Under the Sea in Uppuveli

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June 6th 2018
Published: June 7th 2018
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My plan had been to travel from Kandy to Jaffna but I was so tired after Sigiriya that I couldn’t face the eight-hour bus ride and so instead I settled for the comparatively easy five-hour ride to Trincomalee in the east for a spot of beach chilling and diving. Jaffna sounds very interesting so I hope to head there next.

The bus ride was easy enough, leaving the chaotic Kandy bus station at 7am (luckily my tuk driver drove me through the station asking every bus where it was going and dropped me a foot from the one that I needed). I was joined by a middle-aged man who was on his usual morning commute to his job in Dambulla. He was very chatty and gave me lots of tips for Kandy, should I ever decide to return, and detailed directions to his office in Dambulla in case I ever pass through again and need somebody to show me around. After this sincere and kind offer, I felt that the least I could do was to not protest when he then fell asleep on my shoulder although I did get regretful after about an hour of this as I began to get hungry and I couldn’t make it to my snacks without disturbing him. The bus ride was the usual interestingly hectic affair with people getting on and off (normal for a bus, I suppose), blasting Sri Lankan pop music, and fruit and fried snack vendors climbing aboard for a few stops whilst calling out the names of their wares in a rapid-fire chorus.

Trincomalee is five hours from Kandy and we arrived just before twelve so I felt like I was winning. Trincomalee is the same size as Kandy but far less urban feeling and much more interesting from the glimpse I caught of it before I jumped into a tuk to Uppuveli, the nearby beach and the better place to stay according to my guidebook. We chuntered along down dusty roads weaving past the cows that wandered unconcernedly through the street and, at one point, an impressively determined man who was cycling with an entire bedframe strapped across the crossbar of his bike.

I arrived at Uppuveli and checked into the Golden Beach Cottages, for the first time in my life and as part of a vague celebration of now being in my thirties, not picking the cheapest guesthouse and even getting a room to myself as an extra lavish splurge. I recovered from my journey and ate lunch at the Tonic café, a colourful little place attached to my hotel and which sells amazing vegeburgers.

The beach at Uppuveli is beautiful with a clear blue sea and soft white sand but at first the whole place felt very touristy. The immediate area is nothing but resorts and dive shops and it felt weird walking up and down a beach occupied only by western resort guests (of which I am one of….) and local staff. This gave me an initially negative opinion of the place but when I returned later I was much happier because there were many more locals using the beach as well so perhaps it had just been the time of day that I had originally visited. The following day’s exploration of Uppuveli revealed a more interesting side of things as I found the main road which was much more local and it’s actually a lovely village. I ate a delicious lunch of kotthu at Rice and Curry, a little restaurant that makes up for its lack of imagination regarding establishment-naming with very fine cooking skills and lovely staff.

I tried to move away from the resorts to explore the area further and I reached the edge of the hotel-zone where immediately the beach became heavily and disappointingly littered which was sad to see as its beauty these days is apparently due to the diligent work of the hotel staff and so the unowned parts of the beach are neglected and polluted. Further along, the beach curved out to what looked like an interesting little rock island and I considered wading across and climbing up before I saw that this would have involved walking through a collection of ramshackle little huts and it felt a bit intrusive to go walking through somebody’s garden. Instead, I returned to the nice patch of sand at the centre of the beach and sat down, my legs stretched out in front of me as I watched the waves. For some reason, there was no one else sitting on the beach, only on the deckchairs that were set outside each hotel, so perhaps it was the novelty of a rare sand-human that brought the first dog up to me. She approached and gave me a close scrutinising look and then she settled down right where my right leg had been. I resettled myself next to her and we watched the sea together in companionable silence for an hour with nothing but the sound of the waves and the sight of the occasional dive boat returning to shore to distract us from our musings.

Eventually my little dog pal clearly had places to be because she rose to her feet and trotted off. I stretched my feet out and burrowed my legs into the sand for a whole five minutes before another dog came up and gently shoved my legs to the side and curled up in my sand furrows. Like the first dog, this guy wasn’t much of a talker so we just sat and shared the view.

