By Dinidu de Alwis
A man clad in a sarong makes his way along the sand. With a pair of diving goggles and a snorkel in hand, he treads carefully along the shoreline, his eyes fixed on the sand before his feet. He looks for a shimmer, a tell-tale glint, and seeing none, he dons the diving mask and snorkel, and steps in to the waves.
The man is looking for economic opportunity through local tourism, though at first glance he seems to be searching for lost trinkets. There are several like him along the shoreline of Polhena, in Matara. Polhena is known as a safe bathing spot, and is popular among local travellers who want a taste of salt water while they bathe. The reef a few hundred meters away, breaks the rough waves in a way where it’s a few soft waves that finally kiss the golden sand. This has attracted local tourists who are traveling along the southern coastline to get to locations like Yala or Kataragama. There is also a different crowd which makes the Polhena beach their main point of travel — a day at the beach.
The man, along with a few others like him, are looking for jewellery dropped by the people who bathe there. Donned in diving masks and snorkels, the few men are a regular sight on Sunday and Monday mornings at the Polhena beach. While technically not legal, the ethics of their practice can be questioned. But like many in the tourism industry in Sri Lanka, they look for economic opportunity where others fail to do so. And the findings, if there are any, can be golden.
When the crowds gather at the beach, the men are supposed to watch for any sign of visitors dropping something. When they notice people looking around for a dropped ring, bracelet or necklace, they make their way towards the unassuming visitor and help to look for the lost wearable. But almost always the lost is not found, but where it was lost is closely remembered. With apologies they retreat, the poor visitor now bereft of a valuable possession has a lousy day and leaves. Next morning if the poor soul were to return, lo and behold the sight at the beach, the same men who were so generous with their help to look for the piece of jewellery are still looking for it. Only this time, its finders keepers.
A person known as Kiri Malli, says “We sometimes wait around and dive the moment we sense people drop something. The owners wait around hoping to find their lost valuables, but to no avail.”
According to him, the finding process is not merely diving around looking for the gold. “We dig the sand, and when we do, the rocks, pebbles, some corals, and even the fish eggs are released to the sea. In a way we mess up the whole beach”, he confesses — “It’s wrong”.
But who cares and who will stop? Only last month one chap walked away with a chain that was resold for Rs 20,000. Only Kiri Malli was willing to talk about his morning strolls on the beach and the occasional snorkelling under the early sun. Others don’t meet visitors’ eyes, and are nervy when cameras click and move off quickly.
Will the practice stop? Not very likely, unless someone were to ban snorkelling or even walking on the beach with eyes trained on the sand.