Sri Lanka. The Ultimate Island Safari

Whales, Elephants and Leopards, the best all-round wildlife destination

10 FEBRUARY 2014,
Leopard
Leopard

What can I actually see if I am on a two week trip? This is a question I often ask myself when thumbing through a beautiful wildlife book or a tour operator’s brochure to a country. For my book Wild Sri Lanka, I decided to adapt an article I wrote based on 12 days in the field during an incredible holiday in Sri Lanka in April 2012. I felt an actual example would be the best way to answer the question that a would be traveller would have. My holiday with family and friends in rotation was planned with garnering more material for the Wild Sri Lanka book. But it was the type of trip anyone can arrange through a tour operator. I cannot think of a better way to say what a truly magical destination Sri Lanka is for wildlife other than to invite the reader to share the adventure I had on a real trip.

April 2012, Sri Lanka
“Daddy, are they watching us?” asks Amali my youngest daughter her voice slightly tense. From the inky black depths of the sea, where there is no light and some predators hunt using sonar, the hunters have gathered behind us. They are spy hopping, lying vertically in the water with their eyes above the surface. They are talking in a language, a coda, a series of clicks. I wish we could talk to them and ask how old they are? I imagine them to be as much as two hundred years old. They may have been around when whalers arrived here and their relatives were slain. In the 21st century they seem to know they are safe. Even safer with me because they have profiled us with their sonar and realised I am with two children. The whalers never had children on their boats. So perhaps these whales sense that we are no risk at all. They swim up to us and ‘scrum’ with each other, writhing bodies churning the water into a froth. They are engaging in what marine scientists dryly describe as ‘active socializing’. They are now only a few feet away from us and we are just gob smacked at how tactile they are and how they have accepted us. A mature female is with them. Perhaps she is excited at the prospect of male company. A bull may be visiting having travelled a few thousand kilometers from a more northerly or southerly latitude. She signals her interest. Forty metric tonnes of Sperm Whale hurls itself out of the water and lands on its back.

We are 35 kilometers east of Trincomalee on the 'East Coast' of Sri Lanka on a whale watch hosted by Chaaya Blue, a John Keells Hotel, one of the top two hotels in Trincomalee. My wife Nirma, and children Maya and Amali together with a friend Tilak Conrad are busy data logging as I call out details on a spectacular repertoire of surface behaviour. There is a special relationship between Sri Lanka and Sperm Whales. Sri Lanka is the best chance in the world to see a super- pod of Sperm Whales on a commercial whale watching trip.

Chitral Jayatilake the head of Eco Tourism for John Keells is pioneering the use of quieter engines for responsible whale watching. Besides a fast, quiet boat and his best boatman, he had also supplied me with a back up GPS, satellite phone and the Trincomalee admiralty charts for my whale watching research trip. I was out in April 2012. A few weeks earlier in March, a group of underwater photographers on a tour led by Amos Nachoum had encountered a super- pod of Sperm Whales. The super-pod had, not far from where we were watching, a pod of 20 Sperm Whales. Andre Steffen a German Researcher who had studied them in Dominica wrote to me that there were at least a hundred and Nachoum estimated the number between 60-80. John Keells naturalists B. Dayarathne and Nilantha Kodithuwwaku estimated that there could have been over two hundred whales.

The grand family adventure for us had begun with a luxury tented safari in Yala National Park, the best location in the world to see and photograph leopard. Mahoora the pioneer of luxury tented safaris, offers visitors the privilege of staying inside the park. On the first night, as we dined over a five course campfire meal, the eerie howl of a Jackal drifted through the darkness that had shrouded the trees. I fell asleep listening to the soft 'ugh' calls of a troop of endemic Toque Monkeys that squabbled in the riverine tree canopy over the tents. During the night, Nirma woke me up; she had heard voices. The staff were chasing a tusker elephant away. Leopards come close to camp as well. A Sloth Bear sometimes walks through the camp which means of Sri Lanka's Big Five, the terrestrial three are all seen close the to the Mahoora camp. One morning, just yards away from the camp, we stopped to photograph butterflies in a little open glade where the sun snuck through an otherwise impenetrable tall canopy of luxuriant riverine trees. A Common Crow, a butterfly was flying with its hair pencils everted from the tip of its abdomen, wafting pheromones to be caught by the jungle breezes which curved around the gnarled trunks of ageing kumbuk trees. In those few minutes a Sloth Bear walked through the camp. We missed it and my popularity took a dent.

