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Leisure - Diving

Dive into History

Story and pictures by ERIK FEARN

On a dark and stormy night on Oct 14, 1944, the 7,000-tonne Japanese supply ship, the Eikyo Maru, was steaming north-east from Labuan towards the Palawan Passage. She was the biggest in a convoy of a dozen warships rushing to the Philippines to play a part in what was to be the Battle of Leyte - the biggest naval battle in history.

Under the clear blue sea

Under the clear blue lies a piece of WWII history. Bajau fishermen say the place is haunted, but continue to fish nearby.

Meanwhile, the American submarine, the USS Dace, was prowling the waters just north of Sabah, near a cluster of islands called Mantanani, when its sonarman hushed the crew. The periscope went up. Barely visible in the heaving seas against the night sky were the prickly silhouettes of several destroyers. Mine-carrying escorts that were looking to turn American subs into oil slicks. The target was set; the torpedoes loaded.

When the USS Dace crept into firing range at five miles, the silent torpedoes were fired. A very long minute later, one torpedo struck the hulking mass of the Eikyo Maru broadside, disembowelling her. She sank almost immediately. The other torpedo found one of the destroyers and delivered a fatal blow to her stern. She limped on for another mile, capsized and sank, too.

In those dying months of WWII, no exact records were kept of sinking locations. Only rough co-ordinates were entered into the captain’s logbook. The USS Dace went on to play an important role for the remainder of the war. In time, her sinking of the Eikyo Maru, one of the Japanese fleet’s biggest supply ships, soon became a forgotten footnote in a theatre of war that saw thousands of similar encounters.

In 1998, something happened that can only be described as synchronicity. A young English marine biologist, Gilly Elliott, came to run a small dive resort next to a Bajau village on Mantanani’s main island. The Bajau, she came to learn, are sea gypsies who may technically be Malaysian but are very proud of their own language and independence, gleaning a living from the sea. As she got to know some of the older fishermen on the island, they told her of one of their favourite fishing grounds.

The area is haunted, they say, lies well out to sea, but is home to massive shoals of fish. The only trouble is, their nets often get caught on "something" down there. Gilly, 29, also heard rumours of Japanese treasure buried among these islands. And almost as if to prove it, old Japanese coins can be found in most homes as jewellery or charms. There is even a story among the highly superstitious Bajau of a cursed silver object (they have never revealed to Gilly exactly what it was) that was sold last year by a greedy villager to the Philippines up north.

A few days later, a typhoon struck the island with a fury that caused widespread damage and destroyed some houses. Gilly was intrigued. Around the same time, she came across a tattered old book called Cruisers for Breakfast by John G. Mansfield, Jr. It just happened to be an account by two USS Dace veterans of their sinking of the Eikyo Maru, among others! In this little-known retelling, they gave the approximate co-ordinates of their encounter on that fateful night nearly 60 years before. Their co-ordinates matched the description of the old Bajau fishermen...

What she found out there was indeed a wreck. It was huge - 200m from bow to stern (the length of two football fields). It was facing north, and its midsection was blown out. But was this the Eikyo Maru? To find out more, she welcomed a team of British Army wreck surveyors out on a private expedition last year to help uncover the secrets of this wreck. But for most of the two-week expedition, a typhoon blew in from the Philippines, stranding them.

The Bajau simply told them the batu air (water rock) was cursed. To their credit, the team persisted and managed to get in one-and-a-half days of diving before they had to leave. But it simply wasn’t enough time to survey the wreck properly, and, as such, it was a failed expedition. From December through April, the south-westerly monsoon blows hard, plaguing the wreck site with fierce currents and murky water. From April to December, however, these open ocean waters are calm, clear and unbelievably blue. Visibility can easily be an impressive 40m.

In May, I joined Gilly for another look at this mysterious wreck. It’s a roughly 45-minute speedboat trip out from the resort to the site. You know when you’ve arrived because there is always a cluster of Bajau fishing boats atop it. We drag the anchor slowly along the sandy bottom - the sonar says 38m - until it catches on something. "This is it. Bottom time 25 minutes, tops. Max depth 33m. Safety stops at 15 and 5m for a total of 12 minutes."

"Descend along our anchor line. Okay, let’s rock ‘n roll!" Ten metres down and you start seeing the blurry outline of the bow. Twenty metres down, you realise that the blurriness isn’t poor visibility but instead are large moving clouds of cardinal fish, small clusters of red snapper, batfish, tuna and yellow-tailed barracuda, along with the occasional dolphin.

You "land" on the foredeck at 31m - the depth can be intimidating because, looking up, you can’t see the comforting underside of the ocean surface anymore.

Everything is a twilight blue. While most of the wreck is upright, the bow is wrenched at a 40 angle. Part of the top deck was torn off in the explosion, revealing the structural beams like ribs. Dozens of 50-calibre bullets lie strewn everywhere, along with ceramic sinks with Japanese script on them, carabiners and neatly coiled ropes. The ship itself, however, is completely encased in fabulously coloured soft coral, making the wreck feel alive. Because of the wreck’s depth, soft coral thrive here in these nutrient-rich waters much more than hard coral.

Nearer to the bow, you see coral-wreathed stairs leading nowhere. The forward conning tower lies jutting off starboard, draped in ghostly fishing nets. Visibility is regularly reduced by huge schools of fish flitting this way and that. The sharp bow, silhouetted in the dusky light, is popular with bluish-purple peacock groupers who use it as their cleaning station.

Underwater

Meeting place of beautiful lifeforms.

Gliding past them, over the port side and down the anchor line, is a single file of metre-long squid . . .

The anchor is fused to the side of the hull, its shape splashed with reds, purples, yellows and white. Beside it is a porthole.

Poke your torch inside and you’ll see a number of Japanese porcelain rice bowls - some cracked, some half buried in sand, all delicate. This is a poignant reminder that real people went down with this wreck. Lives were lost, rightly or wrongly; its lost crew continues to be "on eternal patrol". The Eikyo Maru, far from being haunted, is a place where history can still reach out to touch the present.


Erik’s trip was made possible by:
Mantanani Dive Resort
Tel: (088) 230 000 Fax: (088) 221 106
E-mail: bornsea@pop1.jaring.my

Sutera Harbour Resort
Tel: (03) 2710 8606
Fax: (03) 2710 8607
E-mail: sutera@suteraharbour.com.my

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Source: The Star

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