Saman the CDF Tracker; Hope if opportunities used correctly

It was a Wilpattu trip after almost a year’s absence in the park and a quite uncharacteristically late entrance into the park after a 3.30am arrival to Aanawila the night before. With the late entry and an experienced and super jeep driver (Nishantha: 0724125078) we were assigned a less experienced tracker, Saman who clambered in clutching some paperwork.

It was a bit of a surprise to find out that he was a member of the Civil Defense Force, what is thought to be one of the poorest trained and least popular sections of the armed forces in Sri Lanka. Someone had put it fairly accurately to me some time ago, that (rightly or wrongly) the general impression is that the CDF is a bunch of village thugs with guns.

Saman however was completely different from what I expected, very nice and eager. The documents he was clutching as he got into the vehicle turned out to be a bird guide book. As I identified a blue-faced malkoha and a racquet-tailed drongo, he sheepishly admitted that he wasn’t the best at bird ID’s and if he had known I was into birds he would have gotten a better guide from the office. Yet it was refreshing to be with Saman, not only did he look up a bird in the bird every time we saw one but he’s enthusiasm was infectious. I usually just click a photo for ID’ng later and go along my merry way especially with the waders since they are usually quite obscure, small and relatively dull. This time however it was an interesting trip because Saman was quite into trying to ID every bird we came across.

A character like Saman does raise an interesting issue. Every park that I have visited, from Yala to Wasgamuwa to Gal Oya, is understaffed with the majority of staff being temporary. In a park like Gal  Oya, rarely visited and relatively obscure it is somewhat excusable. But in a park like Yala, where turnover has on some days exceeded Rs. 1 million a day and is a frequent stop on the tourist trail, there is simply no excuse.

Yet at the same time while the parks, which generate such vital income, cry out for manpower, the Civil Defense Force is 35,000 strong without any discernible purpose that the army or the police could not fulfill. They are paid salaries and have pension schemes (http://www.lankajournal.com/2012/01/pension-scheme-for-civil-defense-force/) funded by the taxpayer. There has been some talk about the CDF ‘helping’ the DWC with the elephant-man conflict but why not simply reallocate resources?

Saman cannot be the only one of his kind in the CDF. There must be more individuals in entities such as the CDF who have a latent interest in nature, wildlife and who would benefit from being brought into the fold of the DWC, being trained and acquiring skills and pride in protecting a natural heritage. These same people are otherwise pulling a salary, holding a gun and sitting around doing nothing much the whole day. That money could be much better spent on someone who is creating value for the country like Saman is. Our problem is not only limited resources but the poor way in which we use our resources, driven by political expediency and short term gain. We can get around limited resources by thinking smart and acting with principle. Of course the key here is letting go of our apathy and complacency but currently the majority seems intent on not doing that as long as possible. It’s the age old story of Sri Lanka, potential but no will to make good on that potential.


Photo of the Week (01/30/2012): Pro Divers

There is nothing better than to dive with a group of accomplished divers. A dive group consisting of Divemasters and Instructors displaying perfect buoyancy during an ascent from a deep dive to 36 meters on the Gorgonian Gardens off Colombo.



Top 10 Memorable Ocean Experiences of 2011: No. 02 – Operation Rescue at Medhafaru

DJ and I had seen the net stretched taut on the crane like structure on the Medhafaru the last time we had dived and we knew it meant trouble. Sure enough on the next dive at the wreck, as Nish, Keerths, Daniel and I started our dive; the first thing I saw was an outline of a large fish, seemingly motionless next to the crane.

Swimming closer the silhouette resolved itself into a blue-line grouper that was hanging off the net by a loop that had effectively created a noose. You could see where it had tightened as the fish had fought, white flesh showing through the blue and green skin.

Initially it was hanging so still, swaying quietly in the surge that I thought it was dead but as I got right up next to it, its fins flapped and it tried to feebly get away. The nylon on the net was wrapped tight and taught against the fish. These groupers have a habit of lying in wait for prey and then shooting out at them and it looked like this fish had picked a very bad place to set an ambush, running right into the net. The net itself was knotted tight presumably by the fish twisting trying to get away from the encumberance.

It was strange to be quite so close to one of these fish as they are generally quite shy and only give you the briefest glimpse before hiding away in the shadows. Up close and personal the fish was quite magnificent, shimmering green and luminescent blue. The only thing that marred the picture was the bruised flesh around the net and the look of terror on the fish’s face. I never really thought that fish could look scared but the fear was palpable when looking at it.

