Photo of the Week (08/29/2012): Green bee-eater close up

Something overland for a change, the green bee-eater is a common bird in our national parks.. From Wilpattu to Uda Walawe and sometimes even in Colombo you will see these green gems flitting back and forth. Keep a close eye on them and you can see them snapping butterflies and dragonflies out of the air.


They do have a habit of returning to the same perch after hunting so for the patient photographer offers a good chance of photographing launching or in the case above, if you're slow on the trigger, just about to take off.


Johnny the Wonder Guide

The thing with diving your backyard most of the time and diving independently is that I sometimes forget the value of a good spotter and guide. It was such a person, the enigmatic Shaf formerly of Colombo Divers and now loose somewhere in the Maldives, who showed me the jeweled wonders of nudibranchs. Since getting a wideangle lens however, I have become a bit of a laggard at spotting the small stuff, obsessing more about vistas than the macro world.


The small stuff vs. the big stuff

The value of a good guide was really however brought home to me at White House Rock in the Andamans. Johnny was our guide for the experienced and photographer divers and he was the consummate professional and also has a gorge named after him. Calm and cool with us being independent divers and the eye of a hawk. Nothing was too small for his attention though I tried to give him as wide a berth as possible since I had my wide angle on so I didn’t really want to know what I was missing in the small stakes.

Johnnie (left) and Ivan (right in blue shirt) in conference

The tunnel vision brought on by the wide angle lens was really brought home in one incident. I was standing on my head trying to get the perfect angle on a sea fan, a beautiful dual fan with a shoal of glass fish.

See anything? Anything a few centimeters long and like a pipefish?

After getting what I thought was a decent photograph, I moved on to find another subject. About 5 minutes later I had a polite tap on my shoulder and turning found Johnny beckoning eagerly. I was a bit surprised to see him taking me back to the fan I had just photographed.

See anything now? Zoomed in and crop of the original. Look at the bottom left. 

Johnny pointed at the base of the second section of the fan and getting my nose in, I was delighted to see two beautiful pipefish, blue and orange. Unfortunately I could only get a photo for the sake of a photo as I had to unscrew the wide angle lens, hold on to that, move the strobe, and get into position to take the photograph. Not an easy task if you’re not an octopus.

The pipefish, what beauties


Photo of the Week (08/22/2012): Taking the batfish for a walk

No dive on the Medhafaru wreck is complete without the Batfish. These large, spade shaped fish come in shoals of about 10 and are a delight. Some of the friendliest fish around its not uncommon to be given an escort by them and they love playing with bubbles, chasing them down and engulfing them.


True clowns of the sea and guaranteed to make your surface interval amusing.


Top 10 Memorable Ocean Experiences of 2011: No. 10 – The British Sergeant Aftermath

It had been a great trip so far. Admittedly the 3am drive down left a bit to be desired but the two dives on the mystery wreck were mind blowing. An eagle ray soared past us as we hovered over the wreck and huge trevalley moved in the shadows as we swam into the ghostly ship lying scatted on the bottom and hordes of snappers swirled above us, a solid mass of fish. I’m still not sure how this was but the air from our tanks tasted of strawberries and the dives were simply world class.

As the sun set on the beach at Kayankerni we exultantly discussed our evidence on what the ship could be, the length indicated a World War II wreck but there was still much to be done the next day to further uncover the mystery. It was then that we made our fatal mistake. We decided that nothing would cap the day better than a couple of beers. Thus fortified with this foolish idea we proceeded to Oddamaivadi to get some beer. Over the Kayankerni bridge as we rattled along the road that was under construction we heard a thud. Shortly followed by a warning light on dashboard and the death rattle of the engine seizing up.

The deadly section of the diversion road

Rather befuddled we sat in the car for a few minutes before deciding to move it to the side of the road in case a passing combine harvester gave us a gentle tap on the back in the approaching gloom. It was then that we started to meet the inhabitants. As I pushed the Swift to the side of the road (it’s a surprisingly light car) a motorcycle spluttered to a stop and our Guardian Angel turned up to assist, heavily disguised of course as a mustachioed and saronged old man, GB Kahn. While DJ and I stood bewildered he in quick succession organized a truck to tow us to the nearest garage.

