Basking in the warmth of the Indian Ocean with its white sandy beaches, tall whispering palm trees and lush green forests lies the island of Sri Lanka. This beautiful picturesque country has become a major tourist destination for both holiday makers and divers alike.
The clear turquoise water that surrounds this tropical paradise tantalises divers with a blend of colourful reefs, historical wrecks and a rich, diverse range of marine life that includes Mantas, Eagle rays and Whale sharks.
The pace and way of life in Sri Lanka is relaxed. Everyone greets you with a friendly smile as they go about their business. Cows, monitor lizards, mongoose and monkeys wander freely through the rustic villages, and water buffalo wallow in the nearby paddy fields.
All around you the history of Sri Lanka is evident; be it religious, architectural or colonial, there is always some archaeological beauty that reminds you of the island’s past. With so much history, so much culture and with so little time to see it all I was going to find it difficult to know where to begin.
My brief tour of Sri Lanka began at the luxurious Bentota beach hotel on the Southwest side of the island. The hotel is conveniently situated on a narrow stretch of land where on one side you have the Bentota river, and just metres away on the other, the warm water of the Indian Ocean. It was arranged that for the first half of my tour I would spend my time diving and exploring the nearby reefs, and the second half visiting some of the many places of interest that Sri Lanka has to offer.
The hotel dive centre prefers to do two tank morning dives, which is perfect for those of us who prefer to spend our afternoons exploring the surrounding countryside in more detail.
All of the sites that I visited were boat dives and less than 10 minutes away from the hotel. Crossing the mouth of the river where fresh water meets salt water can prove challenging, but luckily our skipper was well experienced and knew when and where to make a dash for the open sea.
The dives here are suitable for all levels of experience from novice divers looking for scenic shallow unchallenging dives to those more experienced divers looking for a fast drift or a little more depth.
On the first of our dives as we made our descent we stopped at 10 metres to watch a display of sheer excitement – shoals of fusiliers rushing past with trevallies and Jack fish in hot pursuit. I watched in awe as the predatory fish forced the fleeing fusiliers in to a whirling mass of mayhem. We could even hear a continuous sound of faint thuds as the predators smashed their way into the ball of bait from all directions to catch their prey. All of this was occuring just a couple of metres or so from where I was hovering. The mayhem lasted for just a few minutes, but phew, what a way to start my diving holiday.
Although Sri Lanka is surrounded by the Indian Ocean, the topography of the ocean floor is somewhat different to that of other nearby islands. The dive sites here although colourful are mainly rock formations with small areas of hard coral and sponges. To compensate for the lack of soft corals there is a whole host of marine life of the macro variety just waiting to be discovered. Separating the rocks are a series of gullies between a metre and two metres wide that descend in to a sandy seabed to a depths of 30 metres and deeper. It was these gullies that were going to be the main focus of our dives. The rocks’ surfaces are covered in a thin layer of algae on all sides and have the odd hard coral growth here and there. If you look closely you may find small crustaceans such as Porcelain crabs and Reef crabs hiding amongst them.
Although we had fish of all shapes and sizes swimming around us, it was the smaller critters that our dive guide Sujith wanted us to see. He has dived these sites hundreds of times and new exactly where to look. On one of our dives we came across seven different species of nudibranchs, each one more brightly coloured and flamboyant than the last, a rare sea moth lying motionless on the reef that was so well camouflaged by its surroundings that it was almost impossible to spot, and a large contingent of hingebeak shrimps hiding in one of the crevices with a moray eel for company.
A titan trigger fish with its sharp teeth and strong jaws could be seen biting into the rock, reducing each mouthful to grains of sand, while a lone Porcupine fish kept a safe distance but swam along with us.
On all of the dives there was little or no current which allowed us plenty of time to explore all the nooks and crannies. Moray eels, painted Lobsters, red fire gobies and small cleaner wrasse could be seen as we explored the many overhangs. Red tooth snappers and oriental sweetlips are here in abundance along with hump-headed parrot fish. We found octopus peering at us from the safety of their lairs, watching as we swam past. Around us there were schools of powder – blue surgeonfish, and close to the seabed there were Sri Lankan rabbit fish weaving amongst the rocks and feeding on the algae. I came across what I believed was a saddled pufferfish, but on closer examination of the photo once we had returned to the boat, Sujith informed me that it was in fact a mimic filefish. These harmless little creatures take on the looks of other more poisonous fish to protect themselves from predators. Exploring the maze of gullies I was surprised to see so many varieties of shell fish.
