UNDER THREAT – THE WRECKS OF SUBIC BAY

This article was published by Dive Magazine, it’s a little bit out-of-date now, but the issue of illegal salvage from the Subic Bay wrecks persists – with several wrecks (USS New York and San Quentin) closed to divers for a short time during 2012 because of illegal (dynamite) salvage of metals for scrap sale.There are records of over 30 wrecks in Subic.  When the US Navy base closed in 1991, a rush of unauthorized salvage took place in the Bay…and many wrecks and artifacts of significant historical and cultural value were entirely removed. Subic Bay dive operations regularly take visitors to 12 major wrecks – with a further 5-6 wrecks ‘off-limits’ due to Port Authority shipping restrictions.  Several other wrecks are accessible, but beyond the depth limits of recreational divers (although specialist technical trips can be arranged – for those with appropriate qualification).  I believe that there are further wrecks in the Bay to be discovered and dived… the hunt for these is active and continues…..

From Dive Magazine: Under Thread – The Wrecks of Subic Bay
Divers have just started to discover the 19 fabulous war wrecks of Subic Bay – but ruthless salvagers are also on the hunt.
Photo: Japanese patrol boat in Triboa Bay
Doug Perrine

Triboa Bay. Photo: DP
The American freighter, El Capitan
Photo: DP

Twin 8 inch deck guns on USS New York
Photo: DP

Airplane engine on the ‘Hell Ship’ Oryoku Maru
Photo: DP

American WWII landing craft utility
Photo: DP

90m long El Capitan
Photo: DP


Lionfish on the Seian Maru
Photo: DP

The Barges
Photo: DP

The Seian Maru lies at 25m
Photo: DP

The propeller on the USS New York
Photo: DP

Map
Photo: DP

Doug Perrine
Triboa Bay. Photo: DP

As a naturalist, the notion of endangered wildlife under threat from poachers is, sadly, an all too familiar theme. But I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the notion that a hunk of rusting metal weighing several tons could be under a similar kind of threat. Yes, I’d heard of wrecks that were deteriorating from saltwater immersion and currents, and I’d heard of divers looting portholes and other artefacts from wrecks, but the idea that an entire shipwreck could simply disappear almost overnight was a new concept. Yet I was presented with written documentation alleging that in the last few years at least ten shipwrecks had disappeared entirely from Subic Bay, which lies just northwest of Manila, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. They had been cut up or blown apart and hauled off for scrap metal. Other wrecks had been looted and seriously damaged, including the two most historically important wrecks in the Bay, dating from the Spanish-American and Second World Wars respectively. These are not just national treasures of the Philippines, but wrecks of international significance. Some of the damaged wrecks are war graves.

The inability of the Philippines government to protect these historical shipwrecks has led to allegations of complicity of some authorities with the illegal salvage operations. Cloak-and-dagger stories swirl, and yet few people are willing to speak on the record about what is happening. There is a sense that one’s safety and even one’s life could be in jeopardy for talking about certain subjects. One story had a group of visiting divers entering a shipwreck, and finding all the compartments rigged with explosives and ready to blow. In another case, a group of divers is said to have gone down on a shipwreck site only to find that the entire wreck had vanished, leaving only a depression in the sand. In all cases, I was unsuccessful in speaking with an actual witness.

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One fact is beyond doubt: Subic Bay has one of the highest concentrations of war wrecks within sport-diving range in the world. According to the Subic Bay Historical Museum, 19 wrecks dating from the Spanish-American War to the Second World War have been identified in Subic Bay. Ironically, these wrecks have only recently been opened to sports divers, at the same time they have become the target of ruthless salvagers. For years, the US Navy kept access to the bay extremely restricted, and banned all diving, except by Navy personnel. The Navy is said to have employed native Aeta tribesmen armed with poison-dart blowguns to eliminate intruders, among other methods. It was only after the facility was returned to the Philippines in 1991 and converted to a free-zone economic area that wreck-diving enthusiasts were able to start exploring this treasure trove of history. That same year, Mount Pinatubo conspired to help conceal the Bay’s secrets by tossing out massive quantities of volcanic ash in a catastrophic eruption. Large quantities washed down rivers into Subic Bay, partially burying some of the wrecks and injecting huge quantities of silt into the Bay. Gradually, however, the silt is washing away. Dive operations are proliferating, and Subic Bay is rapidly becoming a world-class wreck diving destination, as well as a general ecotourism and recreation destination. Apart from the historical interest of many of the wrecks, Subic Bay has the advantage that most of its wrecks are in depths easily accessible to sport divers, and most are within a 20-minute boat ride from the dock. Furthermore, as it is almost enclosed by land, the bay offers calm, protected waters under all but the most extreme weather conditions.

The same physical attributes that make for easy diving conditions at Subic Bay also made it an obvious place to establish a naval station. Spain, the first colonial power in the Philippines, established an arsenal and ship-repair facility on the banks of Subic Bay in 1885. The stone gateway to this facility still stands in the beachfront area. In 1898, upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, the Spanish commander sank the gunboat San Quentin and two smaller wooden boats to block one of the entrances to Subic Bay, but retreated to Manila Bay upon finding that the shore batteries at Subic Bay had not been completed. The San Quentin is now one of the major dive sites in Subic Bay, despite some damage from illicit salvage operations. The USS New York, an armoured cruiser, now lying on the bottom a few kilometres from the San Quentin, also played a part in the Spanish-American war, participating in attacks on Spanish facilities in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The American Pacific fleet, commanded by Commodore George Dewey, bypassed Subic Bay, and defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Manila Bay in May 1898. Filipino rebels overran the abandoned facilities at Subic Bay, and held them for a year until defeated by US forces. In 1900 the Americans established the Subic Bay Naval Reservation. It was used to train forces and repair ships before, during, and after the First World War.

