The Road to Gal Oya (Gal Oya Part 1)

“Let me call you back and let you know if I’m in”

10 seconds later…

“I’m in.”

It really didn’t take much arm twisting for me to say yes to a three day camping trip to Gal Oya when S called to let me know a space had opened up on their trip. Gal Oya looms large in my family lore, my grandfather having been one of the lead engineers when the Senanayake Samudra was being built. All my life I’ve heard fascinating tales of elephants interrupting picnics, inspection tours and arguments with foreign engineers. Add this lore to the obsessive fascination I already have for the dry zone and Gal Oya was indeed my Lankan Shangri La.

So it was that I found myself at C’s place at the ungodly hour of midnight helping pack the vehicle for the trip. A trusty old Toyota doublecab was our chariot to the jungles but before we could leave we had to set up the seats and canopy in the back. What looked quite simple was of course not quite so and a lot of grunting, lifting and cuts from the metal poles were required before the canopy was set. Then came lugging all the gear into the back, ranging from chairs, to a tent, to gas cylinders to…rather interestingly…the kitchen table. I was reassured that all this material was essential for a successful camping trip, which I guess it was.

The last ingredient was the man-servant, whom we tried to fit into the back but he just wouldn’t fit into the last gap between the kitchen table and the stack of chairs. I jest...of course the man-servant, our man Friday, Shantha (may he rest in peace), rode with us in the back, in fact we picked him at a random junction on the way to Ratnapura, where we also picked up D. As a result our ride in the back was quite…squishy…for want of a better word to describe it.

So the overloaded doublecab pottered on, and on, and on. The road to Gal Oya, at least the one we took through the Victoria-Randenigala-Rantembe Sanctuary was very long but extravagant with the scenery. The cloudy hills cloaked in intermediate zone forest rose up on either side of the road as it snaked by the blue-grey reservoirs. This had been one of my favourite parts of the country as a kid and going down these same roads over a decade later was quite a nostalgic and fraught experience. Where before the roads had been quiet and elephants made an occasional appearance, now all we had were trucks plying the deteriorated road and since elephants have been killed on the road, they probably give it a wide berth.

Trucks passing by; Randenigala hills

The hillsides once covered in forest had also been denuded in certain areas with cultivation spreading up them, scarring the green of the trees with great brown gashes. The beauty of Randenigala was still apparent, but she was a ravaged beauty, with wounds that would pour silt into the reservoirs, clogging them up and reducing our electricity generation capabilities. 

Mango seller; Mango eating

Stopping for some mango, we came down out of the hills where the landscape stretched into the causeway by the road, shimmering water and green vegetation. Sri Lanka despite all its problems provides some amazing landscapes and we were treated to more as we took a short cut to Bibile. Green verdant forests rose up on either side of the road except where they had been taken down in little lots where either lush paddy fields lounged or rows of emaciated looking corn marched.

Causeway road; Rainclouds gather

Paddy fields in the jungle; The sun breaks through; Modified bus in Bibile

Tired and a little more than a little cramped, it was with some relief that we passed Bibile and turned off into the park. Despite our tiredness, the interest was palpable as we drove through a landscape that was very different from what we had ever seen before. Straight limbed, black barked trees rose up on either side of the road growing out of the knee high grass. It wasn’t quite the dry scrub of Yala or the green jungle of Wasgamuwa but something in between. A small herd of elephants broke in front of the vehicle and ran into cover, as we started exploring this new jungle wonderland.

Gal Oya jungles 

Continued to (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4)


The Net Closes

The noble fish, weighing up to four hundred pounds apiece, swam around and around…We pondered how it would feel to be trapped with the other animals and have to live their tragedy. Dumas and I were the only ones in the creeping, constricting prison who knew the outcome, and we were destined to escape. Perhaps we were oversentimental but we were ashamed of the knowledge. I had an impulse to take my belt knife and cut a hole for a mass break to Freedom.

