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The lid of the Sanko Maru


Howard Sawyer

It's not the 8,665 miles from the UK to Kavieng, Papua New Guinea that's the problem. It's the next 50...

H E Sawyer takes a leap of faith in search of the Japanese mini submarine, and discovers the night dive of his dreams.

A liveaboard would be the sensible option of course. But there again sensible in terms of overseas diving in an economic downturn is Egypt, and I'm a half world away from there, or anywhere else for that matter.

Days spent cooped up in economy getting this far now makes time more precious than money, and liveaboard departure dates don't fit in with my schedule, and even if they did, they won't change their dive site itinerary to suit some bloke on his own from Essex.
Ocean Leisure
Sunset The diving in Papua New Guinea is world class. So too is the Red Sea, Palau, Indonesia and all points in-between. They're cheaper. They're closer. And safer. If you were crazy enough to come here, you would at least aim to dive what you can't find elsewhere. In my vocabulary that means wrecks. Specific wrecks. At the end of the day, the liveaboard option, well, it's just too 'reefy'.

Although this self arranged excursion is costing an arm and a leg, it's straight out of the pages of a Boy's Own Adventure story I grew up with. I'm living my dream.
Back in the Day We're zinging across a molten mirror sea in a banana boat towards Three Island Harbour. The tiny staging post of Kavieng long gone somewhere over my shoulder as we slalom seemingly suspended islands in the two and a half hour crossing.

The boat has no cover, I'm holding my hat on as we race the flying fish, plastered in factor thirty, and grateful that we set off early after packing the boat with market produce, electrical supplies, (and electrician), to catch calm seas before the sun got going.

Clem turns, big brilliant smile, and offers me a fist of dwarf bananas and a bag containing something cooked in batter. It tastes like a doughnut. Filled with fish. All washed down with a can of lemonade. And it's not even 8am. Outstanding.
Ocean Leisure
A Thing in a... Wreck I suppress a smile. Before I met Clement Anton two days ago, when he was just a contact name in my scribbled notes, I had him pegged as a burnt out expat yachtie pushing sixty, perched on a stool at the bar with a local girlfriend behind it. From the Philippines running east, the islands are littered with such characters.

How wrong can you be? Clem is a young Papuan entrepreneur who used to work the liveaboards, a gig he got having abstained from betel nut - the local narcotic that stains the gums and teeth blood red. Now his own boss, he has his sights set on turning his home, Tunnung Island, the middle islet of Three Island Harbour, into an intimate resort.

We rendezvous with Clem's fishing boat. He acts as a middle man for the local islanders, buying their catch of fish, lobster, and sea cucumber, then transporting it to the fishery in town twice weekly. Last night the boat returned with the eight tanks and weights I've hired from the dive shop in Kavieng. There's no compressor or dive shop on Tunnung.
The Pakenham Estate, Islington Carefully, because I'm responsible for them, we transfer the air fills into the banana boat and turn towards our destination, across from the large island of New Hanover, which Clem refers to as 'the mainland'. He has a house there where his three kids stay during the week to attend school, then paddle their canoes back to Tunnung at the weekend. We slow, passing over the wreck of the Sanko Maru, visible from the surface. It's a big wreck I estimate to be a hundred metres long.

Tunnung Island is, of course, idyllic. The stereotypical South Pacific getaway. Slowly we navigate through the shallow rock and sea grass before the boat slides onto pewter sand. It has to be one of the best sounds in the world to match one of the best spots in the world.

Four beach bungalows on stilts are dotted amongst the trees under dappled shade with a long house to one side. There's a bathroom to the rear with a manual flush toilet and a large water butt to shower from. Basic, but brilliant. Lush foliage rings the camp. My initial reaction is that I would have kicked myself all the way home had I chosen to stay for one night instead of two.
Travelling Diver
Diver Plus Fan Within half an hour I've had the guided tour, suited up, and we're heading back to the wreck leaving the electrician to play with his circuit board and cable, and hopefully fix a ceiling fan in my room.

Clem doesn't have a dive computer, so I lend him my spare Gekko.

"When I heard you were coming I bought a second hand BC. I didn't have one, because you are the first diver I've had to stay."

This really is an exploratory trip - for us both.
For the record, the armed freighter Sanko Maru was 396 feet long with a beam of 53 and a draught of 30, with a gross registered tonnage of 5,461, powered by turbine engines with 550 nominal h/p, and was launched in 1939.

For the diver she lies on her starboard side with the seabed at 22m, first contact with the wreck at 6m, making it a perfect dive. The deck is festooned with every type of soft coral imaginable, but my priority is to the sea bed and the rope Clem has laid out over the sand to assist the liveaboards to find the mini submarine.

And for the wannabe historians, the Sanko Maru was sunk early on the morning of 16th February 1944, by elements of a combined action of USAAF B-25 "Mitchell" medium bombers; 41 strafers from the 345th, and three squadrons from the 38th Bomb Group, who were hunting a convoy, 14 ships strong, reportedly heading for Kavieng.

Six squadrons came round the island of New Hanover from the west, as Captain Max Mortensen led nine strafers from the 500th 'Rough Raiders' along the strait between New Ireland and New Hanover from the east.

