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In The Land Of Giants

Sea turtles, blue whales and Sri Lankan elephants on a three-day wildlife tour of the south coast

Not far from the shore at Galle, Sri Lanka, and there’s a rare moment of near-silence. Only the idling engine of the boat. The rise and fall of the Indian Ocean’s deep swell. A soft breeze and the sun burning off the morning haze. There’s no noise from the passengers either. We’re all concentrating hard on the gunmetal-grey water, looking for a waterspout: a 10-metre-high exhale from huge lungs that signals a whale surfacing.

I’m at the prow with binoculars. A shout goes up from the stern. False alarm. Spinner dolphins. Some of the crew scamper along the rail to try to get better views but Geetha, our captain, remains at the wheel. He’s keeping us steady in this rolling water and conferring with another man, pointing this way and that. This is Anoma, the resident naturalist and guide from Jetwing Lighthouse hotel. A marine mammal expert, Anoma is a veteran of countless Sri Lanka whale-watching trips and his profound understanding of these creatures means he normally gets results. Expectation is high. The tension palpable. No one wants to go back empty handed.

    It all brings to mind the quiet moments on deck before the sighting (or “raising”) of the whale in that classic whaling novel, Moby Dick. But unlike in the nineteenth-century we’re not out here to hunt these majestic creatures. The mood onboard is one of respectful fascination and a desire to learn. We come armed only with cameras and the hope of being blessed with a glimpse of that Holy Grail for all whale-watchers – the blue whale. The largest creature to ever have lived on Earth.

    I raise my binoculars again, scan the water and wait.

    The south coast of Sri Lanka has long been known as a hotspot for whales. Many of the ocean’s iconic cetacean species swim in these warm waters, including humpbacks, pygmy whales, fin whales, sperm whales, minke whales and killer whales. But the ace in the sleeve for the country and its changing focus towards conservation tourism, is the high likelihood of encountering the biggest of them all. Put simply, Sri Lanka is the best place on the planet to see blue whales.

    Look at a map and you understand why. The southerly tip of this island – Dondra Head – is also the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. In other words, any whale moving east to west needs to pass this way. The reason is the particular seabed topography. The steep drop of the continental shelf is only three nautical miles from the coast. This means deep waters very close to shore. Add in the monsoon rains that wash nutrients down the rivers to create huge seasonal blooms of plankton and you have a perfect, ready-made cetacean playground.

    But it’s not just the blue whale that draws wildlife-watchers to the island. If you’re a lover of the natural world, Sri Lanka is a must-visit destination for a variety of reasons. The sheer wealth and diversity of the species found here is dazzling. As well as the largest creature in the world, this country is home to the largest sea turtle species – the leatherback – and the Sri Lankan elephant, one of the largest land mammals. It’s truly a land of giants.

    and with the right guides,you can see them all in just 72-hours.

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    My trip had started the previous day. Arriving in Galle I joined a three-day wildlife tour of Sri Lanka’s south coast organised by Jetwing Travels. Galle is the kind of instantly impressive town that begs you to explore it. Salt spray blows from in the azure ocean through sun-bleached streets crammed with colonial architecture and lively Boho-chic shops. Once checked in, I ducked out to stretch my legs down the shady avenue of palms that runs along the seafront. Then I climbed up onto the walls of the seventeenth-century Dutch Fort for a postcard view of the white Meera Mosque and old British lighthouse that stands ringed with spiky tropical palms.

    The accommodation for the night was no less picturesque. Jetwing Lighthouse hotel is a breathtaking building built by Sri Lanka’s late, great architectural genius Geoffrey Bawa to echo the original lighthouse on the promontory down the coast. Over a fresh fish rice and curry on the hotel’s terrace overlooking the ocean, I met up with Anoma Alagiyawadu, Jetwing Lighthouse hotel’s resident naturalist.

    It turned out we weren’t venturing far to see our first animal. The beaches of Galle, like all the beaches of this coast, are breeding grounds for sea turtles. The shore is dotted with nesting sites as well as the turtle sanctuaries and hatcheries that aim to sustain and support turtle numbers.

