Chills, Fish, Marine, Nature, Thrills, Wildlife

Snorkeling at Pigeon Island National Park

Pigeon Island National Park

Pigeon Island Marine National Park

The Pigeon Island Marine National Park (PIMNP) was declared a marine national park in the year 2003 and is one of the best places to witness Sri Lanka’s stunning marine fauna. The park is made up of two islands, namely “Pigeon Island” and “Crow Island”  and a few rocky islands surrounding them.  Pigeon Island being the larger of the 2 islands, and having a fringe reef around it of depths less than 5 – 6 m, offers the best snorkeling in the area, so it’s no surprise that’s where all the action is. A few ardent divers sometimes visit the smaller Crow island whose deeper reefs are better suited for diving escapades.

Pigeon Island

Lying only 2 km from the tranquil shores of the Nilaveli beach, one can easily hire snorkeling equipment and a boat to Pigeon Island at the park ticket office counter. The island is quite small an unevenly eroded giving it a dumbbell like appearance with two rocky heads to the West and the North-East separated by a small sandy strip which creates a small cove shaped beach on the Northern side of the island and long beach on the Southern side.  The boats drop you off at Southern beach right next to a Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) hut, where you can leave your valuables (if you must) while you explore the reef.

Map of Pigeon Island
  • A : The best area to snorkel. Densely populated with Staghorn coral, Acropora spp which are some of the fastest growing corals in the world. High density of fish. It’s also the best place to spot Black-tip Reef Sharks and Turtles around the island
  • X : The area off the Southern beach marked by floaters is a coral regrowth area with very young corals, in extremely shallow waters. Venturing in there means certain damage to this sensitive eco system! The last few times I was here I was sad to see (despite clear written notices on the beach) people going into this roped off area, often following some fish, and stepping on young corals and damaging them. I literally dragged 2 people out by their fins to stop them from doing a bull in a china shop in there. The DWC is severely undermanned and they cannot follow every single person who visits the island. Please act responsibly when you visit a national park!
  • Western Side of the island

    B : Not much to see if you are snorkeling mainly because depths vary from 5 – 15 m. Sparse distribution of coral but there are some interesting fish around. If you are keen for a bit of free diving, you wont be disappointed. Take your Gopro – last time I saw a Humphead Wrasse around there.

  • E : If you just want to have a bath, the calm shallow waters in this cove are perfect for it. Again, mind the coral!
  • : Similar to B, with deep waters and rocky shores. Shallow belt closer to the cove gives shelter to species like Box fish. Also keep an eye out for Anemone fish in this area.
  • : This area has a lot of young coral on the regrowth, so I would suggest staying away from this area.
  • : The two f marked areas denote small isolated beaches. If the main beach area is too crowded when you get to Pigeon Island, and you want to have a bit of a quiet time, beat through the bush and do a bit of rock scrambling and get to these beaches where you are sure to find some solitude.

What to see? Plenty, and then some!

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Aggregations of Acropora sp. Montipora sp. and Pocillopora sp. at Pigeon Island

Rain forest under the sea.

Rain forests and coral reefs are very common in certain ways. Mainly because they both support a rich bio-diversity and they derive thier structure from living organisms: the rain forests from its trees, and the reef from its coral.

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Acropora formosa
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Mono typic growths of Staghorn Corals (Acropora formosa) on the southern reef.

Corals are animals, belonging to a group know as Anthozoanstogether with Sea Anemones (order: Actiniaria). They can be divided into two main groups, namely Hard Corals and Soft Corals. Hard Corals play an important role in reef building and represent a large percentage of Corals that can be seen around Pigeon Island.

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Rose Coral (Montipora sp.) growing among Staghorn Corals.

The main reef on the Southern beach of the island is known as an Apron reef (which is a type of fringing reef). It starts off in shallow waters less than a meter, and gradually grows deeper as the ocean floor slopes down. The areas less than 3 – 4 m of depth have a mono typic growth of Staghorn Coral, mainly Acropora formosa. As you head to deeper parts of the reef and in the Northern side of the island, you find Dome Corals, Boulder Corals and some Leather Corals (Soft Coral). Some of the shallow areas also have Rose Coral (Montipora aequituberculata, Montipora forliosa ) growing among Acropora. 

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Pocillopora damicornis growing among Acropora sp.
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Table Coral (Acropora hyacinthus)

Other corals that we observed, specially in deeper waters were Cauliflower or Lace Coral (Pocillopora verrucosa and Pocillopora damicornis), Table Coral (Acropora hyacinthus and Acropora cytherea), Lobe Coral (Porites lobata and Porites lutea), Brain Coral spp. (Favia spp. Favites spp. Platygyra spp. Leptoria sp. Symphyllia sp.) and Cup Corals (Turbinaria sp. and Dendrophyllia sp.). Few Soft Corals like
Leather Coral spp. (Sarcophyton sp. Sinularia sp. Lobophytum sp.) were also observed in the Northern and Western sides of the island.

