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Sri Lanka Aggressor Problems

Discussion in 'Aggressor Adventures' started by Calvin Tang, Dec 26, 2016.

  1. MatthiasPR

    MatthiasPR New

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Germany
    Looks like I'm one of only few people, who has been on the SLA :yeahbaby:.

    I was on the tour from November 19-26 together with two friends from Germany, and folks from UK, France, Italy, US and Canada. At least our tour took really place and was not fully canceled or partially replaced with a Sri Lanka jungle camp. Nevertheless: various issues with the boat and Sri Lanka officials made this a very - let's call it "special" trip: every night in the Colombo industrial harbour between container vessels, only 12 dives in the full week, one day Colombo sight seeing instead of diving, stability issues of the vessel, broken anchor ropes while divers in the water, rain water in some cabins, broker aircon in some cabins, lovely smell from the toilet in some cabins, etc. We did some research and figured out, that the ship was initially built in Egypt a couple of years ago - so everything else than new, except the interior. Weather and sea conditions in Egypt are completely different, so obviously the ship was not suitable for the conditions along the west coast of Sri Lanka during that time of the year.

    But in all fairness also some positive points have to be mentioned: the crew did its best to still make it an enjoyable trip; food and service was at Aggressor standard, a lot of extra staff was onboard to help to get the daily procedures stabilized. And: the diving! 10 dives at wrecks close by Colombo - all really great, partially pretty deep. Some wrecks were covered with fish like a blanket. Conditions were not easy with low visibility and sometimes strong current (--> broken anchor rope) - not suitable for beginners. One day we went for dolphin and whale snorkelling: we had lot's of blue whales and had the chance to snorkel with them - great experience. One of our fellow guests posted a drone video on YouTube:

    Compensation from Aggressor after the trip took some time to negotiate. Initially they targeted for a voucher on one of the next tours, but finally they agreed on a fair cash compensation. Nevertheless, Aggressor did not really take responsibility for the disaster but pointed in the direction of the franchise partner in Sri Lanka.

    Sad to hear, that they finally were not able to stabilise the situation; officials in Sri Lanke were obviously not really helpful... The entire crew worked for month their butt off to get it up and running. Disappointing for them.

    Anyway: I seem to have the privilege, to continue to be one of a very small group having done this trip and having seen the great wrecks along the west shore of Colombo. :nyah:

    I have posted some pictures on a german dive forum for the one's who are interested: Sri Lanka Aggressor - Taucher.Net
  2. chillyinCanada

    chillyinCanada ScubaBoard Supporter Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    Thank you Matthias MatthiasPR! Good stuff.
  3. Hutch12

    Hutch12 Registered

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Hong Kong
    I was lucky enough to be on what turned out to be the final Sri Lanka Aggressor.....Here is my take;

    Our concerns for this trip began way back in October with poor reports of the opening snorkel trips. Never the less we decided to go head. These concerns escalated hugely in the days before we set off for Sri Lanka, our friends were on the trip before, the ill fated zodiac flipping trip and they were in contact with us with the horror story of the accident and subsequent confinement to a port by the authorities for 2.5 days.

    As soon as we heard of the accident and investigation by the authorities we were in touch with the named person at Aggressor, responsible for the Sri Lanka boat. To my amazement, my e-mail to him was the first he had heard of it all and as the week went on, it appeared to be that my passing of news from our friends was his only source of information on the ongoing issue. This was on going for 2-3 days. What an insight into Aggressor's internal comms.

    Our friends had clearly written their week off and were trying to look out for us and advised us to make alternative travel plans. Their reason for this was that as the pictures show, one zodiac was totally wrecked and the other severely damaged. These zodiacs were vital to the whale snorkel operation. I did eventually receive an e-mail from Aggressor's VP Operations, hours before we flew, saying that all was well, all issues with authorities were ironed out and that the 3rd, spare zodiac was available and suitable for service.

    I only have second hand info on the previous week's accident (albeit corroborated by 2 separate parties). For this review I will only discuss our week's trip, partly because there is an ongoing pursuit of monies.

    Anyway, we arrived on the boat to be met by a familiar, friendly face, the same Cruise Director we'd had a great week with last year in the Maldives, Shumi, he had been asked to come up to Sri Lanka to bring the operation up to the "Aggressor Standards".

    The boat, on the face of it was pretty nice, certainly not "brand new" as advertised but comfortable. Usual problems existed such as temperamental AC and smells from bathrooms but I have come to expect these on liveaboards.

