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THE COLORFUL CORON WRECKS

by Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

 

We have dived some colorful shipwrecks over the years, but the one before us looked more like a coral reef than a wreck. Almost every surface of this massive shipwreck was decorated with beautiful soft corals, gorgonians, ascidians, black coral trees, sea whips and sponges. But this wreck was not unique, as all the shipwrecks we explored in this area were covered in wonderful corals. We were diving the Coron Wrecks, the most colorful shipwrecks in Asia.

 

Coron Bay is one of the most beautiful and peaceful locations we have ever visited. 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 and tranquil location was once hell on earth for a fleet of Japanese ships and their crew.

 

Towards the end of the World War II the Japanese were in retreat across the Pacific as American forces attacked their bases and ships. In September 1944 the Americans were pressing towards the Philippines, with General MacArthur keen to keep his promise to return. After attacks on the ships in Manila Bay the Japanese relocated the fleet to Coron Bay, thinking they would be well hidden and also out of range of the American planes. But only a day after the ships arrived, reconnaissance planes located the fleet hidden amongst the islands.

 

On the morning of 24 September 1944, 180 Grumman H6F Hellcat and SB2C Helldiver planes departed from a group of aircraft carriers under the command of Vice Admiral William Halsey. It was an ambitious plan, the greatest long-range assault from an aircraft carrier ever attempted, with the ships in Coron Bay 340 miles (550km) away. The planes took three hours to reach their targets, but managed to capture the Japanese fleet completely unaware.

 

In a 40 minute battle the planes bombed and machine gunned the ships. A number of planes were lost in the attack, shot down by anti-aircraft fire; several planes also ran out of fuel on the return trip. But the divebombers and fighter planes inflicted far more damage to the Japanese fleet, sinking a dozen ships and in turn creating one of the best wreck diving destinations in Asia.

 

Today Coron Bay is a very peaceful and secluded part of the Philippines, but easily reached on a forty minute flight from Manila. We recently explored Coron Bay with D’Divers, the oldest and most professional dive operation in the area. Owned and operated by Gunter Bernert, an expat German who arrived in Coron almost thirty years ago, D’Divers are located on the shores of the picturesque D’Pearl Bay and offer daily boat dives to the wrecks and reefs in the area. The dive center also work closely with three wonderful local resorts, Al Faro, Busuanga Bay Lodge and Puerto Del Sol Resort, which are only minutes from the dive center. All three have great rooms with wonderful views of the bay, plus pools, restaurants and bars, and they vary in style and price to suit every diver’s budget.

 

D’Divers take divers to all the shipwrecks in the area; some are only minutes away, but the furthest is 90 minutes away. But this is one area where the longer the boat trip the better, as cruising the calm waters between the rugged limestone islands of Coron Bay is a real treat. During our four day stay we dived seven shipwrecks and found each had something special. But one thing they all had in common was a great covering of corals and marine life, making the Coron Wrecks the most colorful shipwrecks we have explored anywhere.

 

Our favorite shipwreck was the Akitsushima, a 387ft (118m) long sea plane tender that rests in 114ft (35m) of water on its port side. This unusual ship has a link to Truk Lagoon, as it was there when the Americans attacked on February 17 and 18 in 1944, receiving damage from two direct hits. It survived the attack and was repaired only to be sunk eight months later at Coron Bay. This impressive shipwreck has a giant crane on its stern that was used to lift sea planes from the water so they could be serviced. We explored this huge crane and also the radar tower, bridge and two gun mount emplacements. Unfortunately the Coron Wrecks were salvaged after the war, but interesting bits and pieces remain on each wreck and on the Akitsushima it was a set of twin machine guns. Our guide Mensoi also gave us a tour inside the ship, exploring the engine room, numerous passageways and the bridge area.

 

Equally impressive was the Okikawa Maru, a 550ft (168m) long auxiliary oil tanker that sits upright in 85ft (26m). This enormous ship is the largest in the area and is D’Divers house wreck, located only five minutes from the dive center. We only did one dive on this massive shipwreck, and it was just brilliant as we followed Mensoi on a penetration dive from the bow to stern. We explored deep within the ship, following Mensoi down passageways, through doorways, into the engine room, through large storage tanks and finally down the drive shaft. During this penetration we stopped to look at numerous pipes and fittings, and even inspected a set of bones, not one of the unfortunate crew, but a turtle that got lost in the ship and drowned.

 

The deck of this massive ship sits in 50ft (15m), so gave us plenty of time to explore the bridge, winches, oil piping structure and other fittings. The corals decorating this ship are just spectacular, especially the large barrel and finger sponges. While exploring this ship we encountered a green turtle, this one alive and well, but also saw batfish, pufferfish, snappers, fusiliers and a huge school of jacks.

 

We also explored three large freighters, the Olympia Maru, the Kogyo Maru and the Morazan Maru. The Olympia Maru was the most impressive; 400ft (122m) long it sits upright in 105ft (32m) and has gun mounts, holds and four sets of kingposts. We slowly toured this large ship, but spent most of the dive on the exterior of the ship, as the marine life and corals were a highlight, including schools of batfish, snappers, sweetlips, mackerel, jacks and a banded sea snake.

 

The Kogyo Maru lies on its starboard side in 105ft (32m), and being 423ft (129m) long there was too much to see on only one dive, so we had to return for a second visit. On the exterior we explored the kingposts, bridge and holds, but had the most fun on the interior of the ship. In the engine room we saw two huge boilers, and exploring the kitchen saw a large cooking pot. In the forward hold bags of cement can still be seen, along with a tractor and bulldozer. The entire port side of the ship is covered in the most amazing coral garden of large plate corals, where we saw schools of snapper and fusiliers, plus a very large cuttlefish.

 

The Morazan Maru is 450ft (137m) long, but resting in 80ft (25m) on its starboard side allowed a much longer bottom time to explore the interior of the ship. On this ship we had time to slowly explore each hold, and investigate endless passageways, while looking into the engine room, bridge and countless rooms. Like all the wrecks this one was home to wonderful marine life, including nudibranchs, scorpionfish, coral trout and swarms of shrimpfish.

 

The smallest wreck we dived was the 65ft (20m) long Lusong Bay Gunboat. Resting on a reef in 3ft (1m) to 36ft (11m), this ship is a haven for reef fish. The adjacent reef is also very pretty, decorated with gorgonians, soft corals, black corals and sea whips. The reef was also home to a healthy population of reef fish and a hawksbill turtle. Another wreck we enjoyed was the Nanshin, a 165ft (50m) long tanker located at the picturesque Black Island, resting in depths from 50ft (15m) to 105ft (32m). This compact ship is covered in corals and home to lionfish, sweetlips, snappers and damselfish.

 

While at Coron Bay we also explored a couple of the local reefs, which are very rich with coral growth, but missed doing some of the cave dives that this area is also famous for. During our visit in November the water temperature was a balmy 84°F (29°C) and the visibility varied from 25ft (8m) to 100ft (30m), however we were informed by Gunter that 40ft (12m) to 50ft (15m) is the average due to tidal flows in and out of the bay.

 

We had a wonderful time exploring the wrecks of Coron Bay with D’Divers and only wished we had more time to fully explore all of the war wrecks in this fascinating part of the Philippines.

 

 

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