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Giant Porites (Porites lutea)
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Me, going down to have a closer look at a Porites lutea

Turtles!

Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) breaching to breathe.
Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) looking for Sponges under Corals. Their ‘bird like’ beak is designed to reach little nooks and crannies of the reef to get to their prey.

Pigeon Island is a good place to spot turtles, and at least 3 species, Green Turtles, Olive Ridley Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles have been spotted around around this reef. On my Last visit I saw a Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) feeding on the main reef (Southern side of the island).

Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

It seems that Hawsbill Turtles are common here as they feed in reefs where their primary source of food which are Sea Sponges are found in abundance. Due to their almost exclusive diet of Sponges these Turtles are sometimes referred to as “Spongivores“.

Swimming with Sharks

Blacktip Reef Shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus)

Another reason Pigeon Island is a popular destination for snorkeling is its sizable population of  Blacktip Reef Sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus). They are the apex predators of their ecosystem and feed mainly on the fish from the reef. Usually under 1.5 m, these sharks can

Blacktip Reef Shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus)

grow up to about 2 m, and out of sharks that I have seen in the ocean, are second in beauty only to Port Jackson Sharks (Heterodontus portusjacksoni). Some individuals can be timid and will swim away at sight, some more curious and swim around but always keeping a distance, and are hardly known to be aggressive. Although as with any wild animal with sharp teeth, they are best left unprovoked. The best place to spot them at Pigeon Island is towards the outer edge of the reef on the Southern side of the island, and maybe around the boulders towards the Southwestern edge. They tend to come out closer towards midday.

The Yellow Titan

Titan Triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens) & Dash and Dot Goatfish (Parupeneus barberinus)
Titan Triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens) & Thumbprint Emperor (Lethrinus harak)
Titan Triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens), Moorish Idol, Orange-lined Triggerfish (Balistapus undulatus)
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Titan Triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens) and Sixbar Wrasse (Thalassoma hardwicke)
Titan Triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens)

One of the most interesting fish you will see around Pigeon Island is the Titan Triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens). If you are doing a snorkel in the morning hours around the main reef, you are sure to come across a big yellow fish, almost a meter in length (the biggest Triggerfish in Sri Lanka), digging up the sand, turning over coral rubble and stones. They are usually solitary except for when they are feeding, when they attract smaller fish like Goat fish and Parrot fish who feed on the small organisms that are turned up by their stirring. Titan Triggerfish in Sri Lanka are not known to be aggressive, however during their nesting season they become highly territorial and may get aggressive  if you swim in to their territory. A good sign is if the fish flips on its side and gives you the “Old evil eye” (Which is actually one of it’s common names!), which is when you better run – well at least swim. Best evasion tactic is to swim backwards, as this will get you out of its territory (swimming up doesn’t help because the Titan’s range is a cone shape around its nest extending upward) and if it tries to give you a nip, you could offer it your fin.  In most cases they will just nudge you out of its territory. If bitten, seek hospital assistance immediately as  it might contain Ciguatoxin which can be harmful.

Trigger fish belong to the family Balistidae. You are sure to notice them, as they all have a similar oval shaped & compressed body shape, with bright colors. Other Triggerfish that you might get to see around Pigeon island are

  • Orange-lined Triggerfish (Balistapus undulatus)
  • Reef Triggerfish/ Wedge-tail Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus)
  • Indian Triggerfish (Melichthys indicus)
  • Black Triggerfish (Melichthys niger)
  • Halfmoon Triggerfish (Sufflamen chrysopterum)

Nemo’s cousin Clark!

Clark’s Anemonefish (Amphiprion clarkii )
Clark’s Anemonefish (Amphiprion clarkii ) among Bubble-tip Anemone (Entacmaea quadricolor) ?

Probably due to over-picking, sadly we didn’t see many Sea Anemones. Hence we were very lucky to actually spot one pair of Clark’s Anemone fish (Amphiprion clarkii). It is disturbing to see such a demise in numbers though as a survey done in 2009 by GreenTech Consultants notes that pressure from ornamental aquarium industry seemed  low since high value species were rich in abundance, using (among others) Clown fish as important indicator species.

Angels of the deep

Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator)
Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator)

I’m sure you would agree that Angelfish are some of the most beautiful fish that you get to see in a tropical reef. During my last visit to Pigeon Island, I managed to spot two; an Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) and a Semicircle Angelfish (Pomacanthus semicirculatus). Your best shot at spotting one of these elusive fish is to head North beyond the boulders of the Southwest corner of the Island, and your sure to spot one among the rock habitats in the deeper areas.

Semicircle Angelfish (Pomacanthus semicirculatus )
Even though its beautiful blue markings are not visible due to being far away from my Gopro and the depth, the dark-light-dark colour pattern is clearly visible. Also a couple of Massive Dome Corals (Porites lobata) in the background

Butterflies of the reef

Melon Butterflyfish (Chaetodon trifasciatus)

No reef tour is complete without Butterflyfish, and around 20 species of them live in reef around Pigeon Island. Unfortunately, probably due to over-collecting for the ornamental fish industry, big schools of them were not observed. The Melon Butterflyfish  (Chaetodon trifasciatus) seemed to be the most numerous and was often found in small groups of same species. Butterflyfish are sometime seen alone or with a mating partner, as was seen with Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish (Chaetodon decussatus) which was also common around the reef. Most abundant around the reef “A” on the southern side of the island and a few in the cove on the northern part of the island “E”.

Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish
Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish (Chaetodon decussatus)
Raccoon Butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula)
Bottom-center: A pair of Raccoon Butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunula), above them – a Scrawled Filefish (Aluterus scriptus)
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Bottom center: Scrawaled Butterflyfish (Cheatodon meyeri)
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Indian Vagabond Butterflyfish (Chaetodon decussatus)
Threadfin Butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga)
Can you spot the Threadfin Butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga) among the Staghorn Coral?

The Luminous Parrotfish

Ember Parrotfish
Ember Parrotfish (Scarus rubroviolaceus)

Parrotfish are some of the most interesting species found on the reef. They are extremely noticeable due to their size, their beak-like mouths and their bright luminous colour. Most species in the family are sequential hermaphrodites, and start their life cycle as females and later turn into males. The females differ greatly from males in colouration, making it hard to identify between species. Also the females tend to have a darker, brownish colour, compared to the lighter, luminous, blue & green hues of the males. Their teeth are packed together in the front end of their jawbones forming a parrot-like beak (which gives them their name), that they use to scrape and grind  coral on which the algae that they feed on live. Whatever they do not digest is passed out as sand. Thus, Parrotfish play an important role in controlling algal growth on reefs and even creating small sand islands. At Pigeon island if you snorkel around the dead coral rubble towards the Western end of the Southern reef  “A”, you will find harems of females feeding, usually accompanied by one male. Some males are found alone, mainly in the western and northern parts of the island. About 20 species of Parrotfish are recorded in Sri Lankan waters and you can observe around 9 of them at Pigeon island.

Wrasses – Familiy: Labridae

Barred Thicklip Wrasse (Hemigymnus fasciatus)
Barred Thicklip Wrasse (Hemigymnus fasciatus)

With over 60 species present in Sri Lankan waters, Wrasses make up one the largest and most diverse groups of marine fish. They can range from a few centimeters of the Blue-streak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) to the huge Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus). Many species have prominent lips which make them easy to identify. They are carnivores, and feed mainly on small invertebrates, and at Pigeon island you are sure to see them following Parrotfish and Triggerfish sps. grabbing whatever tiny morsels they disturb out of the sand and coral as they feed. Most Wrasses have bright and vivid colour patterns that make them some of the most beautiful fish on the reef.

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Surgeonfish – Family: Acanthuridae

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Blue-lined Surgeonfish (Acanthurus lineatus)

The Acanthuridae family consists of Surgeonfishes, Tangs, and Unicornfishes, of which around 13 species can be found around Pigeon island. The most common one of them is the Blue-lined Surgeonfish (Acanthurus lineatus), who can be seen alone or as a pair among boulder habitats.

Before moving on to some of the other species of fish that I managed to record around Pigeon Island, I would like to point out some other interesting things that were observed.

Crown of thorns

The Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci)
The Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci)

The Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci), is a starfish that feeds on coral polyps. These coral predators when in abundance, can leave behind devastating results, making them a severe threat to coral reefs. The specimen seen above was observed on the southern reef marked “A”. They prefer branching corals such as Acropora sp.  which are common in the southern reef corals with less surface area such as Porites sp. 

Starfish

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Multicolour/ Batik Linckia Starfish (Linckia multifora)

The Batik Starfish is one of the more common Starfish seem around Pigeon Island. The Indian Sea star or Red Starfish (Fromia indica) and Blue Starfish (Linkia laevigata) can also be observed here.

Algae

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Halimeda sp. growing among Staghorn corals

Calcareous Alga like Halimeda can smother and destroy coral reefs if left unchecked. The Calcium carbonate deposited in its tissue makes it inedible to most reef herbivores. Quite an extensive growth of Halimeda sp. was noticed on the southern reef at Pigeon Island.

Corallimorphs

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Extensive growth of Corallimorphs

Corallimorphs are an Anemone like Cnidarian which are invasive and overgrowth of these species can result in coral degradation. Heavy growth was recorded towards the western end of the southern reef at Pigeon Island.

And now, without much ado 🙂 here are some…

Other species of fish seen around Pigeon Island

References

  1. Visitor survey and Mega – faunal diversity of the Pigeon Island Marine National Park. Green Movement of Sri Lanka, 2012 – 2013.
  2. A review of coral reefs on the East coast of Sri Lanka: Distribution, Ecology, Status and Threats. GreenTech Consultants PVT. Ltd 2010.

This article is provided for information sharing purposes only. Coral identification was done only visually. All photographs were captured by a GoPro camera, and enhanced for clarity. The author apologizes for any errors or omissions – please be in touch to notify us of any corrections or comments via:

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