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The Pearl Banks



by Rex I. De Silva

Ah what pleasant visions haunt me

As I gaze upon the sea!

All the old romantic legends

All my dreams come back to me

H.W. Longfellow(The secret of the sea)

Since my early teens I have been fascinated by the jungle and the sea although I have never been able to decide which attracted me more. A few classmates and I would occasionally “escape” from school to dive on the sandstone reef off Colombo and spear spiny lobsters, which we would sell to raise ticket money for the latest cowboy movie. This grew into a lifelong passion, which led to my becoming a professional diver and ardent underwater naturalist.

Pearl banks by road

In April 1967 a company exporting chank shells assigned Rodney Jonklaas, the renowned diver, to visit the Pearl Banks and report on the feasibility of equipping the chank divers with modern self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). At the time they used to free-dive, holding their breath. Rodney invited another professional diver Trevor Ferdinands and me to join him on a 10-day expedition.

The Pearl Banks lie off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar. The reefs and banks are widely dispersed and in the limited time available we intended to explore only a few of those lying between Arippu in the north and Kudremalai Point in the south. The diving grounds are generally from 12 to 15 km off the coast and consist of several relatively flat reefs, banks and extensive sea-grass beds over which the sea is fairly shallow. The deepest areas are around 18-20 metres from the surface, but on average the sea is considerably shallower. A great pearl fishery was conducted several decades earlier. In its place a vigorous chank shell fishery had developed.

Chanks are large thick-shelled gastropod molluscs, which were very common on the Pearl Banks and adjacent areas. The shells were exported to India where they were used fora variety of purposes. When viewed ventrally with spire upwards, the aperture of a normal chank shell is on the right. On rare occasions a shell will be found with its aperture on the opposite side. Such a shell is referred to as a sinistral or “left- handed” chank, but is best known by its Tamil name, vallampuri. Being rare, such a shell is valuable and much sought after.

We travelled in Rodney’s Volkswagen van and passed through Negombo, Chilaw, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Medawachchiya, Mankulam and Murunkan. From thence, we turned south-west to Silavatturai, and then south over a badly surfaced road to Kondaichchi and Marichchukkaddai. A few kilometres further on, we reached our base camp, which was on the sea-beach at Mullikulam by the northern bank of the Modaragam Aru (river), which at that time marked the northern boundary of the Wilpattu National Park.

Our journey had its ups and downs. We stopped at crystal-clear streams for “river baths” and snacks. The van broke down in an isolated area where, despite our ineptitude as mechanics, it was restarted.

Trevor was an expert diver and underwater hunter (spear-fisherman). It was said that he even thought like a fish! He was friendly and easy-going but inclined to be quiet. Rodney, in contrast, was an ebullient personality. A biology graduate of the University of Ceylon, he was a true renaissance man with a deep knowledge of a range of subjects. He was a pioneer diver, spear-fisherman, underwater photographer and an authority on Sri Lanka’s marine life. He was a raconteur par excellence, and his repertoire of jokes, limericks and “rugby songs” was almost as legendary as his diving prowess; hence travelling with him was always entertaining.

The camp

Our camp at Mullikulam was primitive. It consisted of four thatched (cadjan-roofed) huts on the beach, one of which was assigned to us. The others were occupied by the chank divers and boat crew. We had brought ample supplies of drinking water from Colombo, which was fortunate as it turned out. There was a well a hundred metres inland, but we only used it for bathing as, despite a protective wall, it was occupied by numerous frogs. Frogs were our constant companions. Tree-frogs lived in the thatched roof and walls of our hut. They had the unpleasant habit of jumping (or falling) on us while we were asleep. More disconcerting was the fact that when they leapt off they would often leave a smear of liquid on our bodies. We soon learnt to cover ourselves from head to toe.

The day’s catch of shell was spread out on the beach to rot. Chanks in various stages of decomposition gave rise to an all-pervading and overpowering stench, which we never got used to.

The divers

We would leave for the Pearl Banks at dawn and return late afternoon. The diesel-powered diving boat was large and seaworthy. Most of the divers were Muslims with a few Tamils. They were well-built, tough and hardy individuals. The camaraderie, which develops among those who do hard and dangerous work together, was very evident. We were told that a few Sinhalese dived as well, but that they had returned to their homes for the Sinhala New Year. The day’s proceedings began with one of the older members of the crew facing Mecca and leading prayers.

It took us a few hours to reach the diving grounds where the anchor was dropped and diving would begin in earnest. All the divers used face-masks, a device which did not exist during the old pearl fisheries. A few had swim fins as well, but the majority did without them. The diving ability of these men was exceptional. I watched one of the older divers, probably in his fifties, go down 15 metres and stay underwater for well over a minute.

The best of these divers was a young Tamil. He was broad-shouldered, curly-haired and burnt black by the fierce sun. His pleasant demeanour made him everyone’s favourite. Rodney nicknamed him “Horst” after a popular movie star of the era. There was no depth that Horst could not reach, and he could stay down a long time on a single breath of air.

One morning Horst discovered a large sting-ray weighing well over 50 kg. It was lying partly buried in the sand at a depth of 15 metres. Horst took with him a yotha (handline) and diving down, without disturbing the ray hooked it in a spiracle (an opening behind the eye). At this the ray came to life and there began a titanic struggle between man and fish. We moved in to help but Horst motioned us back, and after a strenuous battle, during which he had to avoid the six-inch serrated dagger-like poisonous sting on its tail, he wrestled the ray to the surface and into the boat. Both Trevor and I had to surface for air at least once before the battle ended, and we were only spectators; but Horst did it on a single lungful of air.

Once in the boat the dying ray, which was a female, aborted two translucent foetuses each smaller than my palm. Although we had each speared our share of fish during our diving careers, we shared a moment of sadness for the dying mother, but of course we were only witnessing the harsh law of nature, which is survival of the fittest.

We had brought several SCUBA units with us, but lacking a compressor, had no way of refilling the empty air cylinders. This was not a serious problem as we were all excellent free-divers and therefore saved our air-tanks for the deeper and longer dives. We also followed the unwritten divers’ code and never used SCUBA for spearfishing.

Pearl oysters are bivalve molluscs, only a very few of which form pearls. When an inclusion such as a grain of sand gets lodged between the mantle and shell, the oyster reacts by encapsulating the object with a nacreous coating, thus forming a pearl. We saw relatively few pearl oysters during our stay, but then we were not really looking for them.

We did observe that the large, grapefruit-sized Ramose Murex sea-shells bore exceptionally long and thick spines. I speculated that they could be a different species. Rodney as usual had a ready explanation. In other waters triggerfish feed off the spines but as the Pearl Banks harbour very few of these fish, the Murex are able to grow their spines unmolested.

Sea snakes

We saw several species of sea snakes all of which are venomous, although most are usually non-aggressive. Sea snakes are air-breathers and while many species are able to dive to considerable depths, they must return to the surface periodically for air. These snakes often got entangled in fishing nets and it amazed us to watch the local fishermen extricate them by hand, and then almost casually toss them back into the sea.

We saw several yellow-lipped sea kraits, a form which can survive on dry land, and beaked sea snakes. We also saw many individuals of Hydrophis, which are banded snakes with thick bodies and relatively small heads. Most interesting, though, was the small-headed sea snake which has a heavy body, long thin neck and tiny head; an adaptation for securing prey in small crevices in the reef. Once as we were surfacing from a dive, Rodney pointed towards our boat where a fairly large sea snake (probably a beaked sea snake) swam purposefully up to the anchor-line and struck at it repeatedly, then backtracked a short distance and repeated the performance. Even Rodney had no explanation for this strange behaviour.

Rare sightings

It was on one of the shallower banks that we saw a dugong. This is the marine mammal which supposedly gave rise among seamen to legends of mermaids. As Rodney aptly put it, one would have to be at sea for a very long time to mistake the harmless but unattractive dugong fora beautiful maiden. The dugong is herbivorous, feeding mainly on sea grasses and weeds. They have been hunted for their flesh to the point of extinction in Sri Lankan waters, although from time to time one hears of sightings. It is very doubtful that many dugongs remain in the Gulf of Mannar. Unfortunately we had a long way to go and I had to be satisfied with a view from the boat: I longed to join it in the water. This was the only dugong I ever saw.

One morning on our way to the diving grounds, we passed a large swordfish swimming slowly at the surface with its fins standing out of the water. The fish did not appear alarmed by our boat which passed quite close to it. The long bill or sword was visible in the clear water. I wished I could have viewed it underwater, but chank fishing took precedence over all else.

From the boat we once saw an amorphous dark mass in the water. As it was moving in our direction we dived in to determine its nature. It turned out to be an enormous shoal of golden jacks, each weighing five to 10 kg. We hung on the anchor-line and watched in amazement as the fish slowly passed by. This was the largest school of fish that any of us had seen. Even the chank divers were impressed by the sight and admitted that none of them had ever seen such a large school before. The fish took at least 15 minutes to pass us by, and stragglers continued to appear for sometime after. As might be imagined this gave material for much discussion over dinner.

