It seemed right to start in Hikkaduwa, a coastal village only 60 miles from the islands capital, Colombo. There we met Valerie Ekanayake, who runs Underwater Safaris with her husband, Hector. Since the 1950s they have been involved in Sri Lankas diving industry and are considered to be the islands diving pioneers.
The dive boat was our first surprise. It was a small converted fishing boat with a little diesel engine.
After a 45-minute journey we arrived at our first site, the wreck of the Conch. This was one of Shells first oil tankers, which sank in 1903 after hitting rocks. As we dropped under the surface, visibility was no more than 4m. This was not what we were expecting; where was the clear blue water
At a depth of 20m, the half-buried propeller came into view. We tried to examine its limited invertebrate growth, despite a heavy surge doing its best to impale us on the blades.
We gave up and, hoping to escape the surge, entered the hull through a small hole, where we joined hundreds of sweepers, several large snapper and a menacing-looking grouper.
We went on to explore the area beyond the wreck. On the rocks and boulders there were sea fans and soft corals, but I wouldnt go as far as describing them as a fascinating submarine wonderland.
The reef was not much to look at, but, like the wreck, it was home to plenty of fish. Joining us in the surge were angelfish, snappers, sweetlips, two spotted moray eels and a shoal of longfin bannerfish, with their zebralike stripes.
The exhilaration of the unpredictable surge and our disappointed expectations left us with mixed feelings. This wasnt what the brochure had promised, but then again, it was only our first dive.
Our second was on the nearby wreck of an unknown schooner lying in 15m. Parts of the bow and stern stood upright; everything in between had long since collapsed. The visibility was a cloudy 4m but the marine life was good. Shoals of mono - a strange-looking, diamond-shaped fish - hovered around the stern, and on our journey to the bow a vast shoal of barracuda slowly emerged through the sediment-laden water, as if lost in a heavy fog.
On the boat ride back to the dive shop we came across an unusually acrid smell. Valerie explained its origin to us: What you can smell is coral being burnt. The locals mine it from the ocean for building materials. I looked at the coastlines beaches, headlands and palms and wondered how long it would all last without the reefs protective barrier.
The next day Raja, the centres divemaster, promised us a dive in the Hikkaduwa Marine Sanctuary. As the boat took us into open water I asked him what the boundaries of the sanctuary were. He replied with a sweep of his arm, indicating that we were in it. And the sanctuarys rules The question went unanswered.
The site was an underwater pinnacle which starts in 15m and drops to 28. The top of it was almost devoid of invertebrate life, other than a thin layer of sponge growth. If the visibility had been better than the 5m we experienced, it would have been an incredible view.
As we dropped down the sides of the pinnacles almost vertical walls, we witnessed a steady increase in the variety of marine growth.
At the base we found clumps of black coral and small sea fans in blue, orange and red. For our ascent we circumnavigated the pinnacle, checking out its nudibranch communities and coral polyps. At one point a vast shoal of silver and brown fusiliers hurtled past us like a heavy waterfall. Unfortunately, that was all there was of fish life.
Back on the boat Raja explained that the lack of marine growth on the pinnacles peak was due to strong currents. As this is normally the cause of invertebrate growth, I suspected that repeated anchoring might be a more precise explanation.
Back on shore it got worse. I came across a newspaper article on Hikkaduwas dynamite fishing, and the effect it was having on the environment. One of the divemasters later told me that it doesnt affect divers because the fishermen always tell you to get out of the water before they dynamite. How reassuring!
After leaving Hikkaduwa we headed south along a picturesque coastline to the Club Dickwella Village, a small resort tucked behind a palm-fringed beach.
Its dive shop is run by Alex, an English-speaking Dutchman. His boat is a small skiff with a 25hp engine, which seriously limits how many people he can take out. I ask him why he cant buy something bigger. He laughs and says: We had to get permission off several government ministries to buy this engine, otherwise wed be restricted to a 15hp. They think well go gun-running for the Tigers!
He goes on to tell me about the superb off shore reefs that would be accessible with a bigger boat. But now we have to be content with a 40m-long cargo ship lying on a sandy bottom in 25m. The rumour is that it was scuttled in the 1950s, after outliving its usefulness.
