Canal and Lagoon Boat Ride
The Muthurajawela Wetlands Centre is located on the Hamilton Canal (also known as the Old Dutch Canal) that stretches for 14.5km from the Kelaniya River mouth just north of Colombo, all the way to the Negombo Lagoon. The canal is believed to have originated during the reign of King Parakramabahu VIII in the 15th century, and then later excavated by the Dutch when they arrived in Sri Lanka a century later to transport valuable spices (mainly cinnamon) from outlying villages to the country’s main west coast ports. The British named the canal in 1802 after Garvin Hamilton, a British Agent, and extended it north for another 9km from Negombo to the Gin Oya, and from there, via a series of meandering backwaters, rivers, and lagoons into Puttalam, where it empties into the Indian Ocean. Much of this transport route survives to the present day.
Numerous bridges span the brackish Hamilton Canal whose banks are dotted with the homes of local fishermen. Narrow roads, which buffalo would have once used to haul the boats upriver, still flank the canal’s eastern banks. This is no longer a working canal and is utilised solely by local fisher folk to reach the vast Negombo Lagoon to the north. The entire stretch of waterway is now a protected wildlife reserve, however, it is the only one in Sri Lanka where fishermen are still allowed to fish in a percentage of the waters. A boat ride along the wetlands is a peaceful and relaxing way to spend your morning or afternoon and is also a popular birdwatching destination.
The boat takes you up the canal into the Negombo lagoon and wetlands, where it winds through avenues of mangroves and lush islands. Macaques (the only monkey species in Sri Lanka able to swim) live in the trees, water monitors scale the surface of the water like crocodiles and bird life ranges from Kingfishers and jet-black cormorants to kites, herons and terns all of whom dive in and out of the water to feed. The lagoon itself is a breeding ground for large prawns and mud crabs which live on the mangrove beds. Your guide will point out the different wildlife throughout your cruise and will be happy to stop the boat at any point to let you take pictures.
Tip: Keep an eye out for the quaint little church at the mouth of the lagoon and ask your guide for the history behind it.