The garage, actually a large field with a shack, turned out to be the haunt of Sudu Malli, the black as night mechanic who soulfully advised us to get a new filter and he would try his best the next day. As we had reached the limit of what we could do for the night we arranged a tuk to get back to base and a jovial character by the name of Ali picked us up.

As we proceeded to buy a couple of beer bottles (to console ourselves) Ali with great gusto started talking. And he didn’t stop. His stories were various and colourful. He started off with tales of how he used to run goods for the LTTE and the army, until both were pissed off with him and he had to move to Colombo. There it turned out he was arrested for dealing marijuana and he regaled us with how he used to escape rape on a daily basis, including unwanted specifications of how the victims were chosen as they used rudimentary toilets.

Ali continued to talk and swig beer from a can while we drove on. He took a short but terrifying detour to show us a field where he as involved in a land dispute. For a second we thought we were going to be have a sticky end somewhere in a lost field. Ali continued to talk, now he was telling us about his experiences with ghosts on the road. We later learned that he loved to smoke up..which probably explains the ghosts. He also told us he transports corpses in his tuk, a sort of open air hearse. We were reassured to hear however that he washes his tuk regularly in the lagoon.

Ali was even full of political soundbites, a particularly witty statement was, mamma Thambi, appi nari, ogollong Sinhala, sinhayao…koti thang malla. Which for political correctness left a bit to be desired.

It was with a sinking feeling that we realized Ali had no intention on leaving us when we got to the bungalow. Instead he helped himself to a bottle of beer, regaled us with a story on circumcision and proceeded to show us how his belly dances. I cannot make this shit up. Apparently it was because he was quite diligent with his yoga…yoga I say again. Then just before he left he showed us another one of his life skills, twisting his ear up and keeping it balled up. He then serenaded us with a short tune before bumpily heading off into the night leaving us speechless and not a little traumatized.

The next morning dawned bright and early. The promise of a hot day was kept as instead of diving as we had hoped, we travelled around Oddamavadai, this time with a mercifully silent trishaw driver, in search of a petrol filter. Tracking one down finally in the shop of the town’s other crazy mechanic, Meegamuwa Kolla, whom we later learned had a ‘wire in his head’ (i.e. was batshit crazy) we had Sudu Malli install this and we crossed our fingers.

Our bungalow

Three wheeler with our dive gear inside

No luck as the engine was rock solid. Which then brought us to the tricky part of how the hell we were going to get a Suzuki Swift back to Colombo.

Luckily there turned out there was a truck, Anoja was her name that needed to get to Colombo and had space in her innards for the Swift. Of course this being Sri Lanka nothing was quite that simple. The truck needed repairs to its clutch. And the driver had to come from Batticaloa with the parts. Thus we sat in the smallest patch of shade in all of Batticaloa while we waited for Saadi the driver and his unnamed squint eyed assistant to turn up. Once they turned up they and Sudu Malli dug around in the bowels of the truck until finally it seemed it was all fixed.

Transport negotiations

The next step was to find rope and we were told there was a rope shop close to the garage. We proceeded out of Sudu Mallis and turned left and walked 500 meters in the baking sun with no rope shop in sight. In response to our enquiries, we were told the shop was towards Sudu Malli’s Garage. We alked another 500 meters past the garage with the same result and the same response to our queries about the mysterious rope shop. Needless to say we were less than amused to find the shop smack dab in front of the garage, cleverly disguised as a fishing supplies shop.

Entering the shop we asked the chap behind the counter whether we could purchase some rope. He gave us a nervous glance and ran out of the shop. DJ and I looked at each perplexed, we were probably sweaty and a bit smelly but hardly that objectionable. The mystery was solved a few minutes later as the man came bag dragging a boy whose role it was to interprete, as he only spoke Tamil.

