Beneath the waves in Trincomalee – By Vice Admiral Priyantha perera
The history of Trincomalee dates back to ancient times in Sri Lanka. The place had previously gone by many titles, and Gokanna serving as the Sanskrit reference mentioned in chronicles.
The eastern seaboard that extends over 300 km and has unparalleled beauty and the adjoining seas endowed with beautiful reefs, ship wrecks and marine life is a paradise for diving: many a foreigners and diving enthusiasts are attracted for mere diving pleasure in the seas around. The virgin reef surrounding Pigeon Island is one of the marine protected areas of the country and has a magnetic attraction. In the same vein, the treasure trove in the majestic harbour welcomed mariners of the East and the West from as far back as late B.C. years.
Since ancient times, the deep-water natural harbour has drawn seafarers like Marco Polo, Ptolemy, and merchants from China, East Asia, and Arabia. The harbour has been a sea-port since the days of the ancient Sri Lankan Kings. The chronicle of Mahavamsa contains the oldest known mention of the port of Gokanna, describing Panduvasdeva, King Vijaya’s nephew, arriving at Gokanna in the fifth century BC to assume the throne of Lanka. The port of Trincomalee had been a centre of attraction in the European geopolitical conflicts between English, Dutch and French that ensued offshoot conquest for Trincomalee. In addition to its advantageous position, Trincomalee harbour served a unique purpose for seafarers during the age of the sail. With a deep, narrow inlet and a low-lying landscape on either side, Orlando Cove on Sober Island provided the perfect backdrop for a ship that was careening.
Historical ship-wrecks including HMS Diomede that foundered in British landing of Trincomalee in 1795 and maritime remnants such as cannons and anchors are unquestionably heritage dive sites. Numerous artifacts from the British occupation of the harbour during World War II attest to its crucial maritime strategic importance at the time.
Having bombed Colombo on April 5, 1942, the Japanese raided Trincomalee on April 9, resultantly sinking HMS Hermes and her escort HMAS Vampire south of Trincomalee. Underwater sites of this epoch are the grand floating dock AFD 23, aircraft wrecks debris disposed by fleet air arm station, sites of ordnance disposal and SS Sagaing, a 7996 ton steam ship.
Admiralty Floating Dock 23 (AFD 23)
AFD 23 was built in Bombay and upon completion in July 1944; she was towed to Trincomalee and had moored off Sober Island to dock allied war ships during World War II. One of the largest ship wrecks in the world was the 50,000 ton AFD 23 which sank on August 8, 1944 when buoyancy had failed while the 30,000 ton battleship HMS Valiant was in dock and only half of this wreck now remains at its final resting place in the Trincomalee harbour as the collapsed rear half at the sinking was later salvaged for scrap iron. It had been a soaring site in the middle of the harbour until 1971 with one of the crane towers that remained above water and the part was re-floated later. Today, the remaining part of the dock stays majestically, resting at 140 feet at the bottom and upper decks of the side walls at 80 feet. AFD 23 could be the second best wreck dive after Hermes wreck which is off Batticaloa. The upper decks on the side walls contains many compartments that were imaginably work stations and machinery spaces and the deck tops still holds numerous glass pane pan lights that allowed sun lighting to the space beneath.
At 140 feet, in cold and gloomy waters in the middle of the Back Bay lies a historic wreck, the British Frigate that met fate during the landing to capture the Ostenburg fort of Trincomalee from the Dutch. HMS Diomede was a 44-gun fifth-rate built by James Martin Hillhouse and launched at Bristol on October 18,1781. She belonged to the Roebuck class of vessels specially built during the American Revolutionary War for service in the shallow American coastal waters. HMS Diomede, sailing under the command of Captain Matthew Smith had arrived off Trincomalee in late July 1795 along with Suffolk, Hobart, Centurion, and troop-transports, under the flag of Rear Admiral Peter Rainier who was commanding His Majesty’s ships in the East Indies with orders to conquer Trincomalee and other Dutch settlements on the Island. On 30 August 1795, Diomede had foundered having struck an uncharted rock in the bay while heading to shore with a heavy sailing vessel at her tow. Even today, few of her 9 pounder and 18 pounder guns are visible at a glance along with some iron work and deck fittings. Though ostensibly all of her wooden structure has deteriorated with time, a thorough archaeological investigation of the shipwreck would disclose many details.
The East Indies Fleet had been operating from Ceylon for most part of World War II and later became the Eastern Fleet at the end of March 1942 with the arrival of Admiral Somerville. As a result, more air squadrons had been flown in to the Island and they were mostly operating with the aircraft carriers.
More often than not carrier escorts had been provided for east and west bound convoys in the Indian Ocean. In Trincomalee, HMS Bambara was the fleet air arm station at present day China Bay Air Force base. The Clappenburg Wharf has been purposefully built to facilitate transfer damaged and repair bound aircraft to adjoining repair workshops from aircraft carriers. Eventually, in-reparable aircraft and cannibalised parts ended up at deep seas off the Round Island, and there exists a fascinating dive site that reminisce war time air operations. There was a wide belief that these aircraft were famous Mitsubishi A6M, popularly known as the ‘Zero’, dive bombers that had fallen down during the March 1942 raid, which is now found false and none of the wrecks resemble the famous aircraft and sufficient documentary evidence prevails to prove that they are in fact dumped aircraft by the fleet air arm.
The 138 m long passenger Cargo Ship, first launched on December 24, 1924, was hit by Japanese carrier aircraft bomber attacks whilst at anchorage in the Trincomalee harbour in April 9, 1942. On August 24, 1943, the damaged vessel was deliberately sunk in water to create a pier for naval ships. Sri Lanka Navy resorted to refloat the wreck which was fully submerged under the sea to make sea room for expanding berthing facilities in the harbour and the project got off the ground on September 11, 2017. Having refloated the wreck on March 22, 2018, it was sunk again in the sea area of Elephant Point and Elephant Island.
The Trincomalee harbour is home to few wrecks of the contemporary era; the grave yard of decommissioned ships of the navy where two Chinese Fast Gun Boats, Ex Rakshaka and Dhakshya rest at Middle Ridge along with a small tug boat. In the same vein, the Sri Lanka Navy more recently set destination for their decommissioned ships Ex Weeraya and Jagatha off the Rocky Point in 2020. For adventurous divers, these sites are the ultimate playground, where they can discover hidden treasures and unravel the secrets of the deep.
SLN ships scuttled to create artificial reef in Trincomalee harbour
Although visibility varies periodically due to monsoonal rainfall and Mahaweli river waters mixing with the sea at its three prone estuaries on the southern coast front of the harbour, diving in Trincomalee harbour is possible all year long.
Wreck diving is quite adventurous as murkily dark sights of these wrecks encrusted with barnacles suddenly appear before the diver as he reaches the bottom. Occasionally, a very fortunate diver may hear whale hums and a friendly whale shark lurking nearby as they frequent the harbour seasonally.
Trincomalee is not only a hidden gem that offers a unique blend of ancient history and natural beauty, but also a unique world-class dive site with its beautiful reef, shipwrecks and diverse marine life. Promotion of recreational diving in Trincomalee harbour is a timely need. Despite being in a naval premises, the Trincomalee harbour has a great potential to entice diving enthusiasts to explore Trincomalee beneath waves, accompanied by naval divers.