The death chamber was reduced to a third of its size. The atmosphere grew excited, franctic. The herd swam restlessly faster, but still in formation. Their eyes passed us with almost human expressions of fright.

…Never have I beheld a site lie the death cell in the last moments. The fish were out of control…With the seeming momentum of locomotives, the tuna drove at me, head-on, obliquely, crosswise. It was out of the question for me to dodge them. Frightened out of sense of time, I….surfaced amidst the thrashing bodies. There was not a mark on my body. Even while running amok the giant fish had avoided me by inches, merely massaging me with backwash as they sped past.”

A poignant passage from The Silent World, by that deity of the deep, Jacques Costeau via another brilliant book, Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina about the last moments of some Blue-finned tuna as a seine net closes in on them.

Read both books, especially the Song for the Blue Ocean. It is a moving, accurate, heavily researched account of what we are doing to the ocean. Of how we are destroying on of the life support systems that keeps us human alive on this spaceship earth.


Waiting for that Perfect Picture

As a word of explanation, I once spent two months living in a little village in Maragalakanda, close to Moneragala back in 2004. My purpose, living there without electricity or running water, was to study bird diversity in an agroforestry scheme for my MSc. This was when the photography bug first bit so there are some tales worth telling and some photos worth showing, though the latter were for the most part taken with a dinky Canon G3. For more of the Moneragala Chronicles click here.

“A perfect picture, where the whole world holds its breath” 

That line from the Match by Romesh Gunasekera has been one of my favourite quotes on photography, despite it being not from a real photographer. For me however it holds the line holds a looking-glass quality of an ideal that can never really be achieved in the real world. There is no perfect picture, all pictures have good and bad and there are too many subjects in the world and stories to be told with photography for there to be a perfect picture. But I still like the quote.

The photography bug most definitely bit me for the first time in Moneragala. While it had been on my radar before and I was intensely interested in it, it was in Moneragala that I first had the access to a reasonably good digital camera and subject matter that really pulled me into photography. As I had to use the camera for my everyday research, I also had the opportunity to use it for extra-curricular activities so to speak. That may not have been the most inspired way of getting into photography but at least it worked.

From my trip there were two photographs that I look back fondly on, mostly because it was the first time I thought coherently and clearly about the most essential components of a photograph, the composition and the exposure together with a healthy dose of patience that was required for both shots.

The first picture was probably the easier of the two. It was in a dank, smelly pool of water that I noticed an ethereally beautiful Lotus flower blooming out of the muck. Crawling into the thicket that surrounded the flower, the light just didn’t seem right. I wanted to show the brilliance of the flower contrasted with its dark surroundings. I figured the light coming straight down through the thicket would be the best option. Thus I spent the next couple of hours to the vast amusement of Nuwan, my assistant, crawling in and out of the thicket to get the lighting just right. In the end I lucked out as the flower still had water droplets on it that reflected the play of the direct light down on it which made the image, at least for me, sparkle. Exposing for the flower also meant its surroundings were largely dark, which was perfect for me.

Nil Mahanel

The second picture I am ridiculously fond of is this Chocolate Soldier whom I had to chase (in a very discreet manner) for around 30 minutes to find the exact spot to take a shot with a balanced exposure. Most of the spots it landed in were either too dark or too light, since this was midday in a small patch of forest. Even when it did land in the right location, the careful stalking I had to engage in was not good enough to keep it there until I got the image. Finally everything came together, the butterfly alighted in an area where the light was diffused just enough to give the image a soft light that really brought out the butterfly’s colours and provided definition to the image.

on the forest floor

The bug bit (not the butterfly of course) and these two learning experiences were the first of many where I was acutely conscious of what went into getting an image that worked. Of course I’m still on this learning curve and foresee being on it for some time to come.


