When we arrived in Sri Lanka for our long-awaited tropical paradise vacation, we were just hoping to soak up the sun on one or two of the island’s many famed southern beaches and maybe go on a sightseeing tour of the exquisite Hill Country. Imagine my surprise when I overheard at our Colombo hotel that we could go dolphin watching—as in watch real wild dolphins playing in the ocean.
As soon as my 7-year-old daughter heard this, dolphins were all she could think of. The rest of the troupe didn’t need much convincing either before we packed our sunscreen and took off to Kalpitiya, a remote fishing village about 4 hours north of Colombo along the coastline. The ideal dolphin-watching season is from November to April, when the shallow seas become less windy and sea grass is abundant. We were lucky to be there right during the peak season!
After a bumpy drive along a scenic road, we arrived in Kalpitiya. Westayed at a small cottage run by a husband-and-wife duo, who cooked us a fantastic dinner of ‘string hoppers’ witha side of prawn curry. The accommodations here were quite basic and there was no electricity, but the rooms were very cozy and pleasant with the gentle roar of the ocean easily lulling you to sleep.
The dolphin watching tours begin early at around 6.30 a.m. Pretty much all hotels and resorts in the area arrange tours for guests by negotiating with the area fishermen. One boat costs up to 12,000 to 15,000 LKR, and can hold between 10 to 12 people.
After a quick breakfast, we arrived at the Kalpitiya Lagoon, bubbling with excitement. Soon, we were all on a boat wearing life jackets and swaying in the deep- blue waters of the lagoon, the wind whipping through our hair. Our guide, Mahinda, told us that the water would soon get rougher and sure enough, as we moved further into the Deep Blue, the waves got rougher and the sun got much hotter. (This ride is definitely not recommended for those suffering from motion sickness and don’t forget to slather on plenty of sunscreen before you leave, because there is no shade.)
After an hour of cruising along the lagoon, my daughter was the first to get impatient. Apparently, finding the dolphins is not an easy task. After about another hour, I heard a screech of delight from the front of the boat. My daughter had spotted her first dolphin. Mahinda said we had a pod of about 30 bottlenose dolphins swimming alongside our motor boat. We could see their silver-grey backs with streaks of bright white sunlight shining on them and they seemed to be racing along with us. There were many more screeches as we leaned against the railing to take in more of these magnificent creatures.
When the bottlenose pod passed, Mahinda turned the boat in a different direction. We were going to see legendary spinner dolphins, he said. We rode past beautiful mangroves and a famous old church built by the Dutch in colonial times. We could see the pod of spinner dolphins from afar, like little balls buffeting up and down. As our boat got closer to the pod, we could see their famous acrobatics more clearly as they jumped and spun in the air. One baby spinner came next to our boat, jumped and flew in the air, making my daughter squeal in delight. The adult spinners were more concerned with hunting fish. We could see literally hundreds of spinner dolphins jumping all around us.
Then we saw quite exotic dotted dolphins, which Mahinda said were actually called spotted dolphins. Then there were striped dolphins, which were smaller than other species, and Fraser’s dolphins that swam really fast splashing water everywhere as if the ocean were a water park. Mahinda said that if we were lucky we might see the Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins, which have become rare because they easily get tangled in fishing nets and are now critically endangered. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any.
After about five or six hours on the ocean, we came ashore completely spent but utterly happy. My daughter went on and on about the different types of dolphins she’d seen and their antics on water. We hadn’t been this excited about a trip in a long time. We had only come for one tour, but after lunch, we decided to book another for the following day because we could hardly get enough of these beautiful creatures.