Holiday in Sri Lanka (13): swimming with sharks

The Trinco Blu Hotel outside Trincomalee is the kind of place that, once guests have checked in, they tend not to leave until they check out – but I like to explore around and seek new experiences, so this morning (Monday) I booked a trip to a place called Pigeon Island. I was the only person on the excursion, so I had to pay quite a bit more than the list price (for me it was £68) for the three hours, but it was worth it for the opportunity to go snorkelling in an accessible and beautiful location.

I have only been snorkelling once before in my life and I had doubted that I would be able to do it again since I go on cultural rather than beach holidays. My previous experience of snorkelling was four years ago at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia when I was on a vessel with around 200 other tourists but essentially left to my own resources. This was different in so many ways. It was on a small island, there was only a local guide and me in the four-seater boat, and my guide was with me at all times.

We set off at 8.30 am and, a little way off shore, my guide stopped the boat opposite a small Hindu shrine and made some sort of supplication. Gosh, I had no idea that our venture would be so potentially hazardous. It was a wet and bouncing ride of half an hour to Pigeon Island about half a mile off shore from the village of Nilaveli. The island is a national park named after the blue rock pigeons that nest there.

I changed into my swimming trunks and donned orange life jacket, lime green flippers and black snorkel. Two problems soon became apparent. First, my guide knew only a handful of words in English and pronounced them with an indecipherable accent. Second, as on my first snorkelling experience, it took me a while to breath through the snorkel without ingesting salty sea water. Later a third issue emerged and I learned an important lesson in life: when wearing flippers, you can only walk backwards and slowly (it makes you look like a dumb duck, but it works).

There are two beaches on the narrow island and the first is noted for its sea life. I saw a couple of small sharks and several turtles really close. The area was affected by coral bleaching in 2011, but the coral still looks mysterious and, when there is some colour left, absolutely glorious.

When we moved to the second beach, my guide repeatedly told me there would be “lots of piss”. Only when we were in the water did I appreciate that he meant that I would see plenty of fish. Observing at close quarters underwater fish of different sizes, shapes and colours is a truly wondrous experience. Suspended in warm water with the only sound one’s breathing is almost a mystical experience.

Since this is essentially the last day of my holiday (the rest of the time is travelling), snorkelling on Pigeon Island was the icing on the cake of a fascinating and fun holiday.

After lunch at the hotel, I had a post-prandial stroll outside the establishment but, since the temperature was 34C/93F, it had to be a short walk. The rest of the day was more writing, more reading, more swimming, more sleeping and of course more eating and drinking. Such a tough life …


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