Beneath the Blanket - Subic Bay

So whats available for the dedicated wreckie The Philippines has two areas of note, Coron Bay off the island of Batangas to the north of Palawan, and Subic Bay on the main island of Luzon.
    Many more wrecks are scattered about the various islands, but these are the known wreck concentrations.
    Subic Bay is a large natural harbour that has been used as a port and naval base by all the nations that have controlled the Philippines throughout its history. Each has contributed to its shipwreck collection.
From the age of galleons and exploitative colonialism to the coming of steel ships and steam power, the Philippines was controlled by Spain.
    Then came the Spanish-American war, fought largely over Cuba and the Philippines in 1898.
    To help defend the bay, the Spanish scuttled the steam gunboat San Quentin to block a shallow channel south-east of Grande Island. At the end of hostilities the Spanish remained in possession, but sold the Philippines to the USA for a quiet life.
    I have been expecting a small wreck, but the area of wreckage suggests a vessel 50-60m long. At the entrance to the bay and only 12m deep, there is plenty of light and visibility is the normal tropical blue. The ships outline is easily discernible among wreckage that has largely decayed and collapsed flat with the sand.
    The stronger bow and stern construction are both still partially intact, providing structure from which soft corals hang in the sunlight.
    At the stern I play tag with a cautious batfish but fail to get close.
    At the centre of the wreck are two large boilers, reasonably intact, though there are cracks in the plating through which I can look in among the tubes. I notice a black and white splinter a few centimetres long in the sand, and reach to pick it up for a closer look. As my fingers close the sand erupts, and a well-buried stingray escapes my tweaking the end of its tail!
    The next change of ownership came in January 1942 with the Japanese invasion. Before retreating, the American forces destroyed the port facilities and scuttled the old armoured cruiser New York, which had been launched in 1891 and seen service through the Spanish-American War and World War One.
    Between 1911 and 1917 she was renamed Saratoga, but it was as the Rochester that she was laid up at the Subic Bay naval base in 1933 to be cannibalised for spares. When scuttled in December 1941, all the 4in secondary guns had been removed, though the fore and aft twin 8in main gun turrets remained.
    The original name New York is used by local divers for what proves to be the best wreck of my trip, now resting in 28m on its port side less than 500m from the main pier and a five-minute boat ride from Master Dives shop.
    I make several dives on the wreck and could easily enjoy more. Having swum round the outside and the main gun turrets, we spend a lot of time exploring inside, worming our way along corridors and between decks to see how far we can get, identifying various bits of warship equipment on the way.
    It all makes for a great sense of exploration, though we are hardly the first, as evidenced by dead lines left by previous divers. This far inside the harbour I expect visibility to be very low, but it is an acceptable 15-20m on all my dives.
    The closing stages of World War Two in the Philippines saw US forces with overwhelming air superiority dropping bombs on any ship in sight. The 3712 ton freighter Seian Maru was sunk on 19 December, 1944 and lies within spitting distance of the New York. The port side is on the seabed at 28m, with the starboard side as shallow as 16m.
    A little closer to the main pier and river, visibility on the Seian Maru can be a problem, so we dive it towards the middle of an incoming tide. Descending the buoyline to the stern, visibility settles at about 8-10m, but along the length of the wreck it steadily increases, and when we reach the bow I can see Daran as far as 15m away. A sizeable anchor rests tight against the bow.
    Amidships the superstructure is broken enough to conceal the ventilation hatches, my usual easy route to an engine room. Compared to the intact holds, bow and stern, the middle of the ship is a mess. It must have taken a bomb right in the bulls-eye.
Eventually I settle for entering the aft hold and follow the propshaft tunnel forward to the engine-room bulkhead. A few metres towards the deck I find a split that gets me into the engine room. Light enters through a large hole in the starboard side of the hull above.
    A better description would be steel cavern filled with engine-room-like debris. I can just pick out bits of diesel engine poking out from the tangle of broken pipes, gratings and bits of auxiliary machinery. Towards the deck everything has collapsed to block any possible access through the remains of the superstructure.
    Another Japanese war casualty was a 20m patrol boat, located in Triboa Bay, a small inlet on the south side of Subic Bay. Standing upright in 24m this is an interesting little wreck, though for some reason we encounter the lowest visibility of any of my Subic dives.
    Getting inside is a squeeze. The small wheelhouse is so packed with glassfish that some must be forced outside to make room for me. Behind the wheelhouse, the engine room is silted almost to the top of the diesel engine.
    After photographing the other wrecks in better visibility, I dont use any film on this dive. The funny thing is, I often take pics on UK wrecks in lower visibility than we encounter here.
    Other than its name, no one seems to know anything about the history of El Capitan, a fairly conventional steam-powered freighter resting on its port side at the entrance to Ilian Bay, an inlet on the south side of Subic Bay. Only one bay along from the patrol boat wreck, visibility here is consistently good.
    Steam-powered with a plate rudder, the El Capitan was obviously an older design of ship than most freighters in the Pacific during WWII, but its wartime use is evidenced by a sturdy gun platform above the bow.
    The starboard side of the wreck is only 6m down. I enjoy two long dives and explore just about every hole there is to find. The wreck is extremely intact, and though there are some popped plates, I can find no sign of war damage to the hull or superstructure. Perhaps it just ran aground and sank, or was scuttled.
    After WWII, Subic Bay again became a US Navy base and training area. Aircraft carriers docked at the naval pier and marines regularly practised amphibious assaults on the north shore of the bay. So there is a selection of landing craft and other ships for supporting amphibious operations at the bottom, the largest being an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) upright in 35m.
    The last LST I had dived was off Normandy, upside-down with a cargo of Sherman tanks. This one, of the same design, was scuttled deliberately in 1946. It is well out in the bay, about halfway between the El Capitan and San Quentin, so visibility is fairly good.
    At the bow the outer doors are open and one has recently fallen to the seabed, though the inner ramp is still raised. The front two-thirds of the wreck is the covered cargo deck.
    The superstructure at the stern has fallen in to main deck level, leaving an abstract sculpture of gun platforms, though no guns.
    The US Navy maintained a base at Subic Bay until 1991. Since then the old base area has been developed into a free trade zone, with a wide range of marine-related and other industries.

the stern section of the San Quentin wreck at Subic Bay
hand wheel on the LST wreck at Subic Bay
in one of the manycorridors on the New York wreck in Subic Bay
Inside the LSTs stern, Subic Bay
a shoal of upside-down fish in the forward hold of El Capitan, Subic Bay
Vascos bar at the Master dive centre, Subic Bay


GETTING THEREFerry across Manila Bay and 1 hour by road, or 4 hours by road from Manila. Master Dive can make arrangements.

DIVING: Master Dive is located at Vascos restaurant and bar in the free port zone. Cost is $18 per dive with a multi-dive package, 0063 472525987, e-mail:

ACCOMMODATION:A room with aircon and cable at Shevans Resort, in the lively resort area north of Subic Bay, costs at $18 per night. Master Dive will organise.

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