When I arrived in Trincomalee, I had no intentions to go snorkelling, but it became one of the highlights of my trip to Sri Lanka. Heading out on a half day trip to Pigeon Island National Park was an incredible introduction to the underwater world.
Home to more than 100 species of coral, over 300 types of tropical fish, reef sharks, turtles and more, within just a couple of hours in the water we were able to see so much more than I had on any other snorkelling trip before.
If you’re planning on visiting Trincomalee or deciding where to go diving in Sri Lanka, this quick guide will explain everything you need to know about heading to Pigeon Island off the northeast coast of Sri Lanka.
Where is Pigeon Island?
Pigeon Island National Park is one of the newer parks added to Sri Lanka’s growing conservation areas. It covers Pigeon Island, a small island just a kilometre off the coast near Trincomalee, plus a large portion of the coral reef and sea surrounding the island.
It’s home to some of the best preserved coral reef in Sri Lanka (although sadly much is still recovering from the 2004 tsunami). Considering it’s incredibly easy to reach from Nilaveli Beach or Uppuveli Beach north of Trincomalee, it’s one of the most popular snorkelling and scuba diving places in Sri Lanka.
While it’s technically closer to Nilaveli Beach, it’s just as easy to arrange a trip from Uppuveli. It only means the boat ride will be a bit longer.
What’s in the name? While it seems like a funny name for a coral island, it’s derived from the Rock Pigeon, a native endangered bird living amongst the rocks on the island.
How to Get to Pigeon Island from Trincomalee
You can easily see Pigeon Island from the coast north of Trincomalee. The island is only about 200m in length so it’s not overly big, but it’s only 1km away from the shore on Nilaveli Beach.
The only way to reach the island is by organising a boat tour from Nilaveli Beach or Uppuveli Beach. This is incredibly simple to arrange as you’ll find many snorkelling and diving shops on the beachfront selling their tours and renting equipment. Or your accommodation will also be able to arrange for you.
The tours are pretty standard. They include a boat trip to and from the island, all diving or snorkelling equipment, and some snacks. Not all tours include a snorkelling or diving guide, but I would suggest you request one.
You can easily arrange a Pigeon Island snorkelling trip once you arrive through any operator or I highly recommend using Rangan. He’s a certified diving instructor and is always happy to take people out snorkelling or diving to Pigeon Island. His WhatsApp no is +94 715213701 or you can find him at The White House in Uppuveli Beach.
Otherwise, check out some of these tour options and book in advance.
How Much Does it Cost to go to Pigeon Island?
The Pigeon Island National Park fee is USD$42 per person just to enter the island marine park. Then, the boat operators charge around 8000 LKR for the trip.
In total, I paid 20,000 LKR, which included the national park fee, boat trip to and from the island from Uppuveli, snorkelling gear, snacks, and Rangan as a guide.
When is the Best Time to Visit Pigeon Island in Sri Lanka?
The best time for snorkelling and diving at Pigeon Island is from April until October. This is the dry season in the north of Sri Lanka, and you’ll more likely get clear skies and calmer and clearer water.
I was there at the start of September and it was pretty nice. Water clarity can differ throughout the season, so it’s best to go around mid-season for the best chance of clear water.
Snorkelling vs Diving at Pigeon Island: Which is Better?
You might automatically assume that diving would be better at Pigeon Island. However, I have to say that this is one place you’ll want to opt for snorkelling instead. I’ve never been diving before, but Rangan told us that snorkelling is actually better for Pigeon Island.
The shallow reef on the south side of the island is ideal for snorkelling and means you can see reef sharks, turtles, and plenty of fish very easily. Although the reef on the northern side is meant to be more vibrant.
Scuba diving is usually done on the north side of the island where it’s deeper, but it’s much harder to see sharks and turtles on that side. In fact, two people on our trip opted for diving and they were disappointed when they didn’t get to see very much.
Snorkelling with Rangan on the south side, we saw sharks, turtles, and plenty of fish. But I think having him as a guide also helped, because he knew the behaviour of the marine life and was able to show us exactly where the sharks usually swim in from.