Later on I walked up to the other side of the beach and found the backpacker hangout and I realised that I was staying in the wrong, although probably cleaner and quieter, place. I had a slight crisis of age-awareness where I reflected that maybe I had just done the travellers’ equivalent of moving onto the grown ups’ table at family functions (from which everyone knows there is no return) before deciding that having properly cleaned sheets and a good night’s sleep is no bad thing (or is this just the adult in me talking now…? One thing is for sure, the back support of the beds in this hotel is fantastic).

After a cold litre of beer at Fernando’s Bar, a jaunty beach bar complete with swinging chairs, volleyball nets, and the obligatory white-man-with-dreadlocks-and-fisherman-trousers that every true backpacker hangout worthy of the name has in residence, I was feeling much more at ease with the world again. I only had one beer because I am still rigidly sticking to the CCC rule of “only two beers before dive days!” – and these beers definitely counted as at least that.

The next day I turned up at Angel Diving promptly at 7:30am before realising that I had forgotten to account for the casual Sri Lankan approach to punctuality so I got to relax on the beachside steps for twenty minutes whilst the shop sorted out the kit and woke up anyone that was missing from the dive party. Despite this, the shop was very professional and the kit was in good order. Having done most my diving with CCC which has the most stringent of safety rules but, unfortunately, has to make do with donated kit, it was almost a surprise to realise that it is possible to dive in a BCD that both fits and inflates when you want it to.

After all heave-ho-ing to get the boat into the sea (I lent some muscle and they were kind enough to let me), we set out on a short boat trip through the ocean to our first site. It was a beautiful day and the spray of the sea cooled us as we shot across the waves. I was back in my happy place. Mask, fins, and snorkel, and ready to go!

We soon reached our first site, Angel Reef. I was slightly nervous jumping in as I have only done one dive since Napantao and I hadn’t enjoyed it much due to the cold Sydney water and having a buddy from the “I have done many dives and therefore think buddy-checking is beneath me” school of thought. Luckily, a few minutes into the first dive, I was fully relaxed and it felt like I had never been away. I was happy to realise that I still remembered most of the target species that I had learnt at CCC and quickly spotted parrotfish, triggerfish, pink goat fish, surgeonfish, and many types of butterflyfish. Strangely, the fish are all bigger here. On my second day of diving, I met an eel which must have been a foot-wide and probably metres long (although he was doing that hiding-in-a-rock thing that eels like to do so I could only see his head). The parrotfish seemed to be twice the size of the largest I had seen in the Philippines and I saw a triggerfish who must have been almost a metre long. I moved swiftly away as these fellows can be grumpy and give quite a bite.

After doing most of my diving for the sake of surveying, it felt strange to simply be looking and I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself once the initial excitement of being back in the water wore off. My dive buddy Craig was taking lots of pictures which gave me the time to give the place a thorough search for invertebrates. The divemaster and Craig probably thought I was bonkers, ignoring the colourful fish and instead sticking my head under rocks and into barrel sponges- little did they know that I was on a mission to find a nudibranch. Unfortunately, there were no nudis to be found but I managed to tick off many of the others such as different starfish, brittle worms, featherduster worms, and lots of sea cucumbers. I spent a long time trying to remember the name for corallimorphs- I was certain that the name “hairy nipples” was not the proper Latin for the species- but it came back to me at the end of the dive.

After a second dive at Barracuda Point (which lived up to its name as the rocks were very pointy- plus there were lots of barracuda), we heaved ourselves back onto the boat and set off on a speedy and refreshing ride through the waves before landing on the beach with a startling thump that send me and Craig flying (turns out, when the divemaster says to hold on, he’s not fooling around!).

I jumped off the boat, thrilled with my dives and excited to sign up for the next day as well. It was a huge relief to confirm that my dive in Sydney, which had been an unfortunate combination of being both boring and stressful, was an aberration and that diving was good again. Maybe I am just a massive wimp who needs 30C water, colourful fish, and cunning invertebrates to hunt for to be satisfied but I think I shall stick to tropical water diving from now on.


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