Without even trying hard during a three night stay we saw over 137 species of birds in the park and close to 30 species of butterflies. On the first evening game drive, we sat by a waterhole and watched three families of elephants with babies coming to water. I was writing some notes down when a shuffling noise drew near by as if someone was walking with loose rubber slippers. Two adults with a juvenile brushed past the vehicle.

We left the waterhole as the evening was wearing off. Priyantha, the Mahoora driver was experienced and kept his distance when a short while later, a male leopard marking his territory emerged from the thorn scrub. I imperiously gestured to another safari vehicle that we should all hang back. Good behaviour has it rewards and we watched it do a belly crawl up to the flimsy cover afforded by a leafless line of thorn bushes. It locked a steely gaze on a buffalo calf under the care of a vigilant mother. Priyantha whispered that it was getting late and we need to head back to comply with the park rules to return before sundown. We drove off leaving the hunter and passing another a young female leopard bravely carving out her territory. The late Ravi Samarasinha in his conversations with me always maintained that in some parts of Yala's block 1 the density of leopards could be as high as one per one square kilometer. This seemed plausible as I have had sightings of six different leopards once on a 600m stretch of road and others have observed six leopards in view at a waterhole in the dry season. Andrew Kittle and Anjali Watson, two leopard researchers, believe that an average density estimate (not to be confused with home range sizes) is more likely to be one leopard for three square kilometers. Where ever the true figure may lie, it is high and Yala remains as the top spot in the world for leopards. Yala can now have its bad days of safari traffic, a victim of its success as a result of leopard-centric branding by people such as myself.

A tsunami warning from volcanic activity in far away Indonesia resulted in us driving back to the capital Colombo past Uda Walawe National Park, the only park in the world where a wild elephant is guaranteed on a game drive. You don’t even need to enter the park as sugar junkie elephants line up behind the electric fence which divides elephant country from farmland.

Two days later, with Ashan Seneviratne of Little Adventures, I skipped down to Mirissa for a day trip on the newly built southern expressway. Ruwan the skipper of my favourite boat crew (Mirissa Water Sports) greeted me warmly before we headed out in search of Blue Whales. The crew of tsunami affected fishing youth who were set up for pleasure sailing in 2005 now operate three boats for whale watching. South of Mirissa is the best location in the world for Blue Whales, first publicised as recently as May 2008 me. Within an hour we had seen a few Blue Whales. Then something magical happened. A pair surfaced so close to the boat that we could hear the whoosh as they exhaled. One side-fluked. This is where it swims on its side exposing the tip of one tail fluke like the dorsal fin of a patrolling shark. This was unusual. A series of unusual surface behaviour suggested we were watching Blue Whales in courtship. The boat crew have run over 500 whale watching trips and they had not observed similar behaviour until a fortnight earlier.

I took detailed notes and watched. The minutes ticked by as Ruwan kept the boat out for me. There was a time when I would be the only person out at sea with them and they would run the boat for me for the cost of diesel. Just me and them under blue sky and the vast Indian Ocean looking for Blue Whales that no one seemed to know about. Now the boats are full with tourists and I hang back letting the tourists take the prime spot at the front. But it does not matter as Ruwan and the boys always keep an eye on me and position the boat so that it is always best for photography from where I am. When whales have been seen well, as was that day, the whale watching boats turn back. We were now the only boat left. The sun beat down, desiccating us in the heat. Out in the vast featureless ocean, tour guides leading groups with onward itinerary legs or night flights to catch, grew anxious.

We left the courting Blue Whales. But Ashan and I had another sea adventure ahead of us at Kalpitiya, one of the top spots in the world for Sperm Whales. A few weeks earlier, Ashan had arranged for a boat from our hosts at Bay Watch Eco Resort Village. Two other boats were to join us to sweep the Sperm Whale Strip between E 079 35 and E 079 38 in a north- south traverse searching for the whales. This was planned several weeks ahead as emails criss-crossed the ether between London and Colombo. But by a fortunate coincidence two days before we set out, the Sri Lanka Navy stumbled across a super-pod of Sperm Whales and put out a press release accompanied by footage which ran on local television. We caught up with the super-pod and left a peninsula where the dolphin watching boatmen had become converts to whale watching.

Sri Lanka is the Best for Big Game Safaris outside Africa. No other place outside Africa offers an opportunity for mainstream tourism to see five large potentially dangerous animals on holiday within a reasonable time frame and at affordable prices. Ganganath Weerasinghe is a manager of Jetwing Eco Holidays, the specialist wildlife subsidiary of one of the largest destination management companies in Sri Lanka. According to him more and more wildlife photographers from India (another good alternative outside Africa) are coming over to photograph Leopards, Sloth Bear, Blue and Sperm Whales. They are also coming over to photograph elephants at The Elephant Gathering, the largest annually recurring concentration of elephants in the world. Sometimes on the lake bed of Minneriya in August and September, as many as 300 elephants may gather in an event labelled by Lonely Planet, as amongst the Top Ten wildlife events in the world.

