© Howard Martenstyn

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Maritime Wrecks

Sri Lanka is fast becoming known around the world as one of the top wreck diving destinations. But unknown to most a good part of Sri Lanka’s heritage lies scattered on its seabed, mostly lost and forgotten. There is no doubt that Sri Lanka is a land of history and diversity and its ocean is no exception.

 

Sri Lanka was a key trade and shipping port in the ancient Silk Route from China to Europe and shipwrecks abound in our coastal waters since that period. They provide a glimpse into the lives of mariners and the struggles and successes they had encountered while navigating the northern Indian Ocean. There are yet many wrecks yet to be explored and discovered.

 

The transformation of a shipwreck into a coral reef is amazing as it forms a viable component in marine ecology. When a vessel sinks to the seabed it becomes part of its environment and an abundance of marine life wraps around it over time forming a foundation, framework and shelter helping to sustain a marine ecosystem.

The shipwreck reef environment provides a habitat for an abundance of marine life with soft and hard corals transforming it into magnificent natural reef. Fish, sponges, anemones, clams, octopi, squid, mollusks, eels and cowries interact and thrive among these lost ships. Divers relish the opportunity to visit these treasures and experience the underwater kaleidoscopic of life and history. To ensure the same opportunities to future generations of divers and researchers makes it imperative for an understanding of the complex environment surrounding shipwrecks and a commitment to shipwreck site preservation.

 

Day after day, the value of a shipwreck increases as it becomes richer in marine life and biodiversity. Thus, the preservation of wrecks is an important viable component in marine ecology. Considering the archaeological value of wrecks, Sri Lankan law (Antiquities Ordinance No. 9 of 1940) prohibits any sunken vessel within territorial waters older than 100 years to be salvaged including removal of artefacts without permit. At least 41 shipwrecks are classified as archeological. Studies have shown that long-term gains from marine tourism alone far outweigh the value of salvaging a wreck for scrap metal.

Further Reading:

Dharshana Jayawardena. 2016. Ghosts of the Deep. Published by Vijitha Yapa.

The Reefs of Taprobane by Arthur C. Clarke.

A database of over 120 shipwrecks around Sri Lanka is presently available. However, there may be as many as over 200 wrecks.

At the 2013 Marine Conservation Conference ...

 

Shipwrecks are public assets and seabeds are common heritage and assets. We must protect those assets to promote tourism which would contribute to boost the economy.

 

– Dr. Hiran Jayewardene

Convenor, IOMAC

December 2013

Threats

 

  • Salvage operations

  • Illegal fishing practices (eg. dynamiting, spearfishing)

  • Removal of artefacts

  • Removal of corals, shells and reef fish

  • Marine pollution including fishnets

Why Protect Shipwrecks

  • Preservation of marine ecosystem’s and natural heritage

  • Tourism related job creation and sustainability

  • Sustainability of local fisheries

  • Scientific research

Choosing a Dive Centre

 

When choosing a dive operator, make inquiries to ascertain a candidate’s reputation. The internet is a good place to find reviews and discussions by those who have travelled with the operator earlier. Pay particular attention to what experienced expedition members and seasoned divers have to say.

 

Dive operators generally use small boats (for about 4-6 divers) while others use larger boats for about 15 divers. Ensure that there are at least two crew on board during a dive. Check if a trip back to the shore to reload is needed for a second dive.

 

Almost all major dive operators have an on board supply of pure Oxygen in the unlikely event of a decompression illness emergency. The vessel should also be equipped with radio and/or mobile phones to activate Emergency Medical Services if required.

Distribution of Wrecks

 

The Colombo seaboard down to Panadura has the highest number of known shipwrecks (30) and best dive sites. They are mostly latter-day shipwrecks with about 25% from World War I and II. Shipwrecks with treasures, priceless ceramics and coins from various maritime nations lie off the ancient ports such as Galle, Mantai and Trincomalee. The most studied of these ports, Galle is known to have as many as 26 maritime archaeological sites.

 

On the eastern seaboard at Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Vakarai and Kalmunai are where most of the World War II wrecks are found. The two Basses reefs in the south are known to have the most treacherous seas during the two monsoon seasons. They are home to priceless archeological wrecks dating prior to when the lighthouses were built in the 1870s .

