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.
Diving with… Ana and Miguel, Siladen Resort & Spa, Indonesia
In this ongoing series, we speak to the people who run dive centres, resorts and liveaboards from around the world about their businesses and the diving they have to offer…
Ana and Miguel
What is the name of your business?
Siladen Resort & Spa
What is your role within the business?
Co owners and General Managers
How long has the business operated for?
Almost 20 years.
How long have you dived for, and what qualification are you?
Miguel has dived since 1993 and Ana has dived since 2002. We are both Open Water Scuba Instructors.
What is your favorite type of diving?
We love all dive types, especially wall diving for the wonderful corals and looking out into the blue wondering what other animals will come up next. But as an UW photographer and videographer we both love critter hunting in the sandy slopes. We are both very fond of night dives as we always find interesting animals and different behaviour.
If you could tell people one thing about your business (or maybe more!) to make them want to visit you what would it be?
We have a wonderful location in the heart of Bunaken National Park and we have an amazing team that provides the best service to each guest. We are a fun dive resort; we constantly strive to be as sustainable as possible and safety is our number one priority. If you like sea turtles and beautiful coral reefs you cannot miss this area for diving or snorkelling.
What is your favorite dive in your location and why?
If we have to choose one wall we would say Mandolin as it has beautiful and healthy corals with a wonderful and shallow reef top. We love to search for turtles in the overhangs, look for long nose hawkfish in the black coral bushes, admire the schooling snappers, and spend a long safety stop on the coral gardens on the top that are full of anthias. For critter hunting and night dives we both love Bolung. Here we can find frogfish, ghostpipefishes and nudibranchs, plus at night we often find decorator crabs, octopus and even stargazers on its white sandy slope.
What types of diving are available in your location?
There are very shallow coral reefs surrounding all five islands within Bunaken National Parkpark — beyond the shallow reef, the seabed drops away very quickly, forming the beautiful walls that Bunaken is famed for. Many of these walls are vertical with huge caverns and overhangs, however some are more gentle slopes that allow more reef building corals to form. On the North Sulawesi mainland there are black sand sites that allow amazing muck diving. Close by, we also have white sand sites, which offer some beautiful coral reefs and gentle slopes. There is even a fairly intact (entirely sponge encrusted) wreck within easy access of the resort.
What do you find most rewarding about your current role?
Working together in a dive resort that welcomes divers and snorkellers from around the world and sharing with them our passion for diving, snorkeling and uw photography and video is a great pleasure. Besides we have the privilege to dive and snorkel at world class sites every week.
What is your favorite underwater creature?
We both love cephalopods in general for their intelligence, capacity to camouflage, change colors and patterns…. We are fortunate enough to have many encounters with cephalopods in this area, from the tiny bobtail squid to the wonderful broadclub cuttlefish, the flamboyant cuttlefish, squids and Ana even filmed reef octopus mating. We could watch cephalopods for ever. And although we see them often, Ana has a soft spot for turtles.
As a center what is the biggest problem you face at the moment?
The biggest problem we all face as divers and nature lovers is climate change and pollution. We need to work on these issues locally but even more importantly we need to address these issues worldwide.
Is your center involved in any environmental work?
Yes, we clean our beach daily and we organise very frequent island clean-ups. Not only do we clean this area, but we also separate the garbage trying to send as much as we possibly can to be recycled. We often have activities together with local school children to help bring awareness of the dangers of plastic pollution. We reduce our single plastic use as much as possible and all our vegetables and fruit peel leftovers are composted. We also protect the nests of turtles that hatch on our beach.
Are there any exciting changes / developments coming up in the near future?
We are partnering with Coral Eye Resort in Bangka Island so that guests can have the best service in the best areas of North Sulawesi. We are getting one more boat; we want to make sure our boats are never crowded, besides we keep working to maintain and improve all our facilities.
How do you see the SCUBA / Freediving / snorkeling industry overall? What changes would you make?
The industry is doing well and I am happy to see that there are more and more avid snorkellers and not only scuba divers. We would like to see more ocean protection worldwide to ensure the future generations get to enjoy the beautiful reef corals and marine life around the world.
Finally, what would you say to our visitors to promote the diving you have to offer?
We give you a chance to explore some of the best snorkelling and diving sites in the world while providing you with comfortable accommodation, wonderful food and the best service. Staying in Siladen Resort & Spa you can do up to four dives or snorkelling sessions every day with very experienced guides, while staying in a safe and comfortable resort that aims to provide the best service to each guest.
Where can our visitors find out more about your business?
Visit our website www.siladen.com, find us on Instagram and Facebook (Siladen Resort & Spa) and contact us:
WA +62 811 44300641
Into the Blue – Part Two
By now, you will have hopefully read the first blog from my recent trip to the Red Sea with The Scuba Place on M/Y Big Blue. If you haven’t, you can find the link to the blog here.
I’ve been diving since 2011, although I didn’t get really serious about diving until 2013. In the November of that year I joined Scuba School on a trip to Sharm El Sheikh to complete my Advanced Open Water course. That was the first time I heard about the famous SS Thistlegorm and its cult status in the wreck diving world. Unfortunately, as I, along with a lot of the group were novice divers, and so we were unable to dive it on that 2013 trip, along with a lot of the other famous wrecks from the North. Little did I know, I wouldn’t return to the Northern Red Sea until this trip in September 2022 with The Scuba Place. The wrecks remained mysterious all those years but I was soon getting the full experience. After the first two and a half days exploring the amazing reefs, it was time to break my Thistlegorm virginity and get the true “lust for rust” experience of the Northern itinerary.
