I’ve resisted talking about my Sri Lanka trip for months now because things went wrong. Not that there were dead bodies or even some kind of drama (because those make the best stories), it was just an alright trip where things were over promised and under delivered. I went to Sri Lanka because there was this great trip advertised where I would spend a week on a boat and would get to snorkel with dolphins and pilot whales and blue whales and sperm whales. It was going to be a whale-a-poloosa. It was run by the Aggressor Fleet, which if you’ve ever done any live aboard diving trips, they’re the big name worldwide. And the great trips that I’ve taken to the Dominican Republic to swim with the humpback whales are run by these guys.
Well, the first indication that things were off was 4-5 days before we were set to get on a plane for Sri Lanka and the tour company happens to mention that, well, the trip may not, in fact, go forward. See, there was this problem with the boat and the Sri Lankan government — it was a new boat, just built, and they were having problems getting the right approvals and documents from the local government. That the 5 or 6 trips that were supposed to happen before us had been cancelled, so if we (if in fact the ship went) were to be the maiden voyage. That there would be no “shake down cruise” before us. Hmmm.
But they came back and said, no worries, we’ve got this, go ahead and get on the plane. So, San Francisco to Hong Kong to Singapore, where I met up with my friend that I’ll be sharing a room with for the 2 weeks (1 week on land, 1 on the boat). The last leg to Colombo, getting in at midnight, there is in fact a driver waiting for us, a crazy dark ride somewhere to a lovely hotel on the beach, where we’re allowed 4 hours of sleep before the morning pickup. Except that they got the time wrong and we ended sitting on the hotel steps with our luggage for an hour during which time, one of my fellow travelers really wanted to tell me about this great book she was reading and, in fact, sat next to me reading it out loud to me from the beginning. As if I was 2. Well, maybe there is less a difference between an adult with extreme jet lag and a toddler than I think.
So, the 5 of us and 4 more get into the bus and travel hours across Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is not a huge island, but the roads are small 2 lane highways, crowded with buses and trucks and tuk-tuks and bicycles, so it takes a while to get anywhere. And we were headed for the middle of the island where the national parks are. At the late lunch stop, the guide turns to us and says, when did they tell you that we’re not headed for the luxury tented safari camp that you were promised? To which the answer was, well, you’re telling us now. To which my book reading co-traveller says, well, where are we going now? And the guide says, well, we headed for the hotel, most of you got in late last night, I’m sure you’re tired. To which my co-traveller started waving her guide book and saying, no, we’re not wasting an entire day, there are these Buddha caves right here, we’re going there now. And the guide is trying to explain that it’s the middle of the day, it’s very hot and muggy, and the Buddha caves are uphill. We’ll do the Buddha caves later in the week in the morning when it’s cooler. Well, the guide was reminded that he worked for us and we were going to the Buddha caves.
The Buddha caves were lovely.
But very hot and up several flights of stone stairs. And we were introduced to the Sri Lanka tradition that you don’t take off your shoes before going into the holy building, you take off your shoes before you enter the entire compound and walk long distances in your socks. But unlike some of the other Buddha sites I’ve been to, you were allowed to take pictures of the Buddhas as long as you didn’t turn your back to them (selfie-style).
The hotel we ended up in was very, very nice. Each accommodation was a separate bungalow with it’s own cold plunge and view off into the hills, spaced far enough apart that you needed to be taken back and forth in golf carts. Lovely plumbing, comfortable furniture. The only problem was that it was really far away from everything, down a one lane red dirt road, so over the next week, we spent hours in the bus going to see anything else.
I have to confess that the first night at dinner, I had a glass of wine and the jet lag and heat caught up with me and I fainted dead away at the dinner table and had to be golf-carted back to my room — along with two other people who said they were going to be next.
The morning, we were supposed to leave early, but of course didn’t. We were headed to Sigiriya, an ancient fortress built into a tall rock.
