We just completed an expedition to what we believe to be the Japanese WWII shipwreck
"Kuda Maru", in the Philippines.
Here is the "official story" and diary of main events of the expedition:
Ghosts Guarding the Gold of Kuda Maru.
by Theuns van Niekerk
In November 2006 on our way home from another expedition, we passed by a wreck site where we had heard of a Japanese wreck that was sunk during WW2 and seemed to be unidentified. By sheer luck and tenacity we found the wreck on the sonar and did an impromptu dive which confirmed the wreck to be WW2 casualty.
An expedition to fully explore and identify the wreck started forming in my mind and this year, six years later, through sponsorships and friends clubbing together to cover the costs, the expedition became a reality.
Scott Livingston from Dive Scotty in Philippines sponsored the boat and since he knew the GPS coordinates of the wreck, became the king-pin of the expedition. Old timers Lou Holder and Patrice Laborda added the drive and camaraderie. With military precision Lou and Patrice organised the mixed gasses we needed, and their small portable gas booster pump saved the day. Damjan Perenic and myself rounded out the team.
Day 1 Monday:
Our scheduled departure was Monday morning 5 am, followed with one dive per day from Monday afternoon until Friday. We hoped to do 5 dives with 5 divers per day amounting to 25 dives in total.
Due to the extreme depth and extensive decompression time needed on these dives, we were limited to one dive per day. Dive depths were estimated at between 75 and 90 meters (250 and 300 feet).
We suffered some delays in our preparations and Lou’s planned marriage the week after the expedition forced us to postpone our departure until Tuesday morning. Monday night everybody slept on board, except for Damjan who could only join us on Wednesday morning.
Day 2 Tuesday:
Departure was on time with the engine roaring away at 4:45 am, and the anchor lifted at 5:00 am sharp. The boat crew were on time, all divers on board except for one.
By late morning Tuesday we were at the wreck site and to our surprise the sonar would not work. It worked the day before, but now it seemed as if the forces were against us in locating the wreck.
Our boat crew found a local fisherman that “knew” exactly where the wreck was, and in an interview he told us he was in fact a witness to the sinking of the ship. He stood on the beach as a young boy and watched the American planes bombed the ship. He told us the name of the ship was the Kuda Maru.
The Kuda Maru was a freighter and is reputed to have had Japanese stolen gold on board. The mystery and myth surrounding the Japanese gold has by now become folklore, and all WW2 wrecks are suspected of being gold carriers. In 1995 a team of local hookah divers attempted to find the gold and three of them never made it back to the surface.
In 2000, an explorer Steve Sargison attempted to recover the gold and found one box that had been tied to a rope, presumably by the hookah divers that perished in their attempts. After lifting the box to the surface they found it to be filled with paraffin lamps.
The old fisherman warned us not to dive on the wreck, because the ghosts of the Japanese sailors were guarding the gold.
Very little is known about the Kuda Maru. Only a handful of people know of its location and even less is known about what it looked like, when it went into service, what were the tonnage, and the exact date it was sunk, and by which air squadron. It seems as if history wants to forget the Kuda Maru. What secret is she hiding that the world wants to forget?
Without sonar we were practically blind and with the old fisherman’s guidance we dropped a marker at the best thought location. We decided to do a free drop dive and drift into the location and hopefully see the wreck. After 15 minutes at the bottom we only saw an expanse of mud and sand, with the visibility around 15 meters, it was impossible to spot the wreck.
The tension mounted with the realisation that we only had 3 days left on the expedition. We had to make our time left count and the decision to waste a dive to hopefully drift into the wreck was not so wise after all.
After the dive we resorted to old time methods used by sailors for centuries. With the dinghy we spent about two hours in a blazing sun dragging a grapple anchor in a search pattern until we hooked what we believed to be the wreck. The depth on the grapple line indicated around 90 meters.
The location looked right from previous memory but was about 200 meters (660 feet) away from where the fisherman pointed out. But the depth was 10 meters (33 feet) deeper than previous sonar readings and we were not sure if perhaps we had grappled a rock.
By this time it was about 2 pm and Scott and Lou dived down the grapple line. The uncertainty did not help and the stress increased on the boat as we waited for Scott and Lou to finish their decompression. Did we hook the wreck or was it just a rock?