As we moored up at the SS Thistlegorm for the afternoon dive, I got a strange sense of anticipation run through my body. More so than at any other specific dive site. Strange really, as I don’t normally get excited about wreck diving, but here was a site that I’d heard so much about but was still so mysterious. I’d always thought it was a difficult dive and had a slight fear of it, as I wasn’t allowed to do it all those years back. Then, after watching a 20 minute film explaining the story of the wreck and listening to the stories of survivors,. I knew it was a site that demanded respect. As Mo went through the dive briefing, I quickly realised it seemed a lot more simple than I had in mind. I then became more excited than fearful as me and my dive buddy went through our plan.
There was an eerie feeling as we submerged below the gentle swell. The visibility was a lot more milky compared to the clear blue I was used to in the Red Sea. However, the wreck soon came into view as we dropped down the shot line. The first thing that struck me and in my opinion just made the wreck extra special, was the life on it.
Instantly, crocodile fish and scorpion fish were spotted resting on the wreck, as we made our way to the anti-aircraft gun on the stern. I made a quick visit to take some photos before we turned back and penetrated the wreck for the first time. A surreal experience but the numerous glassfish and lionfish at the entry point kept me entertained before seeing the remnants of yesteryear. The different vehicles that still keep their place in the decks are the main highlight, but it was the boots that struck a chord with me: signs of the human lives that were present on the fateful day the bomb hit. I got a real buzz from my first time on the Thistlegorm, with a school of batfish greeting us on our safety stop finishing off the adventure. John and I ascended from a great dive with a high five, knowing I’d fulfilled a special memory.
I enjoyed three more dives on the Thistlegorm, giving me chance to explore a little more and see a little more life. Some cool nudibranch and a cuttlefish making their home inside the wreck added to the array of life I’d already seen. It was the night dive that truly hit the marine life spot. It really came to life at night and I soon lost count of the amount of scorpionfish I saw. The contrast of the dark and wreck against the blue spotted stingrays made their colours really pop as around six or seven were spotted. Eels, lionfish and crocodilefish making up the rest of the weird and wonderful sights on the wreck at night. Amazing memories from my first time exploring the Thistlegorm that will last forever.
After the two morning dives on the Thistlegorm, we headed off to the Barge wreck site for an afternoon and night dive. It’s not much of a wreck when you compare it to the others on the trip. It lies like a flat platform on the seabed with some sides rising out from the reef providing extra space for coral growth and marine life to enjoy. While it doesn’t provide a real wreck fix with penetration, it is a haven for marine life, littered with all types of hard and soft corals. Look closely and the Barge is a great spot for the weird and wonderful. The numerous nudibranch and grey moray eels provided my macro fix on the night dives, while the occasional buzz from huge hunting giant trevally provided the entertainment. A nice contrast of wrecks before moving on to Abu Nuhas.
Abu Nuhas is a really unique place. Its submerged reef has been bad luck for five passing ships, with five cargo shipwrecks lining its northern slopes. While it was more than unfortunate for some, the wrecks have provided fortune for those looking for a wreck diving haven. Our day consisted of diving three of the wrecks – The Carnatic, Giannis D and Marcus/Chrisoula K in that order.
Going into the trip, it was the Giannis D that I was most keen to dive. I’d always admired the wide angle stern shots I’d seen over the years, with it staying pretty much intact and creating a dramatic image as it lies on its side. It was a fantastic dive with some interesting and easy penetration; I also took some shots of the stern in all its glory. A huge grouper sitting inside the wreck provided the wildlife fix, as it floated with ease looking out into the blue from an opening on the wreck. I think it was the Carnatic that stole the show personally though. Her open windows out to the blue that are covered in soft coral were unique, and glassfish dancing in formation inside mesmerised into a truly memorable dive. The Marcus provided the adventure as penetration was a little more difficult to work my way through the wreck.
The day at Abu Nuhas was the best of the trip for me and that wasn’t solely because of the wrecks….. YES!! Once again it was marine life that had me screaming with joy underwater and a buzz through my body like no other. FINALLY!!!!! After 9 years of taking photos underwater, I was able to share the water with dolphins (bottlenose in this instance) and shoot them in all their glory.
Our journey to and from the wrecks on each dive took us through the channel on the ribs, where dolphins were seen on every pass playing in the slight waves. After the second dive, the guides asked if we wanted to try to snorkel with them. It was a resounding yes and as the speedboat whipped up a wave storm, the dolphins headed to the surface to play. I dropped in with no elegance at all, as my excitement took over. I was wondering whether they would stay once we entered, but how they stayed and played was beyond anything I could imagine. Bringing seaweed to us and then, with a flick of their tails, speeding off after teasing with a slow approach. There were nine in total and they even came by to show off the baby of the group. It was definitely up there as one of my greatest moments in the water.
We finished the liveaboard trip with three more amazing reef dives, with the highlight being a small cave full of glassfish and MANY lionfish. I entered to take photos of the glassfish before the lionfish started to sneak out of every crevice and reveal themselves from their camouflaged rest spots.
It got a little hairy but made for a truly interesting moment to finish the week on Big Blue. The fun wasn’t done though, as John eluded to the fact that I was on the same late flight as them on the Saturday and asked if I’d like to join his group for a night at Roots Red Sea. Sounds like a good plan!! Also, if we got there in time, a night dive on the house reef that’s a haven for the weird and wonderful would be on offer. What an amazing surprise end to the trip at an amazing dive resort: secluded, with a beautiful desert backdrop, sitting just metres from the sea. Thankfully, we made it for a night dive and it was as incredible as John said it would be. Reef squid, numerous cuttlefish, a bouncing stonefish jumping over sea moths AND a dwarf lionfish made this one of the best night dives ever, and a perfect end dive to a perfect trip. A final day of relaxation at Roots pool and enjoying the beautiful food finished it in style.
For more information about diving on Big Blue:
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