    So after a buffalo curd and treacle dessert, we strolled together from the hotel terrace along sands scattered with coconuts. As children ran and jumped in the surf, we hung further up the beach looking for signs of nest sites. On the way Anoma told me about the five types of turtle that nest in Sri Lanka: the green turtle, hawksbill, Olive Ridley, loggerhead and the leatherback. The latter of which can grow to a whopping two metres. He also explained that turtle nesting season is between December and May, reaching a peak in January when they arrive daily to lay their eggs in the sand just as they have here for countless millennia.

    “When you look at a turtle, you’re really looking at a species as old as a dinosaur.” Anoma said as we searched under plants and among coconuts. “They date back from the Jurassic period and survived the catastrophic event that wiped out dinosaurs.”

    Although turtles mate at sea four miles from shore, in the nesting season they will return every two weeks for two months and lay between 100 and 180 eggs in each nest. The prime time is around full moon and between 9pm and 4am.

    About half a mile down the sand, we approached a cluster of low concrete buildings with corrugated iron roofs. Mahamodara Sea Turtle Hatchery Centre might not be much to look at, but its intentions are honourable. It treats injured turtles before releasing them back to the ocean. Inside, I spy one young leatherback being nursed to health after an operation to rid its flipper of fishing wire. Even as an adolescent, it seemed huge.

    As the name suggests, the husband and wife team that run the hatchery also remove clutches of eggs from endangered spots, re-housing them in the sanctuary of the centre’s own fenced-off beach areas. This gives the turtles a chance to hatch in safety before being released. And our arrival was just in time to see the latest batch of Olive Ridley turtle hatchlings making a dash down the sand for freedom.

      Once free, the little black beauties with their flailing flippers sped seaward at a surprising rate, flipping, skipping and jumping, looking like little wind-up toys. For a moment I worried as the wash of white water rushed up the beach and covered them, until I saw one motoring away with the current, into its natural habitat. 

      By the time we walked back dusk was beginning to bruise the sky. The moon was already out and full. Then twenty metres from Jetwing Lighthouse hotel, Anoma grabbed my arm. I stood still. Ahead, semi-submerged in of the beach plants was the beautiful, smooth, coloured shell of a green turtle. We watched as it lifted its nose and started to shuffle its way back to the sea. Crouching down and keeping a respectable distance, we fixed zoom lenses to our cameras.

      Turtles mostly nest in darkness and can only be watched by moonlight. Using torches or artificial lights is prohibited because they are disorienting and can affect the turtle’s navigation back to the water. Being able to watch this ancient creature in daylight, felt nothing short of magical. And as Anoma pointed out later over celebratory Lion beers, it boded extremely well for our fortunes the following day when we’d be looking for whales.

      If there’s a downside to whale-watching, it’s definitely the early start. The wake-up call had come two hours before sun-up in order that we had enough time to wolf down a packed breakfast and make the 45-minute drive down the coast to Mirissa.

      Mirissa harbour itself is a mad, messy place that is both the centre of whale tourism in the region and a working fishing port. At 6am it was already rammed with boats and boat trip hawkers. Caution is required when whale-watching. You need to be with a regulated operator that will keep their distance, respect the whales’ space and won’t ‘chase’. I was thankful Anoma was there to navigate us onto a boat with a great reputation while I downed three cups of strong coffee and watched dawn erupting over the water.

        Even with all the caffeine, standing at the front of the boat with the gentle rock of the sea and the sound of the waves slapping the hull, I’m feeling the 4am rise. The big, soft cushions the crew has laid out behind me are looking seriously tempting. And a few fellow passengers are already snoring, using spare lifejackets as pillows.

        “Any sign?” I shout over to Anoma. He shakes his head. I lift my binoculars and watch a procession of tankers slip along the horizon. It’s a reminder that the blue whale is not the only thing passing close to south of Sri Lanka. The world’s busiest shipping lane is only a few nautical miles further out and reflects a modern world and ocean that these animals must live in.