Dive Log: Parak Gala & Cargo Wreck (13/03/2010)

Dive #41 and #42, diving off Mount Lavinia with Colombo Divers, Boatman Ravinda, Divemaster Jehan, and two American dive buddies whose names I cannot recall (as usual).
Parak Gala: Bottom time – 43 minutes; Depth – 22.1 meters

Snap! I stared disconcerted at the severed strap of my dive mask. A number of profanities raced through my head as I realized I had left my spare strap on land, in my backpack. The conditions were extremely rocky with white flecked grey waves all around us and there was no chance of getting back to shore to get my strap. Thankfully there was an extra mask in the boat and despite the bad fit I pulled it on and got into the water.

There I was made to wait for what seemed like an interminable time while the waves playfully slapped me in the face and smacked me up against the boat while my erstwhile dive buddies took their own cool time getting ready. Finally all geared and ready, we started to descend. Unfortunately the older of the American couple hadn’t dived for a long time and took all of Jehan’s and the other buddy’s help in getting down. I in the meantime amused myself by standing on my head while being treated to the amusing spectacle of Jehan riding on the back of the American guys tank to help keep him down.

Unfortunately the long hiatus from diving and the challenging conditions with a visibility of around 3m was too much for the American guy and he had to surface with Jehan supervising while the other lady and I were left below to complete our dive (she was a trained instructor as well). We had come to a new dive site to try it out but all we could find was patchy rocks amongst the sand. Since the reefs off Colombo ran north to south paralleling the shore we tried swimming in those directions to see how our reef lay. To my dismay it seemed like we had missed the reef all together and ended up on some random rocks.

Undeterred we explored the five or so small rocks that lay muddy brown on the bottom and were treated to an amazing amount of diversity in marine life amongst the nondescript bottom. My dive buddy spotted a Brittle Star http://www.aquaticsworlduk.com/images/T/brittlestar-01.jpg that was a wondering on the rocks, moving its feathery tentacles as it sought a refuge during the day. A few small white and black nudibranches, Phyllidiella zeylanica and Phyllidiopsis phiphiensis  glistened in the silt, the size of my fingernail and almost impossible to spot. My mask was fogging up and extremely uncomfortable still but we still managed to spot a small juvenile Giant Moray, its jaws slender and sylph like in contrast to the brute strength they would personify when grown up. Also wonderfully camouflaged were two juvenile Scorpion fish, their brown tendrils matching the silty rocks to perfection. Actually this last was quite disconcerting as always, one touch on an innocuous piece of the reef could lay you up in hospital in excruciating pain.

Chastened into remembering to always be an aware diver, we wound up and fought through the chop back onto the boat.

Cargo Wreck: Bottom time – 46 minutes; Depth – 29.6 meters

We dropped the American couple back on shore because of a meeting they had to go for and Jehan and I headed out back to the Cargo Wreck. The weather had deteriorated somewhat and the chop was even stronger. Anchoring onto the wreck it was apparent we would have to descend in a strong current which whipped at my mask and reg as we went down the line hand over hand.

Getting to the wreck we were greeted by around 4m of visibility and as we swam down the ghostly ship, an etch in the blue ocean we were greeted by a huge sand patch that the current had pushed out from underneath the ship. You could see the swirl of water coming through and pulling Snappers under and over the bottom of the ship. Noting that it would be quite unpleasant being stuck under a shipwreck we moved up the ship out of harms way. Jehan took a small break to swim into the ship a bit while I hung around and watched him swim around for a bit from a porthole. We then swam into one of the huge cargo holds and hung there in the semi-darkness, watching what looked like gigantic Snappers and Wrasses swimming around a few meters away from us. The gloom meant we could only see a distant silvery shimmer in the blackness as the fish moved around. A spooky experience which was heightened by the fact that I was again having issues with the uncomfortable replacement mask (I had left my extra strap at home).

Swimming out back into daylight with a sense of relief we were surprised to see three very large Porcupine fish hanging out by the mast, a new site for me as the ones I had seen before were usually fairly small and down at the bottom of the wreck. To top off what was undoubtably an eerie dive, we took up the anchor and left around 5m of line so we could maintain our depth during our safety stop.