They found the Sanko Maru, the mini sub partially submerged alongside, guarded by Ch 39, a 420 tonne submarine chaser. The transport was hit by numerous 500lb bombs setting it ablaze.

The submarine chaser tried to escape but was strafed repeatedly and, out of control, ran aground on a nearby reef. Disabled and helpless, the 499th 'Bats Outta Hell' queued up to finish it off. Hit by thirteen bombs, exploding the magazine and boiler, the escort was reduced to a shattered hulk.

The Japanese sailors in the water tried to make it to shore, but were strafed repeatedly. Returning aircrews reported the sea was red with blood, and the Bats Outta Hell' were branded "blue-nosed butchers" by Tokyo Rose in one of her propaganda broadcasts.

Although the mini sub was reported sunk by the bombers, Japanese sources said the craft had in fact been scuttled by the crew after the attacks, and this version of events is supported by her pristine condition sixty five years on, upright on the sand, twin torpedo tubes at the bow (empty), conning tower, open hatch, periscope and propellors at the stern. There are no remains inside, and the sub lies with a smattering of coral growth.

Wreck detectives say this craft is HA-23, possibly a Type C midget submarine, although I would have thought such positive identification would have supported exactly what generation of sub it is. Weighing in at some 46 tonnes, it seems likely that the mini sub was either towed to its area of operations, or piggy backed on a conventional submarine, ship derricks being unlikely to support its weight.
Travelling Diver
To me, it's now a beautiful toy and the ultimate underwater gadget, like something out of James Bond, not to mention a unique entry in my logbook. Where else could you dive an intact mini submarine in 22 metres of warm water? The visibility is no more than 8 metres, and the average here is only 15, which explains why when divers salvaged the propellor and condenser from the Sanko Maru, they didn't find the sub, which was eventually discovered by Kevin Baldwin from the Telita liveaboard in 1987.

After finning along the submarine we return to the surface passing up over the masts of the freighter. I can't wait for darkness to fall... because the time to 'see' the Sanko Maru is at night.

Waiting for the afternoon to pass we sit at Clem's office, a bench on the beach looking out at his beautiful world as he weighs and pays the locals who bring him sea cucumber. He wrinkles his nose.

"Look at what the Asians eat!"

He discusses his plans. He might go back to work the liveaboards for a while to buy a few tanks, perhaps a small compressor. Although he can accommodate up to eight people he says he wouldn't want to take more than a couple of divers at a time.

The tide is out as the sun sets, so we walk along 'Clem's Highway'; the path cut behind the camp to the tip of Tunnung and wade out to the boat stationed there. I lend Clem my spare torch and we roll back in.

As we descend over the port side and fall down across the deck our torches reveal a wonderland of coral. Lush trees, lace and every hue of fan battle for attention with feather stars on a virtual coral Red Carpet that runs along the deck.

As a wreck diver I'm not normally moved by coral. It's rather like dressing up a turkey dinner for a vegetarian. But this dive changes my mind. The Sanko Maru is obliterated by a pristine rainbow of staggering quantity and quality. Even on the safety stop I'm peering over the edge of the ship, playing the torch over the display.

We break the surface giddy and laughing in the moonlight. High fives in the water, Clem whooping.


Those aren't his exact words, but you get the gist.

"You know when my torch was flicking around all over the place?!! I wasn't in trouble!!"
Nautilus Lifeline
They weren't my exact words either... The pair of us are still buzzing as we wander back down the track to camp. I can't get over the coral and why the wreck, certainly at night, hasn't attracted more recognition. Bob Halstead, a pioneer of diving in Papua New Guinea described it as "an excellent night dive". He wasn't kidding, but I can't help but wonder what else Bob might have seen after dark that would possibly top the Sanko Maru?

Dinner is a buffet affair with lobster tails, which is as rough as it sounds. The electrician wants to know where the movie stars live in London? He's visibly crestfallen when I tell him I haven't a clue. I didn't think my sighting of Gordon Ramsay having a coffee on the King's Road years ago would impress him. And, although his wife won't be thrilled, there's still a corner of the world where the name 'David Beckham' draws blank looks all round.

Next morning we explore the spartan cargo hold, and the large crack that lies just behind where the bridge used to be. Both spaces are impressive in their own right, although the freighter was once a Hell Ship, transporting 346 POWs from Manila to Palawan, over a mercifully short four day voyage in the summer of 1942.

The contrast between the vessel then and the wreck today could not be greater.

I'm down to my last four cigarettes, and worse still, my last pair of cylinders. So now there's a dilemma.

On one hand there's the lure of the unexplored wreck beyond the Sanko Maru, which I speculate is what remains of Subchaser 39, or alternatively wait until nightfall, and dive the Hanging Gardens of Babylon once again. For a second I consider telling Clem he'll have to sit out the next couple of dives, but it's the shared experience as much as anything that's part of the joy. And furthermore, I'm not that mean.

The sun sets in a blaze. If you ever get onto Subchaser 39, let me know how it goes? The easy way to do the Sanko Maru and mini sub is by liveaboard. Check scheduled departures and ensure they will do a night dive on the wreck.

MV Golden Dawn
Telita Dive

Since my visit to Tunnung, Clem has got email.

Dive Season: April September

Nearest recompression chamber
Melanesian Hyperbaric Service
Tel: +675 69 30305
London School Of Diving

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