        Then it comes. The shout. Out of the blue. “Whale! Blue whale!”

        The column is like a blast of white steam and high as a palm tree, dead ahead. 200 metres. Geetha edges us into gear as we watch as the exhale burst up again. A blast as loud as a train this time, but unmistakably animal too. Almost a snort. Then again it blows up.

        “Three, four…,” count the crew in unison. They’re calling out the sprays because they know that a feeding whale will likely breathe between five and eight times close to the surface before diving deep again. After this, it’ll vanish and be submerged for 10 to 15 minutes. And it proves too brief a window to get close this time. The whale is soon gone. Clocks are re-set. Estimates made for where the animals might be next.

        Then jackpot. We’re suddenly surrounded. Exhales are going up all over the place and passengers are rushing to focus. But with the excitement comes fear. I start to sense the real size of the blue whales below the surface, and the boat. These whales can reach 100ft in length, as large as an airplane, and they resemble more mountains than mammals up close. But wow. The details.

        One rises and feeds right by the prow. I look down and see not just its breathing hole but the shape of its head, its huge mottled, slick, blue-black body and the dorsal fin. I can see the individual vertebrae of its back. And, for a brief moment, what I think is an eye looking up curiously at the boat.

        Then the count is over. “He’s diving,” says Anoma, now standing at my side. The sleek, sharp, unmistakable tail like a spoiler rises gracefully, pouring water in a curtain behind before slipping down into the ocean. The loud inhales of wonder at the sight of it can’t be contained. It’s like watching a submarine or a ship going down. All that’s left is the ‘footprint’ on the water: a strange, smooth patch of glossy water amid the waves.

        The rest of the morning is a blur of awesome sightings. Ten I think, in total. But I can’t be sure because on the way back I fall fast asleep. When I wake up again, all of it seems like an amazing dream.

        After an afternoon of swimming in the pool and a dinner by the waves at Jetwing Lighthouse, I wake early again for the final leg of the adventure. It’s goodbye to Anoma and off in a comfy, air-conditioned Jetwing van for the four-hour drive along the coast road to Yala.

        The finest of all the Yala hotels, Jetwing Yala is every bit as bold and beautiful as Jetwing Lighthouse, Galle. A single storey entrance cooled by sea air opens out to reveal a modernist space of perfect, minimalist geometric corridors and luxurious, spacious rooms. Being located on the rolling sand dunes of Yala coast, the views are incredible wherever you look, whatever time of the day or night.

        As I walk to my room, I see monkeys and wild boar chasing around the trees that fringe the long swimming pool. I point them out and my porter tells me that elephants regularly walk through the grounds too.

        But to really get close to Sri Lanka elephants, you really need to travel 4km up the road. So after a walk through the dunes, wonderful rice and curry in the restaurant and a long swim in the pool, it’s time to mount up for a jeep safari of Yala National Park. 

        My guide at Jetwing Yala is Chamara Amarasinghe, another of Jetwing Hotel’s hugely knowledgeable resident naturalists. I meet him in reception where he is busy writing up the morning’s sightings on a blackboard. My heart races as I read the words: ‘elephant’, ‘leopard’, ‘crocodile’, ‘sloth bear’.

        Yala National Park is actually Sri Lanka’s second largest national park, but it is by far the most popular. At nearly a thousand square kilometres of protected reserve close to a stunning and relatively undiscovered coast its mix of huge rock formations and great stretches of low-lying scrub, watering holes and grassland is a haven for wildlife. Its major appeal to the traveler lies in the large quantities of exotic inhabitants, and the high chance of encounter. It has a huge diversity of reptile, bird (resident and migratory) and mammal-life and much of it can be seen in a dawn or dusk jeep safari.

        But just like the whale-watching boats, Yala jeep safaris need to be selected carefully. The park gets busy at peak times and disreputable operators seize the opportunity to make a lot of money. Fortunately Jetwing Yala takes monitors and manages its own suppliers, meaning I can climb onboard a ‘super-luxury jeep’ with Chamara safe in the knowledge our driver will be safe, fully insured, and – just as importantly – respectful to the animals.

