THE MYSTERIOUS, EERIE LURE OF SHIPWRECKS

Sri Lanka is surrounded by ghosts of the deep that lure wreck divers—they’re high spenders, conservation-conscience and adrenaline junkies

THREE MILLION SHIPS LIE ON THE WORLD’S SEABED, AND LESS THAN 1% OF THEM HAVE BEEN EXPLORED. SALIVATING TREASURE HUNTERS AND SCRAP METAL SCAVENGERS ARE ON THE HUNT TO EXPLOIT THESE UNTAPPED RESOURCES. OTHERS LIKE ARCHEOLOGISTS AND CONSERVATIONIST ARE WORKING HARD TO LEAVE THEM UNDISTURBED. WRECK DIVERS BE LONG TO THIS GROUP. THEY ARE LURED TO THESE SHIPS OF THE DEEP BY A DIFFERENT TYPE OF TREASURE: EXPERIENCE.

They want that adrenaline rush that comes with exploring wrecks, making new discoveries, and uncovering the mystery around the origins of a ship and the tragic end that took it to the bottom. The coral and marine life mesmerize them, and like children, they never cease to be amazed by the tiniest fish. It’s something land lubbers may never understand because fear prevents them from taking the plunge, literally, to see and believe. Even many accomplished swimmers have a primal fear of the sea. But, scuba divers hear the calling.

Exploring the SS Athelstane, a WWII tanker bombed by the Japanese in 1942, 15km south-east of Kalmunai

Descending into an ethereal and claustrophobic world with dark horizons on every side (sometimes divers can’t tell which way is up, down, left or right), divers are first greeted by a large dark shadow that gradually takes the ghostly outline of a ship, a prisoner of the undersea world, home to corals, fish and other sea creatures. What attracts most wreck divers is that eerie unspoken call to understand when and how the ship, once a lifeline now a graveyard, got there. It’s that spooky exhilarating feeling of being a part of history.

“Mystery is always a powerful pull. We want to know something about a wreck because it’s ultimately a tragic story about brave people,” says Dharshana Jayawardena, who heads the Sri Lanka operations of Cambio, a Swedish software engineering company specializing in healthcare, and a passionate underwater explorer in his free time. “This is why I devote my spare time to researching public records, discovering new wrecks and exploring existing ones looking for clues as to their origins, or just being a part of its history,” he says.

Sri Lanka has several wrecks with interesting stories to tell. Jayawardena has been exploring these wrecks and tracing their origins. He counts around 54 wrecks in Sri Lankan waters. He has even published a book ‘Ghosts of the Deep: Diving the Shipwrecks of Sri Lanka’ with their histories and useful tips. According to him, the highest concentration of wrecks is in the last place many people associate with diving: Colombo.

Sri Lanka’s popular destinations for diving are Negombo, Bentota, Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna in the West coast; Galle and Mirissa in the South, and Batticoloa and Trincomalee in the North-East. Colombo as a diving destination is unheard of, but there are many wrecks that can make the city popular with lifestyle divers, Jayawardena says. “Colombo is an amazing place to dive because of the number and diversity of shipwrecks, and they all have amazing stories to tell.”

Dharshana Jayawardena, a full-time business executive leading the Sri Lankan operations of Swedish software firm Cambio, devotes his spare time to researching public records, exploring and photographing Sri Lanka’s shipwrecks

T

he merchant raider SMS Wolf of the Imperial German Navy gained a reputation for its tenacity and exploits during WWI. She spent 15 continuous months at sea, a record at the time. A slow vessel, she sent enemy ships ten times her weight to the bottom of the ocean. Built as a freighter before the Great War, she was converted into a raider with a mast and funnel that can be raised and lowered, Dharshana Jayawardena, a full-time business executive leading the Sri Lankan operations of Swedish software firm Cambio, devotes his spare time to
researching public records, exploring and photographing Sri Lanka’s shipwrecks so she was always unrecognizable. The Wolf had sunk 2 battle ships and 35 trading vessels, and survived the war. She was ceded to France and scrapped in the early 1930s. Her exploits during WWI brought her to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, and in her wake, destruction and death.

The Wolf had sent three British merchant vessels off South Africa days before reaching the shores of Sri Lanka in February 1917 where she laid sea mines off the coast of Mount Lavinia. Within four days of each other two British merchant navy vessels, SS Worcestershire and SS Perseus, sank after striking these mines. It was only in 2014 that the identity of the SS Worcestershire was established by Jayawardena, who spent his free time over two years diving for clues as to the origins of the wreck. In all, Jayawardena conducted 22 technical dives in waters 57m deep. “It’s so deep that it takes 3 minutes to submerge to the wreck, and 90 minutes (one and a half hours) to resurface. Divers must resurface slowly so their bodies adjust from a high-pressure environment, or risk decompression sickness, which can be fatal. Too few hospitals have decompression chambers.

J

ayawardena himself once nearly took up permanent residence in a watery graveyard.

It takes one wreck dive to get most people hooked. Unlike recreational scuba divers who plan dives around a visit to a country, these fanatics plan their holidays around the dives. “They’re called lifestyle divers, and there is a whole wreck diving industry from professional courses, equipment, hiring boats, restaurants and hotels. Some divers live on a yacht for days so they can explore a wreck as often as they want,” Jayawardena says.

Jayawardena himself is a full-time software engineer, having started his career with Virtusa, an $860 million revenue IT firm established in Colombo now listed on the NASDAQ in the US. Wreck diving is his passion. “It’s a passion that can turn you into an adrenaline-junkie. This can be dangerous,” he says.