Sri Lanka is the best for some of the most enigmatic animals in the world. It’s best for Blue Whale, Leopard, Sloth Bear, Sperm Whale super-pods and the concentrations of wild elephants. Entrepreneurs like Anuruddha Bandara of the Eco Team who own the brand Mahoora are leveraging this and have launched campsites under the Big Game theme. The island is also rich in biodiversity with many plants and animals unique to the country in its rainforests. 900 species of vertebrate animals have been described newly to science by biodiversity explorer Rohan Pethiyagoda and his team at the Wildlife Heritage Trust. The Sinharaja Bird Wave in the lowland Sinharaja rainforest is the biggest, longest studied and offers the best viewing of a tropical bird wave.

As my holiday in Sri Lanka draws to a close, with my family I explore the mangroves near the busy Bentota River on a mangrove safari organised by the Avani Bentota Resort and Spa. Soon we find our quarry, the Water Monitor, a gigantic and fearsome looking reptile, sunning itself on the banks. In shadowed streams we find baby water monitors growing up in the shallows. My final trip is to the Talangama Wetland, a biodiversity rich site on the suburbs of Colombo. The water's edge is busy with brightly coloured Scarlet Baskers and Crimson Dropwings, aerial hunters whose basic body design has remained unchanged for 300 million years. They arrived before the dinosaurs and have outlived the dinosaurs. Meanwhile, children leave for school watched over by endemic and endangered Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys whose alpha males boom from the tree canopy. My field days add up to less than two weeks and yet I have seen the kind of wildlife most travellers would be thankful to see in a lifetime.

Gehan’s Guide to Wild Sri Lanka’s Top Spo ts

Horton Plains (cloud forest)
This place is spiritual if you get away from the crowds. One for the serious naturalist who takes pleasure in listening to the tinkling of frogs when a cold mist shrouds the wild landscape in a white blanket. Birders cannot avoid it to get their montane endemics.

Kalpitiya (inquisitive Sperm Whales)
Kalpitiya is the top site for Spinner Dolphins; sailings between December to mid April. Sperm Whale watching is still in its early days.

Minneriya and Kaudulla (the Elephant Gathering)
The biggest annually recurring concentration of wild elephants in the world. So many people I have taken are entranced when the elephants approach the vehicles and feed nonchalantly close by. If you are lucky you may see an entire herd go to water.

Mirissa (Best for “Blue Whale” in the world)
Sailings best between December to mid April. Top location in the world for Blue Whales. Huge variety of accommodation in strip from Hikkaduwa to Mirissa. The Galle Fort has many luxury villas and boutique hotels. Unawatuna has cheaper accommodation and beach cafes which are wonderful for wrapping up a tropical evening.

Sinharaja Rainforest (Sinharaja Bird Wave)
Home of the longest studied and largest bird wave, which also offers the best viewing of any tropical bird wave. A wide former logging track allows a chance to experience a tropical rainforest. An awesome place for any serious naturalist or photographer. So many birds, butterflies, dragonflies, fish, lizards and plants; many of them found in no other country, offer easy opportunities for viewing. Ah but remember for the untrained eye the rainforest is an empty place. Fortunately, the mandatory local guides are good.

Talangama Wetland
30-45 minutes from any of Colombo’s city hotels. Colombo is blessed to have such a bio-diverse wetland. I go there often to watch birds, dragonflies, water monitors dragging themselves laboriously across the road, to hear the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey boom and for a flash of blue from a butterfly dash past me.

Trincomalee (Blues and Sperms)
Whale watching season runs from March to September. March and April are the best. Blue Whales occasionally even offer pool-side viewing and land-based watching from Swami Rock. But there is no substitute to going out to sea in a boat. A chance for a Sperm Whale super-pod.

Uda Walawe (sugar junkie elephants)
The only park in the world which guarantees an elephant on a game drive, especially so as the elephants have taken to taking goodies from people on the road. Beats feeding the ducks in London. But go inside as there are some wonderful encounters to be had and great social behaviour to be observed.

Yala National Park (the big spotted one)
Year-round for leopards. The best for photographing leopards and Sloth Bear in the world. Only the core zone of Corbett matches it in Asia for seeing mammals on a game drive. Terrific for dry zone birds.

This article has been adapted from ‘Wild Sri Lanka’ published by John Beaufoy Publishing.