Scuba Travel director Tony Backhurst was out in Sangat, in the Philippines in December with a group of metal loving wreck divers to check out the Japanese fleet that was sunk in Coron in the Philippines during the Second World War.
The 24th of September 1944 was another bad day for the Japanese Imperial Navy. Having suffered persistent air attacks in Manilla harbour the remaining Japanese shipping was ordered to take up safer anchorage in the Calamian Islands, North Palawan. Resting in the shelter of Coron Bay, the Japanese ships must have considered they were safe, over three hundred miles away from the US carrier fleet East of Leyte. However the Japanese ship movements had been detected by the US Pacific Fleet and Task Force 38, launched from US carriers, descended on them that morning in a surprise attack. The Japanese anti aircraft defences were no match for the US Helldiver dive bombers and by the end of the morning eleven ships were sunk or severely disabled in Coron Bay and surrounding area.
A bad day for the Japanese Imperial Navy but a good day for Andrew Pownall! Andrew originally hails from the UK and has inherited his love of diving from his father, who was a professional dive salvage operator. He came to this part of the Philippines in 1986 as part of a research team surveying and excavating ancient Chinese Junks sunk centuries before. He fell in love with this enchanting part of North Palawan and in 1992 bought Sangat Island, opening the resort 2 years later. Sangat resort is within easy reach of eight of the Japanese wrecks!
The wrecks were just the reason I had come to the exotic and remote part of the Philippines at the end of November. This special wreck trip was to be escorted by our wreck guru Mike Ward, but when he had to withdraw at the last minute I “volunteered” to take his place. This required travelling to Yorkshire for a familiarisation of the excellent materials Mike had prepared, followed by intensive reading of two “tomes” on The War in the Pacific. My Wartime History and Pacific Geography considerably improved, I couldn’t wait to get down to some serious wreck exploration.
The journey to Sangat was easy enough, after a night in Manilla we took the short flight to Busuanga airport and then mini bus transfer to Coron town, where we boarded a Banca for the 40 minute trip to Sangat Resort. By this time I had hooked up with the rest of the party, a really nice bunch. Six of the party were from Selsey Bil. BSAC. (Carol, Malcolm,Tony,Keith, Graham and Sue). Turns out they had been travelling with us for many years and had dived on Angelina II back in the early 90’s. Graham still had one of the first Tornado Marine T shirts from way back when. Also along was Steve and Kerry, again experienced divers with some good stories, and Owen, who I had enjoyed diving with in Sumatra. On the boat trip from Coron to Sangat we really began to soak up the the tropical atmosphere, slipping along the glassy smooth sea weaving among steep jungle clad islands before arriving to a warm welcome Philippine style and a slap up lunch. We soon felt really at home in our tropical paradise, warm smiles and the ‘nothing is too much trouble’ attitude was the hallmark of Sangat Resort. By the first evening all the staff seem to know our names and would call a friendly greeting every time we met. The resort is built along a strip of beach on what is otherwise a steep mountainous jungle clad island, no other inhabitants except the troupe of Macaque Monkeys that come to visit at breakfast time.
The next day we were introduced to the diving operation, headed up by Jojo. Jojo, a German with a sense of humour, is also settled in the Philippines and has been diving in this area for 15 years. As I found out later, his knowledge of the wrecks was invaluable when making complex tours of the historic ships. Apart from the proximity to the wreck sites another huge plus was the excellent dive boats. As we were all expecting to dive from the traditional Banca, it came as a nice surprise to find that the dive operation had a whole range of fast outboard skiffs and larger purpose build dive boats. Our group was allocated an excellent trimaran ‘Trident’ with loads of room, easy access in and out of the water and even a loo.
And so to the wrecks. Apart from the rather warmer water (around 30 degrees C), the way of diving the wrecks was similar to in the UK. The wrecks are buoyed and it’s a descent down the line, sometimes in current, and often in 10 – 15 meters visibility. The first thing that we found remarkable was the amount of growth and life on the wrecks. We all know that wrecks form artificial reefs but the abundance of life was quite incredible. Every inch of the outside of the ships was a veritable forest of hard corals teeming with animals that you would expect to find on a vibrant reef. Once inside the wreck the need for an experienced local guide became apparent. Every dive presented an intriguing maize of corridors and passages, engine rooms, boilers, control rooms, munitions, pumps and machinery. You can even swim down the prop shaft of one of the wrecks and come out by the rudder. There are lots of everyday items as well, galleys still full of rice pans, a sewing machine and even a bicycle resting where it was stowed all those years ago.
As the trip went on I became better at identifying the various artefacts and got the hang of taking photos without kicking up too much silt. Day by day we discovered more of the interiors of these time capsules, and also to became familiar with their names, The Akitushima with it’s huge crane, The Kogya Maru with it’s bulldozer, The Irako with it’s galley complete with pots and pans, and so on. Every dive was an adventure.
Although the wrecks are the big attraction here there was no shortage of variety of other dives. The house reef provided excellent shore and night dives, a small colony of sea horses reside just off the beach in a couple of meters of water. Ever enthusiastic Owen went night diving every evening and came back with reports of a huge variety of creatures, ghost pipe fish, sleeping bamboo sharks, and spanish dancers to name but a few. We enjoyed a day trip to Black island where there is yet another wreck in blue water on the edge of the South China Sea. The boat crew conjured up an excellent 3 course lunch out of no-where and took us ashore to visit a huge cave.
Another nice interlude was a visit to the warm water springs in the Mangroves on the West of the island where you can relax in deliciously warm water with an after-dive beer. The Sangat Gunboat provided a rewarding third dive, and if you really want a different diving experience how about Barracuda Lake on Coron island. Jojo took a few of us there on the last day and it was certainly a unique experience. No suit needed we were told, and we could see why when we descended into water that was 34 degrees. What was really remarkable was as you went deeper the water became a cooking 38 degrees! In places you could clearly see the halocline.
The days seemed to fly by and the evenings were filled up with wonderful meals and wreck stories around the bar. All too soon it was time to leave our paradise island and head back home. As Sue commented after the trip:
“Wrecks, hot springs, wild monkeys, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, enough food to make you really fat, delicious cocktails, a beach that was like silk to walk on and only the sound of the sea. Aaaaahhhhhh.”
Take a look at Tony’s pics from the trip: