Pigeon Island might be more appropriately named ‘Smidgeon Island’ since it’s a tiny smidgeon of land about a kilometer into the Indian Ocean from the Nilaveli part of Sri Lanka’s east coast.
It’s famed for the coral reefs in the waters around it, although according my dog-eared copy of The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, the coral on its western side (i.e. facing the mainland) is dead now. To see a living reef, you need to swim on the island’s far side.
Unrestricted fishing and tourism in the area did much damage to the coral in the past, but happily Pigeon Island is now a National Park and the authorities have tried to regulate the flow of human traffic to it, mainly by charging a sizeable admission price that has to be paid in addition to the hire-fee for a boat.
One morning my partner and I travelled out to Pigeon Island in a narrow, pointed fishing-boat powered by an antiquated-looking Suzuki outboard motor. We were dropped at the island’s midpoint, which was so slight it resembled a wasp’s waist. There, just a few yards of ground separated the western shore from the eastern one.
Nearly all the day’s visitors were congregated there, either in the adjacent water snorkeling and viewing the coral and fish – apparently the fish are abundant among the dead coral to the east as well as among the living stuff to the west – or on dry land preparing to go snorkeling.
I made a point of not snorkeling, however. This was due to a traumatic snorkeling experience I had off the Malaysian coast in the early 1990s when I failed to apply enough sunscreen to my back, had huge stripes of skin burnt off it as a result, and ended up looking like a human raspberry ripple. (On the same day, I also suffered excruciating food poisoning and I managed to lose all my travelers’ cheques. Indeed, that day proved to be a configuration of separate but simultaneous disasters on par with Theresa May’s speech at this month’s Conservative Party Conference.)
So instead I tried exploring the island. I didn’t get far towards its southern end. After clambering over some rocks and past some low-hanging branches, I gave up when the terrain and undergrowth became impassible. Besides, a flustered and very territorial crow kept pace with me, hopping from branch to branch just overhead, sending the unmistakable message that I should bugger off.
In contrast, it was easy enough to walk up to the island’s northern tip. Despite the island’s tiny size and despite the considerable number of visitors on it, I got an unexpected feeling of solitude as soon as I’d left the snorkeling area behind me.
The ground was carpeted with small white pieces of dead coral. This had penetrated right to the island’s centre and even in its most wooded parts, the stuff was clogged around the tree roots. Most of the coral was tubular in shape but as I gazed down at it, I noticed increasingly strange forms – coral in the shape of fingers, bones, stirrups, hammers, chess-pieces, seahorses, stars and flowers. One surreal fragment looked like the title character’s mask in the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of The Phantom of the Opera.
Immediately off the northern tip of Pidgeon Island were a few yards of seawater and then a clutter of big vertical rocks – sandy-brown, grey and amber in their colours, with their edges and corners smoothed away so that they resembled giant stuffed sacks. Bird-guano splattered their tops and a few crabs went scuttling about their sides. I waded out to them, traversing water that was pristinely clear but, although just a foot or two deep, had a current whose strength was subtly menacing. Then I sat on a lower rock and meditated for a while, watching tiny tadpole-like fish darting about the surrounding channels and listening both to the gentle lapping and rippling of the shallow water close by and to the crash and clatter of the waves further out.
On my way back, I noticed a vague path on the island’s eastern side that wound upwards. This took me past a banyan tree that was so heavily tendrilled it resembled the face of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu; and then it emerged onto a high platform of broken stone and concrete overlooking the island’s northeastern corner that, according to a sign, was called PIGEON’S EYE OUTLOOK. Some concrete pillars stood along its landward and seaward edges, topped with old, broken, metal screws, which suggested the platform had once sported a roof. Now it looked almost like a brutalist, modernist re-imagining of an ancient Greek ruin.
From the north of the platform, I could look out over the clutter of rocks where I’d been sitting a few minutes earlier. From its south side, I could see a cliff-face and a steep inlet that was choked up with boulders. A couple of pigeons were flapping about the scene. And I realized that unlike the other visitors present today, busy viewing the coral, I’d actually seen some pigeons on Pigeon Island.