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Howard Martenstyn: Out of the Blue

Howard Martenstyn was only 12 years old when his brother threw him overboard. Cedric and he were on a boat off the coast of Trincomalee and Howard didn’t know how to swim. Suffice to say, he learned quickly. He adored his older brother and from him he also learned to love the world’s wild places and the animals that lived in them. Officially retired now, Howard still relishes swimming in the ocean but he is most often found at the prow of a boat, camera in hand. Over the last decade, the one-time graduate in Control Engineering has distinguished himself in another field altogether, collating his exhaustive research in a stunning new book to be launched today at the Dutch Burgher Union: ‘Out of the Blue’ is billed as a ‘Guide to the Marine Mammals of Sri Lanka, Southern India and the Maldives.’

If you joined Howard on one of his expeditions, you’d have your first inkling that he was much more than an amateur enthusiast when you realised his camera was linked to a GPS, allowing him to pinpoint the exact location of every picture he’s taken. (Over 400 images both by him and other photographers such as B. Dayaratne, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Roshan Abeywickrama, Abigail Ailing and Jason Isley appear in the book.) Approaching his passion with scientific precision, Howard has created what amounts to a mini-encyclopaedia of marine mammals in the region. The book is exhaustive, spared from being exhausting by its author’s sense of humour, his appreciation for delightful oddities and a practical streak a mile wide that makes this not just a beautiful publication but a useful one.

When we meet, it is in the office of his wife Laila Gunesekere, Vice President of the Grant Group. Born to a well-to-do family, Howard left home determined to make his own way in the world. Moving to Canada, he raised a family and pursued a successful career in telecommunications and project management, which included stints at Nortel Networks and the Bank of Montreal. Always determined to return for good, he found himself back in Sri Lanka in the early 2000s. Often out at sea, off the coast of Kalpitiya, Howard spent hours tracking pods of Spinner dolphins who leapt and twirled on the horizon. As his interest expanded to include sperm whales, dugongs and orcas, Howard covered reams of paper with comprehensive notes that would form the basis of his book.

“Everything has a meaning in this book,” Howard is saying now, “90% of the pictures were selected for a purpose and that was to get you to read the text.” He pauses for a beat.“The other 10% was to fill up white space.” Determined to root the book in Sri Lanka as much as he could, he found ways to embed his location in the images. (“There’s Swami Rock in the background…who could doubt this was Sri Lanka?”) Working closely with Richard Simon – someone he identifies with gratitude as both editor and mentor – and with Imagewise, Howard broke the book into four sections. Following the introduction penned by the Hiran W. Jayawardene, Founder Chairman of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), he launches into the first section. It presents a general overview of marine mammals in Sri Lanka, including historical sightings, current research and data on their physiology and behaviour.

The next section goes into the details of individual species, with informative profiles paired with striking illustrations. In the third section, Howard draws on his own research with dolphins and sperm whales to explore how the geography of the ocean floor influences the movements of creatures, particularly the larger whales. Tying weather patterns, currents and the upwelling of nutrients with bathymetric charts, he identified good feeding grounds that lured whales in with the promise of abundance.

The final section of the book is devoted to whale watching and it is the only place where Howard shares something of his personal opinions.‘Martenstyn’s Top Ten Tips for Whale Watchers’ includes such wisdom as ‘No.6: Big Whales like Canyons’; ‘No. 9: Spinners are Morning Dolphins,’ and the acronym he made up: DAWN FOGS. Too long to list here, it neatly summarises all his research on the elements that influence the movements of whales.He sees uninhibited sharing of knowledge as a vital extension of the research he does out at sea.

Howard waited to publish all this information until he could be assured that some regulations to protect sea life were in place. Though he is the first to acknowledge the difficulties in enforcing them, he chooses to be an optimist. In the office today are a fresh batch of the posters he will distribute at his lectures, some delivered in schools along the coast, where fishermen’s children are in attendance. (A gifted yet nervous public speaker, he is known to bolster his courage with 3 cups of coffee before walking to the podium.)

Out at sea, camera in hand: Howard Martenstyn

While his message of conservation can seem like “water off a whale’s back” to hardened adults, children are more willing to be inspired and to fall in love with the animals. It helps that Howard is at his most passionate on the subject on how much we have left to learn. ‘Marine mammals are among the most eagerly watched creatures on earth,’ he writes in his introduction. ‘And so they should be; not just for their beauty, magnificence and grace, but because almost every aspect of their lives is mysterious and fascinating.’

Appointed Director of the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals(CRIOMM) in 2012, he is currently at work consolidating their Marine Mammal Distribution Database, applying his knowledge of control engineering to gain an ever deepening insight into their movements. Though his family are extremely supportive of his second career (Laila says she’s used to him being unable to sleep thanks to a case of whales-on-the-brain) Howard’s passion is a bit of solitary one. “Conditions can be very harsh,” he says, explaining that while he’s content to be out at sea for hours on end, fuelled only by fresh air and the thrill of the chase, it’s not something he would ask of his wife or children. Still, if Cedric were here, he would no doubt have had company more often.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the latter. A picture of Cedric’s smiling face and the words ‘Lovingly dedicated to my brother, whose exuberance for the outdoors ignited my passion to take the plunge, into the Blue’ are deliberately placed in a black square that draws the eye. In many ways, Howard knows he is following in his brother’s footsteps. Cedric joined NARA in the 1980s and was among the first master PADI divers in Sri Lanka. He would later become the Director of the National Marine Mammal Programme before leaving to serve as the Commanding Officer of the Sri Lankan Navy’s Special Boat Service. During the war, his helicopter was shot down and after a spell in captivity, he was reported as missing in action. “Our family was devastated,” says Howard. “I really miss him because had he been here today, he would have been so proud to see this book.”

Continuing his brother’s work, Howard hopes that ‘Out of the Blue’ will not only inform decision makers and regulators who shape marine policy but also ignite a sense of adventure and curiosity in a more general readership. “I want people to know that this is something that anybody with a passion (and some level of education) would really enjoy. What’s fantastic about this is that over 70% of the earth is covered with water, and yet we know so little about it. Discovering new things is easy.”

‘Out of Blue: A Guide to the Marine Mammals of Sri Lanka, Southern India and the Maldives’ is priced at Rs.4,800 for the softcover and Rs.5,800 for the hardcover. The book is also available at Barefoot and Citrus Hotels. More details available online at:

 Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 1 December, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by courtesy Howard Martenstyn.

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