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CORON BAY – A WRECK DIVER’S HEAVEN

by Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

It is hard to image a more beautiful and peaceful place than the islands and islets of Coron Bay. This picturesque location in the Philippines is heaven on earth with spectacular limestone islands covered in jungle, white sandy beaches and clear calm waters. But this serene location was once hell on earth for a fleet of Japanese ships and their crew, when they were attacked by American dive bombers and fighter planes on September 24 1944. A rain of terror from the skies resulting in the sinking of a dozen vessels, which today offer some of the best wreck diving in Asia.

 

The wrecks of Coron Bay are located off Busuanga Island, in the Calamian Group in northern Palawan. A forty minute flight south of Manila saw us leaving from the mostly densely populated part of the country to one of the least populated areas. This area of the Philippines is still largely underdeveloped and unspoilt, as we discovered on the forty minute drive from the airport, along bumpy dirt roads. But a little dust and bumps was well worth it when we arrived at D’Pearl Bay. The sight was breathtaking, a spectacular bay with a limited number of resorts built discretely into the landscape.

 

D’Pearl Bay is also the location of D’Divers, one of the oldest dive operations in Coron Bay, established by expat German Gunter Bernert in 1989. Gunter first come to this area almost 30 years ago and was instrumental in locating many of the famous shipwrecks in the area. D’Divers is located at the Puerto Del Sol Resort, but they work closely with all the resorts in the area - Busuanga Bay Lodge and Al Faro. We checked out all of the resorts, and they are equally superb, with comfortable rooms, great food and million-dollar views of the bay.

 

D’Divers operate several dive boats and generally schedule three dives daily to the wrecks and also the local reefs. With only four days to dive the area (we lost two days due to delayed flights in Manila because of an APEC summit) we were mainly interested in the shipwrecks, and talking to Gunter he suggested we concentrate on their five main wrecks, which are only 5 to 30 minutes from the dive centre.

 

Our first dive was on the Olympia Maru, a 122m long freighter that sits upright in 32m of water. We jumped into the calm blue water to find the water temperature 29°C and the visibility close to 30m. Usually the visibility on these wrecks is between 12m and 15m, however Gunter did inform us that there is strong tidal movements in the bay that effects the visibility, which can vary from 6m to 30m. Another effect of this movement of water became obvious as we descended on the bow of the wreck - very rich coral growth. Every wreck we dived in Coron Bay was covered in black coral trees, sea whips, gorgonians, soft corals, hard corals, ascidians and sponges. The Coron Wrecks are easily the most colourful shipwrecks we have seen anywhere.

 

Exploring the bow of the Olympia Maru we headed straight for a large circular gun mount, sadly lacking a gun as most of the ships were salvaged after the war. It is still a spectacular structure and swarming with a school of batfish. We then swam along the deck, passed two large kingposts and then dropped into the forward holds. Here we could see damage from the aerial attack, twisted plates and warped metal. We then continued to the bridge area and onto the stern, investigating winches and other fittings and encountering lionfish, trevally, mackerel and even a banded sea snake. We returned to the bow via the four sets of kingposts, finding each covered in growth and home to masses of reef fish.

 

We next dived the nearby Kogyo Maru, a 129m long freighter that now rests on its starboard side in 34m. This was another impressive wreck and so big that we only managed to explore part of the ship. With the mooring line attached at midships, we started our exploration at the bridge area, then entered the ship to investigate the engine room, seeing two huge boilers and other fittings. We then followed a passageway into the forward holds, which still contain bags of cement and a bulldozer, before looking at the bow area. Returning to the mooring along the port side of the ship we were amazed by the massive plate corals which completely covered the hull. These in turn were swarming with schools of fusiliers and snapper, but we also saw nudibranchs, scorpionfish, rock cods, coral trout, trevally, triggerfish and a huge broadclub cuttlefish.

 

In the afternoon it was time to explore the house wreck, as the Okikawa Maru is known, being only 5 minutes from the dive centre. This is the largest shipwreck in the area, and many would argue the best, a 168m long auxiliary oil tanker that rests upright in 26m. On our first two dives we had been unguided, which was fine for our photography, but on this dive local guide Mensoi was going to give us the deluxe tour.

 

We descended on the bow, which is bent up from a split in the hull caused by the bombs and sinking. Mensoi led us to the split in the hull and straight into the bowels of the ship. We then did a 30 minute penetration from the bow to the stern, going in and out of passageways, through the engine room, into the storage tanks and finally along the prop shaft to exit at the rudder. An amazing penetration and as good as any dive we have done on the President Coolidge. We then returned to the bow by swimming slowly across the decks of the tanker, marvelling at the fittings, corals and marine life. We saw a turtle, schools of trevally and countless reef fish.

 

The next day we dived one of the most impressive shipwrecks in the area, the Akitsushima. This 118m long sea plane tender rests on its port side, and is a very unique vessel fitted with a large crane to retrieve sea planes.  Only two of these sea plane tender ships were ever built. The Akitsushima was in Truk Lagoon when it was attacked by the Americans and received two bomb hits. It survived that attack, only to be sunk several months later by American dive bombers at Coron Bay.

 

We did two dives on this wonderful shipwreck as there is just so much to see. On the first dive we explored the stern area, where the enormous crane is found. We followed the crane to its end, where the rigging rests in the sand at 35m. We then checked out twin machine guns that rest on the sand next to the ship. Mensoi then lead us to a huge split in the hull, where we enjoyed another great penetration dive exploring the bridge area and engine room. The corals and fish life were once again brilliant on this impressive shipwreck.

 

After another dive on the Kogyo Maru, exploring deeper into the wreck, we decided on a shallow dive for the afternoon, a visit to the Lusong Bay Gunboat. This wreck is either a gunboat or a submarine hunter, and it now rests in 1m to 11m on a pretty coral reef. A popular snorkelling spot, the 20m long ship is very open and fun to explore. It didn’t take long to see the ship, so for the rest of the dive we explored the nearby reef and found it decorated with gorgonians, sea whips, soft corals, hard corals and sponges. Marine life included a hawksbill turtle, sweetlips, baitfish, fusiliers and schools of parrotfish.

 

D’Divers offer a number of day trips to some of the more distance wrecks, reefs and caves. We were hoping to do a trip to Barracuda Lake, a landlocked lake with caves and unusual rock structures, but the other divers voted to visit Black Island. This ended up being a wonderful day trip, cruising between the pretty limestone islands for one and half hours to reach the towering cliffs and white sandy beaches at Black Island. Here we dived the Nanshin, a 50m long tanker that rests on a sandy slope in depths from 15m to 33m. This compact wreck was a great dive, and with 20m visibility it was very photogenic. We managed to do a little penetration, but spent most of the dive admiring the corals and abundant fish life. We did a second dive on the wreck after lunch and then had a wonderful afternoon reef dive at Columbion Island.

 

For our final day of diving we returned to the Akitsushima. This time we explored the bow area, seeing a huge gun mount and exploring a very large radar tower. For our final dive we headed to another freighter, the 137m long Morazan Maru. This ship also rests on its starboard side, but being in only 25m of water we had more time to explore. The visibility was poor, only 8m on the exterior of the ship, but inside it was twice this, so we spent most of the dive investigating the holds, engine room and bridge. This was another wonderful wreck with plenty to see, plus great corals and marine life.

 

The shipwrecks of Coron Bay are some of the most interesting war wrecks we have dived, and combined with the great resorts, the excellent D’Divers and picturesque location; this area of the Philippines is a wreck diver’s heaven.

 

 

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