One of the many popular activities to do on the seas off Sri Lanka is Whale Watching. Many of the boats that go out are fully booked even occasionally on off-season days. Sri Lanka has a few cities popular for Whale Watching and the closest to Colombo (Sri Lanka’s capital) is the city of Mirissa. The city is about 150km (93 miles) from the Capital and along the Southern Highway, it will take about 1 and ½ hours to 2 hours to get there.
How to get to Mirissa
So obviously there are many ways to get to Mirissa depending on which part of the country you are traveling from. Yet since most travelers like to come to Colombo, I will give the details based on that assumption. Now, as mentioned above, it's about 150km – 160km (93 – 99 miles) from Colombo based on the route. There are two main routes you can take and they have very significant time differences and experiences.
Route 1 is the fastest and it takes the Southern Expressway. This is ideal if you want to make the trip a one-day outing and if you leave straight after lunch you can be back in Colombo by early evening. This route does have a toll of Rs. 450 (Sri Lankan Rupees) or nearly 3 US Dollars. It’s faster because you can do a steady 100 KMph (62Mph) for about 90% of the trip. There are several entrances to the Expressway, but from the Colombo city center, the easiest is the Kottawa entrance. Once on the Expressway, you travel its full length all the way to Matara which is about as south as you can go in Sri Lanka. From here you have to take the Galle Matara Highway (A2) to Mirissa which is about another 30-minute drive.
Route 2 is the longest, based on the time taken. The distance is pretty much the same. This route is along the A2 Highway from Colombo to Galle and then on to Mirissa. Despite this being a Highway the road has only one lane for each direction and overtaking is tricky for the most part of the journey. It will take about 5 hours to drive and this is highly susceptible to change based on the time you travel since you have to go through some busy city centers. This isn’t recommended for a day trip but it is ideal if you plan to spend at least one night in a Southern coastal city of the country. As the drive takes you along the coastline, you get to enjoy some great scenery of golden sandy beaches and clear blue seas. If you can manage it, try and stop over at either Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna or Ahangama. These are some of the main cities famed for their beaches.
Route 2 also gives you a chance to take in a bit of Sri Lanka’s culture if you visit the famous Galle Fort (to be discussed another time).
Also, mainly in the Hikkaduwa and Kokgala regions, you get to see several turtle hatcheries on route 2. Despite the long trip, there will be plenty of places to stop over for a pit stop and meals. You can even split the trip in the middle with plenty of good hotels to stay in, in between.
Whale Watching Launch Site
All whale watching trips (all the good ones at least) start from one place and one place only in Mirissa and that is the Mirissa Harbor. These boats are about the size of a small double-decker bus so it’s not possible to get them to pick you up from your beachfront hotel (the boat will ground itself on the beach). There are some smaller boat operators who take you out in little fishing boats with outboard motors but these aren’t really ideal for whale watching.
Some operations have gotten lucky and have an office (a house converted to an office) walking distance from the harbor where you can leave your vehicles and go. But with most of the operators, you park right in the harbor. The parking spaces are pretty close to the ticket counters and the boats so there really isn’t much walking to do and as there are plenty of people interested in not losing the visitors, it’s ok to leave the vehicle in the harbor.
At the harbor, you have a little stand where all the boat operators have their ticketing counters. With a new regulation, there is a standard minimum rate that the boats can charge, so as to keep the operators fair and not to try to sell cheap tickets by cost-cutting. The whole operation is regulated (to a little extent) as compared to previous years.
There is a possibility of getting a ticket without prior reservations but this is a risk during peak seasons and it is always better to call ahead and make a reservation.
How to Find a Whale Boat Operator
Well, that is really easy. Google search “whale watching in Mirissa” and you will get a whole lot of results. So I since I can’t link other sites on this article, I can’t make the search easier for you but you can follow my tips for a better idea.
Now I’ve been with two different crews so I’ll give you my opinion of them in a bit but here is how you get more options.
So it all depends on the package the operator gives. Like I said they have a basic amount but I am not sure if they can go higher than the amount. All the sites seem to say they can’t give discount below the rate they say because of regulations but I think some of the bigger operators may charge a little more (details in a bit).
My personal favorite is to go through “Trip Advisor. The best way is to call them up and ask the rates and ask what the package includes.
I have been with two operators and one was a bit of a bigger operator. The big guy on the block is “Mirissa Water Sport”. These guys are pretty well trained so they know what to do so you have a good time without disturbing the whales. They also are good with the explanations, but this you can get from all boat crews.
They operate two boats, at the time of my visit, and the package includes a sea sickness tablet (effectiveness depends on person to person), Breakfast a snack and a water bottle. The standard of course for everyone are the life jackets.
They charge a little more for the quality of the food and also their equipment. Their site boasts of WiFi and all that, so you get a more luxury experience. From their website you can get all the details you want. These are one of the people who have an office walking distance from the harbor.
The other operator I have used is Geeth (go to their website for more details). These guys I have gone with twice and honestly for me, they are the better option. Their price is at the standard minimum and they still give you a nice little breakfast, sea sick tablets and we got a watermelon slice as a snack (I don’t know if that changes daily). They have honestly improved their service between the two trips I have taken (about 2 years apart). These guys also boast of a free second trip if they are not able to show you whales, but I haven’t ever had an opportunity to take them up on that. Also since this operation isn’t that big you might get lucky and the boat won’t be full, meaning you get to move around more and can pick different viewing spots.