Rope procured, we were secured to Anoja’s behind and she then proceeded to take us for a slow tow to a service station so we could load the car into her innards.

Dragged through town

The rather innovative process that was explained to us on how this was to be achieved was to put the car up on a hydraulic jack, back the truck up and then push the car in. Of course the first service station refused to let us do this, so we proceeded back into town, the townspeople regarding us with interest and possibly a sense of déjà vu as we trundled past them again, this time heading to Meegamuwa Kolla's service station. Suffice to say the plan of how to get the car into the truck was not quite as easy as it sounded but much sweating and pushing and jousting, not me of course, I was too busy taking photographs, we finally got the car in.

Wrestling the car into Anoja

All that was left was the drive back to Colombo. We squeezed into the back of Anoja’s cabin where there was just enough leg space to give us hope but not enough to allow for a comfortable ride. For one brief, terrifying moment Saadi played some South Indian tunes at full blast, before catching our looks and interpreting them as meaning that we would happily kill him and his assistant and drive the damn truck back to Colombo if he continued with the music.

In blessed silence we proceeded towards Colombo, a 9 hour odyssey where I learned something interesting. Transport trucks do not have anything in terms of suspension so you could feel every single jolt from the road. Needless to say by the end of the trip I had reached a level of pain that I had not thought possible.

So there it is, strawberry flavoured air, giant trevalley, a crazy tuk driver, even crazier mechanics and a temperamental truck called Anoja. A truly once in a lifetime way to end a brief east coast season for 2011.


Photo of the Week (08/15/2012): Tuna ballet

Another common site on the Cargo wreck, especially during the start and end of the west coast seasons (October-November and March-April) when the bait balls are in full force. The tuna come in and hit the shoals, small hunting packs of 3-5. You can see them flex their fins and gear up before in a flash of silver coming in and hitting the shoal for a quick meal.


The trick is not to get too distracted by the wreck itself and keep an eye on your surroundings and once you spot the fish, keep them in sight!


Top 10 Memorable Ocean Experiences of 2011: No. 09 – The Mysterious Wreck

It still seems strange but at the time I dived the huge wreck in Vakarai, it never occurred to me to question what the wreck was, what ship had gone down when to create this paradise? I guess at the time, I was still a relative neophyte, more concerned with fish and photographs. This wreck was the first that really woke my interest in wrecks as more than just fish aggregators and pretty sites.

On our return to Colombo, DJ enrolled me inadvertently in his search for the name and origin of the mysterious wreck. As we scoured lists of sunken ships and coordinates it became apparent that there were two strong candidates for the wreck, both sunk during the Japanese attack in April, 1942 which also sank the world famous Hermes.

The first candidate was one of the ships from the Hermes convoy, the merchant navy ship the British Sergeant which was an oil tanker that had put out to sea that fateful day before being sent to the bottom by the Japanese raiders. I found a rather thrilling story about one of the survivors and the valuable information in it that the ship had split in two before sinking. The ship had also been steaming towards shallower water when it had been attacked. Rather intriguingly two Japanese planes had also been shot down in the attack according to some reports.

The second candidate was a Norwegian ship, the Norviken which had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and had been badly damaged by the Japanese planes . The reports indicated that the ship had run aground near a place which indicated a relatively shallow area as the final resting place of the ship. Confusingly the Norviken had also broken in two before sinking. However the Norviken should have been in relatively shallow water while the wreck we were diving was shallowest at around 12 meters from the top so in at least 18 meters depth of water

DJ had very handily found both the wrecks on the brilliantly named site; WRECK site and this had some excellent information on sizes and weights of both ships. That coupled with some very helpful information from the British Merchant Navy Old Friends Plus forum  with photographs and tonnage, left us with a relatively simple task to narrow it down to one of the two ships. Given the fact that the British Sergeant was double the tonnage of the Norviken it was obvious that it would be bigger of the ships, in fact the width of the British Sergeant was, according to the sites, around 16.5 meters while the Norviken was at around 13.9 meters. We focused on the width more than the length because it would be an easier exercise to measure the width when 20 odd meters underwater than the length which could have been over 100m long.

