Holding his breath—literally and figuratively—photographer Tony Wu waited to see whether his suspicions would be confirmed. Twenty years of experience and a gut feeling at the sight of a fluke disappearing beneath the surface had prompted Wu to leap from the boat and wait. Suddenly a dark nose, immediately recognizable, emerged out of the misty blue haze. It was indeed a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), and in 2014 when Wu captured the image, it was likely the first living individual of the species ever recorded off the coast of Sri Lanka.
In many ways, this spot might seem ripe for humpback encounters. Winds that blow off the coast drive surface waters out to sea, and cause cold, nutrient-rich currents to well up from the deep. The resulting cornucopia of krill, shrimp, and small plankton are a boon for many filter-feeding giants like blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). Yet humpbacks have been conspicuously absent—only occasionally washing up dead on Sri Lanka’s shores or heard singing by sailors aboard passing ships.
Whether this juvenile male simply blundered into these bountiful waters by mistake or was representative of a growing trend is still unknown. But humpback populations are larger now than they have been for most of past century, and the species has become a charismatic symbol for the power of global cooperation in marine management. Since the implementation of a ban on commercial whaling in 1986, populations have rebounded dramatically and the humpback is now classified as a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
For Wu, the encounter was remarkable on a personal level as well. He has spent countless hours in the water with whales of all ages and sizes, and he recognized the playfulness of this youngster immediately. The young whale turned circles and splashed Wu mischievously, seemingly in an effort to get the photographer to play. Or perhaps this was the whale’s way of celebrating the food-rich waters it had discovered—and possibly the first of many such encounters off the coast of Sri Lanka.