Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary
Corals & Coral Reefs
Sri Lanka has an abundance of coral reefs around most part of the island. They are rich in biodiversity with over 180 hard coral species recorded. The colourful coral reefs with tropical fish and other marine species, and ship wrecks with spectacular artificial reefs can be explored at several diving and snorkelling locations.
The varying coral and rock formations have its own beauty for dive enthusiasts to explore. Dive centers around Sri Lanka offer day dives and some even night dives. Snorkeling expeditions are available for the less adventurous to marvel at the beauty of the corals and marine life from shallower seas.
Corals come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colour. Essentially there are two types of corals: soft corals (hermatypic) and hard or stony corals (ahermatypic). Coral reefs in Sri Lanka are categorized under fringing reefs, patchy reefs, sandstone reefs and rocky reefs. Corals in varying degree may also cover the latter two reef types. All four habitats are distinctly different, but may be found mixed together.
Sri Lankan coral reefs are generally considered to be offshore reefs and near-shore fringing reefs as true barrier reefs are not present. Pseudo barrier reefs, parallel to the shoreline and lying some distance away and forming a broad ‘reef lagoon’, are found between Vankalai and Silavaturai, south of Mannar, and also the offshore reefs at Great Basses and Little Basses. The Bar Reef in Kalpitiya is the largest patchy reef.
All coral species are protected through the Fauna and Flora Protection Act by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Coral reef habitats are also protected under the Coast Conservation Act, but are limited to coastal waters, within 2km seaward of the mean low water line (MLWL). A few areas of coral reefs have been designated as National Parks and Sanctuaries. Read more >>.
In July 2001, the Madiha-Polhena coral reef ecosystem was designated a Fisheries Managed Area under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act along with an area off Yala encompassing the Great Basses Reef, Little Basses Reef, the Kumbukkan Oya estuary and the Buttuwa Rock identified for protection due to their coral reef ecosystems, unique setting and archeological importance.
Declaration of protected and restricted marine fish species for export purposes comes under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act No. 2 of 1996 and the Fauna and Flora Protection (Amendment) Act, No. 49 of 1993.
Sri Lanka's underwater attractions and marine biodiversity remain largely unknown, and despite being an island the marine environment has failed to capture the imagination of most Sri Lankans.
– Nishan Perera
Marine Biologist, 2011
Discovering Corals & Coral Reefs
Coral reefs, often called "rainforests of the sea", form some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and are by far our richest marine habitat. Most coral reefs are built from stony corals, colonies of tiny animals found in marine waters. These corals consist of polyps that cluster in groups. Polyps belong to a group of animals that also includes sea anemones and jellyfish.
Unlike sea anemones, corals secrete hard calcium carbonate skeletons. Entire colonies can grow very large and weigh several tons. They grow best in warm, shallow, clear, sunny and agitated marine waters and even flourish in waters that appear to provide few nutrients. Corals also require a minimum amount of salinity and low levels of sediment.
Reefs provide an ideal habitat essential for many marine organisms. In addition they provide important ecosystems services to tourism, fisheries and shoreline protection. They are fragile ecosystems, partly because they are very sensitive to water temperature and environmental pollution which harm reefs by encouraging excess algae growth. However, they are constantly under threat and destruction due to a number of direct human activities.
They are home to several hundreds of fish species (ornamental fish, commercial fish, sharks and rays), molluscs (snails, slugs, cephalopods), worms, crustaceans (lobsters, shrimps, crabs), echinoderms (starfish, seaurchins and sea cucumbers), sponges, tunicates, sea grasses, and other species of marine fauna and flora. Sea snakes and sea turtles are also found among reefs.
Coral Reefs of Sri Lanka by Nishan Perera.
A checklist of hard corals recorded for Sri Lanka is available in The National Red List 2012 of Sri Lanka; Conservation Status of the Fauna and Flora on pages 180 to 182.
Responsible Reef Diving & Snorkelling Practices
Leave only your bubbles! Tourism can damage corals if not conducted with care.
Anchors and chains destroy fragile corals, so look for a sandy bottom but best to use mooring buoys or in their absence promote the installation of mooring buoys.
Dispose of your garbage properly: Don't dispose of or leave garbage and unwanted fishing lines or nets in the water or on the beach. Any kind of litter pollutes the water and can harm the reef and the fish.
