As the twin-prop plane I was sat on accelerated down the runway in Manila, I was filled with excitement – I was finally off to see Sangat Island. Located in one of the seldom-seen parts of the Philippines, Sangat Island is home to a collection of incredible World War II wrecks and some impressive reefs. These Japanese vessels sank in relatively shallow waters in a calm, warm bay just off of Sangat, Coron, in the Calamian Islands. On 24 September 1944, the US forces struck the Imperial Japanese navy harboured in Coron, sinking twelve vessels in the flotilla and dealing a heavy blow to the Japanese expansion in the Pacific. 96 Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter escorts and 24 Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers flew to Coron in the early hours of the morning and within fifteen minutes, they had decimated the Japanese navy in the region. In the years since the War, these waters have become a haven for divers looking for the next adventure and to experience the brutality of the conflict that drew them to this place.
As we approached the airport in Busuanga, Coron, it was clear to see that the topography and geography of this part of the Philippines is quite different to that of other islands. With sheer granite cliffs soaring from the waves and rugged, hilly terrain, it is an impressive sight to behold. It’s immediately clear to see why this part of the Philippines is frequently regarded as the most beautiful. The shoreline gave way to tiny islands and reefs breaking the surface, with vast expanses of forests covering a large portion of the island. I touched down, de-planed, and grabbed my bag before being whisked off in a van to the little port where I would then take a boat to Sangat.
There appears to only be one road through the main island, with twists and turns making it feel like an Alpine drive – but with far more unexplored jungle and far fewer skiers. The density of the forests in certain areas was something unexpected from a country with a population of nearly 100 million. It was as if no one had ever set foot here. After spending some time in Manila, Dumaguete, and Puerto Galera; suddenly being thrust into a pristine, rugged, and undeveloped region such as Coron was exhilarating to say the least. I then remembered that it was on these Western Filipino islands (Lubang Island, Mount Halcon) that Japanese soldiers were found decades after the war, still fighting for their cause. Once I caught a glimpse of these forests and remote locations it became very easy to understand how these soldiers stayed undetected for so long.
As my driver sped down this one road at 100km/h we didn’t pass a single other van or car, just motorcycles. We drove for roughly 45 minutes and the wilderness throughout the island left me feeling very excited and a little apprehensive at how remote this location truly was – and I was heading to an even more isolated island.
Finally we reached the little village at the southern tip of the island where I was told the boat to Sangat would meet me. I walked out onto the wooden platform from the dock and found myself in a small wooden ‘waiting room’ with a weathered thatched roof and a wooden bench. Behind this small room were dense mangrove forests, which felt as though they absorbed me. I couldn’t stop walking up and down the wooden platform peering into the twisted roots to see which animals were making which noises. I could have spent a week in the mangroves alone having an adventure. After a few minutes, I heard an outboard motor and a small black boat arrived. This was my transport to Sangat.
Two people got off the boat whilst the captain moored it. I introduced myself and found that these two guests had just spent a week on the island. The first thing they said to me was “the diving is incredible, it’s beautiful, the food is really good, and, for the love of God, make sure you have sun cream”. I would soon find out that their words were probably the most succinct way of describing Sangat.
I jumped onto the boat and sat in front of the driver, who then shot out into the bay faster than I imagined he would. With my hand on my cap and civilisation rapidly getting further and further away, I was definitely in the beginning of my adventure. The water was millpond-still and the engine roared as we shifted at pace through the bays and granite walls. The closer we got to the islands suddenly revealed just how colossal some of the scenery is here. You would have a grey-white cliff face at water level, which then suddenly burst into greens as the trees and plant life clung to the islands and made their homes in the vertical walls.
We turned a corner, and the edge of Sangat revealed itself. With their famous Rock Bar in the middle of the bay and the white sand beach with bungalows behind it, the immediate thought I had was “this is what paradise is based on”. As the boat was tied to the dock, I stepped off and was instantly greeted by several members of staff. They took my bags and presented me with a cool glass of juice and some water. I made my way into the small restaurant area and looked out over the sea to be presented with a palm-fringed beach, some of the bluest waters I have ever been graced with, and simply stunning islands forming the border for this masterpiece. I was left alone to enjoy my drink and absorb where I finally was when it dawned on me that there was something unique here. Silence. Even though the resort was at full capacity, the only thing I could hear was the breeze and the sea lapping at the shore. I was aware that people were around, but it was genuine silence. I stood at the edge of the beach and gave myself a viewpoint where nothing man-made was in sight, and I sincerely felt like an explorer. It was as if I had set out to map and chart this area, and no person had ever set foot here.
