It is heartening to note that alongside vast plans for developing tourism in Sri Lanka, serious plans are afoot in regard to its sustainability by conserving the resources that attract tourists. This was evident at the Forum for Review of Developments and Progress in Marine Conservation recently convened by Dr Hiran Jayewardene, Secretary General Indian [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Preserving a precious national heritage

Settled shipwrecks that have become part of the marine ecosystem must be protected for future generations

It is heartening to note that alongside vast plans for developing tourism in Sri Lanka, serious plans are afoot in regard to its sustainability by conserving the resources that attract tourists. This was evident at the Forum for Review of Developments and Progress in Marine Conservation recently convened by Dr Hiran Jayewardene, Secretary General Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC). Minister of Wild Life Resources Gamini Wijemuni Zoysa, and Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage, Commander of the Navy were present among a large gathering of stake holders and specialists. Minister of Environment Susil Premajayanth being held up with an urgent matter, sent his address that was read out at the conference.

The presentations were very interesting and animated discussions followed. I was particularly interested in shipwrecks that form an important part of our marine environment and are also tourist attractions. Dr. Amal Karunaratne in his lucid presentation warned against the temptation of going for quick money by way of commercial salvaging of these artifacts that have very high archaeological value. He pointed out that salvaging is short-lived though the money was quick and big, because it benefits only a few, whereas conserving our national heritage has far more and on-going benefits for posterity.

Preservation of shipwrecks is important as a viable component in marine ecology. Once a shipwreck settles on the sea bed it becomes part of its environment and marine life wraps around these wrecks that form a foundation, framework and shelter for survival, helping to sustain a marine ecosystem. The Reef environment thus provided by shipwrecks, also provides a habitat for an abundance of marine life with corals transforming into beautiful natural reefs. Fish, sponges, clams, anemones, octopi, squid, molluscs, snakes, eels, cowries, rays – in fact all that natural reefs provide for – interact and thrive among these lost ships. Human divers relish the opportunity to visit these treasures and experience the underwater kaleidoscopic of life and history.

Sunk by Japanese bombers during World War II, the Hermes wreck, pictured covered in marine life, is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous shipwrecks

To ensure the same opportunities to future generations of divers and researchers with even more advanced scientific facilities as time goes on, makes it imperative for an understanding of the complex environment surrounding shipwrecks and a commitment to shipwreck site preservation. Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was a key trade and shipping port in the ancient Silk Route from China to Europe and shipwrecks abound in our coastal waters since that period. Protecting these resources will allow continued interpretation and understanding of the lives of mariners and the struggles and successes they had encountered while navigating treacherous seas.

Having said thus it behoves me to warn against rapacious types under cover of benign researchers enjoying the patronage of powerful politicians and diplomats having private interest in diving and shipwrecks. A case in point illustrates this aspect: In May 1983 information was received by Trincomalee Police about a British couple engaging in illegal salvaging and removal of wrecks in Sri Lankan waters. Surveillance was mounted and observations made on their diving and salvaging operations off Trincomalee Harbour, and removal of salvaged artifacts to a house on Orrs Hill Road, Trincomalee. Aware of the close connections the couple had with officials of the British High Commission and the political patronage they enjoyed, Police took the precaution of working in concurrence with the Director of Merchant Shipping, Chairman NARA, the Attorney General’s Department and the GA Trincomalee. The President was also kept informed.

Police obtained a search warrant of the premises in Trincomalee and their temporary residence in Moratuwa. The search at the Orr’s Hill bungalow revealed that a large amount of artifacts had already been removed from shipwrecks, particularly from the ‘Orient’, a French Man-of-War which sank in 1782. A reference to this shipwreck is available in the History of the French Navy by E.H. Jenkins under the caption ‘Loss of the Orient’, (with 74 guns). The fact that even hull sheaths and about a hundred artifacts had been salvaged was evidence enough that they had planned to salvage the entire wreck. Incriminating documents relating to removal and smuggling out of artifacts (antiques), including a grid map on which shipwrecks around Sri Lanka were located and marked, were taken into custody and the British couple were arrested following the search at the Orr’s Hill Bungalow. They were produced in the Magistrate’s court Trincomalee and remanded pending completion of inquiries.

A further search had to be carried out at their temporary residence at Moratuwa. It had to be done without giving the collaborators an opportunity to remove incriminating evidence. Senior DIG Ernest Perera was contacted by telephone and explaining the circumstances and importance of the investigation, requested to have a guard placed at the Moratuwa residence which was in the control of the local collaborator. Ernest Perera considering the importance and confidentiality of the investigation, had handpicked R.N. Benjamin, ASP Panadura and instructed him to place a guard at the Moratuwa house pending arrival of the ASP Trincomalee. But before the ASP could visit Moratuwa with the search warrant, he was informed by S/DIG Ernest Perera that his order had been countermanded by the IGP Rudra Rajasingham and the Police guard withdrawn.

Further developments followed. The IGP ordered the CID to take over the inquiry. Sub Inspector Barthelo, OIC Trincomalee Harbour Police who assisted in the investigation was interrogated at length by the CID. The interrogation was a voyage of discovery focused on the handling of the investigation by the ASP Trinco (ii) and not about the illegal removal of wrecks.

There was more background to this episode. Police investigations revealed that the British couple had first joined as a foreign collaborator with a local company involved in water sports and diving in a Foreign Investment Advisory Committee (FIAC) project. The British couple had connections with various foreign organisations involved in marine salvage, marine archaeology and ship breaking. After sometime they withdrew from the venture and joined another local company.

They then ventured into a new FIAC project, this time including marine salvage and ship breaking. FIAC approval however, had not been granted at the time of the detection. They however, claimed to have received permission and blessings of the Minister of Shipping and Trade. The question was whether the Minister had the authority to grant approval. He did not have the authority. A water- tight case was made out by the Police with the concurrence of the Director Merchant Shipping and Receiver of Wrecks, Chairman NARA and the Attorney General, and a multi-billion racket was laid bare. The British couple was not granted extension of visas and had to leave the country.

A letter addressed by the Director Merchant Shipping to the Deputy Solicitor General, Colombo and copied to ASP Trincomalee and the GA Trincomalee is reproduced:

Rakshana Mandiraya.
21 Vauxhall Street, Colombo
My No. 5-2/008
P O Box 560
Tele: 35601-4
Date 6.5.1983
Deputy Solicitor General
Illicit Removal of Wrecks

I am informed that some unauthorized persons have begun to remove wrecks lying off the coast of Trincomalee. As you are no doubt aware, approval has to be given by me or by the GA concerned in his capacity as a Receiver of Wrecks for any person to remove any wreck or part thereof. It is considered very essential to ensure that no unauthorized person removes any wrecks since certain wreck vessels provide ideal breeding ground for fish and other forms of marine life, while wrecks which are over 75 years old have very high antique value.

I also understand that the Trincomalee Police which suspect that several persons are engaged in the removal of wrecks without any authority need the assistance of a State Counsel, in order to advise them of the measures to be taken to apprehend those who are operating in an illegal manner.

I shall therefore be most grateful if you would kindly give assistance to the Trincomalee Police and the GA Trincomalee.

Please also see copy of a letter addressed to GA Trincomalee for your information.

W. D. Soysa
Director of Merchant Shipping
c.c. 1. GA Trincomalee
2. ASP Trincomalee &
3. Chairman NARA

There are about two hundred shipwrecks around Sri Lanka. With the attraction of tourists, monitoring of diving on wrecks is a sine qua non.

The author retired from the Police after 38 years of service with the rank of Senior Superintendent. He was the recipient of a Marine Conservation Award for an Outstanding Contribution.

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