Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sri Lanka Activities -- Whale Watching in Mirissa

We spent Christmas eve and Christmas morning in Mirissa, at the Peacock Villa.  After our exhausting drive from Bundala national park, we wanted nothing more than to relax and get some rest before our early whale watching start the next morning.  We ate a big meal at the family-run guesthouse across the street (rotis and curries), and then tucked in for the night.

The next morning, our tour, the Mirissa Whale Watching Club , sent a tuk tuk driver (complimentary) at 6:15 am to pick us up from our hotel, which was just wonderful and convenient.

 We took our seasickness tablets, boarded the boat, then drank our coffees, ate our breakfasts, tied down our bags, and donned our life jackets.

 Before we knew it, we were off and away!
 The ocean is so big… we were lucky -- the waters were very calm that day.
 Our boat was not crowded at all.  This is the top deck, which I vastly preferred to the lower deck.

We saw a sea turtle on the way out, and two sea turtles mating on our way back.  No pictures.

We also bumped into a huge group of dolphins, a very playful and fun bunch that eventually raced right up to our boat and did these spectacular jumps.
Dolphins are such fun creatures to watch - they jump so swiftly, easily and effortlessly through the water.  It is so fun, especially when they're all jumping simultaneously.
 They move so fast that it is really hard to get a picture of more than a blur and some splash.
 My favorite, though, were the baby dolphins that launched themselves fully into the air, in full belly flopping glory.  What undaunted joy!  What pleasure!
 After we ooh'd and ahh'ed over the dolphins for a bit, our skipper and boat tour guides got serious.  "Time to find the blue whale," they declared solemnly.
And find them we did.  What glorious, huge (huge!!) creatures of the deep.
Our first sighting - that glorious tail!  
It is so cool when the tail breaks the otherwise calm, smooth surface of the water
Blue whales do not travel in pods and they are not that keen to be close to humans (complete opposite of our killer whale experience in California), so it is challenging to see one up close.  They also barely emerge from the water when breathing, so you can't really see more than a sliver of their back and tail.  All of this is to say, this doesn't help us visualize just how big these animals are.  It is just really hard to fully comprehend their scale.
We started eagerly scanning the water for any evidence of spray, a telltale sign of the whale emerging for air
Other times, you can barely see it, skimming the surface like a long, gray ripple of water
The telltale dorsal fin, just before the tail emerges
Just how big is this thing?  Hard to picture, right?
 For such a large animal, it seems incredibly fluid and graceful.
 I mean, look at that clean re-entry into the water!  Such finesse.
 The tour lasted about five hours - we were back in port by 11:30 a.m. and we were the last boat in the harbor.  For 4,000 LKR per person, this was a great experience well worth it.  On the one hand, you could say that you don't really see very much.  On the other hand, you could say that you just got a glimpse of an endangered species, the largest mammal to have ever lived on Earth, in its natural habitat.

Mirissa is a beautiful beach town.  We didn't spend any time on the beach itself, but when we were driving past the ocean on our way to Galle we couldn't stop exclaiming over how beautiful the waves were - long, even breaks, just rolling on and on endlessly.  It seemed perfect for surfing.  We also saw a lot of the traditional fisherman, sitting on their wood poles, waiting for the tide to come in to cast their lines.

We also loved our stay at the Peacock Villa.  Though it was basic, there could not be a kinder, friendlier and more gentle establishment.  It seemed like a family owned operation, with an older man and two younger men running the show.  They gave us a bag of Christmas presents too (full of candy, tea, and a little carved elephant)!

Peacock Villa
Uluwajjagodawatta, off of Udupila Junction,
Udupila, Mirissa

Whale Watching Club Mirissa
4,000 LKR per person, including tea/coffee, water, breakfast and fruit, as of Dec. 2015

Friday, December 25, 2015

Sri Lanka - Safari Magic (Of A Different Kind) in Bundala National Park

Merry Christmas everyone!  Hope you are enjoying a happy holidays no matter where in the world you are.

I know I said in my last post that Yala National Park was wild (and the animals really are wild, and the park really is vast - visitors are only allowed into one-fifth of the park) but after having frequented Bundala National Park, I have to say that Yala does feel more like a game tour experience, whereas Bundala feels more like a wild, untamed safari.