I settled into my room and went for a stroll around the resort – which wouldn’t take me long. One of the best features of Sangat Island is its size. It’s a small resort that should never be allowed to grow too much more than it has – a few more bungalows or chalets would be nice, but nothing too much. It’s got this wonderful community atmosphere to it, and it feels as though everyone on the island has worked hard to cultivate this little slice of paradise. Each bungalow is spaced far enough away from any other bungalow to give each guest a level of privacy, but not too far to make any walking unbearable in the heat of the day. A cool breeze is usually rolling in from the beach, but the fans are definitely needed. As you sit in the main restaurant area, you are treated to incredible views of the bay and the magnificent bar on a rock offshore. Being sat on a bench, or perhaps one of the hammocks, really does give you an appreciation for the natural beauty and splendour of this part of the world. Watching the palm fronds sway back and forth in the lazy breeze, listening to the small waves lap at the shore, hearing the monkeys and birds rustling in the trees behind the resort – this place is something special.
In the evening, dinner was served buffet style and had a whole range of options. From fruit to pizza, onion soup to lasagne, there was plenty to pick from. I helped myself to a small portion of each bit and I struggled to work out which part of the meal tasted best. I truly must commend the chefs as each portion of food was cooked immaculately. The sun had set on our day and I retreated to the sanctuary of the Rock Bar in the sea for some evening relaxation. The Rock Bar is the best place for WiFi on the island (if you need to stay in touch with the outside world), but it defeats the point of being here. Sure, it’s lovely to update Instagram, or brag to your friends about where you are, but you break the atmosphere of isolation, of exploration, of paradise. You need to come to Sangat with the promise to yourself of ignoring the outside world. You are here to be stripped back, basic, and embrace the ‘here and now’. I sat at a table on the Rock Bar until eleven thirty in the evening, simply sipping gin and tonics and watching the stars in the clear skies above.
The following morning I made my way to breakfast where another buffet had been laid out. With choices of cooked breakfast, cereals, toast, and a myriad of fruits available, there is a lot to offer depending on how you do your breakfast. I personally went for a plate full of fruit, and then treated myself to some bacon and maple syrup pancakes – my justification to myself being that I needed to fuel my day of diving.
At the dive centre I was kitted out with some good quality gear and a Nitrox tank. The dive centre isn’t huge, but it doesn’t need to be as the island is so small. There is plenty of kit for hire, Nitrox is readily available, and if you want to bring a Rebreather, you are more than welcome (just give them advanced notice!). The gear is in good condition and the dive team are brilliantly efficient. We loaded the gear onto the boats and cruised out to our first dive site – the Akitsushima.
Lying on her starboard side, with a large crack towards the stern, this wreck offers divers plenty of exciting penetration and access to some of the mechanical parts of the ship. The Akitsushima is a seaplane tender which carried a Kawanishi H8K seaplane – more commonly known as the ‘Emily’. With some bullets and shells left from the crew on that fateful day, plenty of incredible engineering, and the hindsight of knowing what happened to the crew make this a very exhilarating dive, and one that gives you a lot of respect for those serving on the vessels.
We followed the buoy line down to the stern of the ship and spent the first part of the dive hanging around 30m and examining the deck of the ship. There were huge steel girders and radio towers that you can duck and dive between, as well as some large fish that have made this place home. The famous crane used for lifting the Emily was impressive to drift around. The superstructure of this war-time relic loomed in the background where the visibility dropped off. On the deck of the ship, the anti-aircraft guns are still pointed up as though they’re still trying to defend the Akitsushima from the inevitable. As I made my way closer to the guns, you could clearly imagine the young Japanese men manning them and trying to save their comrades from the planes above. We then approached the crack in the ship and made our way inside.
