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Diving in Sri Lanka

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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.

Patrick Goldfish in RockAll 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.

Patrick Moray EelI 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.

Patrick StarfishTourists 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.

Patrick Lone LionfishOn 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.

Patrick Shier is an experienced diver who is a regular contributor to both UK and international SCUBA diving magazines. He is also the author of the UK Dive Guide, which promotes diving in the UK and encourages newly qualified divers to discover the delights of diving in UK waters. Patrick’s passion for the marine environment is not limited to the UK; he has dived, and photographed, many superb dive sites around the world including Samoa, Grenada, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Malta and the Red Sea.

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Join Murex Resorts in North Sulawesi and embark on a Passport to Paradise!

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Are you planning your next tropical diving holiday? With literally the world at your feet and so many different types of diving to choose from it can be tough deciding where to go…

The Indonesian province of North Sulawesi lies in the heart of a marine rich region and offers incredible wall diving in the Bunaken Marine Park: wreck, critters and reef combinations in Manado Bay; colorful coral reefs surrounding Bangka island; and the world’s best muck diving in the Lembeh Strait. So how do you begin to choose which region to allocate your holiday time to?

Whilst many divers have heard of these world class diving destinations, many may not realize the close proximity within which they are located. Taking a scuba diving holiday in North Sulawesi does not mean that you have to choose between locations – you can see all that is on offer and explore the areas which appeal to you – IN ONE TRIP!!!

Bunaken Marine Park was one of the first Marine Protected Areas in Indonesia – and it shows! The dive sites around this small island are characterized by staggering coral walls which are teeming with life. The resident population of green sea turtles has grown from strength to strength and at some dive sites you’ll lose count of the number of turtles you see in a single dive.

North Sulawesi, Nord Sulawesi, Celebes Sea, Murex Manado

Manado Bay is home to wide ranging marine life and diverse dive sites. Manado Bay is becoming increasingly recognized for its black sand, muck diving sites, which are home to a plethora of unusual critters from numerous cephalopod species through to seahorses, nudibranch and crustaceans. The Molas wreck is an exciting wreck dive and also offers a myriad of fish and critters. To the South of Manado Bay lays Poopoh – a record breaking site where 385 different species of fish were recorded in just one morning.

Bangka Island is as beautiful underwater as it is on land. This white sand, paradise island is surrounded by kaleidoscopic, soft coral reefs. Schooling snappers, passing reef sharks, occasional dugongs and an array of reef fish and critters have all made Bangka Island their home. Bangka offers phenomenal diving coupled with the chance to completely get off the grid on this stunning, remote tropical island.

The Lembeh Strait is home to the highest concentration of rare and unusual marine life on Earth. Exploring Lembeh’s world famous muck diving sites is akin to opening a treasure chest of critters. Even the most seasoned of divers can’t help but be impressed by the species found here: eight different species of frogfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, wunderpus, mimic octopus, blue ring octopus, bobtail squids, harlequin shrimps, tiger shrimps, three species of pygmy seahorses, countless species of nudibranch, bobbit worms, Ambon scorpionfish and rhinopias – just to name but a few!

The idea of moving from resort to resort can seem arduous and result in wasted diving days – but in North Sulawesi this does not need to be the case! Stay with us at Murex Manado (for diving Bunaken and Manado), and smoothly transition to Murex Bangka and then on to Lembeh Resort too. You can choose the number of nights you wish to stay in each location and transfers between resorts are by boat and include two dives along the way! No wasted diving days, no logistical planning, no drying and packing gear and your dive guide will stay with you from start to finish. Dive your way, hassle free, from one place to the next. Two resort combinations are also available.

For those of you who want to experience the full diversity of Indonesia, choose from up to 150 dive sites and maximize your diving opportunities – a Passport to Paradise is the dive trip of a lifetime.

For more information or for enquiries: reservations@murexresorts.com

www.murexresorts.com

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A Flying Visit to Nusa Penida, Bali

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Once I’d organised my 6 day/5 night Jurassic Komodo trip, I knew, if I was going to travel all that way, I needed a bit more time to acclimatise and explore. With flying through Bali a popular route from the UK to Labuan Bajo, it made complete sense to spend a couple of days there before flying out. What better way to get the trip started than revisiting where my underwater photography journey started back in 2013 and diving around Nusa Penida? The opportunity came up to spend 2 nights with an amazing little dive resort on Nusa Penida Island called Pure Dive Resort, and it was the perfect start to my trip.

Pure Dive Resort was created in January 2019 after the owners sold their share in a dive resort they built on Ceningan, and has been operational since 1st May 2019. Pure Dive Resort has big plans to create a full-scale dive resort offering quality diving on Nusa Penida. Unfortunately, the Covid outbreak caused delays, and at the moment only the dive centre is operating. However, while I was there, you can see work is in full effect and the place is already looking amazing. After speaking to the owner Ark and the ambition he has for the place, it’s clear that Pure will be a sought-after resort on the island; a place focused on high service and safety standards, while concentrating on keeping it personal for each and every guest.

While the plans for the resort proceed, Pure Dive Resort are using Ring Sameton Hotel for their dive and stay packages, just a 2-minute stroll from the dive centre. Pure Dive Resort are running 2 custom built dive boats, each capable of taking up to 14 divers (including guides) onboard. I for one was very impressed with the dive boat and how spacious and comfortable it was, especially as ‘Manta Point’ is quite a ride away and it can be a little choppy; however, on this occasion the journey was a super comfortable and a fun ride out. The boats are equipped with marine radios, 2×100 4 stroke engines, emergency O2 and life jackets, keeping safety paramount. Not only is Pure Dive Resort a well-equipped dive centre, it also has a freediving school, and they use their own custom-built boat with the capacity of a maximum of 10 freedivers onboard.