We departed from Colombo with a clear aim, measure the width and do more photo documenting to try and match the ship to one of the contenders. Leaving at the ungodly hour of 3am we drove straight through to Mankerni, over the Kayankerni bridge to meet Lal, our fixer at Thennadi Bay. Straight from the car we jumped into the boat and headed out to the wreck focused on our mission.

Visibility was excellent as we started, 15-20 meters of blue as we swam along the wreck. An eagle ray flapped lazily past us, surely a good omen of an amazing two dives to come. The first dive was purely for orientation, our last couple of dives here being a few months before and dives which were rudely interrupted by the tank incident.

DJ Swims along the wreck

The first stop was an immense rip in the stern area of the ship, a daunting looking cave that took a bit of willpower to swim into. Slight beams of light glistened on the other side of the cave as we swam in and let our eyes adjust

Underwater cave

 A pair of Giant Trevalley darted into the cave and into the depths of the ship. Leaving the inside of the ship well alone (well I did at least) we swam back to the middle to greet our old friends the batfish. The effects of fishing were evident here as well as nets festooned the wreck.

Crappy photo of the GT

Net festooning the wreck

On the second dive it was down to business. Finding a suitable place to measure the wreck was difficult as with the obstructions trying to find a level place to measure was a challenge. With only one reel we couldn’t take more than one measurement so find a suitable location, I held on to one end of the line at the edge of the hull as DJ swam to the opposite side reel in hand. Visibility at the bottom left a bit to be desired so all I saw after a few minutes was the line stretching into the blue. It was a bit of a relief to see DJ come back rolling up the reel after having carefully made a knot where he had reached the other side of the hull.

Taking our measurement

DJ exploring

On the surface

Getting back to land and our bungalow we carefully laid out the reel and measured out the length of line that corresponded roughly to the width of the ship. We had taken out around 19 meters of line which though larger than the widths we had for both ships seemed to make it much more likely that we were dealing with the British Sergeant than the Norviken. Later on comparing old photographs with those of the wreck, especially around the railings at the bow, the weight of the evidence does lie upon the side of the British Sergeant. The lack of anything in the near vicinity for the ship to run aground also indicated that we had indeed identified the British Sergeant. The photos here are not the best since I was lacking a wide angle lens and to be frank wasn’t very good at this kind of thing yet but click here for DJ’s superb photographs and write up.

Railings on the ship

Elated at a superb day, as the sun set on a beautiful day on the east coast we made a fateful decision. One that would lead to an adventure of sorts that I have never experienced and hopefully never experience again and to us missing out on diving the British Sergeant for the rest of the season. We decided to celebrate by getting a couple of beers.

To be continued…


Photo of the Week (08/08/2012): Baby box fish

Every time I see one of these fellows, I hear a tinkling sound in my head. It seems so cartoonish, bobbing back and forth with no visible signs of propulsion. This is a juvenile Yellow boxfish, blessed with the lovely latin name of Ostracion cubicus. Later on in life, they get darker and more serious looking but the babies are bright, colourful and for me at least, quite amusing.


Not a very common site but look for them on the wrecks in Colombo in sheltered areas, being a few centimeters long they would be quite difficult to spot if not for the very bright colours. It is poisonous though, emitting a toxin when stressed, so it would be best to leave it well alone.


Top 10 Memorable Ocean Experiences of 2011: No. 08 – Seas of the East

The seas of Batticaloa. The mysterious East. After so many years of war and restrictions these seas were the great unknown and rumours of shipwrecks and reefs hounded my dreams. It was with some excitement to say the least that we collected on the beach in Thennadi Bay, Mankerni in August where a flat sea met white sand in preparation for three days of exploratory dives.