Apparently, it was a Buddhist monastery with monks living in caves in the rock when the second son of the king betrayed his father, took the throne, evicted the monks and built his city fortress here. He apparently had 500, 800, maybe 1000 concubines and needed large water gardens for them to bath in. He ended up in battle with his brother, the rightful heir to the throne, and due to some miscommunication in battle, went one way when his army went another (or maybe he was abandoned by them), and ended up falling on his sword to avoid being taken prisoner. Or maybe he was just poisoned.
Learning my lesson from the day before, I only went halfway (and didn’t even take my heavy SLR camera, just the little waterproof point and shoot I had for all those great whale pictures I was going to get), just far enough to see the frescoes which of course you can’t take pictures of because they fear you will damage them with your technology. The frescoes are supposed to be portraits of some of his favorite concubines. Supposedly there were originally portraits of all his concubines along the rock face path, but you know, open air frescoes from the 3rd century BC, there’s only about 5 or 6 left and even those are very faded. Far enough to see the bronze wall that the concubines admired themselves in. And far enough to see the lion foot gates up to the upper palaces.
The top of the rock has no buildings left, but the group that did go all the way to the top said the site interpreter the guide had hired had plenty of stories. I sat with the guide at the bottom watching the monkeys and waiting and the guide told me — well, this whole story about the terrible king and all his women, we only know that because of the monks who hated him because they were evicted from their homes. Maybe the frescoes are of the concubines, maybe they’re just women the monks were thinking about. There’s a problem with believing history written by people who hate you.
After lunch and another long drive, we went to Minneriya-Girithale Sanctuary to see the elephants.
The Sri Lankan elephant (which is its own subspecies the Asian elephant) is more or less tuskless, only about 1 in 5 have small tusks. And they are left to roam through a couple large sanctuaries — the water you see behind them is an agricultural reserve. I didn’t take any pictures of it, but this was a very busy spot with about 20 or 30 6 passenger trucks weaving their way in and out of the elephants. The elephants are not terribly happy about the intrusion and make charges at the trucks when they feel they’re getting to close, requiring some speed racing in reverse to avoid a collision.
The third day we spent at Wilpattu National Park, an enormous reserve on the upper left hand side of the Sri Lankan teardrop. It’s best known for its Sri Lanka leopard, its Sri Lanka sloth bear, the three kinds of deer (in order of decreasing size, the sambur, spotted, and barking), and a wide variety of bird life. (Oh, Janis will make me a birder yet.)
The 4th day we visited a compound of temples with some beautiful 3rd century BC carvings and an enormous stupa ringed with carved wooden elephants.
While one of co-travelers waved her travel guide and talked about the things we could be seeing and weren’t. Like tea plantations. Beaches. She did not wish to see another temple.
We traveled by bus to Trincomalee, the large natural port on the east side of the island. This is where we were catching the boat and there was some drama about how we had to make it to the port authority by 6 pm or they closed and there would be no way to get to the boat. For people who didn’t take the optional land portion of the trip, they were quite precise about not coming alone or unexpected to the port authority because it was quite a process to get through. And at this point, we met the rest of the passengers. And they were quite a assortment, random German, Israel, a chip designer from India, some Chinese, a Japanese couple, the Canadians I was traveling with, a couple more Americans, and an elderly woman from Sacramento who was easily 350 pounds, walked with a cane, and found it difficult to navigate the boat and I thought… how she going to? Nevermind. She was quick to begin talking (and never really stopped) about her travels. I guess at some point in her 30’s, her and her husband had sold all their belongings and lived in a van in Europe for 5 years. And that since then, she had been part of a travel club and got all these free trips in exchange for writing reviews and she’d just come from spending 3 weeks in the Seychelles snorkeling.
We spent the night at dock because apparently the harbor has no lighted channel markers, so you can only leave harbor in daylight and by the time we’d gotten loaded and settled, it was past sunset.