With the anchor off the bottom, the boat was pushed along with the current and it was an eerie experience to hang on, the water seemingly whipping past us, blurrily blue as we hung in the middle of the giant expanse of the ocean. Quite a humbling experience actually, on how small an individual really is in this big blue planet.


The Golden Gecko (Moneragala Chronicles)

As a word of explanation, I once spent two months living in a little village in Maragalakanda, close to Moneragala back in 2004. My purpose, living there without electricity or running water, was to study bird diversity in an agroforestry scheme for my MSc. This was when the photography bug first bit so there are some tales worth telling and some photos worth showing, though the latter were for the most part taken with a dinky Canon G3. For more of the Moneragala Chronicles click here.
Calodactylodes illingworthorum, not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue is it? Luckily it also goes by the somewhat less tongue-twisting name the Golden Gecko. It was, courtesy of my herpetology crazy assistant, my first introduction to the fascinating array of Sri Lanka's Geckos. Rather astonishingly Sri Lanka enjoys a grand total of 42 species of Geckos of which a staggering 31 are endemic to the country, i.e. found nowhere else in the world except our sunny island. Certainly makes you look twice at the Hunas skittering around you doesn't it? illingworthorum is not only endemic to Sri Lanka but was officially described only in 1953 by that Dion of paleontology and zoology of old Lanka, P.E.P. Deraniyagala.

A wary Golden Gecko (Calodactylodes illingworthorum)

Unfortunately the Golden Gecko along with most of Lanka's diverse and endemic reptiles are threatened by habitat destruction by clearing of forest and expansion of agriculture. This is especially a problem for species like illingworthorum which live on discrete boulder outcrops and the destruction of habitat can isolate populations very easily. Continued isolation and destruction of their boulder habitats could lead to that one way alley out of which there is no return, extinction.

Our first sighting of illingworthorum was at dusk as we washed at the stream close to our quarters. As dusk set and the birds started their night calls amongst the rushing water, a dark shape shot across one of the boulders that scattered the banks of the stream. As a call for action for a couple of interested animal geeks, this was a clarion call. Hastening to get our torches we searched high and low amongst the boulders. Eventually finding a small cave, we bravely (well I might have shivered a bit at the prospect) crouched down into it.

Golden Gecko, note the gold coloured neck that gives it its name

As our eyes focused and adjusted to the now bright light of the torches in an enclosed space, a whitish mass made itself apparent on the wall of the cave. To our delight we had found a nesting spot for illingworthorum. Rather interestingly (well I found it interesting since I'm a science geek), this gecko lays its eggs in the same place over and over again. Thus the eggs that we saw were plastered over the hatched remains of previous nestings. An adult watched us warily, beautifully mottled brown and gray with its distinctive orange throat glowing in our torch light, guarding its eggs. We took a few pictures for posterity and then took its leave, a watchful parent reptile. A rather touching show of affection from a humble Huna in the most unexpected location of a random dank cave.

IMG_2698_eggswtmkIMG_2693_adult and eggswtmk
L-R: Eggs laid over the remains of old eggs; Adult Golden Gecko and egg


Dive Log: Cargo Wreck & Barracuda Reef (12/03/2010)

Dive #39 and #40, diving off Mount Lavinia with Colombo Divers, Boatman Ravinda , Divemaster Jehan, and instructor Shaf.
Cargo Wreck: Bottom time – 44 minutes; Depth – 31 meters

This was a dive with a couple of old hands at the game, Shaf and Jehan, and the plan was to spend as much time underwater as possible without going into ridiculous deco times. As we hit the wreck, bait balls boiled out of the blue, Fusiliers exploding past us as they surged silvery in the water. There was more of a current than usual hence the activity of the Fusiliers. On the body of the wreck there were the usual suspects roaming around, a school of Blue-lined Snappers, a phalanx of blue and yellow swimming along.

