The South China Sea offers some great technical wreck diving. In December 1941, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor a number of naval vessel were sunk either in an air raid or in a mine field north of Tioman. Among these unfortunate ships were the legendary HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse.
The wrecks around Tioman Island lie in deeper water between 55m and 69m debth and are therefore only suitable for technical divers.
Depending on tides and ocean currents, visibility at the here described wrecks can range between 8 and 30 meters. Plenty of nets and fishing lines are hanging around the ships and currents can be quite strong at times, especially at shallower depth during decompression stops. Best time to dive our wrecks are from late February to early June and from September until October.
250 meter long British Battlecruiser, sunk in 1941
Max. Diving Depth: 57 meters – Recommended Diving Depth 49/57 meters.
This famous British Renown Class Battlecruiser was completed in August 1916. Repulse was extremely fast, easily topping 32 knots, due in part to their extreme length – beam ratio. But this speed also came at the expense of light armour.
Together with HMS Prince of Wales and 5 Destroyers, she was stationed in Singapore and their group was commonly known as Force Z. The allies hoped that the presence of Forze Z would help deter a Japanese attack.
In her fatal voyage of the 8th December 1941 to smash the Japanese landings at Singora and Kota Bharu, the 37,000 ton ship with a length of over 250 meters, carried the following armament:
- 3 x 2 x 15” BL
- 3 x 3 x 4” LA
- 4 x 1 x 4” AA
- 3 x 8 x 2pdr pom-pom AA
- 8 x 1 x 20mm Oerlikon AA
- 4 x 4 x 0.5” MG AA
- 4 x 2 x 21” Fixed
After a Japanese submarine sighted Force Z, the first elements of the 80-strong Japanese striking force was spotted at 11.00 hours on the 10th of December from the north–west. The Flagship opened fire and so shortly afterwards the Battlecruiser did with her 4” guns. Without the presence of an aircraft carrier, it was impossible to withstand multiple attacks by torpedo and high-level bombers. The ship rolled over at 12.33 hours and sank two minutes later to her resting place. 796 survivors were picked up by the destroyers Electra and Vampire.
Now, 46 nm north of Tioman, she is on her port side in about 57m of water, with the decks at about 120 degrees of angle. If you start your descent at amidships, you will find the bridge area badly damaged and the fighting tops spread out across the seabed. Five inch side guns are clean and lay with their barrels still pointing out to sea. The swim from here to bow is long but very rewarding. The turret are easily visible with their guns still at an aggressive fighting angle and once you get there, you can see the tripod base of the Flagpole still intact in its place at the bow of the ship. It is possible to swim under the whole front section of the ship, as it is held up off the seabed by the massive guns we just past by. Large hatches lay open on the decks and are testimony of sailors trying to escape as she started to sink. For heading back to the shot it is a good idea to rise up over the ship at about 48m depth. Anchors and lines of portholes come now into view, all looking very intact until the damaged created by Japanese torpedo planes becomes evident. Three large marble rays, gliding along the hull, have to be passed before reaching the shot. Even during the decompression stops you still have plenty of time to observe the rich marine life. The stern of the ship is in good condition but her main stern guns are buried in the silty bottom. Two of her props have gone, but evidence of torpedo damage is obvious as the rudder is jammed into one of the remaining propellers.
HMS Prince of Wales
227 meter long British Battleship
Max. Diving Depth: 69 meters – Recommended Diving Depth 63/69 meters.
This British King George V Class Battleship was completed in March 1941, only a few month before she was destroyed in the South China Sea.
Known as Force Z, together with HMS Repulse, she was the Flagship and stationed in Singapore in the hope that their presence would help deter a Japanese attack. The 40,000 ton ship with a length of 227 meters sailed, together with HMS Repulse, on the 8th December 1941 northwards and carried following armament:
- 2 x 4 x 14”
- 1 x 2 x 14”
- 4 x 2 x 5.25” DP
- 4 x 8 x 2pdr pom-pom AA
- 4 x 4 x 0.5” MG AA
She was sighted together with the Battlecruiser and the accompanying destroyers by a Japanese submarine, which alerted the 22nd Air Flotilla with its 88 bombers based near Saigon. At 10.20 hours on the 10th of December 1941 a shadowing aircraft was spotted, followed by a striking force comprised of 30 bombers and 50 torpedo bombers. The HMS Prince of Wales opened fire with her 5.25inch high angle guns. After a few already quite damaging attacks by the Japanese, the final one came at 12.42 hours with nine high-level bombers. She was hit by one 500-lb bomb and at 13.20 hours she listed sharply to port and then rolled over and sunk.