So, there were a few problems with the boat right off the bat. Apparently the air conditioning didn’t work in some of the cabins. And apparently there was a very nauseating smell from the toilet in some of the cabins. Some people had 1 problem, some people had both problems, my cabin fortunately had neither. It had a surprisingly large bathroom for a live-aboard dive boat, but no storage for the luggage or cupboards to unpack the luggage into. (Usually you can slide the duffel bag under the bed, but that’s where the air conditioning was on this boat. And unfortunately since that’s the arrangement that led to a California couple being burned to death in their bed in a boat on the Amazon recently, it gave me pause…)
But the next morning, we were up and out bright and early and almost immediately came across 3 Bryde’s whales. So we scrambled up from breakfast and put on our gear and got into the two tenders. Now, the main boat had a very shallow draft, which is excellent for getting around a coast line or reefs, but it means that this thing dips and sways like a drunk. So, the act of getting to from the boat into the smaller tender along side was a very interesting dance, even in very calm water. I ended up sitting down on the deck and then pushing off forward into the tender from this lower position because doing it from a standing position I ended up in the arms of the tender driver who was trying to help. There was no railing on other boat or anything to hang onto in the tender — it was just an open boat. But we all get in successfully, even the extremely large woman and the guy with the prosthetic leg, and we off after the whales. Except the two dive master realize that we haven’t done the preliminary dive to explain to everyone how to enter the water and swim with the whale. So, the plan is everyone gets in the water, swims a couple yards out and then gets back in the boat and we go swim with the whale.
Ok, so the standard lecture about getting quietly in the water and staying together as a group and moving calmly. And in we go, and everything mostly works out, so back to the boat. So, I’m hanging to the boat taking off my fins to pass them up so I can climb the ladder and the large woman starts kicking me. And she won’t just take the snorkel out of her mouth and talk to me, but I manage to get the idea that she needs someone to take her fins off for her, so I do. And then pass them and my fins up and climb the ladder. And it’s a complete bitch of a ladder — the rungs are round and very, very slippery so you can’t stand on them without holding onto something and when you get to the top of the ladder, one, the rails only go up to the edge of the boat, so you’ve got nothing to pull on to get into the boat and, two, the ladder doesn’t go into the boat, it goes to a narrow platform around the engine well. And the tender driver, who’s a nice young man is trying to help, but I’m thinking, am I going to spend the entire week, in an embrace with this guy? It was difficult, so it took me a couple minutes, 3 or 4, to get into the tender.
Well, you know what happens next because the large woman is behind me. And she can’t get into the boat. The dive master and the tender drivers jump in and try to push her up from the water. But she’s just whimpering, I can’t, I can’t, and is refusing to pull at all, a complete dead weight. The dive master starts yelling at those of us in the boat to get off our ass and pull on her. Which I get up and try, but the problems I have with this are:
- If she’s not going to try, even a little bit, what is my responsibility to help her? At this point, it’s like trying to land a reluctant juvenile walrus.
- Because of the ladder position, no one can get right in front of her and pull, so the angle is completely wrong. And she’s wearing a dive skin that is sticking to the boat, so she doesn’t slide.
- This is how people get hurt, trying to move a heavy weight in an awkward situation. And if I get hurt, there goes my vacation.
- If we’re successful at getting her back in the tender, we’re going to have to do this every time.
So, the effort to get her back in the tender fails. But the main boat has a very easy ladder off the back of it, so they whistle up the main boat on the radio. Give her a lifeguard ring to cling to while we wait because she freaking out and crying at this point, a couple people, all nicer than me, are hanging out in the water with her, talking to her. And once the main boat arrives, swim her over and help her up the ladder where she lies breathing heavily on the deck.
(She later has a long story about how it was just because her blood sugar had crashed and she went back in and drank a lot of juice. Since we had just gotten up from the breakfast table, the low blood sugar story doesn’t really make much sense to me.)
So, we take off in the tenders, looking for their Bryde’s whales, but they are long gone. We circle for a fair amount of time, but nothing. The sea is empty.
Now it turns out that this whole snorkeling with whales tour was the idea of a local whale expert named Howard, who also gave terrible disjointed lectures and sat on the deck looking for whales and pushed everyone to buy his $60 book. And in fact, he had arranged it with the local government that these Aggressor Fleet guys can’t go out without him, that he was a required element, guaranteed gig. But now that we’re all a captive audience on the boat, he admits that he’s never done any whale research on the east coast of Sri Lanka, that he’s working completely off of published data from reported sightings from local fishermen. That even in the peak whale season (which is April) there will be week, 2 week gaps where no one saw a whale. So, he has no idea where to find the whales.