Fifteen years ago, Jayawardena, who didn’t know to swim, panicked when his friends offered to take him scuba diving in Bermuda. The water was just 10m deep. He later regretted his show of cowardice and joined a scuba diving school in Sri Lanka. But, it was not a ‘been there, done that’ moment. He enjoyed diving and clocked hours of dive time here and abroad. At a chance meeting with a group of fishermen one day, he was told of several wrecks off Colombo’s coast. “I decided to explore one of these on my own because I considered myself an experienced diver; this was five years ago.”

He remembers being awed by the imposing structure that loomed out of the darkness, and saw it transform from a gloomy silhouette into a riot of colour and life as the reef became visible. Jayawardena found an open hatch and swam inside through a tightly spaced passage and into a small cabin. The water was crystal clear, but as he continued to swim around, he disturbed the sediment. “I was soon swimming in coffee.” Tracing his way back, he realised he was going in circles. “I was on the verge of exploding with panic,” he says.

It was then that Jayawardena’s basic scuba diving training kicked in. In moments of emergency, stop, breathe, think, and then act. Jayawardena calmed himself by focusing on his slow breathing. He calmly felt his way back to a crack he had seen earlier, which was wide enough to wriggle out through, but he’d have to lose his gas tank.

There are three types of wreck diving: One is ‘no penetration’, swimming alongside a wreck can be as breathtaking. The second is ‘penetration with natural light opening’ – here, the risk is elevated a notch by entering the wreck, but confined to areas with a visible exit point. The third and more hazardous dive is ‘penetration with no natural light’, with no exits in sight. For this, divers need extra equipment like two dive lights, a knife, guidelines and a slate.

WITH THE ECONOMY EXPECTED TO GROW AND COLOMBO TO EMERGE AS A FINANCIAL AND LOGISTIC HUB, THE GROWING AFFLUENCE OF SRI LANKANS AND THE RISE IN EXPATS LIVING AND WORKING HERE, WRECK DIVING CAN BE A BOOMING INDUSTRY

All three dives pose risks: entanglement from fishnets and fishing lines, disorientation, restricted passages, sharp metals that can cut into your dive gear, loose silt, no direct access to the surface, falling objects, entrapment, going deeper than intended leading to Nitrogen narcosis, and rapid ascents causing decompression sickness.

“At home that evening, I kept asking myself why on earth I do what I do. Why would I risk my life for a slow, horrifying death? But despite that experience, I wanted to go back for more.” Jayawardena realised he had to take specialised dive courses. Excellent diving skills are critical for a safe wreck dive. The entry-level Open Water Dive Certification deals with basic survival skills, but it won’t teach everything. The standard flutter kick everybody learns at their open water dive certification course will get them into trouble inside a wreck. Wreck divers use the modified frog kick, a bit similar to the breaststroke kick, to swim inside wrecks because this prevents stirring up slit and sand cutting off all visibility.

There are several professional courses like PADI’s Peak Performance Course (for skills like buoyancy control), Advanced Open Water Dive Certification (deep water diving and navigation) and PADI’s specialty course on wreck diving that covers areas from planning a dive to identifying hazards, what safety equipment to use, and most importantly, how to hold yourself together when things go wrong.

These courses are a bit expensive and require a great deal of commitment. Some courses require divers to swim in tight confined spaces while blindfolded, while sharing a gas tank with another person. Jayawardena says wreck divers are fairly affluent. A wreck dive can cost up to ten times more than a recreational dive. According to Jayawardena, there are over 22 million certified divers worldwide, including the basic Open Water level, and each year 600,000 more people receive certification. Average revenue per dive is reported at $1,500. In the US, scuba education sales amounted to $422 million in 2013 and equipment sales to $220 million. “This is the scale of the opportunity for Sri Lanka,” he says.

W

hile Colombo has a high concentration of WWI shipwrecks, the East coast belongs to WWII, according to Jayawardena. These includes the HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier. Japanese bombers retuning to base after bombing the British Admiralty base in the Trincomalee harbour in 1942 spotted the HMS Hermes off Batticoloa to the South, a sitting duck. Around 70 Japanese dive bombers were ordered to turn back and launch a second wave on Hermes and her escorts. It all ended within 10 minutes, and all 307 souls were lost. The wreck was not discovered for more than 40 years.

Not many people, including locals, are even aware of the shipwrecks. Ferocious winds, unchartered waters and carelessness were other major causes for shipwrecks around Sri Lanka (see graphic), but the world war ships and a few planes will be major draws. “Sri Lanka is sitting on a gold mine when it comes to wreck diving. Places like Bali, Malaysia and Thailand are thriving wreck diving destinations, but they don’t have as many wrecks as we do,” Jayawardena says.

“We’re destroying our corals here. The reefs around Pigeon Island and Kalpitiya are dying. People are polluting and walking all over them,” Jayawardena laments. He suggests that the government enforce conservation laws, and local
and foreign divers would provide the monitoring. “These people are passionate about the ocean. They would be the first to report illegal salvaging of wrecks, and dynamite and spear fishing that’s destroying marine life here,” he says.

The HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, was sunk by Japanese dive bombers off the East Coast

With the economy expected to grow and Colombo to emerge as a financial and logistic hub, the growing affluence of Sri Lankans and the rise in expats living and working here, Jayawardena believes wreck diving can be a booming industry. There are similar visions for establishing Sri Lanka as a sailing destination. The two can be combined – they’re clean on the environment and attract high spenders. But, few are willing to invest, either for lack of infrastructure or low demand.

“I’ll do what I love, exploring. And I’ll share what I find with a wider audience as I possibly can,” Jayawardena says. He has been invited to address ADEX (Asian Dive Expo) in Singapore next year, to showcase his exploration of Sri Lanka’s shipwrecks. ADEX attracted over 60,000 divers in 2017. “That’s a big step up,” he says.