Shaf peeled away from us to go explore the innards of the wreck (please note that wreck exploration and solo diving requires very specialized training and as such should only be done by suitably qualified divers). I finned down to one of the lifeboats lying disconsolately on the bottom, ghosting the sand. Even this small rusted hulk on the seafloor provided an excellent habitat for ocean organisms, bristle stars poked out of the openings and as I explored more, I was delighted to see two minuscule Pipefish, brown and white splotched which were apparently having a tryst on the top of the lifeboat. I excitedly waved Jehan over to show him the romantic twosome before swimming over the lifeboat to investigate the yellow-white sand around the boat.

That was where I had some slight misgivings about the dive. The sand was peppered with Gobys who poked their heads incongruously out of their holes to watch me warily. As I watched the fish, two merged into one and then split. Blinking a couple of times I stared again in disconcertion as the Gobys continued their party trick, two then one, two then one. That’s when I realized that the late night I had had before had caused me to get narced. There was little danger though as I had not the slightest desire to do anything like taking my reg off and attempting to skip along the ocean bottom. I gestured to Jehan that we should go up and level off at the top of the ship so that we could get more bottom time out of this dive and moved slowly up the wreck.

At the lip of the wreck, the surge was apparent and riding it was quite fun as the underwater wave pushed us up and under the edge of the top of the ship. Some caution is needed with this however as if the surge is too strong and you’re distracted (which is very easy given the preponderance of life on the wreck) you can either be slammed into the wreck or suffer an uncontrolled ascent to the surface from 20 meters, neither option being a good one. After enjoying the underwater surfing for a bit we ate up the rest of our time taking a closer look at the rubble of the ship scattered around its deck and mid ship. Having sunk in a storm, there were signs of a violent demise everywhere on the ship, giant tires and twisted metal littered the ship. The savage beauty of what nature can do to man’s creations is very much in evidence on this wreck.

Barracuda Reef: Bottom time – 52 minutes; Depth – 23.2 meters

Buddying up with Shaf can sometimes be an exhausting activity. While I like moseying around a reef, poking my head into crevasses in the hope of finding some interesting macro stuff to gaze adoringly and possibly have my head bitten off by a testy Moray Eel, Shaf like to swim….a lot….

So we swam along, taking some time out to check out the usual Phyllidia ocellata which were actually the two resident ones which are always present near the GPS point that we anchor on and a Chromodoris geminus  that we chanced on, quite a beautiful specimen almost glowing blue and yellow. And we continued swimming along, me pausing occasionally to stick a head in a crevasse, only to look up and see Shaf disappearing determinedly into the blue yonder. Of course Jehan was right next to me the whole time so I wasn’t exactly solo diving but Shaf in addition to being quite active under water has the sharpest eyes I have ever seen underwater. So I didn’t really want to miss out on anything he happened upon so we swam along, keeping an eye on each other.

We took a break from exploring the reef to have our hands cleaned by a zealous cleaner shrimp, beautifully red and yellow striped with ludicrously long white antennae. If you ever come across these critters on a dive, you can get a good manicure done by them in no time at all. Shaf entertained himself by playing with a see-through ghost shrimp while we had our manicures done. Moving on we noted that our no-deco time was ticking down and as Shaf and I exchanged signs that we needed to level off, a sudden movement from a ledge looming over us to the right grabbed our attention. A stunning, extremely large Batfish burst from under the reef, spooked by us and moving fast, a round, silver, black and yellow blur. What a way to end a dive!

While Shaf may enjoy swimming fast while diving, he does also like to be the most chill person I have ever seen ascending, hanging motionless and coming up at a snails pace with just his breathing. I quite enjoyed the experience as well, keeping him company, floating in the warm, blue embrace of the ocean, watching the tendrils and filaments of little sea creatures drifting by. Coming up from such a meditative trip is always tough for me as I break the surface and the sunlight is no longer filtered through the Grand Bleu.


Dive Log: Trug & Ten Fathoms (05/03/2010)

Dive #36 and #37, diving off Mount Lavinia with Colombo Divers, Boatman Ravinda, Divemaster Jehan and buddy Daniel.

