The palm-fringed coastline of south Sri Lanka is one of the best beach destinations in the world. Take a look at one of its hidden coves and empty stretches of golden-sand beaches and I’m sure you’ll agree with me. If visiting this part of Sri Lanka is on your itinerary, then you might also want to add a luxury cruise to your list of things to do. Being on the open water in Sri Lanka is an incredible way to view the coast from a slightly different perspective, and gives you an opportunity to experience life on the Indian Ocean.
This part of Sri Lanka also happens to be one of the best places in the world to go whale watching as it doesn’t take long to reach deep waters where the magnificent cetaceans swim and feed on krill. For a luxurious and crowd-free whale watching and sailing experience look into hopping aboard one of Sail Lanka’s catamarans. Read on for our experience, but first – a little primer on whale watching in Sri Lanka!
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Whale watching in Sri Lanka
Several species of whales can be found in Sri Lankan waters, including the sperm whale, humpback, Bryde’s and the massive blue whale. They swim and feed on krill here, and can be spotted from small whale watching vessels if you’re lucky.
Interested in seeing even more wildlife in Sri Lanka? Read this article on some of the best places to see elephants in the wild!
In the south, whale watching tours are mostly operated out of a small coastal town named Mirissa where you can reach the deep sea in no time flat. But not all whale watching tours are created equal, and the operating standards and prices can vary across the board. Much like jeep drivers who chase and corner wildlife in Sri Lanka’s national parks, some whale watching boats harass the whales by revving their engines and getting way too close, causing whales to become stressed and alter their behaviour.
To mitigate the effects of a growing whale watching industry, the Sri Lankan coast guard operates patrol tours to observe boat operators in an attempt to ensure that they abide by regulations, and the Department of Wildlife Conservation also implemented a “wildlife fee” in early 2019 (though it’s not entirely clear how the proceeds are used).
Unfortunately, ethical whale watching in Sri Lanka is not always easy to come by and it’s unclear how many operators actually abide by whale watching best practices such as slowing down to less than 7 knots when within 400 metres of the nearest whale, keeping clear of the whales’ path, and not approaching from the front or from behind. For more information on approaching guidelines see here and here. The good news is there are a number of ethical whale watching tours in Sri Lanka. Keep reading for my experience aboard Sail Lanka’s 7 hour whale watching and sailing tour.
You may also be interested in this article: A 2 Week Sri Lanka Itinerary for First Time Visitors
Whale watching and sailing with Sail Lanka
I’ve always wanted to go whale watching in Sri Lanka, but the long sailing times and horror stories about extreme sea sickness and whale harassment kept putting me off; being cooped up and stuck on a boat with 40 other people was the very last thing I wanted to do. So I looked into alternatives, and saw that Sail Lanka operated small-group day cruises on their luxury catamarans for dolphin and whale watching from Mirissa from November to April. Small group? Yes. Luxury catamaran? Oh yeah. A day out on the water with time for swimming and sunbathing? Heck yes. Here’s what you can expect!
I e-mailed Sail Lanka a few weeks in advance and booked my boyfriend and myself onto the tour. We hopped aboard bright and early in Mirissa, and once the wildlife fees were all paid up and the safety briefing was completed, we set sail towards the deep sea for the opportunity to spot whales in the wild. Captain Sami and his crew were extremely professional, and prepared a hearty breakfast and lunch for the group – only about a dozen guests including myself and my boyfriend.
The beautiful catamaran was well maintained and featured a covered seating area, trampoline netting at the front and an upper viewing deck – plenty of space for the group to roam around and have our own little areas. Take a look at some of these other whale watching boats and tell me which you’d rather to be on!
Though the Indian Ocean can be temperamental and choppy, it didn’t seem to matter much as we spotted our a pod of frolicking dolphins within the first few minutes at sea (I’m sure the dramamine helped as well).
Interested in dolphin and whale-watching in Sri Lanka? You may also be interested in this article: 5 Top Things to Do in Kalpitiya in Western Sri Lanka
We continued sailing for another 45 minutes or so and found ourselves cruising along 2 other whale watching boats: someone had spotted a blue whale and it was due to surface again soon.
Then way out along the horizon we spotted water spraying and maybe just a little bump emerge from the ocean…but with the waves and choppy water it honestly didn’t look like much. Until we got just a tad closer and once again a little sliver of dark grey slid above the water with another big spray – blink and you might just miss it. The blue whale surfaced another few times for what felt like milliseconds before it disappeared altogether and signaled that it was time for us to return to shore.
If you’re expecting whales jumping and spinning in the air, you might be in for a bit of a letdown. But if you are yearning for a glorious glimpse of some of the most majestic marine mammals in the world then you’re in for a real treat, because those few seconds of watching that blue whale in its natural habitat was extraordinary and I won’t soon forget that privilege. While I am no expert, our boat did keep a greater distance away from the blue whale (I used a 24-105 mm lens and the whale was still too far away for a very clear shot) and did not charge towards it like the other boats, and we were able to do a lot of sailing on the way back with the engines switched off. It should also go without saying that the whale watching tour with Sail Lanka involves no feeding and no swimming with the whales.
Unlike most boats which turn around and head right back to the fisheries port, the 7-hour Sail Lanka cruise takes you off the coast and drops its anchor for lunch and a swim. Bring your swimsuit and jump right into the ocean for a satisfying cool-off, or try your hand at SUPing (spoiler: it’s harder than it looks). Don’t feel like swimming? Perch up on the trampoline netting and grab yourself an ice cold beer, but make sure you lather on the sunscreen so you don’t get an extreme sun burn like I did!
If you’re looking for a relaxing sailing experience and fun day out of then I highly recommend checking out Sail Lanka. Here’s the nitty gritty:
- The 7 hour morning whale watching cruise starts at 6:30 AM and finishes at 1:30 PM
- They don’t always operate shared cruises as there are minimum number of participants required, so it’s best to get in touch early at [email protected]
- The Mirissa whale watching cruises only take place from November to April – in the other season Sail Lanka runs cruises in Passikudah on the east coast
- Transportation to and from the Mirissa Fisheries Harbour is not included
- The cruise includes breakfast and lunch. Drinks cost extra but you can also BYO for a fee
- The cost of the 7-hour whale watching tour is US$100 per person, and there is a wildlife fee of US$18 per adult
- Tips are not compulsory but appreciated
Editor’s note: If you only want to go whale watching and do not want an extended sailing cruise then look into Raja and the Whales – this family-run company is highly recommended for ethical whale watching tours and adheres to international whale watching regulations.
Short on time and only have 1 week in Sri Lanka and/or not interested in whale watching? Sail Lanka also operates 3 and 4-hour sailing cruises in the afternoon which includes water activities such as snorkeling and SUPing. However, these don’t run daily and require a minimum number of participants so it’s best to e-mail in advance to check availability.
You might also like: More Things to Do in South Sri Lanka
Where to stay in south Sri Lanka
Visiting south Sri Lanka? Personally, I would recommend staying in Talalla, Hiriketiya or at Cape Weligama. Each of these are within a 1 hour to 90 minute drive away from Mirissa (where the whale watching tours depart from), and are a little less hectic than the hustle and bustle of Mirissa and Weligama towns. Here are some favorites in the area:
Talalla Retreat, the perfect place for surf and yoga offering both open-air and air-conditioned rooms.
Zephyr Talalla, a boutique 4-bedroom beachfront villa serving up the best food & cocktails.
Sam & Lola’s (my property) located steps away from Hiriketiya Beach, offering two private villas each with their own private plunge pool.
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