It’s hard to believe, but there are whales living in the waters off Bangkok, and you can spend the day whale watching in one of the city’s most surreal experiences.
Recently I went whale watching in Bangkok – not a sentence I thought I’d ever find myself writing. But less than two hours drive from the heart of the city you can be on a boat heading out into the Gulf of Thailand in search of Bryde’s Whales.
Bryde’s whales (pronounced Bruda, ironically named after Norwegian Johan Bryde who set up a whale butchering station in South Africa back in the late 1900s) are resident pretty much all year round in the shallow calm waters off Samut Songkhram province, one of Thailand’s major fishing and fish processing areas. Samut Songkhram is actually a separate province and city to Bangkok, but the endless urban sprawl of the metropolis means it feels like you’ve never left the city limits until you arrive at the sea.
After a 6 am start from Sathorn and a minivan ride to the small pier under Bung To bridge, we headed out in the whale spotting boat, marvelling at the flat calm of the water. The trip is organised by the small Love Wildlife charity, with these fortnightly trips for a maximum of 15 wannabe whale spotters helping to fund the charity’s own data collection on the whales.
With the boat proceeding at a leisurely pace out into the Gulf, I still found it hard to believe we were going to spot whales here in the industrial heartland of Bangkok. The water here is not hideously polluted but it’s not pristine either thanks to the fish and prawn processing industries along the coastline. As we headed out, there were numerous ramshackle huts on stilts scattered across the broad expanse of water, along with plenty of seagulls and terns awaiting an opportunistic feast.
The whale-spotting boat itself is a standard Thai fishing boat converted to a day tripper vessel, with a rooftop sun deck for scanning the sea’s surface and open sides for hanging over the wooden edges to do the same.
After an hour and a half of heading out, the water became distinctly less populated by fishing detritus and progressively more empty and open, with just the blue of sky and sea surrounding us. The mainland was still visible, and just as I was thinking we’re going to have to head out a lot further, the grizzled boat captain gave out a distinctly ungrizzled yelp and pointed out to the left – a big black shape, glistening in the strong sunshine, broke water, a huge dorsal fin clearly visible for a split second and then it was gone.
I couldn’t quite believe it. I knew it’s why we’re here, I knew the volunteers who run the trips have been out here scores of times and virtually always had success, but, but… There are bloody whales in the waters around Bangkok!
The next three hours were basically the same but with more shouting and oohs and aahs only usually heard at a fireworks display as the captain gently circled the boat around and we scanned the water for the whales (yes, plural) to break the surface.
My romantic imagination was somehow expecting them to come up and just sit on the surface to be admired – as it turns out, Bryde’s whales are like nautical ninjas – they come up, take in more air and are gone within a second or so.
Taking photos is an exercise in pure frustration because it’s near impossible to anticipate where they will come up – and once they do, by the time the camera is aimed and focused, they’re heading back down again. You’re also going to need a really big lens – following international guidelines, the boat stays at a respectful distance from the whales, which do sometimes approach and so get nearer, but their speed and distance means a whale selfie is very unlikely to happen. This was a bitter disappointment.
That said, these fleeting glimpses remained fascinating. At first the whales seem like outside dolphins with a similar dorsal fin – but as we got accustomed to the shape, the huge closed mouth is occasionally visible and there’s was very brief flick of a whale tail as one of them dove, just before we left, bringing our whale spotting expedition to a great close.
We arrived back at the pier by about 4pm, and then the journey back into central Bangkok took around 3 hours, due to, unsurprisingly, heavy traffic. So we were back in Sathorn around 7pm.
The staff from Love Wildlife were great all day, spoke excellent English and entertained the several children on the trip during the journey home with a quiz about the whales which they seemed to really enjoy. The volunteers have a real passion but also a definite scientific rigour to what they’re doing – for them, it’s not a daytrip but another chance to gather sighting info and add to their database about the whales behaviour.
The total trip price, including minivan, boat and lunch on the boat (rice and pork or chicken) was 2000 Baht. See their site for more info.
I was hoping to see the Bryde’s whales doing their lunge feeding where they shoot up vertically from several metres below the surface, open their mouths almost 180 degrees and take a massive gulp of water that captures all the small fish within it. This behaviour apparently happens between August to October so I’ll be back up again for sure for a chance to see it – Jason Thompson has an excellent photoset on Flickr shot in the same waters during 2013 that show this amazing feeding pattern.