(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in

Sri Lanka: Experiences and encounters

compiled by CG Uragoda)

(to be continued next week)

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From a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ to a ‘Dialogue among Civilizations’



A meeting of BRICS leaders

As the world continues to reel from the ‘aftershocks’ as it were of the October 7th Gaza Strip-centred savagery, what it should guard against most is a mood of pessimism and hopelessness. Hopefully, the international community would pull itself together before long and give of its best to further the cause of a political solution in the Middle East.

It is plain to see that what needs to be done most urgently at present is the prolongation of the current ceasefire, besides facilitating a steady exchange of hostages but given the present state of hostilities between the warring sides this would not prove an easy challenge.

Considering that there are no iron-clad guarantees by either side that there would be a longstanding ceasefire followed by a cessation of hostilities, what we have at present in the Middle East is a highly fraught ‘breather’ from the fighting. There are no easy answers to the currently compounded Middle East conflict but the external backers of the warring sides could alleviate the present suffering of the peoples concerned to a degree by bringing steady pressure on the principal antagonists to drastically scale down their hostilities.

If they mean well by the communities concerned, these external backers, such as the US, as regards Israel, and those major Middle Eastern states backing Hamas and other militant groups, would set about creating a conducive climate for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

De-escalating the supply of lethal military hardware to the warring sides is a vital first step towards this end. External military backing is a key element in the prolongation of the war and a decrease in such support would go some distance in curtailing the agony of the peoples concerned. The onus is on these external parties to prove their good intentions, if they have any.

Meanwhile, major states of the South in increasing numbers are making their voices heard on the principal issues to the conflict. One such grouping is BRICS, which is now featuring among its prospective membership, countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. That is, in the foreseeable future BRICS would emerge as a greatly expanded global grouping, which would come to be seen as principally representative of the South.

Since the majority of countries within the BRICS fold are emerging economies, the bloc could be expected to wield tremendous economic and military clout in the present world order. With China and Russia counting among the foremost powers in the grouping, BRICS would be in a position to project itself as an effective counterweight to the West and the G7 bloc.

However, the major challenge before the likes of BRICS is to prove that they will be a boon and not a bane to the poorer countries of the South. They would be challenged to earnestly champion the cause of a just and equitable world political and economic order. Would BRICS, for instance, be equal to such challenges? Hopefully, the commentator would be able to answer this question in the affirmative, going ahead.

The current issues in the Middle East pose a major challenge to BRICS. One of the foremost tasks for BRICS in relation to the Middle East is the formulation of a policy position that is equitable and fair to all the parties to the conflict. The wellbeing of both the Palestinians and the Israelis needs to be staunchly championed.

Thus, BRICS is challenged to be even-handed in its managing of Middle Eastern questions. If the grouping does not do this, it risks turning the Gaza bloodletting, for example, into yet another proxy war front between the East and West.

Nothing constructive would be achieved by BRICS, in that the wellbeing of the peoples concerned would not be served and proxy wars have unerringly been destructive rather constructive in any way. The South could do without any more of these proxy wars and BRICS would need to prove its skeptics wrong on this score.

Accordingly, formations, such as BRICS, that are genuine counterweights to the West are most welcome but their presence in the world system should prove to be of a positive rather than of a negative nature. They need to keep the West in check in the UN system, for example, but they should steer clear of committing the West’s excesses and irregularities.

More specifically, the expanding BRICS should be in a position to curtail the proliferation of identity politics in the present world order. The West has, thus far, failed to achieve this. The seismic convulsions in the Gaza re-establish the pervasive and pernicious presence of identity politics in the world’s war zones, so much so, one could say that US political scientist Samuel Huntingdon is being proved absolutely right in his theorization that world politics over the past 30 years has been essentially a ‘Clash of Civilizations’.

After all, current developments in the Middle East could be construed by the more simple-minded observer as a pitting of Islam against Judaism, although there are many more convoluted strands to the Middle East conflict than a violent clash of these religious identities. More so why the influence of identity politics needs to blunted and eliminated by the right-thinking.

One way in which this could be achieved is the through the steady espousal and practise of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ theory. While the existence of a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ cannot be denied on account of the pervasive presence of identity politics the world over, the negative effects of this brand of politics could be neutralized through the initiation and speeding-up of a robust dialogue among civilizations or identity groups.

