Learning to dive with the local sub-aqua club as a teenager got me up close to time capsules from the past, and I quickly developed “the lust for rust”. With such a long tradition in maritime trade and warfare, British waters are famous and popular for one particular type of diving – wreck diving.
Being based in Indonesia, I have had the opportunity to dive some of the most historic wrecks in the area. Asia-Pacific has a rich history of maritime trade and battles that have given wreck diving enthusiasts an abundant variety of diving possibilities. In some destinations such as Chuuk Lagoon, these subaquatic treasures have been protected and nurtured, paving the way for a sustainable and continuous source of income for the locals. Unfortunately, this is far from what is happening in other areas of the region.
Some years ago, I was invited to dive the World War II wrecks from the battle of the Sunda Strait, particularly the proud HMAS Perth. As a Leander-class light cruiser, she was the pride of the Australian Navy. With numerous battle honours, the Perth was returning home to Australia where she was called into action to defend Java from the Japanese advance. She sailed as part of the American, British, Dutch, Australian Command (ABDACOM) in the Battle of the Java Sea, together with the heavy cruiser USS Houston. She was the only other vessel to escape the disastrous loss of the fleet and tragic loss of life. Low on fuel and ammunitions, she sought refuge and resupply in Batavia Bay to conduct emergency repairs while waiting for other vessels stationed in the area before planning to head to Freemantle.
However, both the HMAS Perth and USS Houston were trapped in the onslaught. The vessels engaged the approaching superior force valiantly, but with more enemy vessels arriving, it was not long before they both were running out of ammunition, eventually succumbing to the overwhelming odds. The ships slipped below the waves while engulfed in flames, with crew members gallantly standing their posts or rescuing mates.
Although the wrecks are not deep, my team dived our CCRs to extend bottom time for longer exploration and survey. Arriving at a depth of 25 metres, we immediately knew something was wrong when all we could see was the twisted iron and gaping holes in the once proud ship. With two teams of three divers in the water, the team I was with would inspect Y and Z turrets and the stern of the Perth from midships. The other team would focus on the bridge, A and B turrets and the bow.
Swimming over the seabed midships, twisted girders and fallen wreckage along the bottom could be seen. I hovered over the mangled remains of a machine gun nest where a couple of steel helmets lay on the sand. Crushed shell casings littered the area as we approached Y and Z turrets; I could start to imagine how furious the fighting had been on that fateful night. Both gun turrets had their barrels at a 90 degree elevation to the deck, which meant extreme close quarter battle. The cannons cast an eerie silhouette as we stretched out to the surface with the remains of the Perth laying on her port side. Approaching the stern, I could see how the deck had been ripped open, which didn’t seem like an effect from an explosion.
Back on board the dive boat, both teams discussed their findings. Team A reported the differences since their last dives on the wreck during the end of the previous diving season: Gaping holes and collapsed structures of what used to be the bridge, the bow had all but been destroyed and removed, A and B gun turrets had completely disappeared and the bridge structure flattened and destroyed. Going through the video footage, we realised that the damage could only have been caused by a salvaging grapple trying to retrieve as much of the various metals. The liveaboard made its way closer to an island to lay up overnight and we decided to talk to local fishermen to retrieve information. To our horror, the fishermen told us that a barge with a crane sat over the wreck for a week or more, ripping up whatever was hooked on the grapple. It was only due to the monsoon change and the return of the diving season that they left.
We carried on diving the USS Houston the next day to see a similar scene, though not as dramatic as the Perth. This sad state of our maritime history being salvaged is unfortunately not an isolated incident in the area, and we have heard of similar fates happening to iconic wrecks as the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse as well as the wreck of the Seven Skies. However, the greatest loss of wreck history must have taken place at the site of the Battle of the Java Sea off the coast of East Java: Complete ships have been stripped from the seabed, leaving only imprints of their once mighty forms that are a testament to time. These ruthless acts of salvage for short-term gain have caused international outrage, and since then salvage activities have decreased, but this could also be due to the fact that there is not much left to salvage. The governments of the countries in which these wrecks laid were also slow to respond or simply had no resources or interest in stopping the salvage; some were even seen to be supporting it.
We have not only lost some fantastic wreck diving sites, but also face the loss of critical ecological habitats. Wrecks offer safe havens and breeding grounds to a variety of corals and fish species at a time where pressure on coral reefs is at an all-time high. These wreck sites maintain a balance of fish stocks which in turn serve to feed the local and visiting populations in these areas. It is not all bad news but the responsibility now falls on the dive community to protect what is left. If you haven’t dived a wreck yet, do it and prepare to be amazed.