By Venessa Anthony
Diving has been part of Sri Lankan life since antiquity when pearl fisheries on the northwestern and southern coastal belt played vital roles in the economies of various kingdoms. But it was not until this decade, following the end of the civil war, that recreational diving with scuba gear began to take off. Darshana Jayawardena, a technical scuba diver with an avid interest in underwater exploration, has mapped out many shipwrecks all over Sri Lanka with his experience in diving. He has been diving for the last 18 years, exploring shipwrecks around Sri Lanka and all around the world and unravelling its mysteries and origins. He is famously known for his discovery of the underwater cave system in the country.
Jayawardena, speaking to The Morning Brunch, told us that he works closely with fishermen to find unexplored shipwrecks that have not been identified. He enjoys researching about them and discovering their origins. After his years of exploring, he wrote a book by the name “Ghosts of the deep”, detailing all the shipwrecks he found and their history. You’d be surprised at how many interesting stories one can unearth just by digging into their origin stories.
By profession, Jayawardena is actually in the software engineering field; he’s the general manager of an IT company. He explained to us how he fell into diving: “I was coming back from the US, after visiting Bermuda, and my friends insisted on going scuba diving. I wanted to just try it out so I could say ‘been there, done that’, because at that point I couldn’t swim. I enjoyed it so much that I kept going back to it. In 2003, I got my PADi Open Water license so I could follow my passion.” He dedicates his weekends and vacations to diving and has explored countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and many more.
In his years of exploring, Jayawardena told us about his most interesting finds: “I saw a shipwreck in Mount Lavinia marked on a map; after two years of research, I finally found a fisherman that gave me enough information to go off on.” He noted that it was the third-deepest wreck in Sri Lanka, and yet he chose to dive it. He found that during World War I, there was a German commerce raider by the name of SMS Wolf. The SMS Wolf has a fascinating backstory; it travelled the world for 15 months back in 1917. It sank and captured over 30 ships, abducted over 400 prisoners and went back to Germany. The wreck that Jayawardena stumbled upon in Mount Lavinia was actually a victim of the notorious SMS Wolf. He also found a second victim, off the coast of Modara. These two ships were the only two World War I ship casualties in Sri Lanka.
He explained to us that a ship’s bell is the best way to find out about the origins of the ship because it has its name and home port engraved onto it, adding that finding these bells are incredibly rare. He was lucky enough to come across not one, but two of these bells on these shipwrecks, which he named as his proudest finds.
Sri Lanka faces the problem where most shipwrecks are already stripped clean. Bandits tend to steal whatever is on these ships for their own personal collections. “It’s very hard to find anything now because there’s nothing left. That’s why I choose to explore wrecks that are deeper in the ocean, as they haven’t been touched.” Jayawardena ensures to hand over all his finds to the Maritime Archaeological Unit, so it is kept safe and its historical value is preserved. He told us that the unit plans on hosting a World War I exhibition, which will be very educational and interesting to see.
Researching a ship’s origins
Figuring out the origin story of a shipwreck is no easy task, as it takes long periods of time to come to any solid conclusion. Jayawardena guided us through how he conducts his research. “I talk to a lot of fishermen; they tell me that when they are fishing in the nights, their lines get caught and they’re sure that there is a wreck there.” Once he figures out the exact location by using a sonar scan he carries around, he dives it. He noted that the depth of the waters is what makes the process complicated. “If I spend 30 minutes exploring the wreck, it takes me one-and-a-half hours to come back up. Divers suffer from this condition called decompression sickness, which is caused when nitrogen dissolves in the blood and tissues by high pressure and forms bubbles as pressure decreases.”
To mitigate the chance of this happening, he has to ascend slowly. He further explained that usually, the crockery in a ship will have the company logo, so he can narrow down where the ship came from.
He stated that diving is accompanied with a huge threat to one’s life; once you enter a shipwreck, there is a high chance you could get lost, you could get disoriented, your vision reduces; he also said: “It’s the threat to my life and the thrill that unravelling mysteries gives me that make this line of work so fascinating. It’s why I do what I do.”
After almost losing his life once while on the job, he realised how important having the right gear and qualifications is. He advised anyone that wished to follow in his path to obtain a cave diving certification.
The underwater cave system
About three years ago, Jayawardena stumbled upon an undiscovered underwater cave system in Nil Diya Pokuna, located in Ella. After he obtained his certification in cave diving, he surveyed the area and once he had it mapped out, he dived into the cave system. To get to Nil Diya Pokuna, one needs to hike for roughly half an hour. Then, you are faced with a rabbit hole that you need to scuffle down using ropes inside the mountain for an hour before you reach the caves. Jayawardena went to the very end of the pool of water – at which no one had dived before – and dived. Then he realised that the pool kept going inside, and this made him super excited. He returned to the location many times with all his equipment, ready to conquer the caves, and with the help of his friends, conquer he did! After about 10 trips, he mapped out the entire cave system.
He hopes that he will be able to dive more in 2021, as he has been unable to do so much last year due to the pandemic.
Jayawardena will be conducting a webinar, organised by the WNPS (Wildlife and Nature Protection Society Sri Lanka) on his knowledge on shipwrecks in Sri Lanka. He revealed that he will be talking about a mystery he unravelled on the origins of a certain shipwreck. Tune in to the webinar on the WNPS Facebook page to find out more.
Saturday, 6:30 p.m.
Duration: 1 hr 30 mins
Sign up at https://forms.gle/kRPALDd9ZXsQCbqBA