With white sandy beaches and sparkling seas, magnificent whales and dancing dolphins, vibrant corals reefs in shallow waters, multi-hued schools of fish – including sharks, who glide by without a second glance – and the breathtaking secluded beauty of Pigeon Island, not forgetting its gorgeous setting, heritage and beauty, Trincomalee is a whole lot more than just another holiday place.
Setting out before dawn last Saturday to visit John Keells Hotels’ Chaaya Blu resort hotel in Trincomalee on a whale and dolphin watching adventure, we knew it would be a great trip, but never imagined it would be as absolutely fabulous as it turned out to be.
Located on the east coast, about five to six hours’ drive from Colombo, Trinco offers a series of unforgettable experiences that simply mustn’t be missed, and Chaaya Blu, with its in-house team of Nature Trails naturalists, is the perfect base from which to enjoy all the diverse delights this destination has to offer.
Trinco is still a tranquil place, and having been cut off from the rest of the country during most of the civil war, it retains its distinct personality – although it remains to be seen how long this will last. As things stand, even the whales love it here and Trinco definitely deserves it; it has had its share of hardship, not only due to the war but also the December 2004 tsunami, which wrecked havoc here. In recent years it has emerged the victor, showcasing sights that are spell-binding and offering experiences that are unforgettable.
Trinco is perhaps best known for its natural deep water harbour, Dutch Fort, historic Koneswaram Temple and Lover’s Leap, hot springs – the waters of which are said to have healing powers – and beautiful shallow seas.
The Koneswaram Temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva was built by a South Indian King and destroyed by the Portuguese in 1622. The temple of 1,000 columns was shoved over the cliff into the sea. Check out the fantastic view from Swami Rock and the famous Lover’s Leap. Fort Fredrick is a well-preserved Portuguese gateway which was constructed with the remnants of the destroyed Koneswaram Temple, while the Commonwealth War Heroes cemetery and the Navy Museum are popular sites as well.
While Trincomalee is a popular spot for surfing, scuba diving, fishing and snorkelling, it is only in more recent times that whale and dolphin watching has caught on here, and this is thankfully still done on a small nature-friendly scale.
We reach Chaaya Blu by 9 a.m. and receive a warm welcome from Assistant Manager Suresh Athukorala and Daya, Nature Trails’ expert naturalist. The comfortable chairs in the white-themed lobby are a welcome sight after the long drive and as we sink into them as we sip on chilled lassi and fruit juice. The view from here is inviting, opening onto the shimmering pool and extending up to the sandy shores and deep blue sea.
Originally a ’70s resort designed to resemble a great sailing vessel, Chaaya Blu was transformed and re-launched on 15 May 2010, with a refreshing retro-chic design. The resort has 81 rooms – 36 beach chalets (most of them located right on the beach), 43 superior rooms and two suites – designed around a retro look and feel.
The chalets and rooms feature wooden decks, cut cement floors and rattan furniture, with denim and orange highlights. The rooms open out onto the ocean and are equipped with four-star amenities, including cable TV, telephone with IDD, tea and coffee making facilities, complementary toiletries and more.
From beach barbeques to fish wadiyas featuring live night fishing, where guests can select fresh fish and have it put on the grill, to calypso music and live bands, Athukorala asserts that the resort offers many dining and entertainment options, in addition to Italian, Mexican, Arabian, Sri Lankan and International theme nights. Chaaya Blu is also gaining popularity for its garden weddings, especially among foreign guests given the beautiful location, while it also has a banquet hall that can seat 100 in theatre style.
After a speedy check-in, we deposit our luggage in the rooms and then sit down to breakfast at the main restaurant, ‘Captain’s Deck,’ which offers buffet spreads and several action stations, along with ocean views. ‘The Crab’ is the resort’s open air restaurant offering delectable cuisine on the beach – the crab dishes being a firm favourite among guests – and there’s also ‘The Rum Hold,’ which serves up some unique concoctions. The resort also offers private dining options.
Soon enough it’s time to board the boat, which will take us out to sea in search of whales and dolphins. This is something that takes time and patience and if you’re lucky and nature is willing, you will be blessed with up-close and personal sightings of these magnificent marine mammals.
Ten minutes out, we spot dolphins and the high point is when a spinner dolphin leaps out of the water and spins in the air. These dolphins are well-known for their acrobatic displays, but except for one leap, they don’t put on a show for us, choosing to swim about in the vicinity of the boat instead. We then head out into deeper waters in search of whales but don’t spot any and turn back an hour or so later due to the seas being rather rough.
After lunch it’s time to relax and rewind, followed by a sea bath. Athukorala organises a superb seafood barbeque for us on the beach at dinnertime, along with roaring bonfires, and we enjoy some delicious dishes as we discuss plans for snorkelling off Pigeon Island and another attempt at whale watching lined up for the next day.