Half Day Trip to Pigeon Island for Snorkelling: What to Expect
We left around 9.30am from Uppuveli Beach. Rangan, me and another girl from The White House hostel. We also had a couple joining us for the boat trip. We climbed into the speed boat just in front of Uppuveli Beach and the trip out to the island only took about 20 minutes.
We arrived on the south side of the island, where the boats park while visitors clamber ashore. There’s a small beach there, with some trees for shade, otherwise, there are no facilities on the island.
The snorkelling area is next to the boats on the south side of the island. You’ll see rope in the water marking out the safe zones for the Black Tip Reef Sharks and coral reef rejuvenation. Once we got our snorkelling gear ready, we got into the water outside of the cordoned-off area.
The water was beautifully warm and surprisingly clear, despite it being towards the end of the season. However, there were a lot of small jellyfish in the water, although they didn’t sting at all, only clouded some of my vision as I was swimming.
Rangan gave us some responsible snorkelling tips, such as not standing on or touching the coral, and not chasing or swimming too close to the sharks. They’re highly protected under the national park status.
We spent over two hours in the water with Rangan, as we followed him around and let him show us different fish and marine life. The highlight was seeing a couple of reef sharks, a sea snake, a few turtles (including two turtles swimming together!), and lots of tropical fish.
Once we got out, we waited for the diving couple to finish, and then we all climbed into the boat to head back to Uppuveli Beach. Rangan had been great fun, and it was well worth the steep price for a half day trip. I hadn’t been snorkelling in a few years, and it far exceeded my expectations, especially with the chance to swim with turtles and sharks.
Snorkelling Trip Essentials
- Reef Safe Sunscreen SPF30
- SPF 15 Lip Balm
- Quick drying towel
- Hemp bucket hat
- Teva Sandals
- Reusable drink bottle
Where to Stay in Trincomalee
Most people stay in Uppuveli Beach, which is just north of Trincomalee town. This is where I stayed just one street back from the beach and it’s a very chill place. You’ll only find a handful of restaurants, bars and accommodation options, making it quieter than the south coast of Sri Lanka.
You can also stay closer to Pigeon Island by heading to Nilaveli Beach. This is more secluded and offers some nicer beachfront accommodation. I’ll give a couple of recommendations for both Uppevli and Nilaveli.
The White House | I highly recommend this place for budget travellers or solo travellers. Rangan runs this small guest-house just one street back from the beach. He has two private rooms and one dormitory, with a lovely garden. He cooks delicious food and is a great snorkelling guide. Prices start from AU$16 per night. Check availability here.
Golden Beach Cottages | For something a little more upmarket and right on the beach, these double bed cottages boast sea views and have an onsite restaurant right on the sand. Prices start from around AU$40 per night. Check availability here.
Oceanic White House, Nilaveli | If you want to be further away from the main town and beach area but closer to Pigeon Island, then this cute budget guesthouse is a nice option. Double rooms start from AU$20 per night. Check availability here.
Villa Nilaveli Cabana | For more luxury, try these cabanas right on the beachfront of Nilaveli. In a very quiet spot, you’ll find these double bed villas starting from AU$120 per night. Check availability here.
Other Places to Go Snorkelling in Trincomalee
If you want to avoid paying the high price for the national park fee, you can opt for snorkelling and diving trips out to Navy Island and Swami Rock in Trincomalee. This way you only have to pay for equipment and the boat.
Swami Rock has a few dive sites, including a ship wreck off the coast of the old fort or Navy Island is more popular and is next to the Sri Lankan Navy area in Trincomalee.
Trincomalee is also famous for being the seasonal home of Blue Whales, the largest mammal on earth. You can go whale watching or even swimming with blue whales, but only from around April to September. They migrate around the island though, so timing can be difficult to predict sometimes.
However, diving trips with Blue Whales usually require a 30-40km boat trip off shore, so be prepared for a long day. Contact Rangan to know more about diving with blue whales. His WhatsApp no is +94 715213701 or you can find him at The White House in Uppuveli Beach.
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