Colombo, the bustling capital city of Sri Lanka and home to 5.6 million people, might sound like an unusual place to go scuba diving. There are only a few reefs and it’s certainly not a tropical paradise but what it does have is a surprisingly large abundance of little-known shipwrecks. I visited at the end of November and dived with Island Scuba, a relatively new dive shop that’s trying hard to put this spot on the scuba diving map.
One of my favourite dive sites is the Thermopylae Sierra, a Cypriot-owned bulk cargo carrier that went down in 2012 just south of Island Scuba’s headquarters. Apparently, the ship was abandoned by its crew following a dispute, claiming that they weren’t being given the basic necessities of life – like food. Through neglect (or, as local legend has it, someone intentionally sinking the vessel to collect insurance money) the ship gradually became unstable and sunk. The Navy vigilantly guarded the wreck, refusing to let anyone near it. Luckily for recreational divers, they’ve lightened up a bit, allowing divers since 2014. Still today, it hasn’t gone down completely. You can still see the rusting masts of the ship sticking straight out of the water from miles away.
Naren Gunasekera, an environmental scientist, and Nishan Perera, a marine biologist, formed Island Scuba in 2012 with the aim of sharing one of Sri Lanka’s best kept underwater secrets. They’re both passionate about diving. Before starting the shop, they used to get up at 4am so that they could get in two dives before arriving at their regular day jobs. If they got in a bit late, they’d just say traffic was bad. As well as divers and dive shop founders, they’re both avid underwater photographers and Naren was kind enough to share some of his photos for this blog post.
The Pecheur Breton is another ship that unexpectedly went down just a few miles from the crowded shores of Colombo. The Dutch-built cargo ship was on its way from the Seychelles to an Indian scrapping yard with a load of scrap metal when it sprung a leak and suddenly started taking on water. It sunk in 1994 and was rediscovered by divers in 2006. Now lying on its side with part of the hull collapsed, you can swim through what feels like nearly the entire length of the ship!
Who knows how many more sunken ships there are to be discovered in the seas around Colombo? I had the chance to dive five wrecks, all of which had a maximum depth of around 30m. In November and December there is often a north wind that causes strong currents, making the diving more challenging. The best time to visit is January to March when the weather is relatively dry and currents less strong. Sri Lanka is also the resting place of many well preserved WWI and WWII wrecks (including the HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier) but many of these are quite deep and beyond my training.
I enjoyed my time diving with Island Scuba. It’s reassuring to dive with a shop that has solid safety practices, particularly when the diving is challenging. That let me push myself and improve my skills as a diver. What I enjoyed more, though, was talking with Naren and Nishan and seeing how passionate they are about diving and about the wrecks around Colombo in particular. I hope to be back and dive some of the new wrecks that, no doubt, will be discovered in the years to come.
Thanks to Naren for the underwater photos in this post