I pulled out my knife and tried to figure out a way of cutting the grouper free without damaging it even more but the camera made things awkward. Calling Keerths over, I motioned for him to take the camera, tightening the lanyard around his wrist for safekeeping.

Things were still a bit tricky as I slipped the knife gently between the fish and the net strand, the fish’s body oddly pliant and fragile. The net tightened on the other side of the fish as a result and flesh and blood drifted off making me even more cautious. Every time I brought the knife up to cut the fish struggled and the water clouded with blood. After a couple of tried I started to wonder if it would be more merciful to kill the fish instead of putting him through the slow pain of a botched release.

I finally managed to slip the knife up towards the fish’s dorsal fin and gritted my teeth and pulled. With a snap the line parted and thankfully only a bit of blood was released. The fish hung motionless and free for a moment. Then in a moment it realized it was free and the body swung as the fins powered up and in a flurry of movement it was gone. A lucky survivor of the ghost nets that plagues our shipwrecks.


Photo of the Week (01/23/2012): The Trug

The propeller of the tug boat wreck fondly known as the Trug. Home of curious Lionfish and a superb swim through filled with glass fish.



Photo of the Week (01/16/2012): Divers on Taprobane East Wreck

Two divers explore the Taprobane East Wreck, one of our favourite wrecks on the outer reefs of Colombo. This day was a bit murkier than usual with about 15 meters of visibility instead of the usual 20-30m.


Read more here.


Photo of the Week (01/09/2012): Curious crab

A curious crab peers out from a crevasse on Degalmeda reef.
You can often see these crabs skittering away into the shadows as you approach so getting a good sighting of one is difficult!


Top 10 Memorable Ocean Experiences of 2011: No. 01 – Swimming with a Flatworm

It’s 2012 and I’m looking back on a 100 dives in 2011 and 200 since I started diving way back in 2009. Since this was my first full year of diving with somewhat reasonable dive skills and a camera, I figured I would put down some of the most memorable dives/events that I have had the privilege of experiencing during the season.

Of course a lot has happened so expect a multi-part post with the events in no particular order of significance.

I will start of with a characteristically geeky event, my brief if surprising swim with Thysanozoon nigropapillosum which rather less jawbreakingly is known as a Polyclad flatworm. Usually you see these vivid black and yellow flatworms innocuously sitting on the rocks on shallow reefs such as Palagalla so I have come to associate them with brown, murky water and silty dive sites. I did see one launch itself for a brief swim, undulating gracefully through the water so I knew that they were quite mobile as well.

Thysanozoon nigropapillosum sitting pretty on a reef, confident that no-one is going to try and pronounce its name.

The fateful dive was just like any other on the Taprobane east Wreck, a long boat ride with the fresh sea air waking you up from a groggy early morning start. Anchoring onto the wreck we dropped down quickly to the site. Being at 30m and a flat profile we didn’t have much time until our bottom time was used up so I moved away from the rest, looking around at the bright corals and dazzling fish, eager to try out the relatively new camera.

As I swam over the main section of the boat, the hollowed ribcage of the wreck encrusted in bright colours, a spark of movement caught my eye. Glancing down I was…taken aback would be a good word to use I guess. Of all the most incongruous things to see on this site, it was one of these flatworms swimming along with me just skimming the wreck. I have never before or since seen a flatworm on such a deep site (but then we know so little about these sites that’s not saying much) so was flabbergasted.

I realized a bit too late that this was a superb photo opportunity and fumbling with the unfamiliar controls I tried to take a picture. I’m not sure if it sensed me somehow but the flatworm promptly did a nose dive with me rapidly following it. The flatworm swam down through the wreck onto the white sand while I tried to take as many pictures, sticking my hand down through the twisted metal as far as I could.

The flatworm comes in to land

This is unfortunately the only semi-decent photo I managed to take which was an inevitable back shot, quite dark and required a fair amount of photo shop to salvage.

The memory was quite memorable though, looking down and seeing the flatworm swimming along, black and gold against the coral encrusted wreck. Beautiful and completely unexpected.


Photo of the Week (01/02/2012): Happy New Year

Since I don't have much time to blog regularly these days, I've decided to do a small showcase of my underwater photography.

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a good start to the year!
A shy Blenny on a reef in Colombo (probably a colour morph of a bi-colour blenny)

Equipment used: Sea & Sea DX-2G