Sri Lanka offers many excellent opportunities to see diverse aquatic wildlife up close. Fed by the nutrient-rich Bay of Bengal, and warmed by the Indian Ocean’s northern currents, the island’s coastal waters are popular with marine life, while its lagoons, lakes and wetlands offer rich pickings for hundreds of aquatic creatures.
There’s nothing but 5,000 miles of deep water between Sri Lanka’s southern tip and blue whale feeding grounds in Antarctica; the voyage would intimidate many sailors, but the whales migrate across this vast distance to breed, and can be spotted off Sri Lanka’s south and east coastlines on whale-watching boat trips, often run by ex-fishermen who know exactly where the giants are likely to surface. Several species of smaller whales can also be spotted, and boats are often trailed by pods of dolphins. South coast trips usually depart from Mirissa, with sightings most likely off Dondra Head, Kirinda and Bentota. In the east, trips depart from Trincomalee harbour - the deep submarine canyon just beyond it means you can sometimes even spot whales from the shore.
Best time to see the whales and dolphins: Dec-Apr. Mirissa is about an hour’s drive from Galle.
Few birds look more exotic than the flamingo - star attraction of Bundala National Park - but around 100 species of waterbird can be seen here, many of them just as eye-catching! The park’s four beautiful lagoons form such a complex ecosystem that the area, which stretches for 12 miles along Sri Lanka’s south-east coast, was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2005. Year-round residents include hulking crocodiles, sinister-looking Black-headed Storks and the Oriental White Ibis, with migrating visitors like the Greater Flamingo turning up between September and March. Four marine turtle species come ashore each year to lay eggs on Bundala’s shoreline, and the park benefits from low (human) visitor numbers compared to Sri Lanka’s more famous National Parks.
Best time to see flamingos: Sept-Mar. Approx 3 hours drive east from Galle. Open all year round. A good driver is necessary, as roads within Bundala can become waterlogged.
Sri Lanka's diving is so fantastic that we've dedicated a whole blog post to it here. The island is ringed with hundreds of wrecks from across the centuries, including several sunk during World War 2. They make superb artificial habitats for all kinds of marine life, from corals to visiting giants. Although wreck dives are often reserved for practised divers, Sri Lanka does have a couple that beginners can safely navigate - we like the Lady McCullum SS, which lies at 16m alongside a small reef near Vakarai on the east coast. For experienced divers, our favourite wrecks include the excellent British Sergeant (also near Vakarai) and the HMS Hermes, an aircraft carrier about 5 miles off the east coast near Batticloa.
Sri Lanka's two species of crocodile (Mugger and Saltwater) are most commonly found in Yala and Wilpattu National Parks. Wilpattu NP is defined by unique natural rainwater lakes that dwindle and swell in sync with the seasons, attracting plenty of spindle-legged migrating waterbirds and thirsty animals - all ideal lunch for snapping jaws. In Yala NP, coastal mangrove swamps and a network of wetlands are home hundreds of fish species - the crocs usually have plenty to eat here, too. In reality, your safari won't just be about the crocodiles, since both NPs are famous for elephants, leopards and other exciting species. But it's always fun to have a few toothy prehistoric-looking predators to look out for whilst exploring in your jeep. Right?
Diving isn't for everyone, especially if you don't want to spend your holiday in Sri Lanka learning how to breath from an oxygen tank. Luckily, many of the island's superb marine habitats are easily explored with a simple snorkel. Weligama on the south coast has lovely warm shallows with interesting sites, while east coast Trinconmalee is famous for snorkelling around Pigeon Island, which boasts excellent visibility and thriving marine life just below the surface. Most of Sri Lanka's best dive schools also offer snorkelling trips, or a combination of both if your group has mixed tastes and abilities.
Sri Lanka is famous for regular visits from marine turtles - five of the world’s seven species laboriously heave themselves ashore to lay their eggs here, all year round. Nesting sites are found along the island’s west and south coasts, but of course it is essential to go looking with a responsible conservationist rather than trying to find them yourself. The turtle populations are declining, and in some cases facing extinction, but there are several turtle conservation projects in Sri Lanka - we especially enjoy visits to Kosgoda and Habaraduwa. Several species of terrapin can also be seen in Sri Lanka's freshwater lakes and lagoons, so keep an eye out for them, too.
Peak time for turtles: Mar-Dec.
Sri Lanka's monsoon cycles are a little complicated - click here to explore Sri Lanka's weather and the best time to visit.