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HomeDiving TravelThe Wrecks of Subic Bay - Part 1

The Wrecks of Subic Bay – Part 1

READ MORE: Part 1 | Part 2

Subic Bay, Philippines is an interesting dive destination that does not get the attention that it deserves. It was there, 19 years ago, that I finally was able to complete my open water certification. It is also in the waters of the bay that I have done over 300 dives among the numerous wrecks. Subic Bay is located about 60 miles north of the capital of the Philippines, Manila. It is just an hours drive from the Clark International airport, one of two international airports servicing Manila. Subic Bay is a deep-water bay that opens to the South China Sea, or as the Filipino’s call it the West Philippine Sea. The bay is bordered by the town of Subic, the city of Olongapo and the Subic Bay Freeport Zone (SBFZ) which had been the largest US Navy Base outside of the United States.

subic bay
Subic Bay

Wreck diving is what Subic Bay is best known for as a dive destination. While other destinations are proud to offer three or four wrecks within an hours boat ride, Subic Bay can offer over a dozen within 20 minutes from any of the numerous dive centers. In addition, it is one of just two destinations in the Philippines that offer a full range of tech diving. There are also a number of wreck sites that are only available to tech divers. You might be thinking why this destination is not as well known as other dive destinations in the Philippines. Well, it is a conspiracy. Well not exactly, but to a degree it is. Back 2009, the Department of Tourism was mandated to develop and promote scuba diving in the Philippines. Subic Bay at the time was one of the leading holiday destinations for both domestic visitors and visitors from nearby countries. Scuba diving was one of those things that could be done but there were many options. The diving industry was well established. The Department of Tourism stated that the Subic Bay area did not need the help. Other locations had a potential for a scuba diving industry with no other options available.

Depending on who you talk to, Subic Bay has a dozen recreational wreck sites with another five that are just tec divers. However, additional wrecks are still being found and some of the dive centers have wrecks they only know about and they only take trusted divers too.

Let me start with the biggest criticism against diving Subic Bay, visibility. The bay is about 5 miles long. The mouth of the bay near Grande Island is only about a mile across with the widest portion about 3 miles wide. It has a maximum depth of about 80 meters. A number of coves and smaller bays are found around the bay. There are five rivers and a number of smaller streams that feed into the bay.

In 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted with the largest volcanic activity within the last 100 years worldwide. The mountain is only about 25 miles away from Subic Bay and building in the area that are crushed being covered with almost 4 feet of ash. The waters of the bay also received the same amount of ash, and it covered and killed the majority of the coral and marine life of the bay. Rains brought more ash into the bay. Before the eruption, the bay was crystal-clear with abundant marine life including sharks, turtles, and dolphins. Afterwards, it was almost completely dead underwater. Most of the marine life have recovered, but the corals are not as they were and the sharks and turtles are limited in numbers. Visibility is limited and unpredictable. Most of the wrecks will have about 10 meters/ 30 feet of visibility on an average day, but that can be reduced to 5 meters/15 feet or less. For those used to diving in other dive sites in the Philippines with 50 to 100 meters of visibility, this is terrible. However, to those used to low visibility and to those that love shipwrecks this does not matter.

In the remainder of this section and the beginning of the next part, I will give an overview of some of my favorite Subic Bay dive sites. I will close the second part with some of the tourism options available.

USS New York ACR-2

USS New York ACR-2 (/1891)/ USS Saratoga ARC-2 (1911)/ USS Rochester ACR-2/Ca-2 (1917)

This is the Grand Dam of the wrecks of Subic Bay and one of the most beloved wrecks in Asia. The USS New York was launched on December 2nd, 1891 making her 125 years old recently. She had an overall length of 384′ with a beam 64′ 10″ and a draft of 26′ 8″. The USS New York was a destination as an Armor Cruiser. While she is shown as ACR-2 she was, in-fact the first armor Cruiser that was built for the US Navy. The keel of ACR-1 was used to build the battleship USS Maine, whose destruction was the final straw that started the Spanish-American War. The USS New York (ACR-2) is considered a milestone ship. The advances in naval architecture that she brought forward started a new era in naval vessels. Her history is amazing including being the flagship of the American fleet fighting the Spanish in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War, ending up in Subic Bay in 1933. Over her service, she had three names USS New York ACR-2/ USS Saratoga ACR-2/ USS Rochester ACR-2/Ca-2. Her official history can be found on the US Navy “Naval History and Heritage website”. She was taken out of active duty in 1933. In December of 1941, the Japanese were threatening to overrun the US Navy base at Subic Bay. The then USS Rochester was taken to deeper water and scuttled to prevent her captures. There is a conflict of dates with the official record saying this happened on December 15, and eye witness accounts saying it was the 23rd of December. This marks her 75th year underwater.