We used the same jeep and driver.
 We had to drive for a while to get to Bundala, meaning we took the big unwieldy jeep onto some roads.
 Once we arrived at Bundala though, it felt like a different world.  Quiet blankets the lagoons and you just see grass, marsh, and birds.
 Bundala National Park is smaller and less famous than Yala, but is very well known for birding.  There are no leopards in Bundala, and only a handful of elephants, so you can see why most might prefer Yala.
 But it's always nice to try something new, and by comparing and contrasting the safaris side by side we saw the differences and similarities more clearly.  Bundala gives you a better feel for the pace of a safari, I think - more vast open spaces, less tamed, and barely any other visitors.  During our entire four hour safari, we saw three or four jeeps.
 We were given a wildlife guide at the main entrance (comes with the park entrance ticket) and he hopped into our jeep with us.  He also had great eyes - spotting a sleeping crocodile, an eagle that blended into the tree, and a huge male elephant, among other things.  He was also able to explain what the animals ate, their habits, and when something was rare - so that enriched our experience.
What really surprised me was how quickly we were able to learn to spot and recognize birds.  Despite how little they are, your eyes quickly adapt and pick out tiny, previously indistinguishable details.  Things I would never have expected to be able to see from far away suddenly become obvious - is it a purple heron or a gray heron?  Are the legs pink or black?  Is the collar yellow or white?
A bee-eater - they were everywhere
Birdwatching requires patience (maybe more than I have) but I can see why people find it rewarding… especially because we got incredibly lucky and spotted the very rare black necked stork, of which our guide said there are only four (!) in Sri Lanka, two in Yala and two in Bundala.  I knew it was a big moment when our guide got incredibly excited, gesturing and also getting on his phone to alert the other guides.
 And not only that, but we saw this very rare bird eat a fish!  His sharp beak jabbed the water, and before I could lift the camera to my eye he was gulping down a flopping fish, so I hereby officially record for the blog a kill.  Bird 1, Fish 0.  Amazing!!
 Before long, though, the bird took off, to do whatever rare and wild birds do.  He had a really broad wingspan.
We saw three crocodiles on this safari, which was fantastic.  We saw this little one, who really freaked me out with the maniacal gold gleam in his eye:

A close up - check out those teeth!
It looks like he is getting ready to pounce at any moment, but really the guy is just trying to cool himself off.
Oh hello, bird.
We were stalking a peacock and pea hen across the water.  Sadly they refused to mate.  
How many crocodiles are in this marsh??
So, this picture contains an eagle.  Note that this is already the very zoomed in version, and our guide spotted it without binoculars while in a bouncing vehicle.  Pretty amazing.  
Can you spot the eagle?   Hint: upper left quadrant
These three monkeys were playing around a puddle.
Oh, hello!  Monkeys play a lot, but they also eat a lot.
We figured out what these are - land monitors.  And they are very good at climbing trees because they eat birds and birds' eggs.
 Our guide drove us to a long stretch of beach, part of the Bundala reserve.
 It's a very interesting landscape because there are a lot of cacti, dry red dirt, sandy beach and seashells, but also lagoons, marshes and swamp.

 Our guide collected a few shells and gave them to me back in the car - I thought that was a very sweet gesture.  Now I have a few pieces from the Indian Ocean to bring back with me.

 After our detour to the water, we went back to the lagoons.  We were rewarded with a sighting of a huge bull elephant.  And what was he doing?  Well, eating, obviously, what else?
Can you see the elephant?
 My favorite bird, the painted stork:

 Are you able to spot the fat crocodile?
 This is a big, fat guy.  Having observed a few crocodiles in the wild now, I have to say, I am amazed at their utter and complete stillness.  They don't blink or move a muscle.

To give some more perspective, here he is from the side, and that's not even showing his tail.  Wow!  Our guide said he was probably five meters long.
 We saw lots of monkeys playing in the trees as the sun set.  Their tails are crazy long,
 and they have extremely powerful legs, able to bound from tree to tree in astonishing leaps --
 here is one in mid-air!
My only regret was that we were not there at the right time for the flamingos, but oh well, guess you can't get everything.
Farewell, Bundala, until next time!

Bundala National Park
For reference, some of the birds we sighted in Sri Lanka on the two trips: lesser whistling duck, white breasted water hen, black winged stilt, pheasant-tailed jacana, little cormorant, purple heron, grey heron, egrets, black-necked stork, painted stork, black-headed ibis, Sri Lanka jungle fowl, peacock and peahen, green bee-eater, blue-tailed bee-eater, crested serpent eagle, and the Sri Lanka blue magpie.  For two people who have never gone bird watching before, I think that's a pretty good list for a first try.

From Bundala we hired a driver to take us to our next hotel, the Peacock Villa, in Mirissa.  The drive took a long time (nearly three hours) because it was a Sri Lankan holiday (Poya) and also because the roads are only one lane.  Our driver did a great job though, speeding ahead of everyone else and passing every single vehicle in our way, so that we made it in just over 2.5 hours.

Our whale watching boat tour up next!