Features
A visit to the wreckage of aircraft carrier HMS Hermes

By Felician Fernando,
Open water scuba instructor.
The aircraft carrier HMS Hermes set sail from Trincomalee h arbour on 09/04/1942 on a mission. A Japanese invasion was impending. About 70 carrier borne Japanese bombers which had taken off from 3 Japanese carriers which had entered Bay of Bengal the week before attacked the Trincomalee harbour end other allied naval assets. The Japanese air fleet managed to sink this carrier and other destroyers during the attack. They also attacked the Trincomalee harbour and the oil tanks. The carrier sank within 10 minutes after being hit by the Japanese aircraft. From the complement of HMS Hermes 19 officers including the captain (R. J. Onslaw) of the ship and 278 ratings lost their lives. Two three days later heavily decomposed bodies were found floating. A hospital ship rescued survivors of the HMS Hermes. The photographer who managed to save his life visited the site along with his son on board a Sri Lankan naval vessel. The vessel midshipmen Capt. Edward Jayawardana had entered these details in his journal. Subsequently the son of the photographer wrote in a journal of the ill-fated carrier taking the notes his father made. He also revisited Sri Lanka along with his father’s ashes to dump it over the shipwreck to fulfill his father’s last wish. Incidentally Capt. Edward Jayawardana was again tasked to carry out this mission. These incidents are appended in the next edition of the journal of HMS Hermes.

I clarified the details obtained from the Internet regarding the positions from Capt. Edward Jayawardana. I was determined to visit this wreckage and made elaborate plans since this wreckage has a historic value. The mission was quite dangerous and life threatening as the wreckage was supposed to be lying at a depth of 60 meters according to the information. The PADI recreational dive planner limits its dives only up to 42 meters. The non-decompression limit is 9 minutes at this depth and any stay beyond that requires decompression stop starting at 9 - 12 meters. Depending on the length of stay.

The divers air consumption at this depth is normally very high due to high surrounding pressure which is about six times more than the surface. In my more than 2400 log dives, I had passed 40 meters about 45 times. Hence I was confident enough that I would not encounter any problems such as Nitrogen Narcosis, since during these dives I managed without any difficulties. Nitrogen Narcosis is the diver getting a feeling of intoxication, false safety, security and non responsiveness for buddy’s signals etc. due to the excess quantity of nitrogen in the blood stream.

On 14/04/02 my buddy and myself arrived at Batticaloa planning to dive next day. We managed to find a boat to transport us to the site. The boatmen were not familiar with the site since they haven’t fished in that area for many years. After a 45 minutes journey using the global positioning system we arrived at the approximate site. The echo sounder/ fish finder sounded a depth of 48 meters. I got the boatmen to shift the boat forward and backward and recorded the depth on both sides which was around 60 meters and laterally 48 meters. The position matched the details of Capt. Edward Jayawardana. We got the boatman to anchor, after determining that the boat was steady on anchor, we dropped the two additional tanks fitted with an extra primary and secondary air sources to a depth of 15 meters. Thereafter we got into our diving equipment carried out thorough functional checks and rolled over the boat to the deep sea. We directly swam to the anchor rope and started our descent.

Although the current was very strong we managed to descend along the anchor rope. My buddy was also an experienced PADI scuba diving instructor. We stopped at 15 meters to check the additional tanks and secured it to the anchor rope. After satisfying ourselves about the safety of the additional tanks we started descending from these additional tanks knowing the fact that they were our life saving equipment. After spending 20 minutes at a depth of 48 meters since we cannot arrive on the surface directly, as the excess nitrogen in our tissues would bring us to decompression sickness, which can be fatal. Upon descending up to 30 meters we could see the astonishing site of HMS Hermes which was my dream to explore lying in a majestic way. The environment had not caused any damages . The ship was very well intact. It had tilted portside to the ground.

There were large and tall gorgnia corals, giant seaferns all over the wreckage. These corals had grown uninterrupted over the past 60 years. There were large fish moving freely not caring about the two intruding divers. We saw fish like red snappers, larges Travelly (paraw) seer and Barrac We secured a rope to the anchor line and started moving along the wreckage of the ship. We observed an anti aircraft gun at the mid section. The corals were very fascinating. During my 2400 logged dives at places like Maldives, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and in local areas such as Negombo, down south , Trinco and in other places I had never sighted such beautifully grown Georgina corals. The fish like large Trivelly were not concerned about the divers presence. We were hovering at a depth of 48 meters without descending to the seabed.

The wreckage, which was in good shape, needs many more dives to explore fully. We managed only to explore 50m out of 195 meters. The ship had sunk tilting port side down. The depth to the starboard side was 48 meters and sand bottom/seabed is at a depth of 55 meters. After spending 20 minutes on the wreckage we started to ascend along the anchor rope. We stopped at the additional tanks and carried out decompression stops as required by our dive computers. The additional tanks were very handy since we had only about 70 bar left in our tanks when we reached the additional tanks.

It is pertinent to mention the 20-min spent at the wreckage was the most exciting and adventurous dive in my entire diving career. A dive to this wreck would be very interesting and an adventure for any experienced and nature loving diver. The surface current in this area is generally very strong, the water clear. Divers will have to be well prepared and physically fit and need to be well aware of technical diving.

In the whole world there are only two wreckage of aircraft carriers for recreational divers to see. This is certainly one of them and the other is supposed to be the USS Saratoga .

All other wreckages of aircraft carriers rest in unreachable depths for recreational divers. Upon developing the film role we understood that we should use very powerful strobes to get clear images.

The details of the ship is as follows. LOA 195 m Boa 22 m weight 10950 tons. Weapons 5.5 cannons. 4 anti aircraft guns and 12 aircrafts.

In the future if the situation of the country returns to normal, an adventure technical dive to this historic wreckage would certainly be a major tourist attraction. Now the exact waypoint is marked in my instruments and this will enable me to reach the site with pinpoint accuracy.

The Australain destroyer "Vampire" which lost nine men is yet to be found. The aircraft carriers used by the Japanese force for these battles are supposed to have used by them to attack the Pearl Harbour as well.


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