Labuan off the north-west coast of Borneo is a relatively unknown commodity to wreck diving buffs in the west, including myself until quite recently. I visited the location on the recommendation of ‘Borneo Divers’. We discovered one of the most amazing collections of wrecks to be found anywhere in the world...
By Bob Whorton
Just a 15 minute flight south from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia sits the large island of Labuan, just off the coast of Brunei Darussalam. Labuan has a thriving infrastructure revolving around an international offshore finance centre and a stable pro-business economy. This works well for the visiting tourist offering the keenest prices for quality accommodation and leisure to be found anywhere in the world.
Borneo Divers sport diving operation is situated in the grounds of the excellent Waterfront Hotel, right next to the newly constructed marina. The well organised and well equipped concern caters mainly for ex-patriot personnel working in and around Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Borneo Diver’s ‘Randy Davis’ told me that they get a steady stream of people visiting the island but very few westerners venture this way due to the areas relative anonymity. Hopefully by the end of this article that anonymity will lessen, and wrecky’s could be taking a giant stride that-away...
The islands in the warm shallow sea off the coast of western Borneo promote strong tidal currents concentrating streams of nutrients that have promoted a rich coral growth within these areas. We were soon to realise that the wrecks foundered within these areas were quickly colonised by corals too turning the rusting Goliaths into incredible artificial reefs and in two instances befitting wartime “Gardens of remembrance”.
The SS De Klerk (Formerly the Australian wreck)
Launched on 13th October 1900 at the Nederlandsche Scheepsbouw Maatschappij near Amsterdam and commissioned on the 1st December 1900 with a gross weight of 2071 metric tons. She was originally built for use in the Dutch East Indies by her owners ‘Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij’ who promptly registered the ship in Batavia (now Jakarta) prior to her maiden voyage on the 31st December 1900. She was powered by a single 3 cylinder Werkspoor Amsterdam 233NHP steam engine producing a healthy 1250 HP into a single 3m screw, propelling the 100m hull at a top speed of 18 knots.
De Klerk led a pretty active life running between Asia and the Orient during the following 4 decades, receiving several refits along the way to accommodate more first & second class passengers.
In January 1942 she was taken over by the Dutch Indies Government to be converted into a troop carrier for the Royal Dutch Navy at Tjilatjap, but due to a shortage of skilled personnel this was abandoned and under the threat a of Japanese attack she was scuttled at Tandjong Priok on the 2nd March 1942 by a team from the Dutch Navy.
However, that was not quite the end of the story; the Japanese Army salvaged her on the 28th November 1942, she was renovated and entered service as a troop carrier with the new name ‘Imbari Maru’.
The ship left Singapore on the 5th September 1944 enroute to Manila via Borneo, arriving in Miri on the 11th picking up supplies and human cargo and leaving again on the 15th. In the early hours of the 16th September she hit a mine north of Labuan, listed quickly to port and sank. Of the 1210 people onboard a total of 339 were lost that night... 308 workers (including POW’s), 26 prostitutes and 5 Japanese soldiers.
Today her entire hull lies at 45 degrees on her port side in 33m of water, bearing a striking similarity to a latter-day, but more intact, Carnatic at Abu Nuhas in Egypt’s Red Sea.
Diving the wreck
Descending to the seabed and swimming to the port mid-section one could see the large amount of damage caused by the mine explosion, and why the ship sank so quickly. It also points out exactly how well built she was to have remained in one piece after the obvious force of the explosion.
Navigating the wreck in its entirety requires several dives, taking in the not only the wreck structure but also the amount of marine life and soft coral growths. The bow of the ship looks impressive, with an extended anchor chain spread across the seabed; pointing out no doubt, a fruitless attempt to provide stability after engine power was lost. The majority of timber decking has been eaten away by countless generations of burrowing worms, exposing the wrought iron deck support beams. Exploring these beams is a must because the amount of life that they now support between numerous coral structures is extraordinary. The ship has become a haven for large grouper species, with many lionfish hunting the millions of sweepers and the more invisible species such as frogfish, stonefish and scorpions... I always get a great sense of self gratification on the discovery of a frogfish! The large screw is remarkably well preserved, but not the one she was commissioned with, this was an addition by the Japanese Navy which resulted in less cavitation and increased propulsion.
Exploration of the inside of the wreck is possible through the many exposed areas and through the clouds of sweepers, anthias and chromids. Ascending from the wreck one becomes aware of the large schools of fish that use the wreck for shelter against the prevailing currents; jack species, and barracuda are a common sighting. Large Batfish accompany divers to their stops and more often than not stay with them too.
