Often, the first image the word ‘shipwreck’ conjures up is the Titanic or something inspired by The Little Mermaid. Picture a looming hulk on the seabed, rife with little treasures from a time long forgotten. Such images are deemed fantastical, belonging to the realm of cartoons, movies, books, and perhaps even dreams. Yet, for a select few, this world is as real as the one on land and they don’t have to go too far to see it: Sri Lanka’s coast is dotted with numerous shipwrecks, some even dating back to 2 – 1 BC.

Sounds unreal? Take a look at some of these pictures if you don’t believe us…

Off the shores of Batticaloa is the world’s first purpose-designed Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes, sunk during the Japanese attack of Ceylon during World War II on April 9, 1942.

This is HMS Hollyhock, a flower class corvette sunk during the Japanese raid of Ceylon in 1942 off Kalmunai.

Diver at the HMS Hollyhock bow

Diver at the HMS Hollyhock bow

Turns out, going by historical records, there are over 200 estimated shipwrecks around the coast of Sri Lanka. Many have been located but there are still a few wrecks that remain unexplored and unlocated. According to shipwreck explorer Dharshana Jayawardena, the best place for shipwrecks and wreck diving happens to be Colombo.

“There are over 15 wrecks off Colombo,” he explained, adding that as Colombo has a harbour, a lot of wrecks can be found in its vicinity. Some of them can be found off places like Panadura, Dehiwala, and Mount Lavinia.

One of the most beautiful wrecks, as pictured below, is titled the Taprobane North Wreck which may even be the 1917 Perseus, sunk off Mount Lavinia. In an account written by Dharshana, he poetically describes his encounter with this wreck thus: “…the remnants of this massive ship seems to loom above our heads. For a moment the mind was confused. The two ends looked like the raised wings of a leviathan aircraft brought to life from the pages of a morbid tale of dark fantasy. But the moment of doubt was brief. Rationality prevailed over what was perhaps a slight bout of narcosis. This was nothing but a ship. A really big ship.”

A diver swimming over the bow of the ship, which lies on its port side

A diver swimming over the bow of the ship, which lies on its port side

The alleged 1917 Perseus’s giant propeller

The alleged 1917 Perseus’s giant propeller

This massive steering quadrant was used to steer the rudder of the ship

This massive steering quadrant was used to steer the rudder of the ship

Massive shoals of blue striped snappers inhabit the Perseus

Massive shoals of blue striped snappers inhabit the Perseus

Like the Taprobane North Wreck, rated as “world class” among wreck divers, the H. M. S. Hermes in Batticaloa, pictured below, is said to be an experience of a lifetime.

“This is a world famous dive. One of the top 100 dives in the world, in fact,” Jayawardena elaborated, adding that divers from around the world come to Sri Lanka specifically to see this wreck.

Such encounters aren’t the first of their kind in Sri Lanka. Roar caught up with marine archaeologist Rasika Muthucumarana who recounted to us the time when the remains of a ship from 2 – 1 BC was unearthed.

“It was identified by accident by two conch divers from Godawaya, a small fishing village between Abalantota and Hambantota, in 2003, and we got information of this in 2008. They had discovered a bench-like stone object in an unusual place, with some pottery,” he explained. “We found the shipwreck but we can’t see the ship. All that remains is a mound and wooden parts covered with corals and plants and some pottery. This is the oldest wreck both in Sri Lanka and the Asia-Pacific region.”

He went on to add that due to the tropical waters of the island, only wrecks made of iron can survive, while wood perishes quickly.

“We can see the structures of the ships are relatively intact, despite the collapse, but these are mostly iron ships from the last 200 years as wood perishes easily given the sea conditions in the area. The water here is relatively warm and the sunlight and oxygen are not good for wooden shipwrecks,” he said.  

The wooden ships, which are covered by sand and marine growth get flattened over time, making it difficult to detect even with equipment.

A diver exploring the hull by the lower decks of the HMS Hermes.

A diver exploring the hull by the lower decks of the HMS Hermes.

“Our equipment is based on sonar, and for that to work, there needs to be something standing on the seabed,” he explained, adding that there are a lot of wooden shipwrecks dating back to the Dutch invasion of Sri Lanka. Locating these wrecks, however, has proven difficult. Most of the wrecks known today, are, therefore, from a relatively recent period where iron was used for construction in place of wood – nevertheless, this does not make them any less beautiful or romantic, for behind every wreck is a story of loss and tragedy, which marine archaeologists like Muthucumarana try to piece together like a puzzle.

Apart from the general difficulty in finding the wrecks and preserving them, there are a few other obstacles along the way. Muthucumarana notes in a published journal paper that although Sri Lanka “does not have well-organised treasure hunters with modern technology,” there is the issue of “small scale looting and distractions,” adding that there is a new trend developing in Sri Lanka where shipwrecks are broken in an attempt to collect iron.

“This occurs because salvage permits are issued without any awareness of the value of shipwrecks and without referring to the proper authorities,” he stated.

“Looters destroy wrecks by using explosives and heavy machinery. Large pieces of iron are blasted and salvaged, using lifting barrels. This destroys all the archaeological evidence as well as the surrounding environment,” he pointed out, noting that “explosives used underwater cause shock waves which travel four times faster in water than in air. The impact of these shock waves kills fish instantly.”

Despite being illegal, Muthucumarana adds that the use of explosives to catch fish is widely practiced in Sri Lanka.

“Explosives are also often used in Sri Lanka during legal and illegal salvage operations,” he said.

This poses an immediate problem for divers, where the “use of explosives underwater can also cause the disorientation and death of divers who are within range of the explosion,” making it a major threat to both tourism and marine archaeology.

However, though this may come as a shock, Muthucumarana added that, for the most part, wreck diving is quite safe because most wrecks are stable.

“It may be dangerous if the dive is too deep, but that’s rare,” he said.

Jayawardena also added that with good training and equipment, wreck diving is not dangerous at all.

While shipwrecks are generally associated with abandonment and disaster, this eerie underwater world is peopled with different lifeforms.

“Shipwrecks are a breeding ground for fish and coral,” Muthucumarana explains, which adds to the importance of preserving these derelict hulks. The pictures say it all: under water, it’s a strange new world with beautiful lifeforms transforming what was once a tragedy into beauty.

Pictures courtesy Dharshana Jayawardena.