by Simon Freeman and Ed Van Roosendaal
Thailand is known for its pretty corals and tourist hot-spots, but we were there to find a bit of history, WW II history.
During the last war, the gulf of Thailand was a favourite haunt of US submarines. Waiting in the deep water (60-80m) south of Bangkok, they attacked supply lines to Japan, and were responsible for the sinking of dozens of freighter ships or âMaruâsâ.
Some of these wrecks had been discovered, but others remain hidden by the waves, revealing their location only to fishermen who accidentally snag their nets. We were there specifically to find undived wrecks or âvirginsâ in wreck diver speak, with the aid of some of the best guys in the business â Jamie MacLeod and Stewart Oewel, owners of the
When the guys told us they had hundreds of unknown GPS marks from Thai fishermen, we just had to get there!
I met up with my good mate and dive buddy Ed Van Roosendaal with whom I had dived a lot on deep air dives. I knew this was a guy that could be trusted to keep his cool 60m down inside the inky blackness of some unknown wreck.
With a full compliment of divers on board, we were going right out into the gulf â 250km offshore â to where the most promising marks were shown in his âpurple bookâ. The purple book was borrowed from a successful Thai fisherman and it pinpoints the locations of good fishing sites he had discovered over the years. Some of these points may be nothing. Others, well, we were to find out!
After loading supplies and fuelling up, we saw Koh Tao for the last time. We would not see land again for five days, steaming all night to get to the first mark that was closer to the Cambodian coast than Thailand.
We approached the mark in the purple book as a massive, sudden rise came in to view on the sounder! The skipper gave the signal, the shot line was dropped and in no time Jamie was geared up and in the water with the bow line. After 10 minutes a polystyrene cup â the signal to get down there â popped up next to the plume of bubbles by the shot line â we were on! âItâs not WWII but a bloody big freighter lying on her port side and definitely a virgin, the wheelhouse is chocka block full of brass!â We heard Jamieâs estimates of âat least 6,000 tonne, 150m longâ as we hurriedly geared up. Jumping in to 29ÂºC water, we made our way to the bow line.
Descending to the bottom the awesome viz meant the wreck came in to view at 25m! Moving to the starboard side of the wreck at 58m, the narcosis hit after about five seconds The water temperature was still 27ÂºC, and although the viz had dropped to 10m it was still an awesome feeling! We checked that our gear and computers were in order then took in the wreck. It was huge! The hull sloped off to one side like the curve of the earth and both the stern and the bow were nowhere to be seen â even from our vantage point during the descent. On our right was the hold â a giant hole in the side (formerly the deck) of the ship. We made our way towards the stern, to the wheelhouse. We saw dozens of round windows â I looked at Ed and I knew we were both thinking the same thing â portholes!
All too soon we were short on bottom time and retraced our path to begin the 60 minute ascent to the surface. Switching to 36% at 31m, we could see two ships â the wreck and the shadow of the
, connected by the thin umbilical of the bow line. Occasionally, the blue expanse between the two would be disturbed by huge schools of jacks, batfish or banded sea crates swimming down from the surface to hunt in the wreck below, spectacular sea life thriving on humanityâs mistakes.
At six metres we swam from the bow line to the two deco bars. There, surface supplied oxygen allowed us to relax and forget about gas consumption, and we could while away our last stops watching the squid and baitfish that had assembled below the hull.
Some divers had found an open life-raft casing that was resting on the superstructure. The partially eroded letters âPornsri Marine. Next Service Oct 1993â were still clear. As life rafts are serviced every decade this put the sinking date between 1983 and 1993 â a wreck approximately 20 years old, consistent with the amount of growth on the hull.
Inside the bridge the telegraph stood proud and intact, although covered in silt and growth. Colourful nudibranchs grazed on the glass paned windows looking out into the murky deep.
The next day after another awesome dive, Jamieâs SMB (Submersible Marker Buoy) broke the surface about 30m from the boat. The support RIB was sent to retrieve the SMB which was tied around a valuable and rare find – the shipâs compass!
After two days of diving the
wreck, we move on and explore some more marks from the purple book. A massive, solid object came up on the sonar to the whoops and cheers of everyone on board! Stewart dove down the shot line with the bow rope in tow, and gave three strong tugs to signal everyone to get their kit on!
This was another massive wreck, at least 120m long. It appeared much older than the first, but the presence of plastics indicated that it was post WWII. At 40m I hit the âfloorâ â a massive thermocline that dropped the visibility so much it looked like the bottom! The viz went from a blue 20m to dark green two metres in an instant, and the temperature went from 28C to 31ÂºC! At 55m a massive dark hulk slowly appeared out of the gloom and was covered in fishing nets, coral and seething with fish. Passing underneath the superstructure we saw she was partially engulfed by super-soft sediment. Giant puffs of silt barrelled off the bottom, dropping the viz to almost zero when we went near rust flakes rained from the ceiling, dislodged by our bubbles. This ship had been down here a while.
A reel line was laid to a location within the wreck from which the bell could be seen. All I could see was the diffuse glow from my torch, and anything I held up to my face and the water silted! Holding the reel line and inching carefully forwards, pipes and beams hampered our progress. Suddenly, I realised something was tugging at one of my stage bottles, holding me back. Moving the bottle closer to my face, I could just make out the white reel line twisted around the first stage. With bottom time fast running out, stories of panicked deaths deep inside some dark wreck flickered through the back of my mind. To remain calm was principal, beyond that, nothing. Ed was close by â I could make out his torchlight. Tapping his leg, he turned around and sought me out. He saw the problem and shone his torch on the stage bottle as I untangled it. The tangle was so simple to undo â how had I not been able to do it before? We didnât find the bell on that dive, but you really find out about yourself in situations like that.
Several dives later, I was decompressing on the bow line when a very precious bell tied on to a lift bag came whizzing by!
The shipâs bell from the second virgin wreck whizzes past me on the ascent line on its way to the surface.
After an hour of cleaning and polishing with brasso the bell looked just about brand new and ready to ring. The name of the ship
was stamped into the top, and it made a beautiful sound as it rang for the first time in many years.
On the 12-hour steam home, we had time to reflect while watching the gas rigs pass by in the distance, set against the orange Thai sunset. The trip was amazing, and well worth lugging the gear through Thailand for. I will definitely be heading back there for some more awesome technical diving action!