Sri Lanka's Turtles




The sound a turtle makes when it surfaces for air is unexpected. It’s like the heaving wheeze of a geriatric with a chest infection, a gaping, loud sound that is alarming and strangely, comforting.


Decades of devastating civil war ravaged Sri Lanka, but in a strange twist, protected its oceans. Large chunks of the coastline were strictly off limits to all non-military vessels, and in some places, even diving was forbidden, allowing marine life to thrive in unfished, untouched waters.


The coast is particularly well known for its whales, and off the coast of Galle, the Sri Lanka Navy has capitalised on the commercial opportunities the mammals bring, offering whale watching tours on military vessels once a week for upwards of $120USD for a day for eager, cashed up tourists.


But the waters of Sri Lanka truly belong to the turtles. The West Coast beaches are the favourite nesting site for five species of turtles: the Loggerhead, Leatherhead, Olive Ridley, Green and Hawkesbill, who all lay eggs three to four times throughout the nesting season. Unfortunately for them, the West Coast beaches are dominated by another species: humans.


The cruel reality is that the people along the coast are poor, and turtle meat and turtles eggs provide an easy meal for locals who don’t have a lot to eat. It’s a global problem that has pushed most species of turtles onto the endangered species list- and some to the brink of extinction.


A booming tourism industry is a double-edged sword for the animals. While people come to see the turtles, encouraging their protection, construction goes unchecked in places like Unawatuna, near Galle. Here waves regularly lap underneath the foundations of beachside bars and hotels


Turtles are instinctive creatures, nesting on the beach on which they were hatched on 30 years later when they reach maturity. Those that try to return to Unawatuna today simply have nowhere to nest.


A number of turtle projects- turtle hatcheries that collect and guard the eggs, then release the hatchlings- have been set up to try to combat the problem.

However after spending some time along the coast, it’s hard to not be cynical about these exceptionally commercial conservation efforts, where projects “keep just a few turtles” for “educational purposes”- and tourist photo opportunities.


At my fancy hotel, a mature green sea turtle swims round and in a hexagon-shaped concrete pool no more than two metres wide, while eight baby turtles, hatchlings swim in the tank next to him. It’s deeply upsetting to see.


Although I go hunting for the truth with six different staff members, I receive six different stories about why the turtles are there.  The official line is that the hotel buys eggs from locals, buries them in an on-site hatchery, and then the hatchlings are apparently released in a conservation effort.


However, I am at the hotel for three days, and the eight turtles still swim in circles in a concrete tank the day I leave. I wonder if they’re still there today.


On my last night in Sri Lanka, I stood on the beach as the sun set. It was low tide, and a group of wild turtles were feeding on the reef that lined the beach, just a metre or so from the shore.  They would raise their head for air from the water, and even over the crash of the surf, you could hear their old man wheeze as they sucked in a lungful of air.


In the time the waves sucked back and crested, to when they would smash onto the milk yellow beach, the lip of the wave acted like a brief window to the underwater world.  I would catch a sight of a half dozen or more turtles framed in the crest, a vision so fleeting, and so magic, I refused to even bother to try to capture it with my camera.


It was a bittersweet experience: just how much longer can they last?


The Rover RTW allow stopovers in Sri Lanka en route to Australia and New Zealand

The Navigator RTW also allows up to 11 stops and Sri Lanka can be one of them

Check out our Highlights of Sri Lanka tour


Sri Lanka Highlights


Below is a guide to taking in the highlights on a two-week trip for the island.


Colombo or Negombo?

All flights into Sri Lanka’s international airport have a terrible habit of landing in the middle of the night. It’s worth skipping the 1-2 hour drive into Colombo and instead easing into the country by staying at Negombo, a beach resort 15 minutes away from the airport.


Some people skip Colombo, but it is worth a look, with a few special spots and cafes including Galle Face Green, the Cricket Club and Paradise Galleries. Sadly, the National Museum was recently ransacked and most valuable items on display were stolen.


Train- the best (but not only) way to travel

From Colombo, book your train tickets in advance and head up north into the hills. There are four different classes of train tickets- grab one in the observation car and settle in for one of the most beautiful train rides of your life as the train slowly climbs from green rice paddies to steep tea plantations. Allow a whole day up and back to travel by train.


Nuwara Eliya

Highest up is the old British resort town of Nuwara Eliya. In terms of panoramic views, it offers the best train journey through the tea plantations and hills.  Once in town, you can tour the tea factories for a few pounds. Other highlights include high-end travel clothing being sold for peanuts in the markets (most gear is made in Sri Lanka) and taking tea at the grand old British Tudor-style hotels with their manicured English country gardens. It does get cold up here, so pack some warm clothes.


Kandy and the Cultural Triangle

Kandy is the closer option (with more frequent trains), and is an important Buddhist Centre home to the Temple of the Tooth, an important UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kandy is also the starting point for the Cultural triangle, a loop that takes in five of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, including the ancient cities of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Dambulla. Also worth seeing is the wild elephants who gather at Minneriya National park during the dry season (June-October).


Beach Time: the West Coast

Looping back down to Colombo, the West Coast is the most developed area for tourists. A new expressway to Galle has made it accessible within an hour from Colombo, but the Old Galle Rd and the train follow the coast, a longer, but more scenic journey.


The place attracting the most buzz is Hikkaduwa. For better and for worse, it mimics what Thailand’s islands were like a in their tourism infancy, with  gorgeous stretches of beach, cheap guesthouses, bars and places to party, attracting a few leaching beach boys and hangers on the side. A more tranquil alternative is the beach resort of Bentota.



The old Fort town of Galle is worth exploring. Surrounded by ramparts, the fort was built by the Dutch and has an excellent Maritime Museum that details the shipwrecks along the coast. Wander the ramparts that protected the town from the devastating 2004 tsunami and see if you can find the city’s curious private museum.


Nearby Galle is another popular backpacker beach spot, Unawatuna. Lined with beach umbrellas and beachside restaurants, it is protected by a reef you can snorkel in season.


South of Galle

South of Galle, there are long stretches of untouched beaches and overpriced five star resorts behind big gates. A fair drive from here but a major attraction is Yala National Park, which has a high concentration of leopards. However, the park is overrun with international and domestic tourists and there are concerns about the stress placed on the animals park by overuse (read more here), so consider another of the country’s parks for a more sustainable experience.


The North 

The North of Sri Lanka has been dominated by fighting for ages, making it off limits to travellers until 2009 when things settled down. Trincomalee, an old Military resort town, has emerged as the star destination with its stunning beaches and untouched marine life (diving, fishing or commercial boats were banned because of terrorist threats, allowing the marine life to thrive).  It is a tricky place to get to however- you can catch a flight with the military- but otherwise it’s a bumpy ride up there by car (watch for wild elephants).


And a last word:

Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is in a critical growth period. Try to support sustainable ventures and small owner-operated hotels and be sensitive about what people can and can’t talk about in terms of the war and the current government.  Do a little reading and research on the conflict first, and be aware the country still operates in many shades of grey. It’s also worthwhile being aware of your own safety and keep a low profile- the people are fabulous and the destination is well worth it, but this is still a country taking slow steps into the light again.

We also offer a Discover Sri Lanka holiday here