Underwater Attractions

   by Valerie Fuller Ekanayake

Sri Lanka is blessed with
beautiful coral reefs and abundant fish life
and many ship wrecks...

Sri Lanka has many dive-sites to offer the adventurous diver wishing to spend a diving holiday or perhaps only a few days.

Wreck-dives are always exciting, especially in warm tropical waters, Sri Lanka has lots of them ancient and modern. The featured attraction is the fish life on these wrecks, sometimes so thick you can't see five feet in front of you. I will endeavour to describe to you just few of the many wrecks which are accessible to divers.

`The Conch' a small oil tanker owned by Shell Company which was wrecked on the Akurula reef in 1903 is a popular wreck. Just an hour and a half from Hikkaduwa, it is a perfect wreck for a first-timer, but still fascinating for the experienced. It lies upside down at 40ft with blue striped sturgeon fish grazing on the hull. A swim through is possible on most days and is truly a wonderful experience. The wreck itself is a living entity, carpeted with corals, sponges, sea-fans and within it are schools of snapper, groupers, and lion-fish.

A short swim from the hull are the huge boilers and schools of tiny fish. As the depth increases, you can glide down the backbone of the ship to the propeller which is half-buried at 70ft. This area is always interesting as the sunlight plays on the wreck. Tropical beauties like oriental sweetlips, sturgeons, angel-fish, groupers, octopus and moray eel are some of the frequent sightings. This wreck never disappoints a diver.

Just close by are the tiny remains of the wreck `Lord Shaftsbury' and occasionally some of the metal can be heard thumping on a rock just to remind you that a ship has gone down here. But this is not much of interest.

Night-diving near the Hikkaduwa rocks, near the Coral Gardens Hotel is great fun and lots can be seen, lobsters, sleeping grinning parrot fish etc. The shape of the coral outcrops are noteworthy features and present a challenge to the night-diver.

Another one and a half hour boat ride to a site near Galle is the `Rangoon', a 1863 ship in 90ft of water. It also has abundant fish life with a medium amount of fans and corals. Around the propeller can be found lion-fish in abundance.

Several interesting wrecks, some with names and some unknown, are scattered in the sea from Hikkaduwa to Galle. Dive-sites in these areas are around massive rock outcrops with depths varying from 40ft to 90ft. And of course the swim throughs are outstanding.

Colombo is not a place one would normally think of as a tourist spot but the underwater attractions are not to be missed. Around the harbour area are numerous wrecks and the water is very clear. One of my favourite dives is a small cargo ship which is incorrectly named `The Barge'. It is in 100ft of clear water, sitting perfectly upright on its hull with a deck covered with gorgeous pink and purple soft corals and sea-fans. The fish life is astounding and at times one can hardly find your buddy. This is truly a pretty dive with small hatches to peak through and large holes in the sides of the hull that one can penetrate and spend a little time with the schooling fry that mass in this area. Large bat fish hang around the propeller area, where blossoming yellow corals outstretch to feed. A sting ray is usually sighted on each dive. It is in this area during the month of April that whale-sharks are sighted and sometimes when looking up are mistaken for the dive boat. During this month, the waters are full of plankton and they come to feed. Huge, majestic creatures slowly swimming with mouths wide open. This wreck is not visited by other dive operators and the deck was named by Sir Arthur Clarke as `The Garden of Polyps' as he dived there in his 75th year.

Another super wreck near Colombo is the `Car Carrier' which was blown up in 1983 and dragged out to its resting place in 100ft of water. A truly magnificent dive. The massive ship still has the Japanese car cargo lined up on its deck at 80ft, but now they are covered with absolute beauty that the car designers would never have imagined. Huge sea-fans, soft corals of multi-colours adorn the crumpled deck. It's fun to lean on the rails and look out to sea, the view is fantastic with schooling fish and the continual slow swirling of bat fish. Giant groupers, longer than 6ft, have been sighted in this area. Over the rails going down to the 100ft mark are large jacks which school under the hull frustrating many a fisherman. The propeller stands out grandly as does the car ramps which are now a picturesque swim-through. This is a dive that is so thrilling mainly because of the fish life and the massive size of the ship. You can swim almost the length of the ship and then up and over. It's massive and exciting, not to be missed.

Another interesting small wreck is an aeroplane from the Second World War, settled at 100ft. It doesn't offer more that one dive because you see all of it instantly. But it is a thrill to see the tiny plane scattered over the sand, propeller half exposed, wires everywhere and the cockpit perfectly preserved by the brain coral covering it. The instruments are all there and a diver with tank can just fit in for a watery flight to nowhere. A few fish are around, but it is really the wreck that you go to see. One can't help wondering if the pilot escaped and how many died on this tiny forgotten plane wreck lying in its watery grave for over 50 years.

Another of my favourite dive-sites is the Great Basses Reef which lies 19 kilometres off Kirinda. This area is quite isolated and an expedition takes some time to pull off. The main problem is that the weather is very unpredictable and usually only a small window of three weeks is diveable each year. But I have never been disappointed. Diving in the area around the lighthouse which is still manned, is challenging to say the least, sometimes quite dangerous because of the strong currents and sucking effect of the reefs. On a good day, it is heaven on earth and you may be lucky enough to see some of the wrecks that are usually hidden by the furious waves pounding endlessly. The area has many coral grottos and when calm, it's so enjoyable to swim over from one coral hole to another. On one occasion each hole contained a different variety of fish looking as if someone had sorted out all the different tropical fish as if ready for an aquarium. A gorgeous sight. Usually sharks are sighted in this area. Blue spotted eagle ray fish are also common. I can easily say this area has the most healthy, more abundant fish life than most areas surrounding Sri Lanka. Also the varieties are many. Both Great Basses Lighthouse and Little Basses Lighthouse are exceptional dives. I have spent many hours videoing these delightful shallow areas.

For further information on underwater expeditions contact:
Underwater Safari Ltd., Padi Dive Centre, 25 C, Barnes Place, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka;
tel (941) 694012; fax: (941) 694029.

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