        Through the park gate and the bustle of safari jeeps doing a great impression of Wacky Races, we’re winding along the terracotta-tinted tracks and into a naturalist’s absolute heaven. Pond herons, egrets and white-breasted kingfishers are everywhere. Sambur and Sri Lankan spotted deer shelter under low trees from the late afternoon sun. Peacocks, wild boar or land monitors seem to scatter at every turn we make.

          We slow to a standstill at a watering hole green with algae. “Can you see him?” Asks Chamara. I scan the scene with my binoculars and pick out kingfishers, a white-bellied sea eagle and the breathtakingly bright plumage of a green bee-eater perched in the waterside trees. “No, not those.” Chamara laughs. “There. On the rock.”

          I look again. Nothing. Wait. “Crocodile!” I shout. It is so well camouflaged I swear you could sit on it and not realise. We watch as it stands and slips into the water.

            Half an hour in to the safari tour and my notebook is filled with sightings. But no elephants. One of the many benefits of going with a good guide to Yala National Park is they tend to know the best spots. Chamara’s intuition seems akin to a sixth sense. He looks up at the sun, instructs the driver and we’re off again through scrub that rings with whooping and chattering birdcalls.

            At first I don’t see the elephants but I know they’re there because Chamara beckons for the driver to stop. Then he turns, gives me a huge grin and points through the undergrowth. A family group is feeding from the trees. And immediately I’m grinning too. “They’re a herd of mothers and babies,” whispers Chamara. “The males tend to move around alone.”

              Soon they are finished with that site and are plodding towards us. Females first and last, babies in-between. I watch them pass by incredibly close to the back of the vehicle in a procession of russet and grey skin, then vanish into the undergrowth.

              Not long after we are stopped again and watching a line of langur monkeys on a log when there’s a crash in bushes to our other side. The bull elephant is yards away and staring straight at us. “He’s a big boy,” confirms Chamara, but I’m in no doubt. He seems colossal. Especially as I’m the one closest to him.

              Despite the sudden tension, it gives me a remarkable chance to look at this spectacular creature up close. The deep brownness fringed with those long, almost demure lashes, makes its eye seem oddly human. I look into it as the elephant shreds the tree for ten minutes until he’s appetite is fully sated. Then he decides it’s time to move. And being directly in his path, I quickly suggest we do the same.

              We’re on our way out as dusk approaches, following the snaking red roads from the green heart of the park, back towards the sea. Yala National Park has one more surprise in store though. A few jeeps are pulled over. We join them and see it there, half-hidden in the greenery. A Sri Lankan leopard. Talk about icing on the cake.

              Back at Jetwing Yala, sprawled on my bed, the constellations dotted across the night sky, I flick back through my notebook for the past three days. Contained within is an almost unbelievable list of species.

              I’m tired but exhilarated. I’ve traveled through a magical land and looked into the eyes of giants on land and sea. This is surely what adventures are made of.

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              Day 1 – Galle, Galle District.
              Day 2 – Mirissa, near Galle, whale-watching boat trip.
              Day 3 – Yala National Park, Southern Province.

              Getting here

              Galle is 130k from Colombo, approximately 1hr 50mins drive on the E01. Trains run daily from Colombo Fort Station to Galle and 2hr 20mins, starting at 6:55am. Yala is 300km from Colombo, approximately 5hrs drive on the A4 / A8 / A18 roads. Alternatively, it is about 5hrs drive from Galle on the coast road, the E01. To arrive via public transport you need to take the train from Colombo Fort Station to Matara, then the 3hr bus to Tissamaharama.

              Staying here

              Jetwing Lighthouse hotel in Galle is one of the iconic hotels of Sri Lanka, built on rocks on the southern coast and blending luxury, setting and 5-star facilities. Combining luxury, design and sustainability, Jetwing Yala hotel is a modernist masterpiece on the outskirts of Yala National Park, set in rolling sand dunes beside the ocean.

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