There are other operators as well of the same caliber as Mirissa Water Sports and Geeth so you have options. In my experience, I haven’t had any real reasons to complain about either of the operators I have used. But as you can see from the Trip Advisor reviews, it’s a matter of experience. But personally, I find that if you’re nice to them, they will try a little harder to make the trip better for you (I know I’m stating the obvious but still). Try talking to them. They are real chatterboxes and love to have a good chat.
The Blue Whale
Now, it is obviously the part you are interested in, the whales. Well, Mirissa is most popular for its Whales more than anything else. The most likely of which you will see is the mighty Blue Whale. This is the largest living creature on Earth that has been discovered so far (if you say No, the Kraken is the largest then I’ll re-phrase and say the largest living creature scientifically documented).
The blue whale is the popular and the clear star in Mirissa and you will very likely see this big guy (or gal or kid) as they are a regular. How close you get to them is a matter of luck since they like to dip and dive a lot before breaching the surface for air. Also seeing the water spout is all about looking in the right direction at the right time. On my trips, the whales have breached multiple times but in total, I have seen maybe 2 or 3 waterspouts. But still, it’s your luck that counts here.
The boat guys though, keep a keen watch and will point out the place to you and try to take you to the breaching point as soon as possible. They also have a good feel for where the whales might come so all the operator's fan out a little when a whale dives and all keep their eyes open for a sighting.
The Fin Whale
This is another, highly popular and common whale to see when out in Mirissa and it is the second largest whale in Sri Lankan waters. The name comes from its distinctively large fin on its back. When I say large, I don’t mean Orca large, but compared to other whales it’s larger. A little smaller than the dolphins’ I’d say.
For the tour operators, the spotting the Fin whale is a major success. This is because this whale doesn’t dip and dive as much as the Blue whale. The Fin whale spends quite a bit of time lazily swimming on the surface of the water or at a depth of about 3m (10ft). This means that you have a constant track of the whale.
The tour operators know to tell exactly when the Fin whale is going to come up for a breath of air so they will tell and point to exactly where you need to look to see the whale come to the surface and take a gulp of air.
These highly charismatic and energetic creatures are in my opinion, the marine equivalent of a playful puppy dog, and if humans started living underwater, these would certainly be man’s best friend. In Mirissa the most likely of these species to see is the Spinner dolphins. Named so because of their love to do spinning jumps out of the water.
They seem to love the company of the boats and enjoy racing the boats (the dolphins win easily). When this is going on the ideal place to be is on the lower decks as you can see these guys up close and personal. The dolphins, unlike the whales, tend to give much more of a performance, staying with the boats for quite some time. They don’t do the jumping too close to the boats, their smarter than that, but they won’t go off too far so you can still capture some good pictures if you time it right.
For the kids and those of us that are still young at heart, dolphin sightings are the pinnacle of a whale watching trip. Of course be ready to get a little wet because these dolphins can get up to some good speeds and when the boat races along to keep up with them, the sea spray and the waves tend to blow over the sides and on to you.
The Orca / Killer Whale
Now personally I haven’t been so lucky yet to see one of these beautiful creatures, however, if you’re lucky you might just get a chance to see them.
The boat operators themselves admit that these sightings are not very common and they can’t say if or when or time of year that you might see them.
However there is one major snag to seeing killer whales. When these guys make an appearance the whales and dolphins, very smartly shake tail and get out of dodge (if you want to know why, read the name again). So if you see these guys, don’t expect to see Dolphins or Whales.
Curiously, for me at least, it turns out that a majority of the Western visitors aren’t pleased to see Killer whales. It appears that they prefer to see the whales over the Orcas. I guess depending on where you are visiting from, Orcas maybe a more common a sight that in Sri Lanka.
So seeing a turtle out in the water isn’t easy. They are not that big so it’s tough to spot them and since they are not that may, sightings are fewer in open waters. Again I haven’t seen any while on a Whale watching outing, but pictures on some of the Trip Advisor pages show a few turtles out in open seas.
The ideal time to visit Mirissa is from December to late January. However, the season goes on up until August. After August until October or November, the West coast of Sri Lanka experiences the South-Western monsoon season. During this time it is extremely windy and the seas get very rough. So much so that even swimming on the beaches is prohibited with red flags all along the coast to signal the dangerous seas.
It is possible to get a few calm days and the operators will take you out even with choppy waters but it very possible that you won’t see much. There are times when the navy orders all boats to refrain from going out. So best bet is to come when it is in season. Of course, offseason on the west coast means peak season on the East coast so don’t worry you can still come to Sri Lanka and enjoy the beaches and seas (Whale watching happened in the East too).
All About the Timing
Whale watching tours only operate in the morning. The boats all leave the harbor around 6:30 AM and will be out for about 4 – 5 hours. Keep this in mind if you want to make a day trip out of whale watching so that you leave, keeping enough time to get to the Mirissa harbor in time. It’s best to get to the harbor at around 6:00 AM so you can buy your tickets and get a good seat on the boats.
Before you go out or make a reservation, try to check up on the weather forecast for the day of the trip. It’s easier for you if you pick a calm day. If it gets a little rainy the seas become choppy and this makes taking any decent photos very challenging. Also, the lower deck gets soaked in sea spray as the boat cuts through the waves. This is especially important if any in your party is prone to seasickness.
Apart from the personal comforts and photo opportunities another reason to pick a calm day is that the dolphins prefer calmer waters. If the seas are choppy it is very unlikely to spot dolphins.
Well, that's all for this article and I hope you enjoyed it. I also hope you get a chance to visit my beautiful country soon. So until next time, travel well, be safe and Ayubowan.