She lies absolutely upside down in 69m of water some 51nm north of Tioman and 8nm from the HMS Repulse . Because of the depth she is seldom visited and Trimix is the gas of choice. The best way to dive here is to attach the shot at 48m to one of her props and to descend straight on her starboard side to about 66 meters. From here swim towards mid ship and soon it will be possible to swim under her where vents and open doors can be seen everywhere, maybe a sign of the rush to leave the ship. Once you reach the 5.25 inch guns it is time to turn around. The torpedo responsible for damaging the starboard outer propeller shaft ripped open a whole of about 8m by 5m, which can be explored before reaching the huge props and the up line. This is a great place to observe the rich fish life while doing your deep stops.
76 meter long Dutch Submarine
Max. Diving Depth: 55 meters – Recommended Diving Depth 55 meters.
The Dutch O16 submarine was launched on 27th January 1936 and was the first boat in the world that was equipped with a snorkel system. The submarine was 76.53 meters in length, displaced some 1194 tons and was equipped with 14 torpedoes and 3 guns. It could dive as deep as 80 meters.
The two Dutch submarines K XVII and O16 were based together in Singapore under the command of the British Eastern Fleet during World War II.
O16 was responsible for the sinking of several Japanese ships in the South China Sea and with only 1 torpedo left in its tubes, she was ordered to return to Singapore. On her way back to the British base, she was struck by a mine on 15th December 1941 at 02:30am. The same mine belt was responsible for the sinking of the Dutch submarine K XVII and the British minesweeper Banka.
O16 was almost broken in half when she sunk just about 19nm north west of Tioman Island. At the moment of impact, some 5 men were on deck and were thrown overboard by the explosion. O16 sunk very fast and the 5 men started to swim direction south heading for Tioman Island. The currents however swept them past Tioman and so they were kicking direction Pulau Aur even further south. Four of the sailors didn’t make it and drowned, while one men managed to crawl onto a beach on Pulau Aur as the sole survivor of this tragedy.
In October 1995, the wreck of the O16 was located and identified. Even though this wreck is mostly covered in fishing net, it still makes a good technical dive in the proximity of Tioman Island.
If you are more interested in the history about this and other Dutch submarines, visit dutchsubmarines.com.
76 meter long Dutch submarine
Max. Diving Depth: 57 meters – Recommended Diving Depth 55 meters.
The dutch submarine K XVII was laid down in Rotterdam at the shipyard of Fijenoord on 1 June 1931. The launch took place on 26 July 1932. On 19 December 1933 the boat was commissioned in the Dutch navy
She was based in 1941 together with the O16 in Singpapore under the command of the British Eastern Fleet.
The last recorded contact, reporting of Japanese submarines in the eastern Malaysian area, was received on 14th December 1941. Around the 21st of December 1941, the K XVII hit a line of mines about 20nm north of Tioman Island, the same minefield that sunk the O16 and the British minesweeper Banka.
K XVII sunk and took along all 36 crew members to a depth of about 55 meters.
There are several conspiracy theories involving K XVII and how it allegedly sighted the Japanese fleet prior to attacking Pearl Harbor.
Visit dutchsubmarines.com if you want to know more about this and other Dutch submarines.
In 1978 a submarine was found off Tioman Island by local fishermen and it has been identified in 1982 as the lost K XVII. The submarine lies upright about 1nm away from the Banka and gives a strange impression with the cunning tower being partially out of the thermocline.
Even though the wreck is mostly covered in fishing nets, it is an interesting tec dive and one can explore the whole submarine during one single dive.
HMS Banka Minesweeper - illegally salvaged
57 meter long British Minesweeper salvaged illegally in 2015
Max. Diving Depth: 61 meters – Recommended Diving Depth 57/60 meters.