    The crew, other than the Maldivian Cruise Director, a Sri Lankan Captain and a Sri Lankan dive guide were all Egyptian and had all worked on the boat in the red sea before Aggressor put their name on it. This included an Egyptian captain who had been with the boat since its launch. There was also a "Wildlife Welfare Inspector" or some other title from some Sri Lankan government department.

    I noticed right away that one zodiac was significantly larger than the other, contrary to the Opps guys assurances.

    Day 1 of whale watching came and we saw dolphins and pilot whales, we scrambled the boats, one with 10 people and the smaller, spare, with 4-6 pax in ( had both original boats been operational, 20 out of 26 guests would have been in he zodiacs) and did get into the water, unfortunately the vis was not great and the animals were swimming away from the boats / snorkelers.

    The boat moved on in search of better vis and whales. Very soon afterwards we spotted the first blue whale of the trip and again got in to the water, the vis was much better here and we did manage to get a very fleeting glance of a blue whale under the water.

    Pretty much after the 2nd or 3rd jump of that day 1, I had already come to the conclusion that the whole concept of snorkeling with Blue Whales and the operation of getting people in to the water with them in Sri lanka was massively flawed (terminally as it turned out).

    I will detail here, in no particular order, the reasons this operation was always destined to fail (in my opinion).

    - Blue Whales are not Humpbacks or other curious whales.
    They have no interest in boats, or snorkelers. They usually (9 times out of 10) turn away from boats or dive as soon as they are aware they are approaching them. Even those that do cruise by are moving far too fast to enjoy any real "encounter" with. In Sri Lanka, these whales are spending most of the day feeding in the deep canyons off of the coast. This means they are constantly diving to feed and are only at the surface for between 8-12 "blows" before diving for 10-15 minutes. The distance they travel underwater while feeding is huge and direction is near impossible to predict. This means that when the whale did next surface it was often well over 1km away meaning a very fast zodiac ride and a rushed drop of snorkelers into the water just in time to see the whale dive again.

    - Getting People into the water
    Even with the larger, faster zodiac, which had a definite advantage over the "spare" zodiac, dropping 10 snorkelers into the water in the path of the whale was chaotic, noisy and splashy. Even if all this didn't make the whale turn, dive or swim away, it was clearly quite dangerous, I felt the hard part of a fellow snorkelers body, fin or camera housing drop onto me from around 3.5ft on more than one occasion and I wasn't alone with bruises.

    - Permits and permission to snorkel
    There is a well established "whale watching" industry based in Marissa, a small fishing port on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Marissa is the closest point on land to the whale "hotspot". The Marissa whale watching operators have formed what is basically a mafia as they are concerned about the effect the Aggressor operation will have on their business. Aggressor are apparently the only operation with a permit to snorkel with whales. What Aggressor never mentioned in their marketing is that, whether by permit or agreement with the whale watching mafia, they were not allowed to be in the Marissa "hotspot" area, snorkeling before 12 noon each day. We soon worked out that the "Wildlife Welfare" guy was really present more to police and monitor this situation than any perceived harassment of whales. At one point, a day boat did approach the Aggressor, clearly not happy about our presence in this area.

    - The boat was not fit for purpose
    As has been mentioned in previous posts the boat was not suitable for the big sea conditions that can occur at any time in that region. The boat is tall with a relatively narrow beam and rolled a lot in the very calm conditions we enjoyed. I can only dread to think what would have happened had the boat turned broad side onto big waves.

    - In Sri Lanka, the left hand doesn't talk to the right hand
    It became clear that the Aggressor operation had not been very open and clear with their clients or had they fully ironed out all the issues with Sri Lankan authorities. Issues not limited to problems of permits, where they could be, when they could be there, what they could do, the interests of the owners, the interests of the Wildlife Protection agency, the busy international shipping lanes that run right through the whales habitat etc etc.
    There were instances where we were surrounded by whales but the zodiacs were called back to the Aggressor, this happened for a number of reasons including; The wildlife guy saying we were out of the permitted area even though the Egyptian captain said we were well within it, The Captain receiving a call from the owners insisting we moved as the permit to operate had been threatened by the government after a report by the Marissa whale watching mafia, The Sri Lankan captain insisting we were operating too close to the shipping lanes and others that escape me now. Incidentaly, the coordinates of the permitted area would change on a daily basis.
    Honestly, snorkeling near container shipping lines is not something I have interest in ever doing, however, I felt we were at more than a safe distance from any other vessel. This and permit restrictions may well be legitimate reasons for calling off whale snorkeling activities, however, I would refer to my point above that Aggressor should have had all these issues ironed out before inviting paying guests on board.