As a dive site, she is frequently dived as back to back dives. She sits on her side in 28 meters of water and a morning line is attached to a boarding ladder just behind mid ship. Most of the dive centers require divers to be an advanced diver for this wreck. The upper portion of the starboard hull is in 14 meters of water, and at this depth, divers can head towards the stern to see the upper portion of the propeller. However, most of the deck is below the level allowed for open water divers and visibility can change rapidly. Advanced divers can descend along the stern and then approached one of the large 8-inch guns on the deck behind the superstructure. While the ship has a beam of over 60 feet /18 meter much of the ship is sunk in the mud. Divers generally leave the gun and explore outside of the superstructure before returning towards the mooring line. This can also be done visiting the guns first then heading further to the stern and the propeller. A second dive will cover the forward section of the ship including her forward guns. Recreational divers who are qualified as wreck divers are allowed to penetrate a few sections of the wreck. Technical divers trained in wreck penetration have a number of different entry points, also they can descend deeper that the 28 meters sea bottom. You can find more information on this dive on the USS New York page.

Located within a few hundred feet of the USS New York are two Japanese WWII ships. The Oryoku Maru was a luxury liner before the war, however, during the war, she was used as a cargo ship and troop transport. In early December of 1944, the Japanese started to evacuate Japanese families living in the country. She left Manila on the 13 December on a trip back to Japan but was attacked the next day. The Japanese families were taken off the ship and sent back to Manila by land. The ship entered Subic bay for repairs. In the cargo holds of the ship were 1,620 Prisoners of War mostly American with a few British. There were no markings on the ship to show it contained POWs. On December 15, 1944, she was again attacked and during the attack some of the prisoners were brought on deck. The aircraft called off the attack. The POW’s were forced into the water and made to swim ashore. When it seem the ship was empty the aircraft returned and sank her. About 300 soldiers died either in the holds due to the conditions or in the swim to the shore. The survivors were marched inland to a prison camp. Of the 1,620 aboard only 200 lived out the course of the war.

Also close to the USS New York is the Seian Maru. She was a Japanese cargo vessel and was sunk a few days after the Oryoku Maru. These two ships are not dived very often as they are close to the shipping channel and permission to dive then is difficult to get.

subic bay wrecks
No photos are known to exist of the El Capitan. This is her sister ship SS Camanga which was built in the same yard, from the same plans at the same time.

SS El Capitan / SS Meriden / USS Majaba (AG-43/IX-102)

SS Meriden (1919)- SS El Capitan (1923) – USS Majaba/ AG-43 (1942) – SS El Capitan (1946)

While the USS New York may be the best loved of the shipwrecks, It is the El Capitan that is the most dived of the dive sites. The site is frequently used as a second dive after some of the deeper dive sites nearby. She is a small freighter that lies on her port side in about 20 meters of water. Her starboard side is in 5 to 8 meters.

When I first started diving at Subic Bay only the name of the ship was known. One of the dive centers had posted the history of the US Navy ship SS El Capitan in their dive center, but reading the history showed it was the wrong ship. The Internet was not like it is today, so it took some hard research. I finally found a lead at the Navy Historical Center and was able to find the true identity of the ship. The SS Meriden was built in Portland Oregon for the United States Shipping Board. The shipping board had the mission of building freighters for the WWI Merchant Marine. While the board took possession of her, she was sold instead of entering service. She was used along the Pacific coast. In 1923, she was sold to a lumber company and some minor modifications were made. She then hauled lumber from Canada to San Francisco. At the beginning of WWII, she was leased by the Wartime Shipping Administration (WSA), armed and transferred to the Navy. She was commissioned as the USS Majaba/ AG-43. She saw service in the Pacific and while in Guadalcanal took a torpedo into her engine room. She settled to the bottom but the water was too shallow to sink her. She was refloated and serviced the rest of the war as a supply depot. After the war she was sent to Subic Bay for the WSA to repair her, however, she sank in a storm.

nudi branches subic bay
Nudibranch are found on many of the wrecks, photographs by Kozi Takahashi

As a dive site, she has something for everyone except tec divers. New divers and those taking OWD training find the shallow section ideal. There is no current over the top of the ship and it generally has good visibility. Photographers also love to shoot here, and there are many nudibranches among the coral and reef fish. The deck side of the ship is eerie. In the morning it is in the shadow of the reef next to it, in the afternoon it is in its own shadow. There is little water movement so visibility is poor. Still traveling along the deck space is interesting. Wreck diver training is often done here. The El Capitan has three cargo holds. Two have the hatches missing and the center one is closed. Divers can enter either the front or rear cargo hold, explore it and then travel inside the ship to the engine room. Much of the engine room is empty as items had been removed for repair before she sank. The engine room can be entered directly as well. From the engine room, the middle cargo hold can be entered. No matter how often you dive this wreck you always seem to find something new to catch your interest.

The El Capitan is located in a protected bay near the entrance of Subic Bay. The small bay is also the home of Ocean Adventure a marine amusement park. The park is well known for it educational and marine rescue programs.

Part 2 will highlight some of the rest of the wrecks.

READ MORE: Part 1 | Part 2

Charles Davis
Charles Davis
Charles Davis is an active diver for over 19 years who enjoys writing about his favorite activities, Scuba Diving and Travel. Also known as the Scuba Diving Nomad