USS SALUTE (The American Wreck) AM-294
The Salute was a distinguished US Navy mine sweeper, one of a quick-build ‘Admirable’ class of ship built at the Winslow Marine Railway & Shipbuilding yard in Seattle, Washington. She was launched just 3 months after the keel was laid down on the 6th Feb 1943, commissioned into service on the 4th December 1943 and commanded by Lt RH Nelson US Navy. At 60m long and 10m wide her 795 tonnes supported 1 – 3” gun, 2 – 40mm & 6 20mm anti-aircraft guns, she was also equipped with three depth charge launchers on the rear deck and carried a compliment of 104 men.
Salute sailed from San Francisco on 21st March 1944 to Hawaii and between April & September of ’44 escorted convoys around Pearl Harbour, Majuro, Guam and Saipan before reporting to the 7th Fleet at Manus on the 8th October for the Leyte invasion.
On 21st October she joined the 34th Mine division off the Leyte beaches spending 4 days combing the main channel before acting as anti-aircraft support. Her role was to change between 27th & 30th October as she assisted in the search for survivors at the scene of the battle of Samar.
Salute was to participate with the 34th Division in most of the subsequent landings in the Philippines, carrying out pre-invasion sweeps Ormac Bay, Mindoro Island and Subic Bay (to mention just a few). Few mines were encountered but there was plenty of ‘Kamikaze’ action to keep them busy...
On February 13th 1945 Salute and her division began pre-invasion sweeps of Manila Bay in preparation of the landings at both Mariveles and Corrigedor during the latter the ships were continuously under fire from the shore just 5km away. Sweeping went on for 5 more days earning the division a Unit Commendation in the process. Further duties in the Philippines included sweeps of Luzon and Palauan in the Sulu Sea before transferring to Morotai for operations in the Dutch East Indies.
On the 8th June 1945, the day after arriving off Brunei Bay for preparatory sweeps Salute struck a mine buckling amidships, both bow & stern beginning to sink. Two landing craft tried in vain to salvage her but she flooded, and sank. Sadly, but remarkably only 9 US sailors were lost due to the damage sustained from the mine highlighting its rapid construction technique. Once the hulls integrity was breeched the ship could not support its own weight quickly breaking up. By the time it hit the 30m seabed the bow was resting on top of the anti-aircraft guns at an angle pointing backwards. Salute was removed from the Navy listings on 11th July 1945, but not before earning a total of 5 Battle Stars.
Diving on the wreck today promotes an initial eeriness and a respect for those fallen heroes.
Due to the fact the wreck sits on top of itself the site covers a relatively small area allowing a lot to be seen during one dive. Over the years the bow section has dropped due to the mid section decaying and the weight pushing it down. If anything this aging has made the wreckage more stable.
The wreck has become a home to an interesting assortment of life including moray eels, lionfish and nurse sharks. However this does not detract ones eyes and interest from the wreck itself, there are lots of holes to explore and widely exposed areas of the superstructure point out a lack of bulkheads; a fact which led to it’s break-up and rapid sinking. The 3” gun and a couple of anti-aircraft guns are still in position for diver inspection and of course a photograph or two. The rear deck area is pretty much intact with all three depth-charge launchers there to see. Several fishing nets have snagged on the structures which have become overgrown and a close inspection would reveal a myriad of tiny creatures adopting it for cover against the prowling opportunist lionfish. There is not too much coral growth on the wreck due mainly to its position outside the nutrient stream, just a few black coral bushes and encroaching plate corals and sponges.
A group of large barracuda loitered around the bow section at 12m splitting during an all too soon ascent back to the safety-stop bar below the boat. All-in-all a very interesting wreck enhanced by its heroic and distinguished history.
A special memorial was arranged last year when survivors and relatives of those lost were invited out to Labuan to pay their respects and lay wreaths. One gentleman who lost a brother on SS Salute learned to dive purely and especially to lay a wreath on the wreck itself. Those that couldn’t dive watched the whole event on a live video hook-up.
‘Randy’ told me it was a truly moving experience that helped ease an almost life long mourning in the knowledge that they could at last see their sailors final resting place.
MV TUNG HWANG (The Cement Wreck)
This 100m freighter wreck is a bit of an enigma as far as a reason for its sinking is concerned...with two story’s relating to its demise... the official and the actual supported by eye witness and hard (concrete) evidence.
The official story submitted to and accepted by the insurance company is as follows:
The 105m, Tung Hwang was travelling to Brunei with a consignment of cement to be used in the construction of the Sultan’s new Palace when it hit the Samarang Bank badly damaging its hull. The ship then was supposed to have headed towards Labuan for repairs when it sank on the 25th September 1980, 21 km away. All of the crew safely picked up by’ “passing” fishermen and taken to Brunei.
