For a country roughly the size of Tasmania in Australia, Sri Lanka has a surprising number of ecosystems. The island may be synonymous with beaches and temples, but there is a longer list of all that it has to offer. Somewhere down the list are places to see and things to do that steer visitors tenderly towards a lighter footprint. Slowly but surely, a green wave of eco-consciousness is washing over the island, touching travellers and nudging them as gently as the fin of a three-day-old baby turtle that sits on your palm at one of the many rescue centres of the country.
At the Ahungalla Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Centre 40 km from the beach town of Galle, a giant turtle in cement welcomes guests with its mouth wide open, swallowing them as they enter its beak that makes the archway. Enter the dark belly, where aquariums built into the walls showcase baby sharks, electric eels, star fish and more. It’s hard to tell them apart from regular sea creatures, but the volunteer on duty will tell you about their fins or limbs caught and damaged in fishing nets, and how they are rescued and released back in the sea once they heal.
Outside, one finds little pools with green turtles bobbing up and down in them, gracefully gliding towards your outstretched palms with renewed faith in their human counterparts. “The one you see permanently afloat ingested too much plastic and the gases caused make him float. He can never sink, and is an easy target for predators,” explains Suranga, a 40-year-old volunteer here.
The knowledge of this context is a doorway into fantastic conservation work, and transforms a visit to see turtles into an opportunity to sign up for volunteer work here. After a morning of giving these beautiful creatures their due, head back to Galle to its fabulously well-preserved, historic Dutch fort for an afternoon of lunch and leisure, but not without a pit stop for a gentle boat ride down the Madu river to explore its exquisite mangroves.