Sadly the HMS Banka Minesweeper was salvaged illegally in 2015 and has thus lost it’s attraction to technical divers.
The HMS Banka was a vessel of 623 tons gross and was built at Dordrecht in 1914. She was registered in Singapore under the British flag and was originally named ‘Singkara’ formerly owned by the Soon Bee S.S. Co. (Singapore) Ltd.
She was of 623 tons gross, 319 tons net and her dimensions were: 185.6 feet in length, 31.1 feet in breadth and 10.9 feet in depth.
On the 6th Dec 1941 Japanese Minelayer ‘TATSUMIYA MARU’ laid a line of 456 mines from North of Tioman to the Anambas Islands. HMS Banka was sunk officially on 9 December 1941 (but reality probably the night of the 7 Dec 1941) by a mine off the coast of Malaysia. Its crew of four British officers and 40 Malays died with the exception of six Malay crew.
She most likely struck the mine on the night of the 7th, just one day after the field was laid. As she was recalled (from East Malay coast) on the 6th Dec and was due in Singapore on the 9th Dec. According to the survivor accounts it was dark at the time of the explosion.
Diving before the illegal salvage
The Banka lies completely upright in 61 meters of water and only one mile away from the Dutch submarine K XVII. The moment you arrived at the deck, you would have noticed the incredible fish life. The bow revealed the gun and while we swam towards stern we could see the damage done to mid ship from the mine. The completely fallen in deck allowed a diver to explore the inside protected by sometimes strong currents. A lot of debris could be found including some unused depth charges.
Not far away from Tioman, she made an excellent dive on a one day trip.
MV Seven Skies Supertanker
262 metres long Swedish Supertanker
Max. Depth: 64 meters – Recommended Diving Depth 35/50 meters.
The Seven Skies is a 98,000-ton Swedish Tanker built in 1965 by Kokums and sunk shortly after due to a fire breakout.
It is believed that one of the crew members was hosing her down to keep the ship cool, because she was designed without adequate ventilation. When the nozzle of the hose came into contact with the ship it generated a spark that set the ship on fire.
Diving as it used to be before the salvage
This used to be a a brilliant and challenging dive about for hours east of Pulau Aur. The Seven Skies is sitting upright in 64 meters of water and it was best to dive this super tanker at the mostly intact stern.
We usually set the shot line near the funnel, which reaches up to 26 meters and was often patrolled by shoals of barracudas, Manta Rays and even Whalesharks.
Once you reached the decks, you were surprised how many huge soft corals decorate this ship, which offers plenty of penetration possibilities to the skilled and trained technical wreck diver.
At about 48 meters you could enter a narrow door leading to the lavatories and on the other side of the room, a couple of meters deeper, there was another opening leading to the engine room.
Another excellent penetration was descending down the opening next to the pool on the first deck into the boiler room. In this huge room, one could easily make out the stairs going down the hall and the main boilers crushed by the immense water pressure.
The main dangers were cables hanging down from the ceiling, getting lost inside the wreck and the unwary diver creating siltouts.
Compared to most wrecks in the region, this one offered quite shallow penetration opportunities, giving the open circuit diver longer bottom times.
Unidentified ship at Pulau Aur
Max. Diving Depth: 64 meters – Recommended Diving Depth 50/58 meters.
This wreck, most probably an oilier, sunk either due to a firebreak out in the middle section of the vessel or from a torpedo. So far her proper identity and exact cause and date of sinking remain unknown.
She lies 38 nm south of Tioman, one hour east of Pulau Aur, in a completely upright position in 64 meters of water.
After descending, one first immediately realizes huge trees of black corals and large shoals of fish among the many lost fishing nets hanging there. One could just sit on the deck at 50 meters for a whole dive without getting bored observing the marine life.
While swimming along the deck of this over 120 meters long ship, you can explore the cargo holds, the bridge and the quarters. Stern and bow are pretty much intact.
Unless you wish to visit the engine room, which means to go a long way down, penetrations of the holds are pretty easy. Once back at the shot line, a last glimpse at the fish life will keep this wreck for a long time in your memory.