Stilt Fishermen and Blue Whales in Sri Lanka

We were excited to visit the next two beach towns in Sri Lanka. We had been looking forward to seeing both the unique stilt fishermen and the large Blue Whales for awhile. This week we would see both just a few kilometers away from each other.

Not far from our last beach town, Midigama, is the town Ahangama. This area is known for its stilt fishermen who fish, perched up high above the water on thin poles with seats. They use the stilts so that the fish can’t see their shadows. Since the Tsunami in 2004, however, the technique has started to die out. We really wanted to see this style of fishing since it is so unique and interesting. We first went to search for the fishermen early in the morning, but all of the stilts were empty. Most beaches in the area had stilts in the water, but we couldn’t find the fishermen. Finally, at one fishing spot we saw two men splashing water on the stilts. We were told that the fish weren’t biting so the fishermen were using magic water to ‘cleanse’ the stilts. Sure enough, later that day we found these same fishermen up on their stilts at sunset. We’re not sure if the fish were biting or not after the magic potion, but at least the fishermen were trying. There were three beaches within walking distance of each other where they were using the stilts. It’s a fascinating tradition that is amazing to witness.

The touristy city of Mirissa has a busy port with new and old fishing boats, sailboats and whale-watching boats. It has an interesting mix of being both a rough-edged, working-class fishing town and a polished tourist beach town. In the morning we saw the fishermen heading out to sea. It was interesting to see the narrow, wooden fishing boats still being used beside the more modern boats.

The beaches in Mirissa are spread over 3 different coves giving each beach a different atmosphere. The main beach has a resort feel with large beach-side hotels and restaurants lined up side by side. Some restaurants have their tables set up right at the water’s edge so the waves wash in to cover your feet. It’s a busy beach filled with sunbathers and surfers.

The next two coves are less touristy, and we found them more pleasant. The small gentle Turtle Bay is a common spot to see turtles. It’s a great place to go snorkel with turtles and schools of small fish. Snorkeling in the calm waters was nice after being tossed around by the waves further west in Hikkaduwa. We saw a few turtles from shore but when we were snorkeling, we were able to find only one. It was still nice to float above the turtle while it enjoyed a lunch of sea grass.

At the last cove is an interesting small hill that has a perfect arrangement of coconut trees. There are just enough of both trees and ocean view to make it a picture-perfect setting. As with many of these spots lately, Coconut Tree Grove is a favourite Instagram spot.

Blue Whales are the largest mammal in the world. Quite a few of them live in the deep waters not far from Mirissa. We went on a whale-watching boat to see these large beauties. The enormous mammal travels solo so they are only spotted one by one. Each whale can only be seen every 15 or 20 minutes when they surface to breathe so you have to be patient, yet on the look-out. For such a large animal, it’s very difficult to find. The whales don’t seem to swim in a pattern so the boat drivers must predict where they will emerge in the vast ocean. First you see a spout of water a few times, showing you that it is close to the surface. Then the whale starts to dive. A section of their massive back comes out of the water and then finally the famous ‘tale shot’ as it goes back down to the deep ocean. We were able to see a few whales during our 2 hours on the water. It was quite exhilarating to witness this massive body emerge from the ocean and peacefully, dive back in. Everything was very touristy, but we still enjoyed seeing this large animal in action.

Further west the beaches become smaller, separated into small idyllic coves. The town of Tangalle has a local fishing harbour at one end and then several small beaches along the shore, separated by rocky peninsulas. The waves are gentle, and the beaches are much less crowded. Away from the busy town is a quiet road running along the beach that has many casual restaurants and guest houses. It is a great area to walk between the beaches, deciding on which one to spend your day.

There are many lagoons near Tangalle, some are small that dry up during dry season and some are quite large year round. We went kayaking at sunrise on a fairly large lagoon. It begins as a small, open pond but behind the pond we found many narrow, interconnected channels that meander through the watershed. Some of the channels were very tight with mangrove trees lining both sides and their long roots reaching out into the channel. It was very peaceful in the early morning, but the wildlife were still very active. Even without a guide we were able to spot water monitors swimming, tufted grey langur monkeys swinging through the branches, kingfishers, bee-eaters, cormorants and many more birds.

Not far from Tangalle is a massive rock outcrop with 3rd century Buddhist Cave Temples carved into the rock. The drive to get to the temple is on a pretty, winding road through rice paddies bordered by palm trees. There were several wild peacocks in the fields at the side of the road.

Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara Temple has at least 5 caves carved into the massive rock at different heights. There are a few hundred steps cut into the rock to reach the different caves high above the ground. The caves are quite large, and each has a massive lying Buddha statue as well as other statues of Buddha and his disciples. The walls and ceilings are painted with colourful depictions of Buddha’s life, ancient followers and with colourful lotus flower designs.

Outside one cave we found a troupe of Toque Macaques. They are endemic to Sri Lanka and are different from other macaques we’ve seen as they are very skinny and have a large tuft of hair on their head like a toque (a Canadian winter knitted hat)! This group was very playful and were chasing each other around the temple’s pond and over wires. At one point their play fighting landed them in the pond, but they didn’t stop wresting. It was hilarious to watch.

Coming up next: Sri Lankan Safaris

For extra pics from this trip go to Gallery/Sri Lanka. For extra pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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