Unfortunately the visibility is a milky 5m, though this doesnt detract from the huge shoals of snapper and the angelfish, batfish and giant grouper that call this oasis home. On the deck there is some impressive invertebrate life - plenty of corals and sea fans in green and orange.
As we potter back, Alex looks at the shoreline. This isnt somewhere youd come on a diving holiday, he says. You come for the beaches, the beautiful coastline, for the culture and maybe a little diving. I knew where he was coming from. This was the reason for my disappointment so far. I had expected a diving holiday and it didnt fit that label.
For the next few days we journeyed through the interior, visiting tea plant-ations, waterfalls, mountains, temples and shrines. Many of the hotels are a journey back to the colonial times. I was beginning to fall for Sri Lankas charms.
Eventually we arrived at the coastal village of Negombo for the last leg of the trip. We chose the dive shop at the Blue Ocean Hotel, where we had heard that the manager, Franz, had some novel ways of getting around the government regulations. The boat was the same size as the others we had experienced, but the engine seemed to push us through the water faster. A grinning Franz explained: Its a black market 55hp engine.
He is past caring about the regulations; all he cares about is getting his customers to the reef he visits 20km out from shore. As we near the site the water blues up and loses its brown murkiness. Franz explains that in many parts of Sri Lanka you have to get far away from the shoreline because of the rivers run-off.
At last we find the good visibility we had sought. In the reefs coral heads we find hundreds of Christmas tree worms in a multitude of colours. In the cracks and holes we find more than 20 moray eels. There are shoals of tierra batfish, snapper and numerous varieties of angelfish.
Although this dive raises our estimation of Sri Lankas diving, this reef still wouldnt provide enough variety for a diving holiday. For a morning out, however, it was perfect.
And what of the Hikkaduwa Marine Sanctuary I would rate the diving as OK and nothing more. Visibility can reach 20m, but its a hit-and-miss affair, with no guarantees. The sanctuary would be better named the Hikkaduwa destruction zone, with its irresponsible fishing techniques, clear lack of direction and lack of enforcement. A real marine sanctuary is what the area desperately needs.
So, what of the glossy brochures marine photographs I took a closer look. At the bottom of the photograph was the obvious give-away that in my enthusiasm I had missed. In the background was a grey angelfish, resident of the Caribbean and not the Indian Ocean. I couldnt believe how easily I had been taken in.
Despite this, Sri Lanka does have a lot of diving potential. Much of the islands best diving on the east coast is out-of-bounds because of the security problems. And until the problems have been solved, journeys to the outer reefs are practically impossible.
The government needs to act now to look after its reefs. If it doesnt take greater care of its surrounding ocean, there could come a time when there is nothing left to protect.
GETTING THERE: Air Lanka flies daily from Heathrow direct to Colombo.
DIVING: For those who want a beautiful, cultural holiday with some diving on the way. Visibility is variable, but can be up to 20m. Dive boats are very poor.
WHEN TO GO: The diving season is December to early April in the south and west. The rest of the year is subject to monsoon and heavy onshore winds, making diving practically impossible.
ACCOMMODATION : Foreign currency is very strong against the Sri Lankan rupee, making the comfort of a five-star hotel very affordable. Highly recommended are the Lighthouse Hotel in Gale (for Hikkaduwa), Club Dickwella Village (a bit like a mini Club Med), St Andrews Hotel in Nuwara Eliya (inland) and the Royal Oceanic Hotel in Negombo. The Barefoot Traveller (0181 741 4319) can organise a package to suit individual needs.
GETTIN AROUND: Dont think of hiring a car as the roads are a traffic nightmare. A chauffeur-driven van or car can be hired during your stay for the cost of a hire car elsewhere.
The Sri Lankan rupee is available only once on the island. Take US$ travellers cheques or cash. Larger hotels and shops accept credit cards.
TRAVEL ADVISORY:Consult the governments warning for travellers to Sri Lanka. The country is still in conflict with the Tamil Tigers in the North.
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