Deep sea diving in search of the ocean’s wonders and treasures, is comparatively new in Sri Lanka despite the picturesque Indian Ocean surrounding the country.
The only sea diving that was ever heard of in ancient times was diving for pearls where the pearl divers braved great depths without any modern equipment to ease breathing and reduce pressure.
Brohier, in his book ‘Seeing Ceylon’, explains how the pearl divers working at the pearl reefs in Seelawathurai, dived in from boats without any safety equipment with just stones used as weights. ‘The pearl divers would then emerge after nearly one and a half minutes with some oysters in their hands and after throwing them to the pile of oysters in the boat again dive for more oysters,’ he
explained. Gone are the oyster divers and the celebrated oyster reefs of Ceylon but diving is now here to stay.
At a later stage in 1864/5, Viennese landscape and genre painter, Eugene de Ransonnet, visited the island and used a diving-bell to sketch the coral banks off the port of Galle. His sketches are published in ‘Sketches of Ceylon’ by R.K.De Silva.
At the same time the British too used divers to check the status of the hulls of the ships anchored in Colombo and Trincomalee. But it was not until the late 1930s, when face masks, snorkels and flippers arrived on the island, that the wonderfully rich and varied underwater life around it could be viewed with comparative ease, if only from the surface. During World War 2, divers were used defensively to carry out underwater patrols of the bases in case of Japanese infiltration but it would be while before locals start diving for fun.
In Post Independent Sri Lanka, diving was taken up by the Reef Combers Club of Ceylon, which consisted of locals and foreigners who were engaged in fully equipped diving as a hobby and spear fishermen, who were expert divers as well as spearmen and the self taught locals, who dived for corals, lobsters and underwater treasures.
With the dawn of the 1960s and the chance meeting of pioneer divers Arthur C. Clarke, Mike Wilson with renowned spearfisher Rodney Jonklaas, at the Colombo harbour, started the golden age of diving in Sri Lanka.
Many a diving place were discovered by the trio during their pursuit to film shark in the oceans around Sri Lanka attracting divers from around the world to the island. The oceans attracted the visitors from London who were on a short trip to Sri Lanka to film the sharks and they decided to make Sri Lanka their permanent home.
Parallel to their underwater exploration, Wilson and Clarke endeavoured, without much success, to establish a diving business known as Clarke-Wilson Associates. Their tasks at the time included the cleaning of water inlet and sewage outlet grills of ships in the Colombo harbour, and morbid ones, such as the retrieval of corpses. The most demanding and perilous job they performed was at Castlereagh Dam, where they had to work in the claustrophobic confines of a 40 cm wide shutter case with oxygen piped from the surface.
Meanwhile the discovery of stunning spots around the country and spreading of aqua lungs and scuba diving techniques among the locals opened a new page in diving in Sri Lanka. Many locals too started exploring great depths in scuba and skin diving and started achieving great depths. Two pioneer local divers, Benny Fernando and Reeves Neydorff, remember the good old times when they travelled the Indian Ocean from Negombo to Trincomalee in search of lobsters.
“We used to start near Colombo harbour and travel around the southern coast skin diving near the sand reefs all along in search of lobsters,” said Mr. Fernando, fondly known as Uncle Benny .Although diving for lobsters was their trade, he remembers how enthralled he was with the coral and the fish life surrounding it. “Sometimes we used to see various schools of fish but our main concern was to dive greatest depths in competition with others,” he said adding that he was able to skin dive 50 feet at any given moment.
Remembering the times when diving was all about fun and looting, Uncle Benny says how they scavenged any sellable item from the wrecks around the country during their journeys around the island. “We were too young to realise the important ecology around the shipwrecks and their archaeological value but only were in search of silver and brass,” he says relating a story how a friend of his sold a collection of Dutch VOC coins he found at Great Basses for silver.
According to Uncle Benny, Great Basses is one of the greatest dives around the country. “Situated nearly 12 miles away in the middle of the sea, Great Basses is a comparatively untouched diving spot with a rock base and schools of fishes creating an out of earth picture,” he said.
Today the hunter turned conservationist, Uncle Benny, is operating his boat house and is handing over his diving skills to the next generation. He speaks proudly of the next generation of divers -Malinda Abeyratne, who is pursuing the dying art of skin diving with enthusiasm. Not long ago he had skin dived nearly 93 feet at Swami Rock in Trincomalee where he had seen the stone pillars of Koneshwaram temple in the sea.
He silently acknowledges the praises and challenges by the pioneers but disagrees that he is the best. Yet with youngsters like Malinda on line, diving in Sri Lanka seems to hold a profound future.