Avoid walking on corals. Look for appropriate entry and exit points to a reef.
Avoid touching or standing on the reef. Contact with the coral will damage the delicate coral animals that take many years to grow. Some corals can sting or cut you.
Never touch or handle marine life. Avoid using gloves in coral environments so that you are not tempted to touch anything.
Make sure you are neutrally buoyant at all times while diving and maintain a comfortable distance from the reef.
Move slowly and deliberately in the water without having to use your arms. Relax as you swim and take your time. Keep disturbance and churn to a minimum.
If you feel you may get tired while snorkelling consider taking or wearing a floatation device.
Take nothing out of the water, dead or alive, except for garbage, fishing line and nets.
Inadequate enforcement for protection of coral reefs.
Coral damage by vessel strikes, anchors and chains (lack of mooring buoys)
Coral destruction by touch and/or removal including mining.
Over harvesting of marine species (unmanaged fishing).
Destructive fishing practices using nets & dynamite.
Climate change - coral bleaching since 1998.
Coastal erosion and excessive sedimentation.
Environmental pollution including fishing lines and nets.
Infestation of crown-of-thorns starfish.
How you can Help the Reefs
Practice safe and responsible diving and snorkeling. Make sure your buddies understand these simple but important conservation practices.
Support reef-friendly businesses: Ask the fishing, hotel, dive or snorkeling operators how they protect the reef. Be sure they care for the reef ecosystem and ask for evidence that the organization responsible is part of a coral reef ecosystem conservation effort and uses mooring buoys.
Support coral parks and conservation programs. Volunteer for a reef or beach clean-up program. Sponsor deployment of mooring buoys near reefs.
Spread the word: Remember your own excitement at learning how important the coral reefs are to the intricate overall ecosystem and us. Share this excitement as it will encourage others to get involved.
The greatest extent of true corals in Sri Lanka lie in patchy reefs from Vankalai to the Kalpitiya peninsular. These offer the most varied reef access from snorkelling on shallow reefs to scuba diving on deeper reefs. Patchy coral reefs are also found on the western and eastern seaboards at a distance of about 15-20 km from the shore, at an average depth of 20m. Passekudah and Trincomalee have the best coral reefs on the Eastern Maritime Province seaboard. Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, Rumassala and Matara have the main fringing reefs along the southern coast. Little Basses and Great Basses off the south coast have the best barrier like reefs in Sri Lanka.
The following is a selection coral reefs round Sri Lanka that are well known and / or may be worth visiting:
The best reefs in the Jaffna peninsular are found around the Jaffna islands such as Karainagar (Casuarina Reef aka Dumbilipitty Reef at (N9° 46.45' E79° 53.56') and at Kovilan Point (N9° 45.54' E79° 51.52') near the lighthouse, Punkudutivu (N9° 33.93' E79° 52.16') and Palaitivu (N9° 29.17' E80° 00.96'). These reefs are not well developed.
Coral reefs are also found along the northern coastline in the Palk Straight such as Kankasanthurai Harbour (N9° 49.08' E80° 02.17' and N9° 49.04' E80° 01.13') but is not open to the public. Due to the shallow seas, all of the reefs are ideal for snorkelling. The Jaffna peninsular is yet to be well explored. The two reefs off Casuarina beach, Karainagar are most recommended for snorklers and has a boat service. The milk shark is present at these two reefs.
Gulf of Mannar
In contrast to the reefs around the Jaffna peninsular, the Vankalai-Arippu-Silavaturai stretch of coastline showcases several excellent fringing coral reefs. These comprise large patch corals with branching and table corals. The corals at the Pearl Bank Reef (N8° 46.26' E79° 52.95'), located 5.9km from Doric House, are in pristine condition but now lacking in associated species. Closer to shore is Ailavaturai Reef (N8° 44.84' E79° 55.3'), located 2.5km from shore. South of this is Silavaturai Reef (N8° 41.4' E79° 56.72') accessible from shore for snorkelling.
