The unique geology and climate conditions of Sri Lanka have allowed an unusual population of pygmy blue whales to inhabit the island’s nearshore waterways.

  • Pods of blue whales have found a unique home in the tropical waters of Sri Lanka. The island’s geology and climate create conditions that allow these gentle giants to stay close to shore almost year-round.
    The continental shelf surrounding Sri Lanka is unusually narrow. A continental shelf is a geologic feature that extends from a shoreline to a steep drop-off known as a shelf break. A narrow continental shelf means large, deep-water species such as blue whales can safely swim very near the shore.
    Two climate conditions also favor Sri Lanka’s blue whales. The first is upwelling, an underwater process in which cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean is forced toward the surface. Upwellings fill the ocean around Sri Lanka with krill, the staple of a blue whale’s diet.
    The second climate condition that creates such a rich environment for blue whales around Sri Lanka is the “double monsoon.” A double monsoon describes seasonal climates impacted by strong, predictable changes in prevailing wind patterns (monsoons). The summer monsoon brings winds from the hot, humid southwestern Indian Ocean. The summer monsoon is associated with torrential rainfall and warm surface waters. The winter monsoon brings cooler, drier air from the Himalayas, far to Sri Lanka’s north. Winter monsoons are much, much less powerful than summer monsoons in Sri Lanka, but the mixing of ocean waters creates opportunities for upwelling and creates a diverse marine ecosystem in which the blue whale thrives.
    Watch the video, from the Nat Geo WILD series “Destination Wild,” to learn about other environmental conditions that allow southern Sri Lanka to support one of the world’s largest populations of pygmy blue whales. Use the Fast Facts tab to learn some interesting facts about this distinct subspecies. Be sure to listen to vocalizations in the video, and see if you can answer questions about blue whale “songs” in the Questions tab.
    1. What is a “whale song”?

      A whale song describes a series of predictable sounds, like the tune of a song. The “tunes” of the blue whale, however, are pitched at far too low a frequency for humans to hear. The blue whale songs you hear in the video have been sped up about ten times their natural frequency!

    2. Why do whales “sing”?

      • Blue whales vocalize to communicate, although there isn’t a specific “language” we humans understand, where a specific set of sounds correlates to a specific circumstance. Blue whale songs are likely a part of a pod’s “social selection,” a process in which whales choose a mate.
      • Vocalizations are important to blue whales because other senses (such as sight and smell) are limited underwater.
    3. Why are the songs of Sri Lanka’s blue whales so unusual?

      The Sri Lanka “song” may be the most complex blue whale vocalizations in the world. The song consists of four units: three pulses and one tone. When “sung,” it is repeated, with some “phrasing,” about every 210 seconds. Scientists think the songs’ complexity may be explained by the Sri Lanka pods’ isolation from other blue whales. The isolation may require greater social selection than populations with simpler songs.

    • Pygmy blue whales, the subspecies found around southern Sri Lanka, inhabit all the world’s ocean basins, although they seem concentrated in the Indian and South Pacific. Many populations migrate to Antarctica, but the Sri Lanka population seems to pretty much stay put, forming what marine biologists call a “resident population.”
    • As their name indicates, pygmy blue whales are slightly smaller than their big blue siblings. Pygmies reach lengths of about 24 meters (79 feet), while “true blues” reach lengths of 30 meters (98 feet).
    • The heads of pygmy blue whales are nearly the same size as “true blues,” but their tails are shorter. So, while “true blues” have an elongated torpedo shape, pygmies have a stumpier, head-heavy tadpole shape.
    • “True blues” are an endangered species, but there isn’t enough information about pygmies to classify them in a threatened category. Experts think there are between 5,000 and 10,000 pygmy blue whales swimming the ocean today.
    • The biggest threats to pygmy blue whales are whaling, climate change (which impacts feeding patterns), noise interference (which interrupts communication) and "vessel disturbance"—being hit by container ships.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    climate change Noun

    gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate change
    communicate Verb

    to exchange knowledge, thoughts, or feelings.

    continental shelf Noun

    part of a continent that extends underwater to the deep-ocean floor.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continental shelf
    diet Noun

    foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.

    Encyclopedic Entry: diet
    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    frequency Noun

    rate of occurrence, or the number of things happening in a specific area over specific time period.

    geology Noun

    study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

    humid Adjective

    air containing a large amount of water vapor.

    island Noun

    body of land surrounded by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: island
    isolation Noun

    separation from other people, habitats, or communities.

    krill Noun

    small marine crustacean, similar to shrimp.

    marine ecosystem Noun

    community of living and nonliving things in the ocean.

    monsoon Noun

    seasonal change in the direction of the prevailing winds of a region. Monsoon usually refers to the winds of the Indian Ocean and South Asia, which often bring heavy rains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: monsoon
    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    ocean basin Noun

    depression in the Earth's surface located entirely beneath the ocean.

    pod Noun

    group of whales or dolphins.

    prevailing wind Noun

    wind that blows from one direction.

    shelf break Noun

    underwater edge of a continental shelf, where it begins a rapid slope to the deep ocean floor.

    subspecies Noun

    (subsp.) group of organisms within a single species, often distinguished by geographic isolation.

    threatened categories Noun

    three levels of endangered species: vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered.

    thrive Verb

    to develop and be successful.

    tropical Adjective

    existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.

    upwelling Noun

    process in which cold, nutrient-rich water from the bottom of an ocean basin or lake is brought to the surface due to atmospheric effects such as the Coriolis force or wind.

    Encyclopedic Entry: upwelling
    vocalization Noun

    sound or noise made by the vocal chords of an organism.

    whaling Noun

    industry of hunting whales.