    So as our week went on, we did manage to get into the water with Blue whales on every day apart from one, not including Aggressor's infamous and unpopular policy of heading back to port half way through the penultimate day.

    The encounters were largely like those of the first day, fleeting glances, sometimes the whale would be deep below us, sometimes away in the distance. Thankfully the excellent visibility made it possible to see or make out the whale at such long range.

    I will say that the assurances that the spare zodiac would be fine and suitable for the task were utter crap. After day 1 it was deemed better to only have 4 guests in the boat so the much smaller engine could compete on speed in getting anywhere near the whales. It was way down on speed and much noisier than the large boat and as mentioned held less than 50% capacity of the zodiac intended for use. The guests had to rotate through using the handicapped boat, thus hugely reducing guest encounter time.

  4. Hutch12

    Hutch12 Registered

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Hong Kong
    AND THEN; 2 days before the end of the trip, midway through the morning's whale snorkeling, 3 adult Blue Whales were seen, unlike every other whale we had seen (all individuals) , they were not diving or rushing away at the first sign of our boats, instead they were spending far longer at the surface, swimming much slower and showing no signs of going in any particular direction. It turned out to be 2 males escorting a female prior to a courtship.

    Importantly for us it meant some real interaction with Blue Whales, they were cruising round and round interacting with each other and seemingly unaware of our presence other than the odd turn of their massive head to take a look at us and then continued with their business.

    It was an unforgettable experience and those 4 or 5 hours where the whales simply swam and cavorted very close to the aggressor, allowing all guests on board to get excellent encounters really made the whole trip worth while and justified to all on board.

    I am still editing my underwater shots but here is some of my drone footage of the 3 whales together;

    Note; these vids have been uploaded in low res format, please PM me if you are interested in full high res access.

    Continuing with my report, I genuinely cannot speak highly of the crew of the Aggressor, with possible exception of the of the Sri Lankan Captain, of whom I am still not convinced of his motives based on his actions, possibly fueling the problems with the mafia and authorities.

    The Cruise Director, Shumi, was working tirelessly, regularly arguing with the wild life guy and Sri lankan captain about where we should be and where we should be heading, the dive crew, boat crew, F&B crew all worked tirelessly to ensure even the slower days were enjoyable. They were a great bunch to share a drink with at the end of each day and would love to find my self on a dive boat with this crew again.

    So all in all, WE had a good a week, capped by one awesome, unforgetable day, however, as we headed back to port the news came through that all Aggressor operations in Sri Lanka had been cancelled. It came as no surprise to any one on the ship. I have heard conflicting reasons for the cancellations but I am confident that the perfect storm of issues I mention above is a huge contributor.

    So whether I would recommend a friend to take this trip is now inconsequential but for the sake of it, I would not. There is no way that other trips would have had the huge amount of luck in seeing the 3 courting whales, even marine experts on board the boat said that is such a rare episode to be seen by humans. Following trips would have only experienced the frustrating, unrewarding brief, fleeting glances at shadows that we had seen on most days, if at all, among the ridiculous level of bureaucracy that surrounded the whole opp.

    I will finish by saying that Sri Lanka as a county is wonderful, the country, the people, the food and the wildlife all make it somewhere I will certainly return to, unfortunately, like so many other developing nations it seems to be held back by many layers of authority all fighting for their cut or share and drowning in red tape.
    csky217 and MatthiasPR like this.
  5. chavala

    chavala Registered

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Santa Fe, NM
    Read the latest Undercurrent article. wow.
  6. Shasta_man

    Shasta_man Contributor

    <<Nevertheless, Aggressor did not really take responsibility for the disaster but pointed in the direction of the franchise partner in Sri Lanka.>>
    Unfortunately, we have seen this pattern before. The promotion is that the boat is great becuase it is under the Aggressor umbrella, but reports say when push comes to shove, the umbrella has evaporated.. Not happy as I would prefer a healthy Aggressor fleet.

    Thanks all for the reports. They helped understand this situation but also the concerns that can happen with whale watching trips in general
  7. csky217

    csky217 Registered

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Baahston
    Thanks for all of the reports and information. Our group was booked on the Sri Lanka Aggressor and had our trip cancelled at the last, last minute. We did receive refunds from Aggressor, but in the future I will think very long and hard about booking a liveaboard in its first year of operation.

    To those who have shared your experiences and insights - thanks again.
  8. scubafanatic

    scubafanatic Contributor

    Definitely one of my main 'go to' research resources when planning dive trips, I want lots of reinforcing, positive trip reviews before I book with anyone!

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