Such an exchange of views or dialogue could prove instrumental in facilitating mutual understanding among cultural and civilizational groups. The consequence could be a reduction in tensions among mutually hostile social groups. Needless to say, the Middle East is rife with destructive politics of this kind.

Accordingly, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way cultural groups interact with each other. The commonalities among these groups could be enhanced through a constant dialogue process and the Middle East of today opens out these possibilities.

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Their love story in song…



The duo in the company of Dinesh Hemantha and Jananga

It’s certainly encouraging to see Sri Lankan artistes now trying to be creative…where songs are concerned.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen some interesting originals surfacing, with legendary singer/entertainer Sohan Weerasinghe’s ‘Sansare,’ taking the spotlight.

Rubeena Shabnam, Sri Lankan based in Qatar, and Yohan Dole, living in Australia, have teamed up to produce a song about their love life.

‘Adare Sulagin’ is the title of the song and it’s the couple’s very first duet.

Says Rubeena: “This song is all about our love story and is a symbol of our love. It feels like a dream singing with my fiancé.”

Elaborating further, especially as to how they fell in love, Rubeena went on to say that they met via social media, through a common friend of theirs.

The song and video was done in Sri Lanka.

Rubeena and Yohan with lyricist Jananga Vishawajith

“We both travelled to Sri Lanka, in August this year, where we recorded the song and did the video, as well.

‘Adare Sulagin’ was composed by Dinesh Hemantha (DH Wave Studio, in Galle), while the lyrics were penned by Jananga Vishwajith, and the video was handled by Pathmila Ravishan.

It is Dinesh Hemantha’s second composition for Rubeena – the first being ‘Surali.’

“It was an amazing project and it was done beautifully. Talking about the music video, we decided to keep it more simple, and natural, so we decided to capture it at the studio. It was a lot of fun working with them.”

‘Adare Sulagin,’ says Rubeena, is for social media only. “We have not given it for release to any radio or TV station in Sri Lanka.”

However, you could check it out on YouTube: Adare Sulagin – Rubeena Shabnam, ft. Yohan Dole.

Rubeena lives and works in Qatar and she has been in the music industry for almost five years. She has done a few originals but this one, with Yohan, is very special to her, she says.

Yohan Dole resides in Australia and is a guitarist and vocalist.

He has a band called Rhythmix, in Australia, where they play at various events.

He has been doing music for quite a while now but doing an original song was one of his dreams, he says

Rubeena and Yohan plan to get married, in December, and do more music together, in different genres.

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Mathematics examinations or mathematics curriculum?



Some people say that it is not necessary for a Grade 10 student to buy an ordinary scientific calculator because they have smartphones with built-in calculators. If not, it is easy to install a calculator app on mobile phones. A smartphone should not be used as a calculator during a mathematics test or a mathematics exam because it can be used for cheating. In the UK and other developed countries students have to keep their smartphones in their school bags or in their lockers outside the classroom during mathematics tests and exams. 

by Anton Peiris

R. N.A. De Silva has, in a recent article, provided some useful tips to students as regards preparation for mathematics examinations. Trained teachers and graduates with professional qualifications are familiar with this topic.  All mathematics teachers have a duty to help the students with revision.

The more important task is to salvage the Sri Lankan O/Level mathematics students from the abyss that they have fallen into, viz. the implications and the retarding effect of the use of obsolete Log Tables. The Minister of Education, Senior Ministry Officials and the NIA are oblivious to the important and interesting things that have happened in Grades 10 and 11 mathematics in the UK, other parts of Europe, Japan, Canada, China and elsewhere. They have been like frogs in a well for almost half a century. Here are two important facts:

1. O/Level mathematics students in Sri Lanka are 46 years behind their counterparts in the UK and in other developed countries. Ordinary Scientific calculators were introduced to the O/Level mathematics classrooms in the UK way back in 1977. Prior to that those students used Slide Rules to facilitate their mathematical calculations. Ordinary scientific calculators give the values of Sine, Cos, Tan and their Inverses, Log, LN, exponential powers, square roots, squares, reciprocals, factorials, etc., at the press of a button, in addition to performing arithmetic functions. There is no memory to store mathematical formulae, etc. It is an invaluable tool for solving sophisticated and interesting mathematical problems and also problems in ordinary statistics. It has paved the way for achieving high standards in O/Level Mathematics in those countries.

Just compare the maths questions in the Cambridge IGCSE or the London O/Level Maths Exam with the questions in the Sri Lankan O/Level maths exam and you will see how far our students have fallen behind.

