When Indian naval Captain T. K. Ashokan was at sea during exercises on December 26, he felt an unusual sudden swell.
Five days later, the INS Sarvekshak dropped anchor outside Sri Lanka’s debris-strewn Galle harbour with an urgent mission: to clean it up, allowing relief to reach the survivors of the country’s worst-ever natural disaster.
"Before we even reached here, we saw a few sunken boats right out in the middle of the sea," Ashokan said of the damage wrought by the killer tsunami.
The wall of water triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra also hit 10 other countries, including India, killing more than 150,000 people.
The Sarvekshak, a ship that specialises in hydrography or the mapping of the ocean floor, drew into Galle in the dead of night, but lighthouses usually ablaze with light along the ravaged coast were snuffed out.
"The normal activities you associate with a harbour were conspicuous by their absence," he said, speaking onboard as relief operations continued in battered Sri Lanka, with a total of 11 Indian naval vessels lending a hand.
"It was like entering a desolate, dead place."
The immediate mission of the 218 officers and sailors onboard, along with 82 army personnel, was to clear the harbour to allow the ships carrying a flood of international aid arriving here to safely dock, the captain said.
An emblem of the monumental effort this took over the following three days sits right on the pier where Ashokan’s ship is now docked: a massive dredger that the tsunami wave heaved up and gently placed down, undamaged.
"It’s a miracle — that weighs more than 1,000 tonnes and it was in the water. The tsunami came and just lifted it out. If you want to see the power of nature, there it is," said the captain, a naval officer for 25 years.
"I’ve never seen anything like it in my life."
Using its cutting-edge surveying equipment, the three-year-old Sarvekshak’s first task was to map out where boats, buses and other sizeable objects had been hurled into the harbour by the powerful waves.
A team of 25 specialist divers then worked on clearing the harbour of the debris, wrapping up work on January 3.
"There were so many sunken boats, we lost count of them," he said.
While Galle harbour is an important commercial port for Sri Lanka, a port worker who did not want to be identified said that no commercial ships were damaged, with the fishing fleet instead bearing the brunt of the catastrophe.
Scores of boats belonging to local fishermen, painted in incongruously cheerful hues of blue and yellow, red and green, still litter the side of the coastal road winding along the harbour.
Another crucial job the crew carried out was replacing the buoys that marked out a safe passage for ships into the harbour, which were torn from their anchors by the force of the tsunami.
Ashokan said the scale of the devastation and clean-up did not compare to other natural disasters he has seen, including a major cyclone, both physically and emotionally.
"This was totally different. With a cyclone, there is a gradual build up. People can get a little prepared, but this was something that caught people completely by surprise," he said.
"It’s more than the physical. The emotional quotient is also there… It’s not just the hard work. You see the strain on the people, and this tires you out faster."
Ashokan hailed the Sri Lankans for their bravery and energy in starting to swing back to normal life.
"The Sri Lankans have risen to the occasion most admirably. Life is getting back to normal. People are not just sitting around, and that’s a welcome sign."