Experiences and excursions
The resort’s PADI certified dive centre offers some unforgettable underwater experiences, while the Excursion counter promotes insights into Trinco and its many offerings. When you’ve finished whale and dolphin watching, you have the option of exploring historical and cultural sites beginning with the harbour, settled among majestic mountains, or helping traditional fishermen reel in their catch of the day.
There’s also spectacular diving, snorkelling, and snuba outings, which are guaranteed to impress, while the marine mammal safari will enable you to witness super pods of sperm whales and watch the largest animal to inhabit our planet, the blue whale, as part of the aquatic adventure offered by Nature Trails.
The next morning we head off to Pigeon Island – the home of the blue rock pigeons, an endemic inhabitant of the island – super excited about snorkelling among the beautiful coral reefs in shallow waters.
The aquatic wonderland is a stunning sight and with Daya accompanying me, I have an absolutely exciting time, exploring the vibrant coral reefs as schools of colourful fish swim by. Without a doubt, the best part was when Daya suddenly pointed out blacktip reef sharks swimming by. First one went by, then two, then another two… we spotted eight in all and all I could think was ‘Swimming with sharks!! Wow!!!’ It was a totally unexpected experience that was nothing short of mind-blowing.
Boasting such diversity and natural beauty, snorkelling off Pigeon Island is not to be missed so make it part of your itinerary when you visit Trinco and you definitely won’t regret it. Don’t hesitate even for a moment if you can’t swim two feet to save your life – just pull on a life jacket, put yourself in the hands of a Nature Trails expert and gear up to enjoy an experience that will stay with you forever.
By noon – with no news of whale sightings – it’s time to head back to the hotel again, but no sooner we reach the shore and get into our rooms to change, Daya tells us that whales have been spotted some 30 kilometres away so we rush back to the boat and head off again on another marine mammal safari.
It’s a case of third time lucky and in the distance we spot sperm whales blowing streams into the air. Slowly moving closer, we see eight or nine whales gliding along and watch them for several minutes, before they submerge once again. We wait a while and then spot them again, closer this time, and yet again as they glide by.
The sperm whale is the largest toothed whale, with adult males measuring almost 20 metres and weighing over 50 tons. The species is now protected by law and is currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The blue whale, on the other hand, measures around 30 metres in length and weighs almost 200 tons and is the largest known animal. The IUCN Red List counts the blue whale as ‘endangered’. There aren’t any blue whale sightings this time, but we’re more than happy with what nature has offered up so far. Daya dives into the water to get some underwater pictures, while we frantically click away in the boat, awed by the magnificent sight.
Getting back to the hotel at around 3:30 p.m., we have a delicious lunch and prepare for departure. It’s time to head back to Colombo, after a fabulous weekend filled with many exciting experiences that will remain etched in the mind. Without a doubt, Chaaya Blu in Trincomalee is the perfect place to have a whale of a time!
Whales in hiding due to weather
Changes in weather patterns bringing on excessive rain has resulted in a lesser number of whale sightings this year, stated Keells Hotel Management Services Head of Eco Tourism and Special Projects Chitral Jayatilake, adding that in previous years, guests have even been able to spot whales from the deck of the hotel.
“Last year, Dr. Charles Anderson came to work with us on 27 February. By 1 March we saw whales and after that for the next 30 days, it was like a prayer. After just 20 minutes at sea, we saw blue whales and there were two days when we saw whales from the beach – they come so close. It was like a supermarket for them to feed on. This year it’s completely different. Last year we saw the super pods of sperm whales here; we counted more than 100 and then lost count.”
Jayatilake revealed that when naturalist Nilantha first reported the super pods, some experts said he was wrong and that there couldn’t be 100 sperm whales in Sri Lanka. “They said Nilantha had made a mistake, but this year all the experts were in the water in Mirissa when the whales were there and they were able to photograph them. In one frame, you can count over 20 sperm whales. There are whales, but this year you cannot predict where they are.”
While Jayatilake had spotted 23 sperm whales last week just 20 miles off the coast, he said they are moving around a lot this year unlike in other years.
Commenting on Trincomalee as a base for whale watching, he affirmed that Mirissa is where Sri Lanka’s blue whale industry took off the ground and it’s still a great place, with around 40 blue whales on any given day this January. However, Jayatilake says he would compare Mirissa to Trinco for whale watching just as one would compare Yala to Wilpattu for leopard watching.
“It’s crowded, there are about 25 boats clamouring to get near and some even chase the whales in Mirissa, whereas this is like a private whale watching garden. You have about 20 to 30 whales in the right season and only three to four boats at sea. You are completely at peace with them. Nature Trails operates only four boats for dedicated whale watching, while the others are deployed for snorkelling and dolphin watching. With only four boats in the ocean of Trinco, it’s a luxury.”