SSI x Edges of Earth: How Sri Lanka’s Divers are Fighting for Their Ocean’s Future

The MV X-Press Pearl spilled nearly 75 billion plastic pellets into the ocean; but all hope is not lost. In Edges of Earth’s latest expedition news, we meet the divers fighting for the future of Sri Lanka. If you are looking for an inspiring story today, this is it:

Sri Lanka’s prime geographical position suggests it should be a global hotspot for divers, boasting vibrant coral reefs and an abundance of large marine species. In certain areas, this suggestion is true. However, in many popular diving spots, particularly those beyond the outskirts of Colombo, the capital city, significant ecological damage has sullied the region’s otherwise pristine diving reputation. And unfortunately, this is not something out of the ordinary.

Many renowned diving destinations have deteriorated from their former glory. On expedition, we have come to learn that the baselines we recognize at many of these dive sites are far off from what older generations know and remember. Diving frequently exposes the stark contrasts of the modern natural world: stunning beauty interspersed with scenes of devastation. 

Encountering coral graveyards blanketed in debris and ghost nets is a sobering experience, challenging for even the most seasoned divers. This harsh reality proves the indiscriminate nature of marine issues like coral bleaching, pollution, and overfishing. Often, even the seemingly untouched dive sites reveal unexpected impacts, reminding us of the pervasive reach of these environmental challenges.

RELATED: Overfishing: 10 Essential Facts and How You Can Help.

Throughout our expedition exploring consciously, we have encountered many individuals and organizations passionately committed to action, driven by the urgency of a planet in distress. In Sri Lanka, rather than seek out those remaining pristine dive sites, we deliberately chose the most affected areas. Our aim was to dive alongside The Pearl Protectors, a youth-led volunteer group that uses urgency to fuel their fire. 

The MV X-Press Pearl – Sri Lanka’s Biggest Maritime Disaster.

The Pearl Protectors caught our attention due to their remarkable response to the MV X-Press Pearl disaster. When this Singapore-registered vessel caught fire and part of it sank off Sri Lanka’s Western Province in May 2021, it unleashed a catastrophic spill of hazardous chemicals and countless plastic pellets, or ’nurdles’, into the surrounding waters.

The Sri Lankan western coast faces a significant environmental challenge due to these nurdles. They are not only polluting beaches, but also pose a serious threat to marine life. Mistaken for food, the pellets are ingested by the marine animals, leading to a potential cascade of toxins throughout the food chain. The human health impacts of this contamination are still not fully understood.

In a determined effort to tackle this crisis, The Pearl Protectors, with the support of the Lanka Environmental Fund (LEF), launched the Nurdle Free Lanka campaign.

This extensive cleanup operation involves state-of-the-art trommel technology, large-scale and handheld sieving, and the mobilization of thousands of volunteers. The campaign initially targeted the worst-affected shorelines and has now evolved into a multi-stage, ongoing effort, covering the Southern and Western Provinces.

Help reduce plastic pollution. Here are 15 Essential Ocean Pollution Facts and How You Can Help.

Before joining the Pearl Protectors for a dive, we met with Muditha Katuwawala, Lead Coordinator of the organization, to learn about the progress of their efforts three years on—and how we could contribute to this vital environmental mission present day.

Muditha, with his vibrant personality and an air of warmth and familiarity, made us feel right at home in Sri Lanka. Immediately diving into what happened here post-disaster, you could feel his passion in every word. It was impossible to not want to help his efforts after hearing him talk about the severity of it. 

"The environmental impact of the MV X-Press Pearl disaster is unprecedented, with nearly 75 BILLION plastic pellets released into the ocean.

These pellets are lightweight and buoyant, which means they have spread everywhere, transforming our beautiful beaches into polluted areas. 

They even have the potential to reach other countries in the Indian Ocean, if they have not already," Muditha explained. 

Plastic Pollution in Sri Lanka – Fighting for a Cleaner Future.

He went further to elaborate on the urgent need for deeper action, as Sri Lanka currently lacks specific legislative and regulatory frameworks to address plastic pellet pollution. While the country is a signatory to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), its Annexes, which cover various pollution prevention measures, are yet to be fully incorporated into the nation’s parliamentary legislation. 

That’s why Muditha and his team of passionate volunteers are pushing for domestic regulations controlling plastic pellets, the formulation of a contingency plan for any future pellet spills from ships, and the effective integration of MARPOL into Sri Lanka’s legislative framework.

So, while Muditha is still running beach cleanups (which we had the chance to participate in ourselves) there is even more heavy-hitting work being done here to change the way the country thinks about the plastic problem. 

This was the largest and longest running campaign Sri Lanka had seen, involving:

  • 2,787 volunteers across four districts.
  • 60 beach clean ups.
  • The removal of 1,714 kg of nurdles since July 2021! 
  • And their work is still ongoing…

It was impressive to learn about how much impact The Pearl Protectors had made during such a critical time in Sri Lanka’s history, given the organization was only established in 2018. 

Each volunteer we met shared their unique experience of the spill. Their stories were uniformly startling, ranging from locals using nurdles as lawn ornaments to witnessing nurdles fuse into larger sized structures on the beaches, or even some folks walking over hardened layers of these nurdles for months. 