So, the days begin to pass as the boat wanders around in Indian Ocean. (Yes, you can imagine someone softly whistling the theme to Gilligan’s Island here.) We get a lot of sleep and regular meals. At one point, we see a mixed pod of pilot whales and dolphins and scramble into our gear and out on the tenders again.
But it’s more a comedy of errors because the minute we get close to the animals and get in the water, they disappear. I think the German woman managed to see one beneath her in the water for just a second, but she’s the only one. The minute we all get back in the tender, there are the dolphins and pilot whales again. So, we chase after them again, get in the water, they disappear. Get back in the boat, chase after them… But people are starting to get a little impatient, a little me-first, and just start diving in while the boat is still moving, thinking, well, if I just get in the water before the rest of these fools, I’ll get to swim with them. Chaos ensues. No one gets to swim with the dolphins.
But I did get trapped listening to the large woman talk about how she went to see the gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. And I said, oh, yes, I’ve been there too. There’s that lovely eco-camp right there, yadda, yadda, yadda. And she said, oh, no, I could never stay there, I’m told that the bathrooms are way down the beach. And I said, no, they’re in the middle of the camp. And she said, yeah, they’re way way away from where you sleep and I said, no, they’re right there, maybe 20, 30 feet away in the middle of the camp. And she said, no that was too far to walk. She could never be that far from the bathroom. And then launched into a story about staying in a caravansary in Morocco where there wasn’t a bathroom in the room, so they stole a bucket and the three of them took turns peeing and pooping in it all night so that it was almost full and then just left it there for someone else to clean up. I realized at this point that I had a look of horror on my face, that I was staring at her with my mouth open, at the rudeness of this. And had to get up and go to the top deck where she never went because, you know, the stairs…
Another day we find a pod of about 40 sperm whales in the distance.
We scramble for our gear and load up in the tenders, and they are gone.
We find a blue whale. Well, blue whales are supposed to be the star of the show here, that’s what we’ve been looking for.
We scramble for our gear and load up, and start chasing it. The idea is that we get in front of the whale, drop in, and be in the water when it swims past. Because this thing is going 40 knots and we’re not going to be able to keep up with it or swim toward it. That’s the plan. And we do in fact get in front of it and it is steaming toward us like a locomotive. And everyone jumps in, except I don’t, because I’m completely mesmerized by how beautiful this animal is. You know, you see pictures of them and they’re blue (most whales are some shade of blue gray), but right there in front of me, it was more than dull blue. It was iridescent, quicksilver blue with darker blue freckles, it glowed in the morning hazy. There were layers and depth to this blue, like cloth laid down in layers. And as I watched it flicked its tail and dove down horizontally.
No one in the water got a chance to see it. It was gone. We spent two more hours in the heat, chasing after it, but nothing. It never let us close to it again.
At this point, Howard (or that idiot Howard as I came to think of him) showed us a National Geographic making of movie about filming blue whales. And the professional diver spent a month every day trying to film a blue whale in the water and at the end of 30 days as he was ready to give up, he got one fabulous pass. But he was doing the same thing we were, getting ahead of the whale and trying to be the water when it swam past. But the blue whales apparently are not terribly interested in swimming with you. You’re just trouble. And Howard goes, oh, yeah, only about 10% of the time do you actually get close to the blue whale in the water. It’s really very difficult to do successfully and a group this big, it’s never going to happen. And I thought, wait a second, this is your business plan, promising people that they’re going to swim with blue whales when you can’t find them and know that it’s not going happen when you do?
The last day on the boat, we found an enormous pod of spinner dolphins.
A charter flight back to Colombo, a little wander around Colombo, a long flight home.
Needless to say, that while Sri Lanka was a fine destination, I do not recommend this trip.