I watched spellbound as a cowrie laid its eggs on to a Sponge, and I can tell you that this rare spectacle is well worth watching. The gastropod literally comes out and completely covers its shell with what looks a bit like a black velvet blanket decorated with gold sequins. Getting as close as we dared without disturbing the delicate creature we could just about see the eggs as they were being attached to the sponge, and then within an instant and without warning the creature disappeared back into the safety of its shell.
At the other end of the spectrum large pelagic animals such as Mantas, Eagle rays, Sting rays and Whale sharks make regular unannounced but welcome appearances. These gentle giants of the ocean, unperturbed by our presence, appeared to enjoy interacting with divers as they glided past just millimetres from our heads time and time again. So while you are exploring the reef, every now and again look out in to the blue – you never know what you might find swimming alongside you.
Between dives we spent our surface intervals on the boat. While we relaxed, had a cup of tea and checked our photos the crew were busy changing our tanks and getting ready for the next exciting dive.
As I was only diving in the mornings I had the afternoons free to do as I pleased. Although I could have relaxed by the pool or sunbathed on the white sandy beach, I preferred to spend my time visiting some of the local attractions. For me a trip to the turtle sanctuary in nearby Kosgoda was a must, and being just a 15 minute Tuk Tuk ride from my hotel it was ideally placed. The rescue centre was severely affected by the Tsunami four years ago, but after a lot of hard work and dedication this worthwhile centre is now back up and running and saving the lives of thousands of turtles every year. There is no admission fee – the centre relies entirely on donations the public and the generosity of its visitors. You are guided round the sanctuary and given talks on the various species of turtles that visit the island and then shown some of the patients that have been lucky enough to benefit from the care and expertise of the staff. You may be invited as I was to help release some of the rescued baby turtles, but they are released under the cover of darkness so be prepared for what is often a long night.
Another worthwhile afternoon excursion is a boat trip to one of the many secluded coconut factories that can be found along the banks of the Bentota river. Along the way it is possible to see large water monitor lizards basking on branches high up in the trees and birds such as the colourful King fisher can be found fishing. Crocodiles are occasionally spotted resting at the entrance of the Mangrove swamps. The factories are family owned and run with up to three generations of a single family all playing their part in the production and distribution of ornaments, cooking utensils and rope. A tour is highly recommended.
After five days of fantastic diving I was now ready for the second stage of my tour. I was to spend the morning visiting the world famous Elephant orphanage at Pinnawala before moving on to my hotel in Kandy. The drive would take us about four hours, so we had to leave early. My guide Rohan decided it would be a good idea if we left the normal tourist route and took a slightly longer scenic drive through the countryside, passing through small towns and villages on the way. The scenery around me was breathtaking; paddy fields on one side of the road and the lush greenery of the jungle on the other. I was travelling through the heart of Sri Lanka where wild animals wander freely through the rustic villages interacting with the local communities.
When we reached Pinnawala we found the Elephants bathing in the cool water of the river Maha Ova which isn’t too far from the orphanage. Twice a day the Elephants walk through the narrow streets passing onlookers and shop keepers as they make their way to the river.
Tourists gather to watch as these magnificent creatures relax without any restraints in their natural habitat. It is amazing; there are no fences to prevent them leaving the river and returning to the jungle – these semi wild Elephants could at anytime wander off, but they choose not to. The government sponsored orphanage was established in 1975 with just seven baby elephants. Over time and with more and more baby elephants being found alone or injured in the jungle the centre has now grown to an impressive herd of 86 animals. Be prepared to spend the day here helping the keepers look after and feed the babies.
It was soon time for me to make my way to Kandy so that I could check into my hotel and after a wash and brush up visit the Sacred temple of the Tooth relic. The Hotel Suisse was to be my base as it is ideally situated in the centre of the city and close to all of the major attractions, including the Sacred temple of the tooth, the market town and the railway station. Built by the British 170 years ago as a meeting and resting place for traders of gems and spices, the 93 roomed property was purchased by a Swiss woman who lived in Germany (hence the name Suisse Hotel). At the turn of the 20th century the property was transformed into a hotel, and although modern facilities were added, many of its original features have been retained. A night or two here is recommended.
Sri Lanka has no less than seven UNSECO world heritage sites, each one proudly displaying its religious or colonial past. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonise the country during the 16th century followed by the Dutch 150 years later. The British gained control of the Island at
The end of the 18th century and remained until 1973 when Ceylon as it was then known gained its independence. But despite the legacies of the Catholic and Christian faiths that have had a controlling influence, the Islanders’ religious beliefs have remained unchanged. Buddhism is the main religion throughout Sri Lanka with temples and monuments dominating the landscape.