Trug: Bottom time – 36 minutes; Depth – 29.2 meters

It was time for a bit of a change. The Trug was our poison of choice for our next dive, a barge in about 30m of water which due to its relatively small size is sometimes difficult to find in rougher seas. Today was however a flat calm day and Ravinda navigated and hooked onto the wreck without any issues. The water here wasn’t the deep blue that you usually see on the Cargo but had more of a greenish tinge, out of which the wreck appeared, like a spaceship rising out of the depths.

The difference in scale was the first impression I received, almost a tinge of disappointment after being spoilt by the immensity of the Cargo Wreck looming over me on most of my previous dives. I was soon however intrigued by the different spatial look of the wreck, since the boat had sunk upside down the keel rose like an aquatic spaceship out of the green, the twin rudders and giant propellers rising over us.

The Lionfish were the primary attraction on this dive, initially resting bat-like and macabre on the side of the rusted ship. This state of somnambulism however did not last for long. As we rounded the ship and came back along the wreck, the Lionfish had roused themselves and were now awaiting our return, in a neatly arranged line. There was no aggression in their demeanor, more a wary interest in what we were doing on their wreck. As we drifted over the line stretched out incongruously on the sand, they turned as one to look at us, flaring their beautiful red and white fins. We had to keep a close eye for the Lionfish for the rest of the dive as they popped up at the most unexpected places and the last thing you wanted to do was accidentally squash one of them against the wreck, which would probably earn you a stab from their venomous spine which I’m assuming wouldn’t be too pleasant.

As usual I couldn’t take my macro hat off and found a tiny, ethereally pink nudibranch that was moving up the side of the wreck, looking like a centimeter long piece of animated candy floss. Daniel distracted me with some difficulty from the nudi to show me a huge Honeycomb Moray that was gaping at us out of an old tire. Taking a break from the outside of the wreck we swam into the gloomy interior of the ship via the spacious swim though. The experience was eerie to say the least, the almost total darkness enveloping you while glass fish hung motionless in the interior of the wreck, little shards of reflected light in the black. Other fish moved ghostly in the distance and it was hard not to give into some primordial fear of being eaten by a monster of the deep. Of course the reality was that it was much more likely I would be inadvertently stabbed by an affectionate Lionfish so I calmed myself down and swam out of the other side of the ship gracefully bumping my head against the exit as I got distracted by the bubbles steaming out of the side of the ship.

As our time had come to an end we started our ascent amongst a storm of Fusiliers, flashing silver and yellow through the water as they gulped down floating particles in a slight current. Spanish Mackarel swam through the shoals looking for a snack, emenating an aura of power and purpose as they sleekly swam along. The Trug maybe a relatively small wreck, but the wonders on it are immense.

Ten Fathoms: Bottom time – 43 minutes; Depth – 17.2 meters

This was a typically murky dive on one of Colombo’s inner reefs. Bambadahaya as its known locally (Bamba – fathom, Dahaya – ten) proved to be a nudibranch heaven. Initially our attention was taken by a multitude of fish including a shoal of Blue-Lined Snappers and what looked like Jackhandle Barracuda. However the macro soon took over, to Daniel’s amusement as he couldn’t really understand why I was getting so excited about these little wonders. Of course not many people would understand and I barely understand myself but I do pretty much adore these brightly coloured, minute organisms which I consider a reward for being really attentive to your surroundings on a dive.

The warm up for the nudi’s were around seven nudis ranging from Phyllieda ocellata, Chromodoris fidelis and Phyllidiella zeylanica scattered on the reef as we scrutinized every inch. The crème de la crème was however at the end of the dive, out of the brown mucky water emerged a coral pink clam and on that clam was a nudibranch that made me metaphorically rub my eyes (metaphorically since I was wearing a mask). Delicate cerrata, like a multitude of red and yellow fronds covered the nudi as it sat picture perfect on the clam. It was then and there that I decided to empty all my savings accounts and get a camera for the next season, to have missed that shot is something I will regret for some time. The closest I can come to identifying what that nudi looked like was this just with a different colour scheme. I was so fascinated I literally had to be torn away from the nudi, since we had already gone into deco and it was most definitely time to leave.