This was rough shod diving to say the least. The tank valves and o-rings looked quite worse for wear and much cursing and the hiss of air escaping accompanied us setting up the tanks. At the end of our battle with the tanks we had around 120 bar left in each tank and to compound things my integrated computer decided to run out battery as we rolled over for the first dive. Thus the introduction to the east left a bit to be desired, low on air and 4 meters of visibility and no idea about depth, bottom time or how much air I had left. The fish life on Leather coral reef though was prolific, anemones and clown fish dotted the rocks and we almost had to push through the shoals of snappers. Unfortunately I had made the rather silly decision not to take my camera with me so no photos were forthcoming.

A delicate battery change later we assembled back on the beach the next morning with the promise of a new shipwreck, an unidentified mammoth ship lying 27 meters deep off Vakarai. After our usual battle with the tanks and o-rings we headed out. Viz was not the best as we headed down to the wreck and to be frank the first sight of the wreck left a bit to be desired. It was upside down and we started swimming along the stern. The size of the ship was impressive and there were a few interesting anemones on the ship but it was nothing much too really write home about. A sudden concussion jarred us while we swam, an unfortunate indication that the lazier fishermen in the area were dynamiting, destroying and raping the very reefs their livelihoods depended upon.

Bubble anemone on the hull

There were loads of these small anemones on the ship as well

The slightly boring dive continued until we reached the section where the ship seemed to have been wrenched apart. The ship’s structure ended abruptly and there was an open space after which the next half of the ship lay. This section was truly awe inspiring. The top of the structure appeared to have a multitude of holes in the top through which the light streamed, like a giant underwater cathedral. On its own this section of the ship looked amazing. The ship also pulsed with life, solid shoals of snappers swam in and out of the ship while multi coloured coral dotted every available surface. Anemones complete with clown fish dotted the wreck here and there and friendly butterfly fish swirled around. Unfortunately as we had taken some time to get to the spot we were almost out of air so had to come up for a surface interval before we could get back down to explore more thoroughly.

Fish explosion

Friendly batfish

On the second dive we headed straight for the broken section of the ship and just hung there enjoying the show, almost too befuddled to even take photographs. As we adjusted to the hustle and bustle of the wreck, I moved in to photograph what looked like an anemone flowing in the current, a quick glance to my computer confirming I had around 60 bar and enough bottom time left.

Last photo I took before the shit hit the ceiling

With that in mind it was quite disconcerting to suddenly have my regulator stop delivering air, checking my computer I absorbed the fact that a second after it showed 60 bar, it showed a blinking zero bar. It must have taken split seconds but as I continued to watch the gauge it went up to 50 and as I took a breath went down to zero again delivering a minute amount of air. This being a classic symptom of a tank that hasn’t been opened properly I rather quickly swam up to another diver and indicated I was out of air. Breathing out of the octo, I checked my tank but it was fully open which completely threw me. Getting back onto the boat, a bit shakily, the mystery was solved as it turned out that the tank was corroded and the corrosion had come up and blocked the valve. Trying to get the reg of the valve was the next task and finally when we wrenched it off, aluminum oxide blew out coating myself and the boatman in fine, grit.

It was an ignominious end to what had been two spectacular dives. Unfortunately as we had come specifically to explore sites we didn’t have the time to go back to this wreck and ended our last day with a dive to a shallow but interesting wreck, the Lady McCullum and another reef. The giant wreck would have to wait for another day.

Fish on the Lady McCullum

The sun sets on the seas of the east


Photo of the Week (08/01/2012): Hunting Blue Fin Trevalley

Since I alluded to the feeding action on my last Photo of the Week post about the stoned octopus, I figured I would post an image of the action. The Wall, a dive site which was ridiculously convenient to get to from Vinnie’s dive center in the Andamans was full of life and amazing action. The top was home to shoals of bait fish and shoals of blue fin trevally would come charging in and in a flash hit the bait balls.


The focus lag on the DX-2G makes action photography a bit of a challenge but I managed to get some shots off. More to follow at a later date!