The day before I arrived in Kandy, 450,000 people had gathered from across the world, with queues stretching for miles as they waited patiently for hours in the scorching heat to catch just a fleeting glimpse of an iconic symbol of their religion. The lord Buddha’s temple is the most sacred of all temples of worship in Sri Lanka. Legend has it that when the Lord Buddha died, small sections of his bones were sent to various locations around the world in a bid to promote Buddhism. A tooth and part of a shoulder blade remained in Sri Lanka encased in a “Stupa” – a small golden bell shaped casket that is decorated with three rings. Every six years the tooth is taken from the casket and placed on display so that people can pay homage to their faith. I however wasn’t as lucky. I arrived just a little too late; the tooth had been placed back into the safety of the “stupa” and secured under lock and key in a room at the centre of the temple until the next time.
The following day we made our way to the Royal Botanical gardens of Peradeniya. These beautifully maintained gardens are home to a wide variety of tropical plants, trees and spices. For those of you who are tea drinkers it may interest you to know that it was here in 1824 that the British experimented with the idea of producing tea. Today Sri Lanka is responsible for producing the world’s finest tea.
After checking out of the hotel we were to take the winding roads to the Dambulla caves. Again the journey was scenic, lush green forests on one side, jungle on the other with remote houses and villages dotted here and there along the dusty unmade roads.
Reputed as having the largest antique painted surface in the world and 150 sculptures of the Lord Buddha, the Dambulla Cave Temple will almost certainly capture your attention. There are five caves; each one has a number of sculptures of the Lord Buddha adorning the walls and delicate fresco paintings covering the ceilings. These masterpieces of ancient times tell the story of the Lord Buddha’s life. The tranquil surroundings are also home to a Buddhist monastery that dates back to the third century BC.
After spending the morning here admiring the works of art and learning more about Buddhism, we left to visit the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa before heading for my next hotel in Sigiriya. You will find a number of statues of the Lord Buddha adopting various postures that have been cut in to the rock, some measuring over 7 metres tall. Under the rein of king Parakramabhu the Great during the 11th century, a reservoir measuring 5600 acres was built on the western side of the city to capture the rainfall of the monsoons. A famous quote from the king says “Not one drop of water must flow into the ocean without serving the purpose of man”. This manmade lake is still being used today.
On arrival at the Hotel Sigiriya I was shown straight to the bar – not because I looked as if I needed a beer, but because the views from the terrace lie in the shadow of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, a monolith widely regarded as the 8th wonder of the world. This luxurious hotel has won awards from virtually every department of tourism around the globe. The 80 rooms are spacious, tastefully decorated and air conditioned. As the hotel is situated on the edge of the jungle it was no surprise that a troop of Langur monkeys made an appearance, entertaining the guests with displays of aerobics. After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast I was ready for the challenge ahead.
As we crossed the moat which was once guarded by crocodiles and walked along the path towards the Rock Fortress, my guide Rohan informed me that to reach the summit we would have to climb 1100 steps. On the way we would see fresco paintings of half naked women that adorn the wall of caves and overhangs, and the remains of the army barracks. Every now and then it was possible to stop for a rest and drink of water, and to take in the views. The steps gently ascend around much of the rock, coming to an end on the north face at a point known as the lions head. The huge paws are the only remnants of the lion that served as the entrance to the palace and fortress. It is between these paws that we climbed the last few hundred steps to the plateau. After spending a couple of hours exploring the ruins and looking out across the vast landscape, it was time to retrace our steps and make our way back down the rock. Be prepared to spend the day here as the climb up can take an hour or two, and the climb down at least an hour.
As my tour of Sri Lanka was unfortunately coming to an end, it was decided that I should spend my last night in the Wallawwa hotel in Katunayake which is just a 15 minute drive away from the international airport of Colombo. This 18th century colonial property has recently been transformed into a luxurious hotel with total relaxation in mind. There are 14 en –suite rooms, each with its own private veranda. After a long drive from Sigiriya and dinner on the terrace overlooking the secluded gardens I was ready to be pampered with a massage in the spa.
The first in a series of blogs about Scotland Underwater from Ross Mclaren…
Here in Scotland our driech and dreary weather is world famous. But actually, the copious amount of rain that we often moan about, is responsible for a cacophony of colours across our beautiful country.
The one place that might not always be as renowned for being vibrant and colourful is our seas and lochs.