The Cambridge O/Level examination was replaced by the GCSE and the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) a few decades ago.

I am not referring to Programmable Calculators and Graphic Display Calculators (GDC), meaning devices with a small screen that can display graphs, perform statistical calculations like the Z- Score for large samples, show Matrix calculations, provide solutions to algebraic equations, etc., at the press of a few buttons. GDC is a compulsory item for A/Level mathematics students in the UK and in all developed countries.

Some teachers say that by using ordinary scientific calculators in Grades 10 and 11, students will not acquire the ability to carry out mental arithmetic calculations. This is not true because

(i). Calculators are introduced in Grade 10. Maths teachers have five years of Primary School and three years of Middle school (Grades 7, 8 and 9) i.e. a total of eight years to inculcate sufficient mental arithmetic skills in their students before the calculators are introduced in Grade 10!

(ii). In the IGCSE and in the London O/Level Mathematics Exams calculators are not allowed for Paper 1. Preparation for Paper 1 requires the acquisition of mental arithmetic skills, e.g., one lesson per week in class in Grades 10 and 11 in which calculators are not allowed. Sri Lanka could follow suit.

Some people say that it is not necessary for a Grade 10 student to buy an ordinary scientific calculator because they have smartphones with built-in calculators. If not, it is easy to install a calculator app on mobile phones. A smartphone should not be used as a calculator during a mathematics test or a mathematics exam because it can be used for cheating. In the UK and other developed countries students have to keep their smartphones in their school bags or in their lockers outside the classroom during mathematics tests and exams.

An ordinary scientific calculator costs less than 10 % of the price of a smartphone.

Sri Lankan students in International Schools sit the IGCSE or the London O/Level mathematics exams where ordinary scientific calculators are allowed. These students have made big strides in learning mathematics by using the calculators. Only the rich can send their children to International Schools in Sri Lanka. Millions of poor Sri Lankan students do not have calculators.

Our Minister of Education has announced that the government was planning to transform the country’s education system by introducing ‘’STEAM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics). Maintaining high standards in O/Level Mathematics is the key to a successful implementation of STEAM programme. Unfortunately, the Education Minister and top education official are not aware of the fact that the only way to improve the standard of O/Level Mathematics is to do what the developed countries have done, i. e., revamping the O/Level mathematics syllabus and to introducing the ordinary scientific calculator in Grades 10 & 11. If they do it, it will be an important piece of curriculum development.

Bear in mind that the UK and other developed countries have taken another important step during the last 20 years; they have introduced the Graphic Display Calculator (GDC) to the O/Level Mathematics class and by providing a Core Exam and an Extended Exam. In the Cambridge IGCSE Mathematics Exams, Papers 1, 3, and 5 constitute the Core Exam. Papers 2 ,4 and 6 constitute the Extended Exam. Calculators are not allowed in Papers 1 and 2.

The Core Exam is a boon to students who have very little or no mathematical ability. More on this in my next article.

By using Log Tables, our Sri Lankan O/Level students have to spend a lot of time to solve an IGCSE (Extended Syllabus) exam problem or a London O/Level mathematics exam problem because the use of Log Tables takes a long time  to work out the Squares, Square Roots, exponential powers, reciprocals , LN , factorials, etc., and that is tedious work while their counterparts in developed countries do that in a few seconds by pressing a couple of buttons in an ordinary scientific calculator.

The Calculator has given them more motivation to learn mathematics.

O/Level students in the UK have graduated from the ordinary scientific calculator to the Graphic Display Calculator (GDC) thereby improving their ability to solve more sophisticated, more important and more interesting problems in mathematics, statistics and physics. Sri Lankan O/Level students are compelled to use obsolete Log Tables.

Hats off to that Minister of Education who introduced the ordinary scientific calculator to the Sri Lankan A/ Level Mathematics classroom and to the A/Level Mathematics Exam a few years ago. That was a small step in the right direction. Minister Susil Premjayantha, please revamp the O/Level mathematics syllabus and introduce the ordinary scientific calculator to Grades 10 and 11 now. That will ensure a big boost for your STEAM programme and yield benefits for the Sri Lankan economy.

(To be continued. Topic 2:  The necessity for introducing an O/Level Mathematics Core Exam and an Extended Exam. The writer has taught O/Level and A/Level Mathematics and Physics for 45 years in Asia, Africa and Europe and is an Emeritus Coordinator for International Baccalaureate, Geneva.)

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