Diving a WW2 shipwreck in Sri Lanka

Exploring a World War 2 shipwreck was all the glamour and glory you’d expect from something that sunk over 80 years ago. The SS British Sergeant was an armed merchant ship that was bombed by the Japanese in 1942.

When I started my diving journey in Sri Lanka, I discovered that Sri Lanka is a treasure trove of shipwrecks and a paradise for wreck lovers. If you venture further than its golden beaches, you’ll realise that the island has a richer story to tell.

The beauty of its destruction, its sheer size as it rests motionless on a seabed, gently humming against the currents while marine life seeks shelter in its cold iron embrace, has everything to make you falter and fall in love. And just like how shipwrecks claim souls, I too, was slowly succumbing to it.

I found myself falling in love with them, one wreck at a time.

History of the SS British Sergeant

British Sargeant

“On 9 April 1942, the crew of the SS British Sergeant watched in horror as Japanese Aichi D3A bombers ferociously dive-bombed the HMS Hermes. Part of that horrific feeling came from the realisation that they would be the next target. And they were.”

Ghosts of the Deep

Six Japanese planes terrorised the British Sergeant. They inundated her with bombs. The first shot straight to the hull on the starboard side which ripped the side wide open. The other three bombs hit the deck and broke the hull all the way to the keel. She retaliated and took down two Japanese planes with her to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker. On her last breath, she broke in half and sank, allowing time for her crew to make a quick escape. (sourced from Dharshana Jayawardena’s Ghosts of the Deep).

The Dive

As you descend from a glassy blue surface, a daunting silhouette sends shivers down your spine. Guided by the swift rhythm of your breathing and your fins, you gently move towards the mammoth of a wreck.

You reach the anchor at about 10m, gather your troops and descend further. A shoal of fish haphazardly greet you – erratically zooming past you, as if a warning.

It was my first time exploring a WW2 wreck, and all I could think about was the bomb holes and the supposed ‘cathedral’ effect it had created. It was ironic to associate a divine, almost transcendent term with a part of a shipwreck that was attacked by six Japanese planes during a war. A war that tore countries apart and claimed millions. But I guess, that’s where the beauty lies – when spectacular things grow in a path of destruction, showing promise of life and resilience after a devastating event. Years later, it’s more romantic and beautiful, than haunting and heartbreaking.

The dive group explored the ins and outs of this wreck. We wriggled through the mid-size openings and battled currents, only to be left in awe and sheer disbelief while we were on the inside, looking out. It suddenly didn’t feel like we were scuba diving. The water inside the wreck was cold and still. It was hauntingly beautiful. Shoals of bright yellow fish ebbed and flowed with the water – part of the sea, part of the ship, they hummed. Corals swayed and danced for us in unison, flashing colours of white, pink and yellow, as their inhabitants ducked in and out, eager to avoid the intruders peering in through glass shades.

We explored the shipwreck in two parts, distinguished between the hull and the stern.

Resurfacing from the first dive, and after a quick surface interval, we jumped back in – ready to explore the second half of this wreck.

But, the tides had turned. Poseidon was visibly annoyed at these strange humans flitting around his treasure trove. In a swift motion, the sea changed. The winds picked up, the waves were growing bigger, the current stronger, the water colder and the visibility reduced to about 2-3 metres. Inside the wreck, conditions were worse – it was a warning sign from the Gods of the sea to leave. After 30 minutes, we obeyed and hoisted ourselves back onto small fishing boats. We set sail through choppy seas, towards the safety of the shore, thankful for a beautiful dive. 

About the Dive Site

  • Depth – 24 m
  • Location – 6 km west of Kayankerni
  • What to see: shipwreck (duh), corals, shoals of fish and other marine life

When to Dive the British Sergeant?

The nearest accessible town is Pasikudah, located on the east coast of Sri Lanka. The best time to dive the east coast, and this wreck is between the months of May to August. However, due to the effects of climate change, the weather is unpredictable. So, it’s best to check with your dive site. Head to the dive centre early in the morning, as winds and currents tend to pick up by afternoon.

Dive Centre in Pasikudah

We dived with Olivenzo from Scuba Addicts. We had initially planned to dive with another dive centre (he who shall not be named), but they cancelled on us at the last minute. Luckily, Scuba Addicts was available. Olivenzo was reliable, safe and entertaining. The dive shop was moderately equipped. Make sure to contact him in advance, if you wish to dive this WW2 shipwreck in Sri Lanka.

If you’re an avid wreck explorer, whether new or old, Ghosts of the Deep gives you a detailed account of the shipwrecks in Sri Lanka. I implore you to buy it.

Yours truly,

Imperfect Traveller

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