BY THE LOOK OF HIS MUSSED-UP HAIR, 24-year-old Krishantha Ariyasena, wearing a canary yellow T-shirt emblazoned with a green Hurley logo and multicoloured boardshorts, had just stepped out of the ocean by Arugam Bay. To either side stretched miles of uninhabited sand dotted with overhanging palm trees and lined by cerulean, clear waters. The popular surfing destination on the far southeast coast of Sri Lanka appeared to be more like a quiet beach town—more locals than tourists, more crab curry than burgers.
“The reason for tourists to come to Arugam Bay is that it’s all about surfing,” said Ariyasena, who was born and raised in the town and started surfing when he was 15. But in December 2004, when the tsunami that followed the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake decimated a large portion of Sri Lanka’s coastline, Arugam Bay was ravaged beyond recognition. When the giant wave hit, Ariyasena was in the water. “I can’t believe I’m still alive,” he said, shaking his head. “The wave was 12 feet, 15 feet. The water, it came up to here,” he pointed to above the roof of his guesthouse. “The tsunami changed people.”
Ariyasena is the once secretary and now chairman of the Arugam Bay Surf Club, an association of about 35 Sri Lankan surfers working to improve their skills, while offering surf lessons, participating in beach clean-ups, and, most importantly, trying to get sponsored (surfing is not yet recognised as an official sport in Sri Lanka). After the tsunami, they’ve also helped spread the word that the waters are safe to enter.