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…

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