Top Wrecks on Western Seaboard
Top Wrecks on Eastern Seaboard
  • MFA Athelstane, Kalmunai, depth: 35-42m

  • HMS Hollyhock, Kalmunai, depth: 42m

  • SS Brennus, Batticaloa, depth: 9m

  • HMS Hermes, Batticaloa, depth: 40-53m

  • RAF Catalina Y-78, Kalkudah, depth: 42m

  • SS British Sergeant, Mankerni, depth: 13-27m

Top Wrecks for Novice Divers
 
 
 
 
Taprobane East Wreck, Colombo

A small barge near Taprobane East Reef off Colombo. The skeleton remains of this unknown ship lies upright on a sandy seabed. The stern is intact but the bow is almost non-existent with many functional parts missing. Scenic site in clear water with abundant marine life. Soft corals with reef fish such as glassfish, snappers, wrasses and stingrays. Depth 32m. Advanced OW. Very good site. Read more >>

Top Shipwrecks around Sri Lanka
HMS Hermes, Batticaloa

The first purpose built World War II Royal Navy aircraft carrier that was sunk by Japanese air attack on 9th April 1942.  Dimensions 182.3 x 21.4 x 5.6 m. Intact bow, war guns, anchors and propeller. Abundant marine life such as tunas, barracudas and trevallies. Covered in black corals. Depth 53m. War Grave. Tec 50. Excellent site. World top 100 wreck dives.

Read more >>

 
 
 
 
SS British Sergeant, Mankerni

A British Oil Tanker sunk by Japanese air attack on 9th April 1942. Wreck is in two major parts with massive cavern amidships. Stern mounted gun and artifacts have been salvaged. Bow section has large caverns which harbours schools of fish. Abundant marine life including purple and pink soft corals. Depth 13-27m. All levels of diving. War Grave. Good site. Note: video above shows other wrecks too. Read more >>

SS Perseus, Colombo
Colombo SS Perseus shipwreck

Aka Taprobane North Wreck. Most likely the World War I British steam ship SS Perseus that sank on 21st February 1917 after striking a German sea mine. Located 20km offshore, the ship is broken up over a large area and warrants multiple dives. Soft corals including black corals. Teeming with fish. Snappers, napoleon wrasses, trevallies and groupers. Depth 30-40m. Advanced OW + Deep Diver. Excellent site. Read more >>

SS Worcestershire, Moratuwa
Colombo SS Worcestershire World War I Shipwreck

WWI British Merchant Navy ship that sank on 17th February 1917 after striking a German sea mine. Wreck sits upright about 12km west of Mount Lavinia. The hull and the collapsed bridge can be seen. Soft corals, black corals, whip corals and sea fans. Snappers, fusiliers, napoleon wrasses, giant sweetlips, big-eye trevallies and giant trevallies. Depth 50-57m. Tec 50. Very good site. Read more >>

MV Medhufaru, Mount Lavinia
Colombo MV Medhufaru shipwreck

A Maldivian cargo vessel carrying construction material that floundered on 5th July 2009 off Mount Lavinia. Dimensions 77 x 12 m. Wreck sits upright on a sandy seabed at 30m with top of the bridge at 14m and is easy to explore. Abundant marine life including fusiliers, batfish, lionfish, mackerel, wahoo, tuna and trevally. Depth 14-30m. Multi-level dive for OW and experienced divers. Very good site. Read more >>

 
 
SS Rangoon, Galle

A steam ship that sank on 1st November 1871 just outside the Port of Galle after striking Kada rock. The wreck rests upright on seabed with masts intact (scenic). Located in front of Galle Fort. Abundant marine life. Snappers, rabbitfish and trevallies. Depth 27-32m. Advanced OW. Good site. Read more >>

MV Chief Dragon, Colombo

Aka Car Wreck. A 112m Panamanian cargo ship (cars) just northwest from the Port of Colombo, 5-6 km from shore. Sank on 18 March 1983. Main hull intact, car chassis’ on main deck, scattered upper deck parts. Hard and soft corals, trevally, mackerel and barracuda. Stern area is most scenic. Depth of 20-32m. Advanced OW. Excellent site. Read more >>

Top Shipwrecks to Dive for Beginners
 
MV Thermophylae Sierra, Moratuwa

 

While at anchor for 3 years, a 155m Cypriot Bulk Freighter floundered in a storm on 23rd August 2012 off Moratuwa (N6° 47.15’ E79° 50.16’). Wreck sits upright on seabed with main deck at 10-12m. Parts of the superstructure are above the surface. Snappers, parrotfish, surgeonfish, angelfish, mackerel, octopus, eagle rays, trevallies, tuna and barracudas. Depth 0-24m. OW certification. Very good site. Read more >>

SS Conch, Akurala, near Hikkaduwa

 

A British steam ship, the very first oil-tanker to be built in the world. Dimensions 103 x 13 x 8 m. Struck Akarta Rock at Akurala Reef and sank on 3rd June 1903. Partly salvaged. Wreck site is spread over a fairly large area which includes a large engine block, boilers and the propeller. Snappers, anglefish, porcupinefish, triggerfish, moray eels and groupers. Depth 17-21m. OW certification. Good site. Read more >>

 
Colombo SS Perseus Shipwreck © Dharshana Jayawardena