HMS Hermes – A Tech Diver’s dream!
Technical Diving Adventures in Sri Lanka
by Chris Sammut
If you are an experienced and suitably qualified technical diver who has experienced the most of what the South Pacific has to offer and are looking for that next big tech/wreck adventure than how about diving on the world’s first purpose built aircraft carrier in the exotic location of Sri Lanka?
Sounds too good to refuse? Well it was for me!
I was asked by my friends at Abyss Scuba Diving in Sydney, if I would consider joining them on a Tech diving trip, to dive the World War 2 British Aircraft Carrier, HMS Hermes in Sri Lanka.
It sounded like all my adventurous dreams had been answered at once!
I had always thought about travelling to somewhere really exotic like the sub-continent but it seemed some Tech diving adventure elsewhere always won my hard earned holidays, so with key words like Tec Diving, WW2 Aircraft Carrier and Sri Lanka, I just couldn’t resist! Not to mention that she is one of only three diver accessible aircraft carriers in the world!
Rachael at Abyss had planned an information night with Jerry from Dive Adventures who was organising this trip. Most of us had been on overseas dive trips organised by Dive Adventures, so we all felt very comfortable and confident that this trip would also be a great success, but Jerry wanted to ensure that we were prepared for a truly unique adventurous and exotic experience!
So aside from all the usual medical and travel precautions that go with any dive trip overseas and particular to the tropics there were things we needed to know to get the most out of this particular dive trip first was experience in technical diving as the wreck lies on its portside at 54 metres so all dives were done using twin 11litre aluminium tanks with 10litre aluminium sling tanks containing a decompression mix of 50% nitrox, secondly was experience in utilising Surface Marker Buoys and reels as doing drift decompression was the norm and the area was subject to strong currents, we also needed to take everything to do the dives safely apart from tanks, tank bands and weights as these would be supplied. It is also important to realise that Sri Lanka is currently recovering from 30 years of war, and Batticaloa the area in which we would be staying had been hit hard in the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, so emergency medical facilities are limited.
We were informed that the most important things we needed to take were to do with our attitude, an open mind, a sense of adventure, a sense of humour, and patience were all virtues that will make this trip to Sri Lanka a success.
I couldn’t wait bubbling with excitement and a hint of apprehension of the unknown! I had heard mixed stories before I left, some that sounded like sheer horror to others that were told with excitement by those whom had already booked the same trip again for next year!
I met my friends from Abyss at Sydney Airport in the same state of readiness, everyone wearing broad smiles as we boarded our Singapore Airlines flight for Colombo, Sri Lanka. As any experienced travelling diver can imagine most of us had exceeded our baggage allowance, with up to 30kg’s per person for our group this didn’t appear to be a problem and none of us were hit with excess baggage fees. Our flight to Singapore took seven hours and was very comfortable, the five hour stop over at Changi Airport gave us the opportunity to make some last minute purchases and stretch our legs over a couple of beers at one of the many bars and soon enough we were boarding our five hour flight to Colombo.
We were met at Colombo Airport by our drivers, who took us in their air conditioned mini-coaches to our twin share hotel rooms at nearby Negombo for the night, after a refreshing shower, a good nights sleep and a nice cooked breakfast our drivers again met us to take us from Negombo on the west coast to the Deep Sea Divers resort on the east coast at Batticaloa. Along the way we stopped to visit Hindu and Buddhist temples, enjoying elephant rides and viewing a wild elephant on the side of the road were among the highlights of the trip itself.
We arrived at Deep Sea divers resort late in the evening where we were greeted by our host PADI IDC staff Instructor Felician Fernando or “Feli” to his friends, we were taken to our rooms to find they were clean, comfortable, and air conditioned. After the necessary paperwork it was time to get our dive equipment set-up for our week of adventure.
The tenders were fibreglass “banana” type boats similar to those used in the shore based operations of Truk Lagoon, each boat carried extra oxygen cylinders, the coxswains were very experienced with the local conditions and the boats although basic were reliable and comfortable enough for the task.
After a backward roll with twins and sling tank descending into the Indian Ocean, the sea was very clear blue and darkening as we reached the wreck.