As always there’s exceptions. Our beaches on the north west coast are covered in golden white sand and with turquoise water that might be mistaken for the Maldives… albeit a wee bit nippier… and we’ve even got a few wee lochs (called Lochans) with some pretty green shades to them, but for a good percentage of our coast and lochs, it’s a steely grey mass that greet us.
So, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Scotland’s underwater world mirrors the water it lies beneath. Now, I’m not going to pretend you’re going to be met with a rainbow of colours found somewhere like the Great Barrier Reef, but actually the vibrancy found under the waves definitely took me by surprise.
Disclaimer! I’m no expert in marine biology or underwater photography! I’m pretty much a guy with “all the gear and no idea!” I started out with a wee GoPro and built my camera “rig” up to something that’s now resembling an octopus. But, I’ll be completely honest, I have no real clue what I’m doing in terms of settings, etc. It gets put on “Auto”, I turn the lights on, try not to disturb the marine life and press the button hoping for the best. Quite simply, I’ve fallen in love with our underwater world and do my best to try do it some justice through my photos.
One of the most beautiful marine species I find photographing, and to be honest probably one of the easiest, is the anemones. We have such an abundance of these from deadmens fingers, to firework anemones, and the colours that can be found are just breathtaking. The patterns and shapes they make as they glint in the light of the torches and with the movement of the water is magical.
They might not be the most exciting sea creatures but the humble crab is also a fantastic specimen to capture, and again we have a wide variety. I’m not quite sure what it is but you can almost see/feel the attitude oozing out of them when you catch them in the beam of the lights.
I say this to almost anyone who’ll listen, but I always said I would absolutely love to get sweeping wide angle photo of a wreck. Those are by far my favourite photos to look at. Seeing these hulking feats of human engineering being reclaimed by nature and appreciating the scale of them in one scene is awe-inspiring. Sadly in Scotland with our visibility (well certainly in the areas I frequently dive) it’s not really possible and when it is, it really doesn’t do it justice. However on the flip side Macro photography here is definitely rewarding!
Last summer I had one “photographic goal”… get a nudi! I was desperate to capture a wee sea slug, but no matter how hard I looked I could only find one all year and when I did my GoPro just didn’t do it justice. This year though, well it seems to be a completely different story! Every dive we seem to come across at least one… it also helps when you’ve an eagle eyed dive buddy! With the new camera and macro lens the quality in photos has improved as well. It’s not just the number we’ve seen but the variety we’ve spotted as well! There are so many different kinds, different colours and shapes. It can be a wee bit frustrating trying to hold myself still in the water and getting the camera to focus in on this tiny wee creature, but it’s so worth it!
The dogfish/catshark isn’t particularly uncommon in the UK and it’s no different up here in Scotland, if you know where and when to look. They are absolutely stunning to photograph and, although not overly colourful, the texture of their “skin” and their eyes is absolutely incredible.
Now cucumbers are most definitely not my favourite vegetable… but sea cucumbers… those I do love! I genuinely can’t get over how cool they look. They remind me of wee trees and I’m totally mesmerised watching them bring the food to their mouths with their tentacles.
Jellyfish! The scourge of beach goers everywhere! The dread of someone shouting “JELLYFISH” and hoping beyond hope you aren’t caught in a tentacle brings back childhood memories. So until I started diving the “evil” jellyfish was much feared. However, since I started exploring the underwater world and seeing them in all their glory, I have come to appreciate jellyfish for they unbelievable beauty and grace. I love watching them float past (from a distance!) and seeing the shapes they take in the water. They are so full of grace!
Even the most dived sites can throw up a wee surprise every now and again. We’d headed to one our usual haunts with the main goal of logging a couple of deeper dives just to build up to Scapa later in the year. We descended down to around 38m where we planned to swim along for a wee bit before ascending again. There were a few rocks, but generally not much life but I took the camera anyway, you know, just in case.
Now these guys aren’t completely uncommon here on the west coast, but they’re mainly found at night and until now I’d never spied one, let alone photographed one! Bobtail Squid/Little Cuttlefish! I’m not going to lie, I was so excited! I actually thought I was slightly narked as it appeared out of the sand. This wee fella was so cool! The colours were absolutely breathtaking and getting the opportunity to photograph them was just amazing.
Scotland isn’t the diving capital of the world; we’re not going to suddenly become a top dive destination on many diver’s bucket lists. BUT we do have some incredible marine life, with such unbelievable colours! Although it’s not the easiest diving you’ll ever do, when you do get that moment it makes it feel all the more special.