Yet, there was no sense of hopelessness among them. On the contrary, they appeared even more dedicated. Having endured this disaster, their commitment, particularly among the youth, seemed to only intensify. But it was not just the nurdles that garnered attention for this team. It was also their diving.

Finding Hope Underwater - Cleaner Seabeds for Sri Lanka.

The Pearl Protectors launched their Cleaner Seabeds for Sri Lanka campaign, alongside LEF again. This time, instead of cleaning up the beaches, the volunteers were cleaning up the sea.

This ambitious four-year initiative brings together certified divers to tackle non-biodegradable marine litter in the most affected underwater areas. 

It offers a hands-on approach for volunteers, complete with specialized training to ensure they are well-versed in international standards and best practices for underwater litter collection. This meticulous preparation guarantees that their efforts are not only effective but also adhere to safety protocols.

Volunteers work diligently to remove a variety of pollutants, including plastic waste, abandoned fishing gear, textiles, metal, rubber, and glass. The collected marine litter is weighed, audited, and sorted. This process ensures responsible disposal, with recyclable materials sent to the right facilities and non-recyclable waste to incineration centers. All of this is with an end goal of removing 2,500 kilograms of underwater litter. 

RELATED: Mine Divers – How to Reduce Your Environmental Impact.

Similar to the nurdle campaign, this project’s broader vision encompasses advocating for policy changes and stricter enforcement to curtail marine trash. It also emphasizes the power of public awareness campaigns, aiming to cultivate a well-informed and proactive attitude towards marine conservation within the community in the long term.

"This has grown into a community of over 2,300 volunteers, each contributing to our mission of ocean conservation in their own unique way. We welcome everyone, regardless of profession or background.

They can be accountants, lawyers, doctors; really anyone with a spark of interest and passion for the ocean. By creating opportunities for them to contribute, we make everyone feel like they are a part of our mission.

It’s about building a community that is as diverse and dynamic as the ocean itself, united by a shared passion for safeguarding our marine environment," said Muditha. 

And of course this leg of our expedition would not be complete without diving with the Pearl Protectors ourselves!

Setting off to the dive sites, our team’s mission was clear: to locate and remove underwater trash. Unexpectedly, we were teamed up with none other than Jehan Pieris, a local diving legend and lifelong Sri Lankan with 40 years of experience navigating these waters.

As the Colombo skyline remained in view, Jehan, both friendly and soft-spoken, shared his insights on the dramatic changes these waters have undergone in his diving career, opening our eyes even wider to why this work is so critical. 

Jehan painted a picture of the idyllic ocean paradise that once defined Sri Lanka, with vibrant, colorful coral reefs visible even from the shoreline. He recalled that as a 12-year old boy, he was filled with a deep curiosity about the underwater world, ultimately leading him to become a nationally-ranked swimmer, a swim coach, and eventually, a dive instructor.

As one of the most accomplished divers we encountered on our expedition, Jehan’s tales of the ocean’s past captivated us. Yet, what intrigued us even more was understanding how this seasoned diver found himself alongside a new generation, dedicating weekends to clearing trash from the seafloor.

"I would like to take the blame for not doing anything. My generation, we knew things were happening to the planet, but did we do anything about it? No. Shouldering this responsibility, I think, is up to my generation.

So, we need to talk to the younger generations and apologize. We have made mistakes in life. We did not foresee these things well enough. Can we work together, can we help each other, can we fix it together? 

The younger generation has a lot of information and if we allow them to come up with ideas, then maybe we can progress to making our waters a beautiful environment once again," said Jehan.

Jehan’s apology for the environmental harm was a first for us, and his sense of duty to help rectify this damage was heavy hitting. 

Despite this, his determination to restore Sri Lanka’s ecosystems to some degree of their former vitality remains undiminished, even though he is well aware that some changes cannot be undone. His current focus is to inspire and empower Sri Lanka’s youth. He guides them in swimming and scuba diving, and nurtures their understanding of how each individual’s efforts contribute to the well-being of their country, the ocean, and the planet.

Keen to scuba dive as a family? Check out Family scuba diving: 8 Great Reasons to Start Today.

It was hard to hold back the tears when Jehan spoke about his commitment to The Pearl Protectors’ mission and to the youth of Sri Lanka.

He said, "I can see there is a passion building up. Muditha has an idea of what he wants to do, and now the others are having their own visions as well. It is spreading." 

This sentiment mirrored what we felt when hearing Muditha discuss the future and what he wants his contribution in the long run to be. Witnessing two distinct generations unite under a shared ethos of proactive change was nothing short of inspiring. 

The older generation brings a wealth of wisdom and experience, while the younger contributes fresh, innovative ideas. Together, they form an unstoppable force in the fight for environmental preservation.

During our time in Sri Lanka, none of the dive sites we visited were conventionally breathtaking. But what truly stood out were the people we met: passionate ocean advocates, skilled divers, and genuinely good-hearted individuals. In this community, age differences vanish, with everyone united by a common purpose. 

Diving here taught us that it is as much about appreciating the underwater world as it is about the bonds we form with others. Seeing such a diverse group so dedicated to their cause was incredibly motivating. It was a reminder that shared passion not only drives change but also compels us to contribute more and aim higher.

So, if you are passionate about ocean conservation and want to make a difference, join the SSI Blue Oceans community. You will learn how to be an eco-conscious diver and be part of a global community of divers creating positive change:


Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube and their website