South coast, beach by beach: Mirissa -whales, turtles and paradise beaches

Mirissa, located almost at the tip of Sri Lanka, is a prime world location for spotting blue whales. Apart from that, Mirissa has a few really pretty beaches, some of them small and secluded. The presence of the reef makes for satisfying snorkeling experience. Due to the sheer number of swimmable beaches, Mirissa doesn’t get crowded. It is a bit more upscale than some other resorts, but it’s possible to find something for backpackers’ budget.

 Turtle Bay with its reef, white sand beach and coconut palms seen through the slender palms on the Coconut Tree Hill in Mirissa
Turtle Bay and its coral reef seen from the Coconut Tree Hill

Mirissa on a budget

Staying in Mirissa on a budget could be a challenge. It is generally more expensive than neighbouring Weligama and lacks budget dining options. If you want to save money, it’d be cheaper to stay in Weligama and travel 15 minutes to Mirissa by bus for just 20 rupees one way.

A dark interior of a small wooden hut - a budget accommodation option in Mirissa
A simple but very nice accommodation in a quiet corner of Mirissa

If you want to stay in Mirissa, you can find the cheapest accommodation within walking distance to the main beach along Sunanda Rd and Harbour Rd. We stayed for the first few nights in a simple, but quirky tree house with a lovely view at the tree frequented by peacocks. Later, we managed to negotiate the price of 1 500 rupees for a good quality en-suite room nearer the beach. There was a catch, though. The same room was advertised on Booking.com for double the price so when somebody booked it online, we had to vacate it within a few hours. Luckily, the manager moved us to another guesthouse nearby.

The author standing in a freshly painted and very clean room of 'higher standard' in Mirissa, Sri Lanka
This kind of luxury is accessible to budget travellers with good bargaining skills

Dining on a limited budget is more of a trouble. The only cheap, very basic eatery is located near the main Mirissa bus stop and next to the small marketplace. You could eat there rice and veg curry for 150 rupees. The only problem is that the food finishes at around 1pm. In the evening, we’d usually just grab a veg roti or a patty from the bakery or go to Weligama, where budget diners abound. A mobile bakery would make rounds through entire Mirissa every morning, supplying us with rolls for breakfast. Alternatively, a street vendor on the Harbour Rd sells traditional Sri Lankan green porridge in the morning.

Mirissa’s beaches

Secret Beach, Mirissa

Secret Beach is the most beautiful and secluded of Mirissa’s beaches. You can get there from Harbour Road, whether walking from the main coastal road or from Mirissa beach. At the fork of the road near the Raja and the Whales office you will see a small sign ‘Secret beach’ pointing to a road leading up. Keep on following the signs (it’s a bit of a hike) until you reach a small Buddhist altar on top of the hill. To make a short-cut, take a narrow dirt path starting to the left of the altar, leading steeply down. It will take you straight to the beach.

A small, sandy Secret Beach in Mirissa, closed on one side by rocky outcrop and on the other by a peninsula covered with lush greenery
Beautifully located Secret Beach

The beach has two parts: one belongs to a bar so you’d need to order a drink to stay there. Rather than entering the grounds of the bar, carry on straight to the beach proper. The Secret Beach is small but very picturesque. It has plenty of natural shadow, overlooks a rocky cliff covered with greenery on the left and the rocky outcrop to the right. Due to its small size, Secret Beach fills up quickly. Yet, I never had a problem finding a shaded spot to spread my towel.

Crystal clear, turquoise water reveals rocks on the bottom at the Secret Beach
The different hues of water are a sign of rocky- sandy bottom

The water is crystal clear and perfect turquoise in colour. A coral reef starts very close to the shore, which means it’s safe to swim. However, there are quite a few rocks and corals in the water so you need to be careful not to cut yourself (especially when the sea gets choppy). It’s worth to hire a snorkel on the spot. The visibility is good, making it easy to see plenty of large and small colourful fish.

Mirissa, main beach

Walking from the Secret Beach to the main beach (turning right at the Harbour Rd fork) you’ll soon see the sign to the Coral Beach to the right. Coral beach is simply the far end of the main Mirissa beach. A long slab of rock stretches perpendicular to the shore just a few meters from the shore. It creates a spacious but shallow (max. waist- deep) artificial pool, perfect for kids or for people who only need to cool down.

Long slabs of seaweed covered stones at the Coral Beach in Mirissa
Coral Beach, the far end of the main Mirissa beach

The remaining part of Mirissa beach is sandy. It is incomparably longer but also much busier than the Secret Beach. Part of the beach is very close to the main road, divided from it just by a strip of hotels and bars. There are some surfers on Mirissa beach but, unlike Weligama, bathers dominate.

Scattered groups of people walk along the beach and stay in turquoise water along Mirissa Beach
Mirissa beach is very main-stream but still pretty and good for swimming

Mirissa’s landmark is the Parrot Rock- a tiny red rock peninsula dividing the main Mirissa beach from the neighbouring ones. Stairs and bamboo railings made climbing the rocky island easy. You can see Mirissa beach and Turtle Bay from there.

 Parrot Rock: a small, red soil island just a few meters off Mirissa Beach

Turtle Bay, Mirissa South

Mirissa beach becomes much larger during the low tide. In the afternoon the narrow strip to the east of the Parrot Rock disappears completely. In the morning, you could walk along the beach to another iconic landmark- Coconut Tree Hill. On the way, you would pass by two small and narrow, yet beautiful sandy beaches.