In Kalpitiya, the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary (N8° 22.57' E79° 44.35'), depth up to 3m, is the best option for snorkeling in this area but recent natural and direct human activities are causing fast reef degradation. It is home to 156 species of coral and 283 species of fish. Both the black-tip and white-tip reef sharks may be encountered. The green turtle, hawksbill turtle and olive ridley turtle are also found. The next best snorkeling option in the area is Talawila Reef (N8° 06.82' E79° 41.67') located 700m from shore. The best dive option is Bull Dog Reef at a depth of 15m. Other good dive reefs off Kalpitiya include Davey’s Reef, Kalpitiya Ridge, Trevally Pass and Moray Ridge.
Ula Gala, also known as the Barracuda reef with a depth of 2-12m is good for snorkelers and for open water training dives. A variety of fish such as yellow jacks, large groupers, trevallys and oriental sweet lips. Also, part of a wreckage of the ship "Asia Carrier" which sank in 1980 can be seen from this site. Hannova Reef at a depth of 15m is deal for a night dive. Many reef fish such as snappers, sweetlips, cuttlefish and groupers. Bandara Rocks, which has some coral growth and dramatic rock formations, is a fun dive site. Depth 15m. Several reef fish such as sweetlips, eels, rays and lionfish.
The National Park extends for about 1.35 km along the shoreline from south of the fisheries harbour breakwater to the rocky islets. Try the apron reefs at the harbour and extending north along the shoreline. Ideal for snorkelling. The reef in the nearby rocky islets is in very poor condition. Glass-bottom boats operate to this reef with a depth of up to 4m. Snorkelling and diving is on the south side of the rocky outcrop. Be aware of strong currents and rip tides. The Rocky Islets sanctuary located nearby in Ambalangoda offers a good option.
The Rumassala (Buona-vista) Reef (N6° 01.23' E80° 14.37') is a marine sanctuary with a high diversity of marine life. 25 species out of the 36 species of butterfly fish species recorded in Sri Lanka have been recorded and is indicative of a healthy reef ecosystem. It is located a few meters away from the shore, and extends around 200m towards the sea to a depth of around 8m.
Nearby Unawatana Reef (N6° 00.47' E80° 15.01') less than 50m from the shore contains a shallow coral reef as well as numerous rocky reef habitats.
Madiha (N5° 56.15' E80° 30.85'), Polhena (N5° 56.14' E80° 31.56'), Nilwela (N5° 56.1' E80° 31.95') and Dondra Head (N5° 55.14' E80° 35.28') reefs are all located around Matara. They are all shallow water reefs. Polhena is the largest and best reef.
Great Basses Reef and Little Basses Reef are located offshore near the continental ledge in the souteast. They are both rocky reefs with scattered corals and are renowned for large predatory fish species and nearby shipwrecks. Underwater caves and ledges create dramatic seascapes. The reefs can be accessed by boat from Kirinda. Rough seas persist throughout both monsoons and so the best time to access is during the two intermonsoons - early April being the best time of the year with excellent visibility and minimal currents.
Excellent fringing and offshore reefs can be found in and around Passekudah. Passekudah Reef (N7° 56.27' E81° 33.8') is located at the northern end of Kalkuda Bay, nested in a cove. The largest of the reefs is Kayankerni Reef (main reef at N7° 59.5' E81° 32.0') located on three sides of the headland north of Vandeloos Bay. Parts of this reef have a high abundance and diversity of fish. About 50 species of corals and over 200 species of fish have been recorded. North of Kayankerni main reef is Velikuda Periya Munai Point which contains an apron reef along the shoreline. There is another near shore shallow reef patch about 1.4km away from this point. Other good reefs are also to be found further offshore.
There are some coral reefs in the Trincomalee area and their distribution is patchy. The main fringing coral reefs are found at Coral Island (N8° 44.2' E81° 10.6') and Pigeon Island (N8° 43.3' E81° 12.4') off Nilaveli, Uppaveli, Back Bay, Dutch Bay (N8° 34.5' E81° 14.6'), Coral Cove and then from Foul Point (N8° 31.6' E81° 19.5) extending southwards to Lanka Patuna. There are also some small patches of coral within Trincomalee inner harbour. Offshore reefs are found to a depth of more than 50m. Over 100 coral species and 300 fish species have been recorded in these reefs.
Pigeon Island National Park has experienced reef degradation and loss of biodiversity and fish abundance. Corals are being destroyed by boat anchors even when mooring buoys are present. The hawksbill turtle, grey reef shark and black-tip reef shark are present. Unconfrmed report of lemon sharks too.