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Within a few days of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese air raids on the Philippines commenced. One attack shot down seven US PBY planes into Subic Bay. The Americans abandoned Subic Bay, scuttling ships and dry-dock facilities, and the Japanese occupied the bay in January 1942.

By 1944, the fortunes of war had turned. American air raids sank a number of Japanese vessels in Subic Bay that year. American forces landed in the Philippines in October, and the Japanese began to organise their withdrawal. Allied prisoners of war (POWs) were rounded up and crammed by the thousands into the holds of ships to be transported back to Japan to be used as slave labour. These ships were termed ‘Hell Ships’ by the survivors, who numbered only a small portion of the prisoners that were forced onto the ships. One of the most infamous of these vessels was the Oryoku Maru, a former luxury cruise liner pressed into military service. Japanese soldiers and civilians occupied the quarters above deck while the American POWs below, without food, water or ventilation, suffered, died, and descended into madness under treatment so inhumane that the Japanese officers in charge were later sentenced to death at war crimes trials.

Shortly after leaving Manila, the Oryoku Maru was attacked by American planes and badly damaged, with hundreds of Japanese and Americans killed. Without the red cross marking required by the Geneva Convention, the American gunners had no idea that POWs were aboard. The Oryoku Maru limped into Subic Bay where it was attacked again, killing more of both nationalities. After it was evacuated, a final bombing set it ablaze and sent it to the bottom, where it rests today. The suffering of the prisoners was not over, however, as they were forced onto another unmarked Hell Ship, which was also bombed. Many of those who survived that nightmarish voyage succumbed to disease, exposure, and starvation during their internment in the slave labour camps in Japan, so that few of those who initially boarded the Oryoku Maru ever returned home.

In 1945 the Japanese abandoned Subic Bay, and it was re-occupied by the Americans, who began ship repairs there. After the war, a large number of vessels were brought there to be repaired or converted, and a number of these sank in the Bay due to storms, accidents, or their decrepit condition. During the Vietnam War, Subic Bay became home to the US Seventh Fleet, and a major centre for military R&R (rest and recreation), as well as training and repairs. During the 1960s up to 47 ships were in port each day. The number of vessels that have sunk here over the years will probably never be known, and new discoveries are made each year. It is even rumoured that Spanish galleons and Chinese junks have been found outside the Bay in deep water. Certainly there are more wrecks known in the Bay than a diver could expect to visit in a week’s diving holiday.

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The queen of the Subic wrecks is the USS New York. Built in 1891, her original designation was ACR-2, the second in a line of armoured cruisers. Her sister ship, ACR-1, was converted to a battleship and renamed the USS Maine. The sinking of the Maine instigated the Spanish-American War, in which the USS New York also fought. The New York became the flagship of the US Asiatic Fleet and Pacific Squadron, and participated in the First World War and other conflicts before finally being scuttled in Subic Bay in December 1941 to prevent capture by invading Japanese forces. At 110m long, it is one of the largest wrecks in the Bay. It is one of the few wrecked warships to be found with its deck guns intact. Both sets of twin 8in cannons are still in place, as is the massive prop. The wreck lies on its port side in 27m of water, with parts of the superstructure in 18m or less. Pirates have cut openings into some of the compartments in order to loot brass and bronze items, but it is still mostly intact.

Although not intact, the Spanish-American war wreck San Quentin is also an impressive wreck. The bow and stern sections are easily recognisable, as are the massive boilers used to power the steam engines. After more than a century underwater, the wreck is covered with a luxuriant growth of soft corals, sponges and crinoids, and populated with a dazzling array of fish and invertebrates. It is an easy dive in only 6–18m of water, and has a nice shallow reef next to it, upon which can be found some large giant clams. Situated near the mouth of the Bay, it is one of the few sites that gets any significant current on occasion. In compensation, the water is often a little more clear here than further into the Bay.

Flattened by explosives to reduce the hazard to navigation, and subsequently cut open by salvage divers looking for the rumoured treasure known as ‘Yamashita’s Gold’, the Oryoku Maru nonetheless remains an impressive wreck. The propeller is still intact, and the engine of a Japanese Zero sits just outside one of the cargo holds. A dense school of big-eye trevally is nearly always present on the wreck. It lies in 15–20m, only a stone’s throw from the commercial pier. The dark-green water at this location only adds to the spooky ambience brought on by the knowledge of the atrocities committed on this Hell Ship. Another wreck of particular historical significance is the Lanikai, a schooner-rigged yacht, which was featured in the film The Hurricane before being commissioned by the US Navy in December 1941. It was secretly assigned to shadow Japanese naval movements and report intelligence. Its commanding officer later concluded that its real purpose was a suicide mission to provoke a Japanese attack that would draw the US into the war. The Lanikai was recalled after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ironically sank in a typhoon in 1947. It lies at 31m.

Wreck-Diving Lessons Subic Bay Philippines

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