View from Parrot Rock in Mirissa at the narrow strip of sand dividing two bays with turquoise water
The view from the Parrot Rock at the two bays in Mirissa

Those less frequented beaches at the far end of Mirissa are part of the Turtle Bay. There is a decent amount of white sand, natural shadow and the sea is calm. The water in two shades of blue reveals the existence of the coral reef. Far to the left, you can see the picturesque Coconut Tree Hill, while Parrot Rock closes the Turtle Bay to the right. Those two beaches are pretty close to ideal.

A sandy beach with a few rocks, turquoise sea and a characteristic red-soil peninsula covered wit slender coconut palms in Mirissa
Turtle Bay and the famous Coconut Tree Hill

Turtle Bay is full of those magnificent creatures. After just a few minutes of snorkelling, I spotted my first turtle feeding on the seagrass. I watched it for a while and then let it move on to avoid disturbing it. I moved just a couple of meters further when I stumbled across another one! The second time I hired a snorkel from the Mirissa beach, I found just one turtle in the other section of the Turtle Bay. That means the spotting of a turtle is pretty much guaranteed, provided you have enough time for searching.

A Sri Lankam fisherman on a wooden catamaran right next to a group of snorkellers wearing life jackets in Turtle Bay
Organised snorkel trip in the Turtle Bay meets a fisherman in his traditional boat

If you’re in Mirissa, you shouldn’t miss visiting the Coconut Tree Hill, the iconic Instagram photo spot. This red soil hill covered with tall and slender palms with the vistas at the Mirissa beach in the distance is just behind the Turtle Bay. Be aware that you certainly won’t be able to cherish this space in solitude. There is often a queue of people waiting to pose right in the centre of the hill, especially during the sunset.

Top of the Coconut Tree Hill in Mirissa covered with tall palms through which the whole Mirissa bay is visible
The coconut tree hill draws plenty of Instagrammers

Whale- watching

Why Mirissa is one the best places on Earth to see blue whales?

The main attraction of Mirissa is whale watching. The southern tip of Sri Lanka is located very close to the continental shelf which means the sea suddenly becomes one kilometer deep. The depths create perfect conditions for blue whales. Sri Lanka is the only place in the world (apart from Iceland and Antarctica) where you can see the largest animal ever living on the Earth. The probability rate of spotting a blue whale in Jan-April season reaches 90%. Furthermore, other, migratory whale species, such as sperm whale or even orcas can be sometimes seen, along with numerous dolphins and various species of turtles.

Ethical whale watching

It all sounded exciting to me, yet I had doubts whether I wanted to participate in a whale safari. I read horror stories about 40 large boats chasing and encircling the whales, causing them a lot of distress. Apparently, the numbers of whales seen in the area was decreasing with the increasing number of safaris. After much hesitation, I chose a more expensive but ethical company involved in conservation projects.

We boarded the boat at 6 am. It was a large vessel with quite a few free seats. We were thankful for its size once we reached the open sea, which was pretty rough. The boat was jumping up and down on the waves for the first two hours. If you tend to get seasick, this trip isn’t for you. Throughout the day, we got served tea/coffee, fruit, a simple breakfast and some snacks.

Mirissa beach as seen from far in the sea
Mirissa beach seen from the boat

Our guide was fluent in English and very knowledgeable, telling us a lot about the marine life. While still in the shallow waters, the guide showed us a couple of long-snouted spinner dolphins and lots of flying fish. Sadly, we saw also a dead turtle floating on the surface.

Two spinner dolpins explosing their dorsal fins over the water
Spinner dolphins

True to the promise, two boats of this company stayed away from other tour boats. The hours were passing, yet the deep sea was empty and lifeless. Unlike other companies, this one carries on until a whale is spotted, for up to 8 hours in total. We were just about to return, defeated, when finally our guide spotted a blue whale. At first , we only saw a fountain of water far in the distance. Then, nothing for 10 minutes (that’s how long blue whales can hold breath). Once it re-emerged, it was much closer. We could see clearly its back but always kept a respectable distance. When three other boats arrived, we left the scene not to stress the animal.

A tiny dorsal fin of a blue whale
A dorsal fin of a blue whale

We were already heading to the harbour when a sperm whale appeared. Sperm whales dive for a period of up to one hour. We were lucky enough to observe one during a short few minutes when it was close to the surface. We saw it breathing out multiple times before it dived vertically into the sea, dispalying his tail.

A tail of a diving sperm whale
A tail of a diving sperm whale

It was a perfect trip and a very memorable one. The company even sent us professional photos taken on that day. Please, if you would like to join the whale safari, choose an ethical option. Read reviews on Trip Advisor and maybe have a chat with staff before deciding.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Mirissa?
Mirissa is 150km away from Colombo. Journey by bus no 2 would take around 4-5h.
Mirissa doesn’t have a train station. The nearest train station is in Weligama, less than 15 min bus drive away.
There are two bus stops on the main coastal road near Mirissa beach, first one near the Harbour Rd, the other one very close to the main beach.

Prices in Mirissa [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]
6 000 ethical whale-watching trip (6-8 hours, with a meal)
1 500 double room with bathroom for a very good room in Mirissa (bargained)
1 260 double room with bathroom in a simple accommodation in Mirissa
200 1-hour snorkel hire in Turtle Bay
150 lunch at the cheap eatery near Mirissa bus stop
85 bus from Mirissa to Tangalle (48km)
60 fresh coconut on Mirissa Beach
50 green porridge from the street
20-40 roll from a mobile bakery
20 bus Mirissa to Weligama (5.5km)

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