By Darren Griffiths

Pottuvil Lagoon and it's Elephant Inhabitants

15th March 2023

Last updated on April 6th, 2023 at 09:42 pm

When we arrived at Arugam Bay on the remote east coast of Sri Lanka, we had no idea that only a couple of days later, we would be just a few meters away from a family of elephants, in the middle of a tropical storm, while floating aboard a makeshift raft. But when we arrived at Arugam Bay, we had not heard of Pottuvil Lagoon!

One of the many highlights of visiting the extraordinary country of Sri Lanka is being able to get close to it’s wonderful and diverse wildlife. Sri Lanka has 22 national parks, which is an impressive number for such a small island. With such a high density of parks, you could say that Sri Lanka is basically one huge awesome national park! It can sometimes feel like that.

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Our experience exploring Pottuvil Lagoon and getting too close to it's elephant inhabitants.

There are even parts of the county that do not fall within the boundaries of a national park but still allow for fantastic wildlife spotting opportunities. Pottuvil Lagoon is one of those places.

Pottuvil Lagoon is a wetland area consisting of waterways, mangroves and islands. The lagoon is populated by an abundance of wildlife including elephants, crocodiles, monitor lizards, water buffalo and heaps of birdlife. The only way to explore Pottuvil lagoon is via handmade rafts made from two canoes and what we later found out to be a very uncomfortable wooden seating area.

Where is Pottuvil Lagoon?

Pottuvil Lagoon is located just 4KM from the mellow East coast beach town of Arugam Bay. This makes it the perfect trip to break up those long days laying on the sand.  Sri Lanka’s East coast is one of the country’s least developed areas due to the long brutal civil war and the awful 2004 tsunami. Tourism is gaining pace but the number of visitors is nothing compared to the South and West coasts.

Arugam bay beach. Pottuvil Lagoon and it's Elephant Inhabitants.

Arugam bay beach

This is why a visit to Pottuvil Lagoon should be done sooner rather than later. Visit the area before the rest of the world hears about it!

Check out some awesome Arugam Bay accommodation options by clicking here!

Booking a Pottuvil Lagoon Boat Tour is Easy

Just ask any of the tourist information shops or restaurants. Or even easier, ask your accommodation staff as almost anyone will be able to arrange it for you. Our Pottuvil Lagoon boat tour cost 5000 rupees (£25) for the two of us. This also included a tuk-tuk return pick up from our guesthouse.

The rafts at Pottuvil Lagoon. Pottuvil Lagoon and it's Elephant Inhabitants.

The rafts at Pottuvil Lagoon

There are two parts of the day which are the best times to visit Pottuvil Lagoon. Both offer higher chances of spotting wildlife. Tours start either early in the morning at 5:30 am or towards the end of the day at 3:30 pm. Tours last about three hours including transfer time. We’ve mentioned before on this blog that we enjoy our sleep too much so we preferred to choose a 3:30 pm pick up.

We’ll never forget our Pottuvil Lagoon Boat Tour

On the day of our tour, the weather was fine and sunny with just a bit of welcome cloud. Our tuk-tuk driver picked us up from our guesthouse at 3:30 pm as planned. The journey took just 15 minutes. When we arrived we were pleased to see no other tourists. The last thing we wanted was to see Pottuvil Lagoon filled with loads of other boats like some sort of theme park.

We paid one of the local men our 5000 rupees and were given a life jacket to wear. A couple of minutes later just two other tourists arrived who we shared our boat with. We all sat cross-legged on the hard seating area and off we went being paddled by two smiling local guides.

Me with the two guides behind. Pottuvil Lagoon and it's Elephant Inhabitants.

Me with the two guides behind

The weather was still OK but cloud was starting to increase. For the first 30 minutes, we floated through the peaceful lagoon while keeping our eyes peeled for the larger potential encounters. We spotted kingfishers, storks, eagles and many other bird species. But no elephants or crocodiles yet.

Then Pottuvil Lagoon gave us what we came for

Our guides rowed us to the shore on one side of the lagoon. They had clearly spotted something. They instructed us to take off our fluorescent life jackets as they whispered loudly….” elephant!”. The bright orange apparently scares elephants away. Through the trees lining the lagoon’s edge, we could see the lone elephant, calmly eating long grass in a field. It wasn’t too far away. Only 100 meters or so. We were thrilled to see our first wild Sri Lankan elephant!

Shelley checking out an elephant. Pottuvil Lagoon and it's Elephant Inhabitants.

Shelley checking out an elephant

As a light rain began to fall we then spotted another elephant, and then another. There were now three of them to see. Thunder started to rumble in the distance which added to the surreal and adventurous atmosphere. We’d seen travellers on our TV do this sort of thing but now we were those travellers. After watching the elephants for a few minutes we began to head deeper into Pottuvil Lagoon.

Out of nowhere a storm had arrived right overhead

The light rain suddenly turned into a drenching downpour and thunder was crashing right above us. We all rushed to pack away our cameras and phones, using the life jackets as covers. Our guides quickly directed the boat under a tree but it provided little shelter from the torrential rain.

After waiting for 15 minutes under the useless tree, concern started to show on the guides faces. They realised the storm was not going to end anytime soon so suggested that we made our way back early. We all agreed as the birdlife had vanished in the monsoon rain and we were starting to shiver from the soaking. Even in Sri Lanka’s tropical climate.

Then we spotted something that even surprised the guides

On the side of Pottuvil Lagoon, in the water with us, were a family of elephants. Five in total, including a baby. All were bathing and splashing around in the lagoon. It was an amazing sight and according to our guides, extremely rare to see. We don’t think even they had seen this before. It was obviously incredible to see, a once in a lifetime experience, but we were all too familiar with the dangers of getting too close to elephants, especially parents with babies in tow.

On numerous occasions, we had been told by Sri Lankan locals to never stop if you spot an elephant close to you. Elephants kill numerous people every year in Sri Lanka. Including clueless selfie taking tourists. Our guides had to make a decision. The waterway was not very wide, only 30 or so meters. We were on one side, and the elephants were on the other, looking straight at us. Should we make an attempt to pass by so we can get back to shore? It was our only way back and the storm was not easing.

One of the elephants at the start of the tour. Pottuvil Lagoon and it's Elephant Inhabitants.

One of the elephants at the start of the tour

One of the locals looked pretty scared and very unsure but the other’s confidence convinced them both to attempt it. We slowly and quietly edged closer. As we did so, the largest elephant’s ears opened wide, a clear sign to us that they felt threatened and we should back off. Both Shelley and I actually felt quite nervous by the situation but we trusted our guides.

After a brief standoff, the elephant family started to exit the water as we gained speed to pass. Thankfully they were not in the mood for a fight today and we made it out of Pottuvil Lagoon alive! We’re frustrated that the weather prevented us being able to take photos of the encounter. However, it was a frightening and exciting experience that we will remember for a very long time.

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Our experience exploring Pottuvil Lagoon and getting too close to it's elephant inhabitants.