Dive Log: Cargo Wreck & Barracuda Reef (4/03/2010)

Dive #34 and #35, diving off Mount Lavinia with Colombo Divers, Boatman Ravinda, Divemaster Jehan, Dive guide Nishan and buddies Daniel and Buddhi.
Cargo Wreck: Bottom time – 34 minutes; Depth – 30.6 meters

Spear-fishermen are a constant bane for divers, primarily those who think that it is sporting to strap tanks onto themselves and spear large, charismatic fish like Groupers and Rays. Most of the big fish are now nowhere to be seen because of the indiscriminate fishing done by such gentlemen who have wiped out such slow reproducing fish. The Cargo Wreck had a claim to fame that it was the home of two spectacularly giant Rays, known rather brilliantly as Elvis and Priscilla. I hadn’t seen them on the wreck yet and in fact no one had seen them that season and it was feared that they had ended up, via a spear-fisherman, at a fish market and on someone’s plate.

We started the dive at the bow of the ship and slowly moved to the stern, covering the 200m length while being constantly visually assaulted by the non-stop fish life on the wreck. Amongst the mysterious dark nooks and crannies of the wreck life exploded. I noticed a Cleaner Wrasse that looked like it was suffering from a bout of anorexia and was quite delighted to discover it was instead a Blue-Striped Fangblenny, iridescent blue and midnight black. Incidently this similarity is not a coincidence and the Fangblenny is actually a mimic for the Cleaner Wrasse to get close to fish to bite pieces of skin and scales with its fangs (no really….fangs).

I drifted towards an especially interesting section of the wreck which appeared to be where some sort of gear mechanism had been placed. Amongst the ghostly green gears, now rusted into immobility, was a whole ecosystem of shrimps. Yellow and green striped shrimps scurried amongst the darkness while another type of shrimp which was tiny and entirely translucent drifted through them, seemingly unconcerned about their apparent fragility.

Getting to the stern of the wreck I continued to investigate the surface of the ship, hoping to find more macro life, when, out of the corner of my eye I noticed an anomaly in the sand away from the ship. Glancing over I looked intently at the shape, which in the shimmery water suddenly resolved into two gigantic rays resting in the sand, Elvis and Priscilla! Even from a distance they were immense, though one was clearly about a third larger than the other but the bigger of the two looked about a meter or more in width. I turned to alert my dive buddies but they were already staring in awe at the two leviathans, resplendent in their majesty. I was beside myself in joy, the rays escaped the predations of the human hunters, and we had finally seen the King and Queen of the Cargo Wreck.

Barracuda Reef: Bottom time – 46 minutes; Depth – 23.5 meters

The one-two of the Cargo Wreck and Barracuda wreck never disappoints. The Barracuda were seemingly absent today but as we pottered along the reef we spooked a large Flower Grouper. You could almost see its eyes pop out as it suddenly saw us at close quarters and in a flurry of fins made a mad dive for a crevice in the reef. As to how a fish that was about half a meter fit into that gap I know not, but in a blink it was gone and we could not find it in the shadows no matter how hard we looked. In reality this disappearing act is probably the prime reason as to why it is still alive and not on someone’s dinner plate so I wished it well in its future escape endeavors and moved on.

The rest of the dive was a mix of big and small. I managed to find what would turn out to be the resident Barracuda Reef Pipefish, its 5cm body cleverly camouflaged against the rocky jumble of the reef. Next was a Giant Moray gaping blindly out of another gap in the reef. Though formidable looking if not downright scary, these fish can be approached quite closely. Just don’t go sticking a hand into their hole or trying anything silly with them or you will end losing a body part. Daniel was on fire with the macro scouting pointing out a number of greeny-brown spotted side-gilled slugs moving along the bottom, most probably Berthella martensi. The nudibranches were in evidence with the usual Phyllidia ocellata and Chromodoris geminus crawling around.