Returning to the boat Scott and Lou confirmed we were on the wreck; they descended to 85 meters (280 feet), and still could not see the grapple anchor. The visibility was very bad, around 3 meters (10 feet). The line went further down beyond the edge of the wreck and they decided to explore the wreck instead.
They found the wreck badly damaged by bombing and the stern section was separated from the main hull. The information stirred up more questions and gave fewer answers. Was it possible for an aerial attack to cause that much damage to a ship? Or was it perhaps also torpedoed? Or did the fuel tanks or armament in the cargo area explode? What force would you need to separate the stern section from the main hull?
Day 3 Wednesday:
The evening before our boat developed an electrical problem and we could not charge camera batteries and even our mobile phones were running low. Scott’s chief maintenance engineer and electrician joined us early in the morning to fix the problems on the boat.
Strange forces seemed to be at work. The boat had undergone a major refit only two months ago and had operated flawlessly every day for two months, yet on day 3 of our expedition, the first day we could really do a comprehensive exploration dive of the wreck, the boat developed electrical problems, plus the sonar that would not work.
We realised the proverbial “Murphy” was at large and busy in our midst, we have to get the genie back into the bottle if we wanted to be successful!
On our next dive Damjan and I planned to unhook the grapple anchor and move it to the bow of the wreck. Scott, Lou and Patrice would descend on the new location. We will also send up a lift bag at the new location even if we did not manage to move the grapple anchor.
The bow area was the least damaged and could provide better clues to the identity of the wreck. The depth is also less, around 70 meters (230 feet) and would allow more bottom time.
Damjan and I descended and found the grapple anchor hooked behind a cable at 89 meters (290 feet). We unhooked the anchor and left it on the sand for the surface team to retrieve later. We started swimming towards the bow and filming the super structure of the ship, generally following the top edge on the starboard side.
At the bow we deployed the lift bag as a new descend marker for the rest of the team. Our planned bottom time was 35 minutes at 85 meters (280 feet). Yet it turned out our maximum depth was 89 meters (290 feet) and bottom time 45 minutes. Not only had we exceeded our planned bottom time but we also exceeded our planned maximum depth. A serious adjustment of our decompression schedule was needed.
Since both Damjan and I dive on tables, we did not have the luxury of just looking at a dive computer to see the required decompression. A manual adjustment of the schedule was the only way we could ensure that we do not become victims of the bends.
During our ascend we adjusted the decompression time and concluded that we could surface after doing 160 minutes of decompression, with a total dive time of +/-205 minutes. Most of the decompression would be in shallow water and we agreed to swim towards the shore and do the deco on the reef instead of hanging around in the blue. The reef was about 500 meters/yards away, but since we had almost 3 hours to do it, we could do it at a leisurely pace. We reached the reef while doing decompression at our 12 meter stop.
By this time the visibility had deteriorated significantly and the beauty of the reef was totally underwhelming. But still better than battling with stinging jelly fish in the blue water.
Scott, Lou and Patrice had descended down the new marker line as planned and found many potential entry points for future penetration into the wreck. They looked into one cargo bay and saw an upturned jeep with only the wheels and axles visible. The rest buried in a powder like silt. We all concluded not to attempt a penetration dive because of the extreme risk of siltation and the life threatening risks associated with being trapped in a wreck at 85 meters (280 feet).
Portions of the wreck also seemed very unstable and even when touching large sections, these would move around, threatening to collapse.
Some years ago I saw similar disintegration of metal on another WW2 wreck; The Kuwa. She had suffered severe bombing and extremely high temperature fires, prior to sinking. Resting at 110 meters (360 feet) the corrosion of 70 years added to the fire damage, the metal was totally brittle and broke apart like slate; the metal had lost it strength completely.
Looking at the destruction on the Kuda Maru, I can very well believe that the strength of the metal is also severely compromised and could very well collapse behind a diver.
That evening we were all thankful that Murphy had disappeared; the genie was back in the bottle. The boat was fully operational, the sonar was working again, and the food was great.
Everybody was tired and fast asleep by early evening.
Day 4 Thursday:
The day started early with a thunderstorm at 3:30 am. The accommodations on the boat are comfortable but Spartan and when it rains, dry space becomes very scarce.
