Into The Blue

Into The Blue

On the perusal of the annals of history of shipwrecks on the seabed surrounding Sri Lanka; both local and foreign marine biologists, divers and underwater photographers of international fame are not hesitant to unanimously agree that the seabed around Sri Lanka is a ‘paradise for shipwrecks.’

Since time immemorial, the sea around Sri Lanka had been a sought after sea route by seafaring nations. Before the advent of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British to the Indian Ocean, a network of Asian maritime traders were operating between East Africa and India, extending to Indonesia. During ancient times, transport by ship was considered the safest, fastest and most economical and thus, was the most used.

Ancient Maritime Silk Road

The ancient Maritime Silk Road expanded across several seas and oceans comprising of the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. According to historians, Sri Lanka had played a prominent role as a maritime hub of the ancient Silk Road from China to Europe.

Over many centuries of trade within the oceans of the Asian region, the trade of commodities such as silk, porcelain, gems, precious metals, perfume, gold, silver and horses, were highly competitive and triggered heavy competition among seafaring nations which resulted in conflicts and naval battles which sunk many a ship to the bottom of the ocean and brought watery graves to the mariners during these unfinished expeditions.

Trade conflicts, natural disasters, world wars

Fleets of ships frequented the Indian Ocean for various purposes and the Arabian naval trade network paid greater attention to trade, while the Portuguese were interested in both the spice trade as well as political and religious expansionism.

In addition to the conflicts and rivalry centered around trade and commerce, the First and the Second World Wars had been identified as major reasons for the presence of more than 200 shipwrecks on the seabed around Sri Lanka. Natural disasters also increased the number of shipwrecks in the region.

History of shipwrecks

In 2003, remnants of the oldest shipwreck in the Indian Ocean had been found on the seabed of Godavaya at Tissamaharama in the Hambantota district. Two local fishermen, B. G. Preminda and Sunil Rathnaweera of this fishing village were on their usual daily dive for conch shells when they found a stone bench on the seabed of Godavaya. In 2008, divers attached to the Maritime Archaeological Unit found ceramic bowls and blue glass Ingots at the site of Godavaya wreck.

Dr. Osmund Bopearachchi attached to the National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Dr. Mehendo Carlson and Sheila Mathews, had dived twice a depth of 33m at the location and discovered numerous artefacts. Later, under Archaeological Department Director General Dr. W. H. Wijepala, a German team of Archaeologists from the University of Bonn carried on a joint research at Godavaya. During their excavations at Godavaya, they found vital information relevant to the role played by the Godavaya Port in the ancient Maritime Silk Road.

Marine environment

When shipwrecks were buried on the seabed for many hundreds of years, they naturally become unique habitats for the marine flora and fauna of diverse species, creating a marine environment rich in biodiversity.

Over the years, every shipwreck has been transformed into gardens of multi-coloured corals, fish and marine creatures such as sponges, anemones, clams, octopus, squid, mollusks, eels, rays, turtles and cowries. Shipwrecks also facilitate archaeologists in the proper understanding of the past. For instance, a Bronze Age shipwreck known as the ‘Ulu Burun Shipwreck’ believed to be made in 1300 BC, was carrying cargo comprising of ivory, ebony, ostrich eggs, resin, spices, jewellery, textiles, ingots of copper, tin and glass. Marine archaeologists were surprised to observe the artifacts discovered on this one vessel comprised of items from 11 different cultures.According to the findings of UNESCO, there are over three million shipwrecks on the seabed throughout the world.

Well-known science fiction writer late Arthur C. Clarke and Mike Wilson discovered the 18th Century shipwreck known as the ‘Great Basses Wreck’ on March 22, 1961 in the Southern coast of Sri Lanka.

This ship is believed to have been owned by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Its cargo comprised of gunny bags full of newly-minted silver rupees from Surat, India. Arthur Clarke gifted 1,000 coins to the Smithsonian Institute.

S. S. Conch

The British Oil Tanker S. S. Conch weighing 3,555 tons, which belonged to the Shell Transport Trading Company, was wrecked at the Akurala reef on the South coast on June 2, 1903. Conch was on a voyage carrying a large bulk of petroleum to Madras from Novorossisk. This ship was the first Oil Tanker built in the world.

Now the wreck of Conch lies at a depth of 12 to 21m and has become a very popular diving site located on the seabed in between Ambalangoda and Hikkaduwa. Marine creatures such as groupers, angelfish and numerous species of reef fish, are found in abundance inside the shipwreck.

H. M. S. Hermes:

The first Aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy, H. M. S. Hermes, was attacked by nearly 70 heavily armed Japanese aircrafts on April 9, 1942 and a local diver named Felican Fernando found the wreck on the seabed in Batticaloa, 60 years later. The wreck is found at a depth of 44-55m. Sailors numbering 282 in the service of the Royal Navy lost their lives in the attack.


The ship Hercules was wrecked in the Bay of Galle on May 22, 1661. The Western Australian Maritime Museum, which was assisting the Sri Lankan Government in the conservation of shipwrecks at the time, discovered the shipwreck of Hercules in 1993 on the seabed of the Galle harbour. A Bronze Bell with the inscription ‘Amor Vincit Omnia Anno 1625’ was discovered. At the same location, 30 cannons were found.

British Sergeant

This steamer was sunk in 1942 by a Japanese Aircraft carrier. The wreck was found on a sandy bottom at a depth of 24 metres on the seabed of Passikudah.

S. S. Perseus

This ship was built for the Ocean Steam Ship Company in 1908 by Clark Belfast. German raider S. M. S. Wolf attacked the ship.

S. S. Wocestershire

The wreck of this ship could be seen on the seabed off Mount Lavinia, Colombo. It was discovered by Nishan Perera, Naren Gunasekara and Dharshana Jayawardena; three divers searching for the site of the wreck and located the exact point at a depth of 57m on the information provided by some fishermen.

The ship met its fateful end in 1917 on its journey from Rangoon to London, caused by a sea mine laid by the German raider S. M. S. Wolf.

Earl of Shaftsbury

Earl of Shaftsbury is a British sailing ship about 14 metres and 80 metres in length and is about 125 years old. This ship was believed to be burnt by a fire which occurred on board. It was en route to Diamond Island from Bombay and capsized at Akuralain between the Hikkaduwa and Ambalangoda seabed on the South coast not far away from the wreck of Conch.

Dynamiting shipwrecks

Majority of the shipwrecks on the seabed from Balapitiya, Hikkaduwa to Galle have been highly dynamited to remove iron, copper and artefacts by fishermen. All the shipwrecks are breeding grounds of fish and other forms of marine creatures.

But a group of international divers who have just returned from their wreck diving tour revealed that Hikkaduwa had vast potential to expand as one of the hot spots in the world for diving due to the existence of the marine sanctuary of shipwrecks found on the ocean bed in and around the area. (W. T. J. S. KAVIRATNE – dailynews)

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