The sun has just set over a coconut fringed headland on our last night in Sri Lanka. These few weeks have offered a fantastic contrast to the short, chilly days in London at this time of year, and have also highlighted the incredible biological riches this country has to offer.
Once a conservation scientist, always a conservation scientist, so here are a few observations and ongoing questions I have after our short visit to this stunning island.
1. Sri Lankans are custodians of astounding marine biodiversity
Each evening restaurants lining Mirissa beach in the south set up displays of locally caught fish for the mostly Western tourists to select from for their dinner. For most visitors this is as close as they will get to the abundant marine life in the waters just off shore.
People flock around the displays of large snapper, lobster and prawns adjacent to aptly named jumbo prawns, squid, coral trout, tuna and dragon fish. It’s impressive, but what is more impressive is the size and number of fish being hauled out at the nearby Weligama fishing harbour every day. There aren’t many places with waters this rich and our dives with Weligama Bay Diving Centre confirm the fact.
Our Dive Master Isu is professional and thorough but also clearly glad to have a few experienced divers to take out. Each of the dives features rocky reefs and a pinnacle of sorts, always shrouded by a cloud of fish.
Triggerfish, large parrotfish, beautiful butterflyfish, and moorish idols wander around, amongst occasional tuna, barracuda, bumphead parrotfish, coral trout and other species more wary of ending up on a plate.
Amongst the boulders enormous moray eels peer out from crevices, white antennae betray huge lobster and tiny elegant nudibranchs (sea slugs) are quickly discovered by the eagle-eyed amongst our dive crew. Apparently whale sharks are sighted at one site religiously every New Years Day, but this year is the exception unfortunately.
It isn’t just the south of Sri Lanka that is rich in marine life however, a single reef dive off Negombo on the country’s west coast yielded octopus, cuttlefish, eels, cleaner shrimp, sea whips and much more. Yet every day the fishing boats line the beaches and sweep up and down the shore, catching everything in their fine-meshed nets.
I do eat seafood, and can see fishing is an important part of many coastal communities here, but I was particularly cautious of restaurants selling obviously undersized animals, which was not an uncommon sight. Some restrictions exist on catching particularly vulnerable species but with fishing still an important form of subsistence for so many families and the tourist market booming, it’s inevitable that these waters will become a little less rich every year.
2. The plastic tide rolls on
The widespread awareness of plastic straws, common amongst Brits after Blue Planet II screened in late 2017, hasn’t extended as far across the globe as you’d think. Every fresh fruit juice or refreshing cocktail here is delivered with one on or two plastic straws, and requests for no straw are often forgotten or misunderstood.
A few hotels and restaurants are starting to offer alternatives (apparently, I didn’t find any) and some wait staff were receptive to our requests, but it’s clear the problem won’t be solved by London’s bars alone.
Plastic bottles were also a consistent issue – tap water is potable in many regions and more expensive hotels offer water in glass bottles but for those cautious about travellers’ tummy, the plastic bottle is everywhere and the discarded containers don’t appear to be of particular interest to roving recyclers.
In contrast, the local Lion Lager and soft drinks are often served in reused glass bottles, bearing the rings of white scratch marks from several journeys through a bottling factory. This is something we could adopt more widely in the UK and elsewhere with deposit return schemes, if people could get used to the slightly used appearance of the bottles.
3. Diving & whale watching
Sri Lanka Diving Tours – Feli, a highly trained technical diver and accredited tour guide, heads up a competent team of guides and skippers. His shops in Negombo and Batticaloa are the only technical dive centres on the island and can support the whole range of diving needs, up to teams of rebreather divers. With a bit of notice and a bit of luck, almost anything is possible, although I’d recommend trying to dive the HMS Hermes off Batticaloa in the ‘right’ season from May to October, when the currents are less intense. (It’s an incredible site, an early aircraft carrier sunk by the Japanese only days after Pearl Harbour).
Weligama Bay Diving Centre – This popular 5 star PADI accredited dive centre is a reassuring alternative to some of the dodgy looking ‘dive shops’ in Mirissa. The dive sites are a short boat ride away and the equipment is well maintained by professional staff. Trip Advisor was useless when it came to selecting a reliable dive shop, so for once the PADI website was a godsend.
Whales – despite our best efforts, we will return to the UK whale-less. It wasn’t the season for whales off Trincomalee’s impressive harbour but was supposed to be a good time to see blue and sperm whales near Mirissa in the South West. This January was a quiet one apparently. I did learn that you are not allowed to swim or snorkel with the whales, but also that this doesn’t mean vendors don’t offer trips in small boats into the shipping lanes to do just that.
Raja and the Whales are the most ethical whale watching operator around Mirissa and don’t overcrowd their vessels. Oceanswell are an internationally highly regarded conservation and education organisation headed by Dr Asha de Vos, raising awareness of the dangers of ship collisions with whales migrating along Sri Lanka’s coasts.
4. Human elephant conflict makes more sense now
Driving along a busy single lane road near Sigiriya Rock, our driver slowed to let us take photos of a relaxed elephant browsing by the side of the road, indifferent to the local buses speeding past it. Sri Lankan elephants are the largest of the Asian elephants and their ears are noticeably smaller than their African relatives.
They often find ways of bypassing the electric fencing around nature reserves and wander past nearby villages. I can’t count how many presentations I’ve heard about human-elephant conflict during my time as a conservation science student, but it suddenly became a lot more real seeing the proximity of these amazing creatures to busy villagers. It wouldn’t take much to set an elephant into the path of trouble, the lure of a roadside fruit stall, or a surprise firecracker – and as beautiful creatures as they are, living close by would be nerve wracking.
The respect and value placed on these animals, culturally and spiritually, is clearly important. I’m no expert but the fact the government-run Pinnawala elephant orphanage continues to receive orphaned calves every year is enough of a sign that the competition for space is an ongoing challenge.
5. It’s all very well…
One of our skippers got chatting and it turns out he (we only met one female Sri Lankan diving professional) gets 1500 LKR (£6.45 GBP, $8.20 USD) per day, and only on days the boats go out. Otherwise he works as a day labourer or takes off fishing to provide for his family of five. Even when the winds got up and our dives were cancelled, his cheeky grin was ever present, but it was difficult to look down at a menu later that day and see single dishes for what he could have earnt that day.
I enjoyed reading The Teardrop Island by Cherry Briggs and valued advice in Lonely Planet guides but found information gets outdated very quickly in rapidly growing regions.