Because of the extended dive Damjan and I did the previous day we decided not to dive and give our bodies time to recover. Extended decompression diving increases the body’s susceptibility to Oxygen toxicity, and we decided not to push the limits.
Scott, Lou and Patrice had a fantastic dive and reported the visibility around 15 meters (50 feet) or maybe a bit more.
Day 5 Friday:
The last day of the expedition! We had to be on the way back to base by latest 2:00 pm. The boat had to be cleaned up and restocked for another customer on Saturday morning. Counting backwards from 2:00 pm we realised that in order to do a meaningful dive we had to be in the water by 10:00 am.
That morning everybody was in overdrive and efficiency was like never before. Like clockwork we were all in the water by 10:00 am. The plan was for me and Damjan to descend a couple of minutes early so that we can get some video shots of the divers descending.
We reached the bow of the wreck at about 70 meters (230 feet), right on schedule after a descend time of 3 minutes, and I immediately started to explore and film the area around the descend line. After 9 minutes I saw the lights of the second team, and took a few shots. We continued to explore towards the stern area. There was no time to waste. At these depths every second count.
I saw an entrance next to a ladder which I assumed could have been part of the lower decks of the bridge. I tried my best to push the camera through the doorway while hovering on the outside. Touching the bottom was not an option because that would stir up silt and make retrieving my camera very difficult, if not impossible. After a couple of seconds with my ego somewhat dented at the failed attempt, I carefully retreated, recovered my camera and followed the others towards the stern. I wanted to capture as much as possible of the remaining features of the wreck. This can help us to identify the wreck from historical records.
Our planned bottom time was 40 minutes at 85 meters (280 feet), and as planned we started our ascend right on time, with only a minor overshoot on maximum depth. Again we decided to swim for the reef and avoid the boredom of hanging for hours in the blue.
After almost 4 hours we surfaced and were suitably hungry and thirsty. A short dinghy ride brought us back to the boat where we indulged ourselves in all the excess food and drinks on board.
Only slightly behind schedule at 2:30 pm the boat headed back for base at Scotty Dive Center in Cebu. Right on time, well almost! Once we arrived in Cebu an impromptu after party followed and it was well after 6:00 pm when we all drifted our separate ways, with promises of a follow-up expedition, soon.
Despite the setbacks at the start of our expedition, it turned out to be a great success. We had no dive related incidents; the food was good and the company excellent. We all concluded that a follow up expedition is a must-do. The future repeat expedition earned a couple of must-do stars on my bucket list.
The success of our expedition and having had no dive related incidents can be attributed to many factors, but four stand out as most prominent: (1) Our equipment was in top shape; (2) We used proven computer generated tables to validate our decompression schedules; (3) Through our training and experience we have learnt to identify our risks and not to push beyond our levels of experience; (4) Well organized logistics and a committed team.
Equipment: We all dived on rebreathers designed and manufactured by AP Diving. AP Diving was also responsible for the life support system on James Cameron’s diving vessel on his recent seven hour journey to the deepest part of the ocean.
All dives were planned with V-Planner developed by Ross Hemingway at HHS Software. Two of the team used the Inspiration Rebreather with computer generated tables (V-Planner) and three of the team used the Vision rebreather with on-board decompression computer. V-Planner tables were used as validation of the dive computer settings.
What is next?
The attraction of the history around these WW2 wrecks is very addictive and learning about the people that lived the history can be very inspiring. These are real life relics of the world’s history, and unfortunately these relics are deteriorating day by day as corrosion and nature claims it back.
Exploring the WW2 wrecks is not only for adrenalin junkies. On the west side of the Philippines, in Coron, a whole fleet of Japanese wrecks are at rest in waters as shallow as 15 meters (50 feet). To appreciate the history around it, you don’t always need to penetrate a wreck.
I find swimming along the deck of a wreck a gripping experience. Imagine the life of a sailor that once worked there, or perhaps witnessed the sinking of his ship, standing on that very spot.
For more information on:
• Expeditions see www.itcScuba.com/expeditions
• Diving in Cebu, see www.divescotty.com
• Diving in Coron, see www.ddivers.com
• Rebreathers, see www.apdiving.com
• V-Planner, see www.v-planner.com
• Dive training and standards, see www.tdisdi.com