A rising star in the Asia-Pacific pantheon of wreck diving destinations, the small island of Labuan has emerged from the shadow of neighbouring destinations like Sipadan, Sangalaki and Layang-Layang, to set its own standard of diving excellence.
Just eight kilometres offshore from the Eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, and strategically located at the northern approach to Brunei Bay, Labuan is a Duty-Free port and international Offshore Financial Centre whose past reflects the region’s maritime history.
Long recognised as an early haven for vessels plying the South China Sea trade routes who sought refuge from storms and the attention of raiders, Labuan later came to prominence as a naval base from which to fight piracy when – in 1844 – coal to power the fleet was discovered on the island.
Occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War, Labuan was the focal point of an Allied sea-borne invasion to re-take Borneo. A successful operation that is, today, commemorated by the Peace Park at Surrender Point, on the island’s western shore and the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery; serene and lasting memorials to the folly of war.
Now a tourism destination that relies as much on its natural beauty as it does on having a full range of other attractions and amenities – including accommodations that range from the comfortable to the luxurious and a wide choice of excellent restaurants and night-clubs – Labuan’s appeal to divers remains its sea-based legacy.
Although the coral reefs and prolific marine life found among Labuan’s smaller satellite islands are on a par with the best that the region has to offer, the main diving attractions are four large wrecks that lie in the nearby waters.
Little more than 40-minutes travelling time distance by fast, well-equipped boats from their marina-front store at the popular, ‘Waterfront Hotel’, Borneo Divers have pioneered what is fast proving to be one of the region’s most spectacular diving destinations: A series of popularly named wrecks each of which offers fascinating and unparalleled opportunities for exploration.
The ‘Australian Wreck’
Identified by Borneo Divers, in 1995, as the wreck of the Dutch vessel, ‘S.S. De KLERK’ – a 91-metre long freighter launched in 1900 for service in the then Dutch East Indies – the ship was scuttled by its owners in 1942. Subsequently salvaged by the Japanese and renamed the ‘IMABARI MARU’, the freighter hit a contact mine off Labuan, in September, 1945 with the loss of 339 lives.
Now resting on her port side, in 33-metres of water, the timber decks have long since collapsed and disintegrated, exposing the below-decks area to easy view. Gliding beneath the steel cross-thwarts, divers can swim the entire length of the vessel, passing open port-holes with still intact glass, across the top of beckoning holds where large lion fish shelter and up through the skeletal remains of the superstructure, bedecked with soft corals, to the former boat deck where empty davits still point inwards. Mute testimony to the vessel’s sudden end.
The ‘American Wreck’
Just 1.4 kilometres from the ‘Australian Wreck’, are the remains of the ‘USS SALUTE’, a 56-metre long Navy minesweeper. Sunk on the 8th June, 1945, with the loss of nine men after hitting a mine during the pre-invasion sweep of Brunei Bay, the ‘USS SALUTE’ rests on a hard sand bottom at a depth of 33-metres. Buckling amidships when she sank, the bow folded back across the deck and rises at an angle of about 45 degrees from the upright stern section.
For dedicated wreck divers, large, jagged tears in the hull offer access to the inner compartments. But there are plenty of discoveries still to be made on the outer sections between the buckled and twisted steel plates. Scattered munitions, contrasting with the soft corals and colourful feather stars, litter the sand around the wreck. And still in place in their stern racks, cylindrical depth charges are grim reminders of the past.
The ‘Blue Water Wreck’
Named for the incredible visibility usually experienced around this wreck, the ‘MV MARBINI PADRE’ sank in 35-metres of water in November, 1981, after foundering while under tow. An 80-metre long stern-trawler lying on her port side on a surrounding bed of hard sand, the vessel is gradually undergoing a ‘sea-change’ as soft corals, crinoids, and colonies of ascidians transform the hull into a colourful undersea garden. Huge lion fish are in evidence everywhere as are groupers, gobies, schools of large bat fish and an enormous variety of smaller, colourful tropicals.
For experienced and properly equipped wreck divers penetration into the heart of the intact vessel is possible through the open hatch-covers along the weather-decks, or through the doorways of the imposing superstructure.
The ‘Cement Wreck’
Sitting perfectly upright in 30-metres of water, the 92-metre long, ‘MV Tung Hwang’, sank in September, 1980, after hitting a reef while en-route to Brunei with a cargo of cement intended for use in the construction of the Sultan’s Palace.
Resting just 14-metres below the surface, the roof of the wheelhouse is the perfect place to appreciate the grandeur of the ‘Cement Wreck’. Looking forward from the command and accommodation superstructure, the long expanse of the cargo deck vanishes into the distance. Rising above it, the tops of the masts and kingposts carry the tattered remnants of large mesh fishing nets, testimony to the prolific fish life attracted to the hulk.
Although experienced wreck divers can penetrate into the cargo holds, accommodation areas and engine room, the upper deck areas provide equal fascination – particularly for photographers. Encrusted with soft and hard corals, feather stars and anemones the wreck is ‘home’ to a remarkable variety of fish, both large and small. Schools of large barracuda hunt above the decks; shoals of trevally move backwards and forwards along its length; grouper and lion fish take up regular stations in the more confined areas while colourful reef fish, pufferfish and octopus forage the entire length of the hull.
The equal of those to be found anywhere in the world, each of these wrecks has its own distinct character with boundless opportunities for discovery. One or two dives are insufficient. They demand to be dived time and time again.
The reason, perhaps, that more and more divers are incorporating a stop-over visit to the wrecks of Labuan into their travel itinerary.
The above story appeared in Asian Diver, Tauchen and Scuba Diver Magazines in late 1999