However, the event played out was much different... The Tung Hwang had already been to Brunei with its cargo of concrete which was subsequently rejected by a building inspector as being substandard and not suitable or safe for use in the Palace project. The ship headed back to sea, but here is where the captain’s actions became questionable... we can only surmise what happened on the basis of radio transmissions picked up by shipping in the area requesting assistance. The sea was flat calm on a slack high tide according to one source, with the Tung Hwang motionless as if awaiting further instructions heading away from Labuan. Another witness heard the anchors dropped followed by the noise of water entering the hull from below. The ship then slowly started to sink but not before all of the crew was taken off by the attending boats. On the face of that evidence one can assume that due to the amount of money lost by the rejection of the cargo it was decided to scuttle the ship by opening the sea cocks and claim the lot back on the insurance. The evidence underwater tends to support the latter too...
The wreck sits perfectly upright on the hard sandy bottom at 30m as if placed there, the hull totally intact without any signs of damage what so ever. Internal inspections by divers have also found the sea cocks open.
The wrecks attitude makes her the easiest to navigate, the first time your eyes become accustomed to the low light levels the richness of the coral covered entirety takes your breath away... Yellowy-white coral bushes grow on every surface softening the harshness of the superstructure, with hard and soft corals spread thickly between them. The superstructure is in very good condition too, all three masts stand proud covered in corals and surrounded by an uncountable mist of small fish. The rear deck area has the remnants of snagged fishing nets which have now been completely overgrown with life, even a rope floating up from the port rear quarter supports colonies of sea squirts and tiny fish... It becomes difficult as your eyes do not know what to focus on next!
Heading to mid-ships we arrived at the deck winch house which is an incredible spot - a garden amongst a garden of splendid coral growth... Here we found a sizeable frogfish, its colouration blending with the exposed steel companionway roof but contrasting nicely with pale orange soft corals. On the forecastle ropes lay coiled and tied in place, here I was very surprised to find a stone fish adopting a ropey texture so well to be almost invisible, the only thing that gave it away initially was the edge of its pectoral fin. Less than a meter away was a huge octopus, again adapting itself perfectly to its surroundings.
Ascending to the mast tops, again kept ones eyes busy spotting the pretty yellow pixy hawkfish – thought to be rare, but certainly not on this wreck!
Thanks to the actions of the crew for whatever reason that day the world has one superb wreck diving site that has very quickly become one of the most beautifully adorned artificial marine structures yet found. In fact I would go so far as to say that I could dive this wreck every day and not get bored with her. “AWESOME!”
My three dives here were nowhere near enough to absorb anywhere near as much as I saw. I never even had time to venture into either of the two holds! Needless to say, I will go back.
“Sweetheart – spread my ashes here!”
MV MARBINI PADRE (Blue Water Wreck)
This 80m Philippino stern trawler sank into 35m of water after catching fire on the 13 November 1981. Ironically the cause of her demise was not due to the fire but due to the amount of water used to fight it whilst under tow. She listed to port without warning and slipped smoothly downward coming to rest completely intact on her port side. Why she was never salvaged was down to the amount of internal damage caused by the fire, but otherwise she looks perfectly ok. The wreck gets its nickname from its position offshore providing the best visibility of all the wreck sites, but also the most exposed.
Like the cement wreck this too is completely covered in soft coral growth her entire length & breadth, the mast structures festooned with beautiful growths of soft coral and black coral bushes. Every nook and cranny was filled with sweepers, and every colony of sweepers had at least one lionfish stalking it. Groupers, everywhere!
The day we dived the site the current was ripping along but there was plenty of places to duck into still water.
The starboard side presented a flat expanse at 24m; here scorpion fish and a blue frog fish were spotted as well as several varieties of pipefish, hawkfish and blenny. Even though the wreck is only 80m long the depth determines your duration - even 32% Nitrox not allowing a thorough inspection in one go. Unfortunately we were prevented from returning the next day because of sea conditions. I imagine at least four dives would be required over as many days to truly appreciate the quality of this particular dive.
Borneo divers Labuan centre is part of a well oiled machine that welcomes you to Borneo’s best. Trips can be arranged by contacting Borneo Divers directly at their Kota Kinabalu office. They will offer advice on hotels and transfers and arrange everything for you in one neat package, even some beautiful land based tours to observe the unique wildlife and flora.
email@example.com I have never been quite so well looked after on a diving trip as on this Borneo Megatour... Borneo Divers produce the best T-shirts in the world...bar none!
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