By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Sri Lanka, with its coastline of almost 1,600 km, is the perfect location for many maritime activities and is extremely popular for its numerous diving spots. Before the pandemic, the island was a hotspot for diving enthusiasts for its exceptional wreck dives and the exploration of healthy coral reefs. However, like all other industries that are heavily reliant on tourist activity, the diving industry too came to a halt during the last few months.
Over the weekend, we took a trip to Unawatuna to take a closer look at how the diving centres Down South have fared through the height of the pandemic and, now that curfew has been lifted, how they’ve readjusted to the “new normal”.
As expected, the coastline was not as crowded as we were used to. However, it wasn’t entirely empty either. Speaking to a few locals, we were told that out of the 16 diving sites in their area, almost all of them are back up and active, and while business is nowhere near what it used to be, they feel that the Sri Lankans’ interest in diving has kept their businesses alive.
We chose to visit Unawatuna primarily because the area has the optimum positioning to reach both the newly opened Galle Underwater Museum and the four to five shipwrecks scattered along the southern area – four are found in Galle, one of which is a smaller 20 m one and the rest being larger, better preserved wreckages of about 60-65 m.
Going for a dive
Diving centres in Sri Lanka are registered with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the world’s leading scuba diver training organisation, and all diving instructors must have a license registered with the PADI to be allowed to dive. If you wish to acquire your diving license, you must apply through a local diving centre and follow the required course. The licenses are renewed annually and PADI representatives make an annual visit for a quality check.
We visited our chosen diving centre, Sun Diving Centre by Dilshan Nanayakkara (PADI Dive Resort S-25804 [contact: 075 865 7380]), at around 10 a.m. and considering that it is mid-July, the weather was not ideal. Despite the slight rain, we set out for our first dive. The first thing you must do is go through a mini lecture/demonstration of your equipment on how to handle your BCD (buoyancy compensator), regulators, fins, weight belts, masks, etc.
Following the dry demonstration, you will be taken to a shallow end of the ocean where you will train with your diving partner for about 20 minutes or more, if you require it, on how to handle your equipment and most importantly your breathing and equalising, the latter of which is necessary as the air in the middle ear gets compressed as you dive, putting the eardrum and the inner soft tissues under pressure.
Once you feel you are sufficiently able, you will travel by boat to the dive location, drop anchor, and get geared up and tipped over backwards into the ocean. Then, your diving partner, who will also be your guide for the entirety of the dive, will lead you to the wreck or coral reef. If you have any concerns at all and are experiencing even the slightest complications, you can inform your partner and they will bring you back up immediately.
The meticulous nature of how the dive was carried out is extremely comforting; if you are not particularly a thrill-seeker and are simply looking for the experience, then it is a perfect one-time activity. However, if you wish to go beyond the simple 15 m dive, that too is possible.
Diving in Sri Lanka
Diving in Sri Lanka is affected by the seasonal monsoons, but regardless of the time of year during which you plan to visit, there is always a diving spot available. If you are travelling between October and May, you’ll want to head to the west and southwest coasts; if you are planning to visit from May through to October, then the northeast coast offers the best conditions.
During the months of the southwest monsoon season, with rough sea and bad visibility, you can always make your way over to the northeast coast of Sri Lanka.
There are a number of diving sites in the island; the most popular spots in addition to Unawatuna and Galle being Trincomalee, Negombo, Hikkaduwa, Kalpitiya, Mirissa, Kirinda, and Tangalle. There are multiple sites in Colombo as well, including Dehiwala.
There is an abundance of opportunities and locations to dive, and we were told that there is a large community of local diving enthusiasts who make their way over to the coast to acquire their diving license and regularly dive. If you are a tourist, it will cost you between $ 35 and $ 40 or upwards. However, as a local, it is a wonderful opportunity to experience something unique within one day’s travelling.
It’s a community
Diving in Sri Lanka for the average layperson like you or I is a recreational activity we take up as a novelty. While there are those who take it up to acquire their own license, unless you live in the vicinity of these diving hotspots, you are unlikely to practise it regularly. However, for those in the trade, it is a daily routine and as it is hardly ever a solo activity, it has lent itself to creating a large community that has enriched themselves.
The instructors working in diving centres in the coasts of Sri Lanka are often of the age group 20-30. While some of them work for a salary, a majority of them work on a freelance basis. Their income is a daily wage and it is dependent on the number of dives you manage to complete in a day. Even then, it allows Rs. 1,000 per diver and if the group you are instructing is licensed, then you do not get paid for each diver.
Despite being freelancers, however, the divers often stick around at the centre from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. until the daytime dives are over, and some would return again for the night dives at 6 p.m., where you would take your guests out on the boat and wait in the middle of the ocean for the sun to go down.
We spoke to Sun Diving Centre instructor Saleem Prasad who shared that usually at the centres, they employ separate people for separate jobs – someone to look after the equipment, someone to talk to the customers about the technical knowhow and also to educate them, and then the diving instructors themselves. He shared that the boys at the centres would usually stick around, help clean up and set up, and share chores even if they are freelancers; in turn getting the opportunity to learn something more.
Prasad shared that there are many who go on to either work at different diving centres after learning from one or go on to instruct around the island, while there are some others who start their own centre. All of this is facilitated by the community of divers who all exist to uplift one another because at the end of the day, diving is a job of passion. While for many it is a convenient method of income, it is not entirely risk-free; you must rely on one another.
Finally, he shared they have cultivated an industry largely by themselves and it is a great example of communities coming together to enrich themselves from within.