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.
Dharshana Jayawardena. 2016. Ghosts of the Deep. Published by Vijitha Yapa.
Maritime Archaeology in Sri Lanka: Twenty five years old and a new beginning by Somasiri Devendra & Rasika Muthucumarana.
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
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
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 . Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG) approval is required to access the Great & Little Basses reefs.
Top Wrecks on Western Seaboard
SS Perseus, Colombo, depth: 30-40m
Taprobane East Wreck, Colombo, depth: 32m
Wallet Wreck, Colombo, depth: 30-40m
MV Chief Dragon, Colombo, depth: 20-32m
Toilet Barge, Colombo, depth: 32m
Lotus Barge, Colombo, depth: 28m
MV Pecheur Breton, Dehiwela, depth: 18-33m
MV Medhufaru, Mount Lavinia, depth: 14-30m
Battery Barge, Mount Lavinia, depth: 40-45m
MV Thermophylae Sierra, Moratuwa, depth: up to 24m
Moratuwa Gunboat, depth: 14m
SS Worcestershire, Moratuwa, depth: 50-57m
Top Wrecks on Eastern Seaboard
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.
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
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
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
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 >>
Silver Coin Wreck, Great Basses Reef
In the video above, Arthur C. Clarke describes his experience diving over the Silver Coin Wreck at the Great Basses Reef in the 1960's.
The Silver Coin Wreck is an early 18th-century shipwreck (1702) belonging to the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. Situated just beside the Great Basses lighthouse. The wreck is between two reefs with cannons and anchors of the ship lying on a sandy bottom. Fused bags of silver rupees, cannons, and other artifacts. Archeological site. Experienced divers able to handle possible strong surfs, surges and currents. Advanced OW. Read more >>
Bottle Wreck, Great Basses Reef
The Bottle Wreck is thought to be a 18th century European ship carrying a cargo of soda bottles. It rests on a sandy bottom in front of the Great Basses lighthouse on the leeward side opposite the Silver Coin wreck.
The wreck is almost part of the reef and the only well-defined objects are two large anchors. There were various types of bottles scattered all over the wreck area. Most bottles have been taken away by early divers.
Archeological site. Depth 20m. Experienced divers able to handle possible strong surfs, surges and currents. Due to the excellent visibility the site can be viewed from the surface by snorkeling. SLCG approval required.
Flute Overness, Great Basses Reef
Flute Overness sunk in 1704 near the Great Basses Reef. Archeological site.
Alette Adriana, Great Basses Reef
Alette Adriana sunk in the 1760's near the Great Basses Reef. Archeological site.
Daedulus, Little Basses Reef
A 40-gun frigate ship that sank on 2nd July 1813 near Little Basses Reef. Experienced divers able to handle possible strong surfs, surges and currents. Advanced OW. Archeological site.
Iron Wreck, Little Basses Reef
A large iron cargo vessel in very shallow water, 4 km west of the Little Basses lighthouse. Appears to have wrecked by running into this shallow area. The wreck is not an old one with archaeological value, but a beautiful dive site.
The top part of the engine is just two feet under water. A large propeller is still intact to its shaft, while the extra propeller lies quite near. The stern is still intact and has become an excellent breeding place for marine life.
Copper Wreck, Little Basses Reef
A small Dutch wooden steam powered ship carrying brass bricks. Known as the Copper wreck because of copper plates and nails on the remains of the hull. Most of the copper plates and parts have been salvaged. The bottom part of the structure with a single screw propeller, one large boiler and some parts of the engine are still visible on the site and there are also some wooden hull parts with a lot of copper nails. Lying on a sandy bottom at 18 to 20 m depth.