HMS Hermes was the first Royal Navy warship specifically designed as an aircraft carrier, built by Sir W.G. Armstrong – Whitworth, she was completed at HM Dockyard Devonport in July 1923. Powered by two Geared Parsons’ Steam Turbines, with two shafts and six boilers producing 40,000hp she was capable of 25knots.
It was after her distinguished service in the Atlantic Ocean hunting German U-boats early in WW2 that HMS Hermes was sent to Ceylon. Early in April 1942 the Allied Naval Fleet based at Trincomalee were ordered to scramble south following advanced warning that a Japanese aerial attack was imminent.
80 dive bombers with escort fighters from the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu diverged on the Hermes and her escorting Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire; both were sunk with the Hermes having received over 40 direct hits.
Today, HMS Hermes lies on its portside, although the stern section aft of the superstructure appears to be twisted, having collapsed a little more she is now covered in black corals, and beautifully coloured fans with massive schools of enormous pelagic fish such as Trevally and Tuna swarming above whilst smaller colourful tropical species darted in and out of the wreck itself.
As anyone could imagine this wreck is huge, so a week spent to explore her is easily justified, in-fact some of our team stayed on a few extra days to continue their explorations, but where to begin is anyone’s guess or choice.
For our first dive the anchor landed amidships just behind the island, in our Nitrogen Narcosis induced state our crew split in “star-burst” formation, with each buddy team exploring a different part of the wreck, for our first dive I followed buddies Feli and Sue Burnett toward the stern for a closer inspection of those huge screws, whilst Sue was inspecting them at close quarters, I swam off a couple of metres further so that she looked like an ant inspecting these massive bronze sculptures, further dives saw us exploring the “Island” (bridge superstructure on an aircraft carrier) with its crow’s nest extending out onto the sand, also nearby is the lone 5.5inch gun with stacked shell magazine loaded ready for action, we also conducted extensive penetrations into the wreck to various points of interest including the communal toilets easily accessible from the bow! Our boat crews had an excellent knowledge of the layout of the wreck and had endeavoured to drop us on a different part each dive so every dive was a different dive, and apart from our smaller buddy teams we hardly saw each other underwater due to the sheer size, toward the end of each dive we would make our way to the high point of the wreck on its starboard side from where we would shoot our SMB’s and slowly make our way to the surface, effortlessly drifting with the current in the Bay of Bengal as we decompressed it was uncanny as we progressed through our shallower stops that the drifting current would collect us all together, the humming of our three tenders circling our SMB’s as they waited for us to surface was always reassuring. After our tanks and equipment were stacked into the hull, with Feli and myself perched on either gunwale, and Sue luxuriously seated on her “Madame Seat” next to our boat driver we speed back to Deep Sea Divers lodge to prepare to it all over again!
The overnight return trip to Colombo gave us the opportunity to visit the mountain top fortress at Sigiriya, an elephant orphanage, spice gardens, tea processing plant, our overnight stop was in the beautiful city of Kandy our hotel’s bar veranda overlooking this ancient city with its lake surrounded by the hill country dotted with exotic temples allowed us to take it all in, in true British colonial style with a gin and tonic in hand and ceiling fan slowly swirling overhead watching the sunset, silently contemplating our past weeks adventures was the perfect ending to this perfect diving expedition!
Make no mistake, repetitive decompression diving beyond 50 metres in a developing country requires training and experience in technical diving, you need to be prepared physically and mentally for the challenges involved.
However all the initiated would agree that the money spent on the extra training and additional equipment is well worth it, and to believe that more people have climbed Mount Everest than have dived the HMS Hermes should surely put her on any intrepid technical diver’s radar!
The reality is diving the Hermes in Sri Lanka is no different to diving in some of the other deep wreck locations in the Pacific, as most of these places also have very limited emergency medical facilities, the key is to be prepared and have good travel insurance along with DAN insurance, as DAN are the guys who are going to save you if get into diver trouble!
If you think this trip is for you, Abyss Scuba in Sydney has another trip coming up in September 2011(September last year was when we went and had excellent conditions!), so talk to my friends there, they also have some technical diver training scheduled for the months leading up to September, and can do great deals for any of your equipment needs!