LABUAN — The ships that sank during World War II off the waters of Labuan hold tremendous potential for underwater tourism.
This was attested by 18 divers from 10 nations during a just-concluded familiarisation trip to the island.
The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certified divers noted the shipwrecks now colonised by marine life and located not far from the island, are ready to serve as popular dive sites.
One such shipwreck is the Australian Wreck, located some 13 nautical miles away near the Rusukan Besar island southwest of Labuan.
Though it is not an Australian vessel, it was named so by locals as it was sunk by an Australian aircraft in 1945 during World War II. It is actually a Dutch merchant ship captured by the Japanese and fitted with weapons.
Nature and the passage of time has transformed what was once a lifeless wreck to an underwater natural wonder, rich in coral and other marine life.
A feature of the wreck is the resident palm-sized frogfish or anglerfish. Large groupers can be seen swimming about looking for an easy feed among the profusion of marine life and divers are forewarned on where to place their hands as many stonefish and lionfish lie camouflaged around the wreck.
Just 1.5km away lies the American Wreck, the USS Solute (a minesweeper). During the Battle of Labuan, while the Allied forces were preparing for the invasion of the Brunei Bay, the minesweeper struck a mine midship.
She buckled when she started to sink, with the bow folding back over on top of the stern section. The wreck lies 33m below on the sandy bottom with tangled masses of metal and cable. Depth chargers, ammunition shells, culinary and wire bottles can still be found scattered around the wreckage.
To get into the two mentioned wrecks, divers must be certified in wreck diving or have previously logged experience in wreck diving.
About 11 nautical miles from Labuan, east of Kuraman Island, lies the 105-metre modern freighter MV Tung Hwuang that sank in 1980. It is said the vessel was ferrying a load of cement to the Brunei Sultanate but enroute she struck Samarany Bank and sank.
The ship sits upright on the bottom at about 30m. Her masts stand at eight metres, the roof of the wheelhouse at 14m and the position of the wreck makes it ideal for novice divers and wreck diving training.
This wreck lies northeast of Kuraman Island and is 19 nautical miles from Labuan. It gets its name from the clear “blue” waters which provides the best visibility.
The Mabini Padre is a large Philippine fishing trawler that caught fire and sank in 1981. The vessel lies on its port side, at a depth of 35m, with the starboard side rising to 24m. The site is a garden of soft corals (dendronephthya) and marine organisms that have encompassed much of the vessel.
Henkel Sabine, a German professional diver who joined the familiarisation trip, said the ships especially those with historical value have a great tourism potential to be promoted as scuba diving sites.
“We have seen an abundance of marine life around the wrecks such as stingrays, octopus, barracuda and lionfish, and the coral reefs are still intact with beautiful colour,” shared Sabine who owns a resort in the Philippines.
BLUE WATER WRECK
“As we have not seen many divers exploring the sites, these wrecks with historical relevance have great potential to be promoted,” she said.
American diver Weeks Danial John said he had seen beautiful soft coral reef around the wrecks. For John, the historical value of the wrecks and the mystique surrounding them could be highlighted to divers around the globe.
With the right promotion and easier access to the island, Labuan could well be at the top of the list for underwater wreck divers from all over the world.
* The best months for diving in Labuan are between March and October. Visibility fluctuates with tidal changes but it adds to the wreck diving thrill. Little or no current is experienced at the wreck proper but could be stronger outside the perimeter of the wreck. All dives are conducted via anchor line with spare oxygen tanks provided at decompression stops.
As wreck diving can be dangerous, one should always enquire about safety equipment provided by the operators, especially for decompression stops.