A Red Sea Scuba Scene (Part 2 of 2)
The first two days of diving were amazing – I think you’ll agree after reading Part 1 of the blog HERE. We left the Brothers Islands setting sail for Daedalus – the southernmost point of our itinerary around 275km southeast of Hurghada. Conditions were perfect for our crossing and continued throughout our day at Daedalus for three dives. I was so excited for this site as it was the highlight on my previous trip and I’d also had word it was the hot spot for oceanic whitetips the last couple of months.
We moored up by the lighthouse at the southern point of the island and was thankful to see there weren’t as many boats as at the Brothers. Our first dive was a rib dive to the North Point to drift out in the blue at around 25 metres+ in the hope of seeing scalloped hammerheads. I wasn’t expecting the same action as my previous trip with schools of around 20 hammerheads due to difference in the time of year and sure enough the action didn’t hit as big. We spotted a couple of lone hammerheads between the group deeper than 40 metres. After spending half the dive in the blue we came back to the stunning East wall with its amazing soft coral and small fish life. Towards the end of the dive we had an incredible encounter with a feeding hawksbill turtle that was completely comfortable with our presence as it fed on the soft coral. It’s always a pleasure seeing turtles.
Although we were on the rib once the dive was finished, the action wasn’t over. As we neared Scuba Scene we saw some commotion with other ribs in front stopping and looking in the water. Initially the rib skipper said it was a whale shark but as we neared we saw the unmistakeable dorsal fin of an oceanic whitetip shark break the surface. In fact, there were two of them and they were really excited. I lent over the side with my camera and got my best photos of them as one came to investigate bumping into the camera. This is what I love; this is what gets me excited and sure enough for the next two dives I decided to stay under our boat at around 5 metres for most of the dives. There were three in total around Daedalus and I had some incredible close-up encounters with them. This is what I was here for and I was so happy after our day at Daedalus with the oceanics.
Although the conditions at Daedalus were like glass, the weather forecast wasn’t looking great for the next two days and the decision was made to journey back north to Elphinstone instead of staying for another day at Daedalus. I was a little disappointed as it would mean missing out on some more great shark action. However, I missed out on Elphinstone on my last trip due to bad weather and was happy to get the chance to dive there finally.
Sure enough the winds picked up during the night and it was a lot more choppy when moored up at Elphinstone. With Scuba Scene’s size, it was very capable of dealing with rougher seas and we planned for a full day there. We had two morning dives before deciding to head inland as conditions worsened. My dive buddy and I stuck with the South Plateau for the two dives and both were stunning. The life on the plateau was amazing as lionfish were in abundance and while photographing them I got surprised by my very first torpedo ray. It was only a juvenile and what a cutie it was as it swam over my dome and turned just before it hit me and swam away. Two friendly hawksbills were again a highlight as they didn’t care for the divers exploring the plateau. While ANOTHER oceanic whitetip really made our trip to Elphinstone in bad weather worthwhile. FIVE different oceanics on the trip; I was happy to just get one but buzzing with the action at three different sites.
It wasn’t all bad leaving Elphinstone early as we managed to get an extra dive in with a night dive at Abu Dabab 3 after an afternoon dive there also. The afternoon dive was a highlight of the trip for me as I got to experience something different with a “cave” dive of sorts. My dive buddy sat the dive out but guide Adma Rashed was eager to get in as he loved exploring the caves. I was soon following him exploring a shallow cave system through the reef. As it happens, this was his first time exploring the whole way through the system and he was so happy after the dive. I’m no cave diver and have no interest in deep cave exploration but this was really fun and different to everything else on the trip. I’d certainly like to do more of this relaxed type of cave diving.
The rest of the trip for the Thursday and half a day on the Friday was Red Sea reef heaven again. A night dive at Mangrove Bay provided a couple of cuttlefish (I love cuttlefish) and also my first time seeing a Spanish Dancer underwater. Although we tried the seagrass at Marsa Shona and saw a green sea turtle from the surface, we couldn’t find any underwater and soon left to explore the reef – an amazing reef full of blue spotted ribbontail rays to enjoy. We finished with two dives at the Police Station dive site around Small Giftun Island. The gorgonian fan corals were a beautiful sight but the highlight of diving here were the huge moray eels and, in particular, one huge free swimming moray that swam next to me for a brief period right at the end of my last dive.
WHAT A WEEK OF DIVING!!!! Thank you Scuba Scene Liveaboard and Oyster Diving.
Sean Chinn travelled as a guest of Scuba Scene Liveaboard and Oyster Diving. Scuba Scene is available to book exclusively through Oyster Diving. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0808 253 3370 to find out more or reserve your space!
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