One of the first things I remember about finning inside the Akitsushima was that there were a dozen or so clams that greeted me, then snapped shut when I got too close. I turned to my left and began to drift down the corridor and into the heart of the ship. The Akitsushima is lying on its starboard side at pretty much 90° which gives the ship a little more character, but it also highlights the destruction of the vessel by the Americans. This massive, armoured ship was (and still is) a stunning piece of engineering, and it truly highlighted the power of the US attack to leave such a gargantuan machine reeling on its side. The Akitsushima was hit by the Americans amidships and sank almost immediately. This was the deepest penetration dive I had ever done and as I made my way further into the ship, I found myself trying to imagine what would have happened on board for those few minutes between being struck and going beneath the surface.
Moving through the Akitsushima, you come across a lot of badly twisted and shattered metal. It’s at this point in the dive that the colossal force of the US attack hits you. All around you, as the beam from your torch is the only light, tonnes of metal is splintered and bent, creating an incredibly eerie atmosphere.
We moved through to the engine room where two huge engines dominate the space and close in on you. As you drift down into the narrow corridor, you come towards the control room. This small part of the ship is definitely one of the most impressive. As you drop down into the small space, you can still see the gauges and dials that would have helped run the ship. It’s arguably the closest I felt to being a part of the Akitsushima as I was staring at the same mechanical parts that the crew used. Amazingly, a lot of the gauges still have their glass and you can even read the dials.
After this, we made our way out through a hole and back on to the deck of the ship. The two other divers at this point were beginning to run low on air, so they headed back up and the dive guide and I drifted along the deck of the ship for a few minutes more. We finned across the deck and inspected the towers and cranes whilst schools of fish circled us and we slowly made our way back to the buoy line.
The second dive of the day was on the Kogyo Maru, an intimidating 180m long freighter that is now famously home to construction materials and an antique bulldozer. As we dropped down onto the side of the ship (it’s lying on its starboard side) it was immediately clear that this wreck was different to the Akitsushima. The most prominent difference was the abundance of life, particularly corals, on the Kogyo Maru. We spent the first few minutes of the dive enjoying the huge blanket of corals and groupers that now called this wreck home.
We passed some more anti aircraft guns on one of the superstructures and dropped inside the hold. The lighting coming through the holes in the ship as you pass from hold to hold is spectacular. It’s like an underwater cathedral with blue-green light beams passing over you. As you look around in each hold, you can clearly see the different building materials that were most likely going to be used to build runways and fortifications around Coron. Huge rolls of steel matting can be found as well as bags of cement before you come to the famous bulldozer encased in cement bags. The tracks are clear to see, as is the scoop, and it’s probably one of the most unique things to find on a wreck.
After the bulldozer, you come through to another hold, and this one is where the lighting of the wreck really comes into its element. I found myself stopping and just absorbing the atmosphere whilst we were in this part of the wreck. It was most definitely the most beautiful part of any wreck I have experienced. For the first time in the dives it didn’t feel claustrophobic and it didn’t feel like hundreds of people lost their lives. It was spacious and the way the sun broke through the twisted metal and holes was something I don’t think I will ever forget.
Then, as soon as you turn the corner and head back into the ship’s depths, the atmosphere is shattered and the darkness engulfs you again. The eeriness of the wreck and the formidable nature of the battle that ensued rushed back and you are very aware that the open space has gone.
Unfortunately we had to cut this part of the dive short as one of our dive team was running low on air, so we made our way to the nearest opening and emerged back on deck. We were greeted with the other side of the superstructure and the walkways around the bridge. As a group, we headed towards the buoy line and the other two went to the surface whilst the dive guide and I stayed on deck. We still had 90 bar or so and wanted to make the most of it.
The guide took me back down and pointed to the holes around the hold. This was the opposite side of the ‘cathedral’ and it was almost unrecognisable. The splendour of the interior that I had experienced only a few moments beforehand seemed a thousand miles away as I stared at decaying coral encrusted metal. I guess it was a perfect physical example of looking at things from a different perspective. We made our way across the port side of the boat where the corals flourished and simply enjoyed the marine life.
Once we decided to go back to the buoy line, a huge school of tuna appeared and danced around us as we slowly headed towards the surface. It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful dive.