The grand finale however came along as our non-decompression time counted down and we started our slow ascent out of our underwater heaven. In the distance a shape loomed and came closer. A huge (and I mean huge, it looked as big as me) Humphead Wrasse moved in the distance before being obscured as we moved further up our dive profile. A giant of the deeps, elusive and rarely seen, to wrap up our dive.


Dive Log: Cargo Wreck & Serendip Reef (27/02/2010)

Dive #29 and #30 (and #31), diving off Mount Lavinia with Colombo Divers, Boatman Ravinda, dive buddies Nishan and Anu.

Cargo Wreck: Bottom time – 41 minutes; Depth – 29.1 meters

Some anomaly of the wreck attracted a second glance from me. As I swam in closer I was slightly taken aback to see a bit of the wreck move quite sinuously. Looking at my dive computer to confirm I was nowhere near 30 meters and as such couldn’t be narced I looked at the writhing piece of the wreck with unabashed interest. I almost whooped into my regulator when I realized that I had been staring at what looked like an elongated seahorse on a diet.

Beckoning Nishan over excitedly I pointed out the creature, which he later (once he didn’t have a regulator in his mouth) identified as a species of Pipefish, which for those of you who are scientifically inclined are in the Syngnathidae family, which includes the seahorses.

After metaphorically patting myself on the back for making this exciting discovery I occupied myself for the rest of the dive by poking my head into the dark portholes to stare at the eerie depths of the wreck, the twisted metal eerily green/brown in the darkness as fish flitted ghost like across the scene.

The beauty of the Cargo Wreck is that there’s literally something new every time you dive it. Each time the ship gets more familiar, the outlines more distinct, but everything else gets more mysterious. Nishan pointed us in the direction of a porthole that ran through the entire ship. Looking through this was almost like looking though an animated version of an old school View-Master as brightly coloured fish swirled and weaved tantalizingly past your circular view. One Oriental Sweetlip that came up to the porthole seemed ludicrously surprised to see me staring back at me, its black and yellow head contrasting with the deep blue behind it. 

Apparently Nishan had never seen that porthole despite diving the site hundreds of times. The Cargo never fails to amaze.

Serendib Reef: Bottom time – 58 minutes; Depth – 22.5 meters

Everybody say double digit decompression stop!

The problem with diving Serendib reef is that I tend to get a bit caught up in the wonders of the reef (though this happens to me on Barracuda as well) and the combination of a deep dive beforehand and a conservative computer usually means that I have to spend some close attention to my non-deco time ticking down else I have to hang midwater for an inordinately long time period until my computer decides its safe for me to get to the surface.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) there was a lot to distract me on this dive. We were smack bang in the middle of the coral heads that Serendib was known for. And life simply swarmed. A Spot-Tailed Dartfish immediately caught my attention as it flitted in front of me, sinous and defying a closer look. One of the coral heads harboured an Electric Ray and as usual we all mimed touching it and getting our hair stuck on end. Sometimes I think we collectively have a bit too much nitrogen in our system.

This suspicion was further heightened when the sand winked at me as I swam over it. Having never had sand wink at me I decided in the interests of maintaining my sanity to take a closer look. At first look, the sand remained defiantly stationary, white with small black speckles. Then just as I started harbouring thoughts of aborting the dive due to pending lunacy, the sand winked again. I exhaled and sank to within inches of the cheeky sand spot to try and figure out what was going on at which stage the sand got up, dusted itself vigorously and swam off. The mystery had been solved and I excitedly beckoned the other divers over to take a look at the perfectly camouflaged Flathead, which had no designs on affecting my sanity and instead had simply been lying there waiting for dinner to approach.

Patting myself on the back for my observational skills, which incidently is tough when wearing full Scuba gear, I returned to the more familiar territory of the Oriental Sweetlips and the Sandperches to enjoy the rest of my dive on an aptly named dive site.