x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Japanese ships, casualties of war, make for fascinating dives

Shunning the usual coral reefs, Jessica Au explores three naval shipwrecks from the Second World War off the Philippine island of Busuanga.

As our banka skipped across the turquoise-blue waters of the South China Sea on the morning of my first wreck dive, I began to get cold feet. Coron, the main port of a tiny Filipino island called Busuanga, is as known for its dark limestone cliffs and powder white beaches as it is for its remoteness. There are no five-star resorts here, no international cashpoints, and the closest thing to nightlife that you might encounter are the sounds of chirping cicadas. But that is what had attracted me to the area. That, and the fact Coron Bay and its surrounding waters are littered with vintage Japanese warships sunk by US planes during the Second World War, earning it the reputation as one of the best wreck-diving capitals of the world.

I wanted to try something different from normal reef dives, and was particularly attracted to the wrecks in Coron because they were not deliberately sunk to attract divers (as opposed to the majority of wreck dive sites) but real, wartime victims. Shortly after sunrise on September 24, 1944, a wave of US fighter planes launched a surprise aerial raid on a Japanese supply convoy hiding in Coron Bay. At the time it was the longest-range air assault ever launched from aircraft carriers, 550km from target. After a 40-minute attack, Vice Admiral William F Halsey's Task Force 38 had left behind a fleet of burning, sinking ships.

Today, 24 Japanese naval ships are thought to be buried off the coast of Busuanga Island, but only 11 wrecks have been found, including the 122m-long freighter, the Olympia Maru, and the Akitsushima, a spectacular 118-metre long seaplane tender with a steel crane.

I planned to dive three of the island's biggest wrecks during my trip: the Kyokuzan Maru, the Akitsushima and the Irako. Even though I am a certified advanced open-water diver, it had been years since my last dive, and the thought of descending into the depths of the dark seas only to be confronted by a graveyard of ghostly shipwrecks, made me a little nervous. Thankfully, my dive master and "buddy", Brian, a burly, middle-aged Korean with a giant octopus tattooed on his right arm, quickly put me at ease by showing me diagrams of the wreck and briefing me about the dive ahead.

The wreck that I had decided to explore first was the 135-metre auxiliary supply ship called the Kyokuzan Maru, or "the Dimalanta wreck". The Kyokuzan had been anchored on the opposite side of Busuanga Island and was severely damaged in the air raid, before it was eventually scuttled by the Japanese. What makes the Kyokuzan so special is that it sits almost upright on the seabed and is virtually intact, ideal for beginners and photographers. We were to do two dives that day, explained Brian, beginning with the ship's port, then diving to the hull later that afternoon.

As I leapt into the water and felt that first surge of cool water over my head and the flow of air through the regulator, the feeling that came over me was one of pleasure and familiarity. There is something thrilling yet intensely private and peaceful about diving. There are no chattering guides, no audio tours and no other pushy tourists to grapple with. Instead, all around me were fish - barracuda, snappers, grouper and the wreck-loving scorpion and lionfish.

Brian has been diving these wrecks for years and effortlessly led me in, out, through and around the vessel, showing me points of interest that even the most experienced diver would have missed on their first tour of the ship. Swimming through the different cabins, I saw oil drums, big boilers, broken china, cars and even a truck in the cargo room. Above the stern I could also make out the skeletal remains of a gun turret. I felt as though I had been admitted into another world, yet the wreck was an eerie reminder of human error, technological failure, war and strife. I was hooked.

The next day we set off shortly after sunrise for Coron Bay, where I was to do two more dives: the Akitsushima and the Irako, which, at almost 150 metres, is the island's largest wreck, locally referred to as "the Monster". On board with me were four other divers, a German man with his teenage daughter, as well as a young Filipina and her American boyfriend. We were split into groups depending on our experience, and I found myself in the same group as the father and daughter from Aachen, with my divemaster Brian again leading the way.

As we dove down to the Akitsushima, I was disappointed that visibility was so poor. During the cooler climes of the rainy season, visibility improves, whereas the dry season creates a plankton bloom that reduces visibility to a few metres. But as the waters began to clear and I peered into the silent ocean below, the sight of the vessel almost caused me to empty my air tank in a single breath. Out of the blue mist I could see the ship resting on its side, coated thickly with coral and sponge. The Akitsushima had been hit a number of times and shafts of light streamed through the potholes, offering beautiful cathedral-like views.

We entered the ship through the keel, a tight squeeze through rust and metal with only the faint, yellow beam of a torchlight to guide us. The interior was quite silty so I had to watch out for my buoyancy and make sure that I didn't kick too hard with my fins. At one point, the German girl in my group mistook the wrong door for the exit and hit the wreck, causing silt to rain down. My heart rate went up as the visibility dropped to near zero, but I soon felt Brian's reassuring grip on my arm, and after the silt had settled we continued the rest of the dive without drama.

Later, as we lunched and lounged on the banka, I heard the German man gently scold his daughter: "It's the Philippines, darling, you need to fend for yourself here." That much is certainly true; they don't babysit you and some of the dive shops don't have any qualms about taking very inexperienced divers on what are considered advanced dives. My divemaster, however, was professional and never once did I feel unsafe or forced to do anything I wasn't comfortable with.

Descending from the line of the boat to the deck of the Irako was like landing on the moon - sitting upright at 42 metres below the surface, the ship is covered in black coral and home to fleets of snappers, tuna and barracudas. Dive enthusiasts generally consider the Irako the best - but also the darkest, deepest and most dangerous - wreck dive in the Philippines. Only divers with special training are allowed to swim into the wreck, but there were enough gaping holes and glass holes to get a good look.

I weaved in and out of the silent steel masts and poked around amid dangling loops of cable and wire as shoals of silvery fusilier sailed past. On the deck level towards the bow I even spotted a rare shaded batfish lurking in the coral. When it was finally time to leave behind the war of 60 years before and swim back to the surface, I was left with little doubt that I would one day soon return.

If you go

The flight

Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Manila with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh2,685, including taxes.

The stay

Located on its own private island, El Rio Y Mar Resort (www.elrioymar.com; 00 63 920 951 5009) offers villas from US$170 (Dh624) per person per night, including meals. Club Paradise (www.clubparadisepalawan.com; 00 63 918 912 7106) is a short banka ride from Coron Town and has its own dive centre and house reef. Beachfront cottages start from $200 (Dh735) per person per night

The info

The dry season, October to June, is generally considered the best time for diving. Coron has several dive centres offering day and overnight trips as well as night dives. The Dugong Dive Center (www.dugongdivecenter.com) offers diving to guests of Club Paradise and El Rio Y Mar from 1,400 Filipino pesos (Dh120) for a single dive, including tanks, weights and a guide.