Exploring the Toa Maru

Gizo – Solomon Islands

Text and Images by Ross Coventry and Tina Aydon

Through the grapevine, we had heard many stories about the Toa Maru wreck before setting foot in Gizo, and none of them were bad. Being a couple of metal heads we were looking forward to getting to know her.

Impatient to get in the water, it felt odd gearing up in only shorts and a rashie. (The 30 degree water relegated our drysuits to the closet until further notice!) As our heads drop below the surface the first thing we see is a profusion of hard and soft corals, but what grabs our attention is what the corals are growing on. Underneath is a huge flat metal expanse stretching off into the distance in both directions. This turns out to be the port side of the wreck. Already in awe, our first glimpse of the Toa Maru gives us an idea of her size, at 136m long, 18m across the beam and displacing 6732 tons, this is one big wreck! But its not just her size that counts, her reputation is what brought us here.

The initial descent is down the shot line between holds two and three, we level off at 15m and we gaze towards what was a motorbike and side-car unit. We were told that it was clearly identifiable as a motorbike until about 10 years ago, but the ravages of time have taken their toll and for the average diver a little bit of imagination is needed. From the motorbike a short swim takes us to the top of hold three where we can see crockery, morphine ampoules from the medical room, ships telephone, a grease gun and a jar of condoms! Apparently the soldiers used the condoms to cover their rifle barrels in the rain. Feeling brave, we poke our heads into hold three with torches at the ready, and we discover the ships massive running lights.

Moving a little way off the wreck we get an idea of her huge dimensions and enormous rudder gives us some perspective. Then we drop down to look at the anti-aircraft guns sitting upright on the sandy bottom. Only a short swim from the stern guns we find a fuel tanker lying on its side, up from this at the slightly shallower depth of 28m is a gas mask, pill bottles, glass syringes, and a medical beaker, all great for pictures.

With bottom time running short we head up towards the bow, passing more trucks lying on the seabed and a metre wide rice bowl used to feed the crew and passengers. An earthquake has moved the bridge structure a couple of metres away from the main hull, allowing us a quick peek into the engine room, with its dials, gauges and boilers. For the experienced wreckies, a short penetration leads you to the colossal triple expansion engine.

Leaving the darkness behind, and continuing towards the bow, we admire the brass portholes gaping open along the side of the bridge. Perched upside down at the edge of hold two is a Japanese Type 95 two man tank. Its precarious position allows us a look into the turret. Beside the tank is a huge pile of intact sake bottles mixed with boxes of mortar shells and smaller calibre ammunition.

Hold one is partially filled with solidified bags of cement and provides an easy and safe swim through, as there is a large salvage hole at the rear which brings us out on top of the wreck. Rounding the bow, the huge anchors are still in place. We take a few minutes to explore the area, looking up at the railings silhouetted by the tropical sun the theme tune from Titanic comes to mind.

With air running low it is a short swim over the forward derrick, festooned with an amazing variety of hard and soft corals. Then its back to the shotline for our safety stop, where we are surrounded by large schools of rainbow runner and blue fusiliers that inhabit the shallows around the wreck.

After 60 years on the seabed, the Toa Maru is still in service, although she is serving a different master now. The dive and tourism industry in the Solomon Islands can only grow, as more and more divers discover the incredible WWII wrecks, and wealth of marine life there. The Toa Maru is definitely worth a visit or two!

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