The great attraction of Sri Lanka is that is encapsulates such remarkable variety in a very small area. World-class historical sites (there are eight UNESCO World Heritage sites), spectacular hill country scenery, blissful beaches and endless coconut, cinnamon and pepper plantations.

But from the children’s perspective, one of the biggest draw-cards is the wildlife. And not just a little bit of it. There are 22 national parks in Sri Lanka and these are home to the largest population of leopard in the world, huge herds of elephant, wild buffalo, crocodile, beautiful birds and sloth bear, amongst others. The fertile mountains and plains also feed the oceans leading to a rich and varied marine life, packed with whales and dolphins. This really is one of Asia’s great wildlife destinations.

So, amidst tough competition, here are our top 5 wildlife experiences in Sri Lanka for families.

1. Take a boat ride to the surfing dolphins of Kalpitiya

surfing dolphins Sri Lanka - family wildlife holidays and experiences

Dolphins are great fun to follow and can be seen all year round

On the north west coast of Sri Lanka, on a narrow peninsula that juts out from the mainland in a narrow finger, there is a stretch of beach that is home to a small handful of Robinson Crusoe-style resorts. If you can bear to tear yourselves away from the pool, you can take a boat ride off the coast in search of the fishing boats that ply the waters here, fishing for tuna. For as any good Sri Lankan fisherman knows, where there is tuna, there are dolphins. Lots of them. Surfing the waves, leaping out of the water, turning back flips in the air apparently just for the heck of it.

When: The dolphins can be found all year round.

How: Stay for two or three nights at Palagama Beach and take a dolphin ride from here.

What else: A fabulous pool for some down time and bike rides through small villages.

2. Search for leopard in the jungles of Wilpattu

A leopard in Wilpattu National Park - wildlife experiences in Sri Lanka for families

Spotting leopard in Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu National Park does not have quite the concentration of leopard that can be found in Yala, its more famous counterpart. But it has the great bonus of being considerably less visited and therefore offers a much more intimate wildlife adventure. It’s hard to beat the experience provided at Leopard Trails where world-class guides bring the park to life, both literally (by knowing all the best wildlife spots) and figuratively, by regaling you with stories about the animals and all of their weird and wonderful habits. Leopard sightings are common and there will usually only be a handful of other jeeps nearby. Sloth bear, buffalo and crocodile are also seen here.

When: You can see leopard all year round but summer (June – August) is optimum viewing time.

How: If the budget allows it, Leopard Trails is superb. If not, there are cheaper alternatives but there is a significant difference in the quality of guides.

What else: It’s all about the wildlife here but the chance to spend the night in (a luxurious) tent with the sounds of the Sri Lanka wilderness all around you is something the kids will not forget.

3. See the swimming elephants of Gal Oya

family wildlife experience in Sri Lanka elephant swimming across a river with its trunk held high

Some of our favourite wildlife experiences in Sri Lanka include swimming elephants with trunk held high

Sri Lanka is a land of elephants, with an estimated 6,000+ roaming around the fertile jungles. Many of the national parks offer superb elephant sightings (it’s hard to miss the big herds in Minneriya and Uda Walawe) but our favourite spot has to be Gal Oya, a little visited national park in the east of the country. The park is built around a large man-made lake (called a ‘tank’ in Sri Lanka) and over time the elephants have learned how to swim from the side of the lake to the islands in the middle. Which is how you might come to see an elephant with trunk held aloft like a snorkel, paddling slowly across the water then alighting on the island for a graze before swimming back.

When: The elephants can be found year round in the park.

How: Spend a couple of nights at the wonderful Gal Oya Lodge.

What else: Picnic by a waterfall and help set camera traps in the lodge grounds.

4.  Spot Blue whales

Blue whale near Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Looking for Blue whales near Mirissa

The waters around Sri Lanka are extraordinarily rich in nutrients, providing a great source of food for a variety of marine life including blue whales. They can be spotted off the south coast from Mirissa and the east coast from Trincomalee. It is hugely exciting to be up close to the largest mammal in the world, spray spuming out from its blow hole, the giant back of the whale cresting the waves and then the distinctive flick of the tail as it prepares to descend to the deep.

When: Blue whales are regularly spotted all year round from Mirissa and from August to May in Trincomalee (on the east coast).

How: You can take a ‘regular’ whale cruise on a small ferry-type boat but we recommend making the most of it with a night on a catamaran with Sail Lanka. Board in the afternoon for a sunset cruise and barbeque dinner before sleeping either below decks in a cabin, or out on deck under the stars. Rise early the next morning to see the whales before stopping for a swim and a spot of paddle-boarding.

What else: Both Mirissa and Trincomalee are near some of Sri Lanka’s best beaches so this combines well with a stretch of relaxation on the beach.

5. Canoe with Malabar hornbills & pelicans

Sri Lanka family wildlife experiences

Fun in a canoe on Lake Hambegamuwa

Hambegamuwa Lake isn’t on the tourist trail. In fact it’s so far off it that most locals would have a hard time finding it on a map. But as is always the way, it’s all the more lovely as a result. Fringed by jungle and set against a stunning backdrop of misty blue hills that rise in folds towards the hill country, the lake is home to an incredible variety of birdlife.

Pelican swoop down and settle on the calms waters of the lake to ruffle their feathers, Malabar Hornbills flit from tree to tree around the edge of the lake and grey heron quietly survey the scene. Birds alone may not do it for the kids but you can explore by open canoe or astride a local fishing ‘catamaran’ and stop on an island in the centre of the lake for dramatic views, tree climbing and sunset drinks.

When: All year round – the lake is in a small corridor of land that mainly escapes Sri Lanka’s two monsoon periods.

How: We know an incredible off-grid eco-lodge on the banks of the lake but we’re not naming names. Some things just have to be kept secret for Stubborn Mule clients!

What else: Swim in beautifully clear rivers fed by streams from the hill country, dine by candlelight on a raft in the middle of the lake and take a jeep safari in search of leopard in a little known national park that offers superb sightings.

Top 5 wildlife experiences in Sri Lanka for families 

Of course, there is much more to Sri Lanka than the wildlife (have a look at our blog on the Top Ten Things to do in Sri Lanka with Kids if you need inspiration or see our Sri Lanka family holidays overview), but the wildlife really is a big draw.

We’ve mentioned our top five wildlife experiences, but there is tough competition and we can incorporate an exciting wildlife adventure into any tour of Sri Lanka. Our sample itineraries both include some wildlife but if you would like a tailor-made tour that incorporates some (or all) of the experiences above, please contact us and we will be delighted to help.

Liddy Pleasants, MD Stubborn Mule Travel