 baht, which I think is a good price, but people can also stay one night at a resort with that money, or pay less for a different whale-watching trip that doesn’t have as much educational value. So while policies are important, I think what comes first is educating people and changing their mindset.

To conserve, we must first begin by changing people’s mindsets. This is reflected in the slogan of the ChomWhales project, “conservation through education.” The latest whale-watching season begins this month. You can read more about this wonderful project by the Love Wildlife Foundation and make bookings for an experience of a lifetime here: chomwhales.org

Works cited:

1 =  "Scientists Study Bryde's Whales in Gulf of Thailand." Animal Welfare Institute. 2011. Web. https://awionline.org/awi-quarterly/2011-fall/scientists-study-brydes-whales-gulf-thailand