Sri Lanka: Sunken World War II plane discovery enhances east coast’s potential as wreck-diving tourist destination

Wreck diving tourism is a significant revenue earner for many coastal countries around the world. Sri Lanka is already famous among the world’s wreck divers for having one of the top 100 wrecks in the world, the HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose built aircraft carrier, sunk off the coast of Batticaloa during the Japanese raid of Ceylon in 1942.

Fisherman Wasantha and Diver Dharshana

A recent discovery of mysterious aircraft wreckage in the east coast by a local dive expert and explorer Dharshana Jayawardena, the founder editor of, provides further evidence of great potential to earn tourist dollars from showcasing some of these historical wrecks in our waters.
Dharshana, who had earlier this year identified the World War I British wreck SS Worcestershire off the coast of Mount Lavinia, where the recovered bell of the ship which now lies at the archaeological museum in Galle, discovered the airplane about 10 km east of Kalkudah, through information given by a local fisherman called Wasantha Kumara, who had found a strange piece of metal caught to his fishing net, which he suspected to be part of an aircraft.
Dharshana discovered the airplane wreck including wings, two large wheels with undercarriage, two radial engines and propellers, at a depth of 140 feet.


Dharshana explained: “Based on research and expert help, I have now identified this to be an American-built Consolidated Catalina PBY-5A amphibious plane from World War II era, which was used by the allied air forces during the war. Koggala was home to the 413 Catalina Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force and in April 1942, during the two Japanese raids on Ceylon at least three Catalinas were reported missing. One commanded by Air Commodore Leonard Joseph Birchall, that on 5 April after discovering the Japanese armada 300KM southwest of Ceylon raised an early warning signal, before it was shot down and later on 9 April another Catalina of Lieutenant Tommy Thomas that went missing, presumed shot down with no survivors, just after reporting sighting of a Japanese aircraft.”

He added: “Further research revealed that in 1942, the RAF established a special unit of Catalinas in China Bay, Trincomalee called the ‘Dutch Unit 321,’ manned by Dutch pilots from the Netherlands Naval Aviation Service (MLD). After the Japanese invasion of Ceylon, continued bombing missions were carried out against Japanese submarines from Ceylon. It turned out that on 9 December 1943, one such Catalina with the call sign Y-78 had embarked on a secretive night mission from the Minneriya Air force base, which after returning from an 18-hour reconnaissance flight had crash landed in the sea because of an engine fault.  This is exactly the location where I found the plane wreckage, making it a high probability that this is the RAF Y-78 lost during World War II.”

Dharshana continued: “Today the site is a lush paradise of marine life and a scenic place that divers from all over the world will be really interested to dive into. The east coast of Sri Lanka is already gaining attention for its pristine unspoilt beaches, resulting in a boom of the tourist industry in this region, bringing in much-needed job opportunities for its residents as well as being a good revenue earner for the country.  I believe that discoveries of this nature will be a tremendous asset to the marine tourism industry. It will put Sri Lanka on the map amongst high spenders such as wreck divers who are liable to spend around a week’s stay to dive wrecks in this region and this will be great revenue generator for the hotels. Travel agents will benefit through wreck diving tours being designed with local dive centres earning money through national and international enthusiasts travelling to the area to dive here.”