While I was impressed with the professionalism and facilities of Pure Dive Resort, it was the equipment for hire and the capabilities of the centre which really stood out. As I was flying to Labuan Bajo late the next day, and I was only scheduled for 3 dives, I was reluctant to use my own dive gear for fear of drying time. I requested a wetsuit and BCD and was really impressed with the quality on offer. Almost brand new ScubaPro equipment is available, and you can see it is well looked after and kept in perfect order in a dry room at the back of the centre. So, after the formalities were over, it was time to get familiar with diving in Nusa Penida once again. Our first dive was scheduled for ‘Manta Point’, easily the most famous/popular dive site of Nusa Penida. I was really looking forward to getting back to a dive site that was the catalyst for me becoming an underwater photographer 10 years ago. The journey to ‘Manta Point’ is an adventure in itself, and just adds to the experience. The rough and ready coastline of dramatic cliffs, pounded by a lively sea, leave you in awe, as the rising sun breaks over the top of the island, creating dramatic rays of light through the spray and mist. The boat skips along the surface, with the excitement building over every swell.

After around a 45-minute journey, we arrived at ‘Manta Point’ earlier than a lot of the other boats that were heading there, thanks to Pure Dive Resort working to create the best experience for their guests and aiming to beat the crowds. Ark was my dive guide for the dive and one other diver would join us. After a thorough dive briefing, where you could tell Ark was very knowledgeable about the area, dive site and mantas, we dropped in and were soon graced by the presence of a black-morph manta ray. Honestly, it couldn’t have been much more than 2 minutes into the dive and the manta went gliding over my head. What a start! Two more manta rays were seen during the dive, but they didn’t seem to want to stay around. That’s wildlife for you; you can’t guarantee the manta rays will circle above you for the whole dive. We still got guaranteed manta rays and saw three, along with a fever of blue spotted stingrays all huddled together on the reef floor. A great start to my trip, and seeing a manta ray within 2 minutes of entering the water is pretty incredible.

Our manta fix wasn’t quite finished though. While we headed back along Nusa Penida to our next dive site, we stopped at a known manta feeding spot for juveniles. It’s an area where a lot of the snorkelling boats go to experience manta rays, and sure enough, we could see a lot of activity in the bay. Ark made the decision to take us over and see what kind of action was happening. It wasn’t long before we spotted a large black shape breaking the surface, and Ark asked if we’d like to jump in and snorkel. It was a unanimous decision and we were dropped in the path of the manta ray. More incredible manta moments were had, as it passed by circling the bay area as it fed. I managed to grab some cool shots showing the contrast of the top of the manta to the seafloor. Nusa Penida really is a unique place and great for manta ray interactions.

After a brief snorkel, we were soon back on the boat skipping across the surface to our next port of call located on the North West side of Nusa Penida. Our next dive site of choice was ‘Pura Ped’, a sloping hill reaching down from the surface creating a gradual descent broken up with stunning hard and soft coral spread throughout the site. The visibility was just amazing, and while Ark kept an eye on the depths in the hope of seeing Mola Mola, I concentrated on the reef and marvelled at the amazing coral on show. While we had no luck with Mola Mola, Titan triggerfish, huge pufferfish and three hawksbill turtles kept me entertained throughout a thoroughly peaceful dive.

Before I descended for my third dive of the day. We ventured back to the dive centre and enjoyed an incredibly tasty lunch, included with a dive day package. The Soto Ayam in the restaurant opposite the dive centre was bursting with flavour and well needed after two great dives.

My third dive was to concentrate on some macro critters that call Nusa Penida home, and Intan was highly recommended to be my guide. Intan had a big reputation with the other guides who said she was incredible at finding the small stuff. I wasn’t originally planning on doing any macro, so it was lucky that my room wasn’t far, and I rushed back to change my lens. The dive site also wasn’t far, as we made a short journey out to ‘SD Point’. I’m so glad I switched to macro and could witness and document the diversity of diving here. Intan’s reputation was well deserved, as she continually pointed out some amazing critters, with leaf scorpionfish, peacock mantis shrimp, scorpionfish, nudibranch, porcelain crab and more spotted throughout another amazing dive.

My trip to Nusa Penida with Pure Dive Resort was short and sweet, and left me wanting a lot more. A day of diving was nowhere near enough that’s for sure, with Ark confident he can find Mola Mola within a few days during the high season of August and September. I feel a trip must be planned for that time next year to explore so much more that this area has to offer. I feel I also missed out on exploring more of the island and its rugged beauty. A trip across to Kelingking Beach is a must next time (even though it is the quintessential tourist view of Bali). While I enjoyed meals at Penida Minang and Penida Colada, a week of culinary exploration is also much needed while I take in the sites. The only question I have now is – ‘Who’s joining me and Pure Dive Resort for an amazing week in Nusa Penida?’

For more information about diving in Nusa Penida:

www.purediveresort.com

info@purediveresort.com

Whatsapp: +62 811 3999 852

Sean Chinn Instagram: @greatwhitesean 

Email: sean@greatwhitesean.com

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