Scuba Travel’s resident tek diver Shem headed out at the end of last month to Sri Lanka on an exploratory trip of the wrecks which have only just opened up to divers, including the most impressive Hermes. In Shem’s own words…

Home sweet home

“This dive trip I was on a voyage of discovery to the place that for a few last years was off limits to a regular tourism – the northern part  of Ceylon commonly know as Sri Lanka.  I was joining a group of rebreather and technical divers (including tek guru Mark Powell and photo journalist Charles Hood) who were going to dive and explore the wreck of HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose build aircraft carrier. We were also going to check few other wreck sites along the east cost.

After a hassle free check-in at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 and duty free shopping we boarded the flight to Colombo. To kill some time on the flight I was reading a history of HMS Hermes. She was launched in 1919 and after her distinguished career she was retired. The ship was returned to active duty in 1939 when the WWII broke out. After taking part in a strike against French Vichy forces in Dakar she was ordered to patrol Indian Ocean as part of the Eastern Fleet. During the Indian Ocean mission, Hermes was in harbour at Trincomalee, undergoing repairs. Advance warning of a Japanese air raid allowed her to leave port, but as she returned following the raid 09 April 1942, she was spotted off Batticaloa by a Japanese reconnaissance plane. With 814 Naval Air Squadron ashore, she was defenseless when she was attacked by 70 Japanese bombers from Admiral Nagumo’s Fast Carrier Task Force and ships Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu. Hit no less then 40 times by 250kg bombs, Hermes sank in less then an hour, with the loss of 307 men – 19 officers, 288 ratings including Captain Onslow. Other vessels HMAS Vampire, HMS Hollyhock and two tankers were also lost.  This was going to be one awesome dive but one that needed to be approached with respect.  Along with my fellow divers on the plane,  we could not wait to see what condition she was in now underwater but mindful of the tragedy all those years ago.

After arrival to Colombo Apt we met Owen, who flew from Manchester and had arrived few hours earlier. After having our equipment transferred, we got on the bus for a few hours ride to Trincomalee in the east of Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka welcomed us with wonderfully lush tropical forests and palm tree orchards. The weather was very pleasant and not too hot. In the afternoon we saw hundreds of fruit bats and there were also wild Sri Lankan elephants feeding at the road side. After 6 hours ride we arrived in Trincomalee.  A bit of paperwork and then we boarded our vessel MV Aquarius.

Aquarius has a brand new panel and a Haskel pump and is a fully rebreather and technical diving friendly boat.  The sofnolime was loaded up and we were ready to go.   Later on that day we did our first dive on the wreck of MV Cordiality. This is a perfect warm up wreck, lying in maximum of 20 meters of water. Some of us went through basic bailout drills preparing for more serious diving on HMS Hermes. We did a total of two good dives this day and were ready for the Hermes the next day.  The Hermes is about a 7 hour sail from the harbour. It was evening when we arrived and our skipper decided to drop an anchor closer to the shore. As we all prepped the diving equipment in excitement, it was also hard not to think of all the servicemen that lost their lives on HMS Hermes and all other vessels that sunk 8-10 April 1942.

Just some of Charles' inspiring images from the Hermes

Sunday morning Gary, Paul and our cruise director Alex headed out to locate the resting place of HMS Hermes. We had three possible coordinates that we had to check. After couple of hours of searching guys dropped a shot line and in we got.   The dive on HMS Hermes did not disappoint. It was magnificent.  The guys managed to drop a shot line directly next to one of the AA guns and an ammo box. We spent 35 minutes around the mid ship exploring the AA gun, munitions box, bridge and the communication tower. After another 40 minutes of accelerated decompression we were back on the deck of Aquarius and full of excitement, making plans for our next dives.  In the afternoon we checked yet another wreck dive site called the boilers wreck.  The wreck rewarded us with amazingly rich fish life with plenty of snappers, banner fish and large tuna.

Heading back to the Hermes, our group managed to do 4 magnificent dives over the next 2 days to a maximum depth of 53 meters. Highlights for me included two massive bow anchors,  4.5 and 5.5 inch AA guns, AA shell cases, bridge with engine telegraphs, towing device, .303 shells, lower deck gun, two propellers and many more. All around the wreck there are large school of fish including some huge tunas. We all managed to log approx 3,5 hours of bottom time on, what is in my opinion, one of the best wreck diving sites in the world. MV Aquarius is equipped with three expedition range scooters which we used on some dives. This was a great tool for exploring even further (and is masses of fun too!)

As the week drew to an end we decided to do a nice and easy dive on an unidentified wreck which would  allow enough time for off gassing before flight back home. This wreck is probably a merchant ship and is covered in all kinds of schooling fish.  After the dive we headed back to Trincomalee.

In summery, for me, this was a life time experience. Sri Lanka offers a lot of magnificent experiences above and below the surface. The main highlight is HMS Hermes and I will always remember how fantastic it was to dive this amazing wreck. Crew from MV Aquarius was very hospitable and food was great. I would love to come back to dive HMS Hermes.

Also based in Maldives, Aquarius will be running regular Whale Watching and Ceylon Expeditions from April 2012.

Shem’s top tips for Sri Lanka:

  • Try the local tea – makes for a mean brew
  • Don’t fall asleep in the bus on the way to the boat – awesome chance to see wild Sri Lankan elephants
  • Check out the Admiralty War Diaries online to find out more about the Hermes’ history