LOOKING AT THE Sangat Island Resort from out at sea, you can hardly tell it is there. Bungalows on stilts are made of local materials and, among the palm trees, just blend into the foliage. Slips beside the dive centre are visible only from an angle at which they are not eclipsed by the big rock rising from that end of the bay.
I can imagine that, with a little bit of camouflage over the solar panels, the whole place would be virtually invisible from aerial reconnaissance.
Twenty years ago, when I dived the wrecks of Coron Bay from a small liveaboard, the story was that in 1944 aerial reconnaissance detected small islands moving with the tide, thus revealing ships at anchor.
It was a great story, but as resort-owner Andy Pownall explains while pointing to photographs in the bar, it was a fanciful embellishment. The black-and-white pictures from the attacking aircraft clearly show uncamouflaged ships returning fire.
At the time, Allied forces were advancing towards Japan through the eastern Philippines. Japanese supply ships anchored off Manila had come within range of carrier air strikes from the US fleet, and many had already been sunk.
In an effort to protect the remaining ships they were ordered to Coron Bay further to the south-west and, so the Japanese High Command thought, out of range of the carrier aircraft.
The movement was followed by US reconnaissance aircraft, and Admiral “Bull” Halsey gave the order to attack. Located 350 miles from their carriers, the aircraft would have only a short time over the target.
At the time, it was the longest-range carrier air-strike ever attempted. Working in the attackers’favour, the ships at Coron were lightly defended and, when the aircraft arrived on 24 September, 1944, they were taken completely by surprise.
Twenty-two SBC2 Helldivers dive-bombed the ships with 500lb bombs while 96 F6F Wildcat fighters provided air support and strafed the decks. Ships separated to the west, the seaplane tender Akitsushima and tanker Okikawa Maru, were the first to be bombed.
Then the attacking aircraft moved on to the main anchorage to bomb the freighters Irako Maru, Olympia Maru, Kogyo Maru and Morazan.
A second tanker, the Kamoi Maru, was the only large ship to survive. Though damaged by bombs, she eventually made her way to Hong Kong. A further freighter, the Kyokuzan Maru, was sunk outside the bay on the opposite side of Busuanga, far enough away not to be on the usual dive itinerary.
What that leaves for us divers are the wrecks of a medium-sized warship, a tanker and four other big merchant ships, a small gunboat and a small sub-chaser, all within a short boat journey of the dive centre.
The closest are fewer than 10 minutes away and the furthest 30 minutes away.
Sangat is situated at the top of Palawan, the westernmost chain of islands of the Philippines. Coron Bay is a natural anchorage separating Busuanga and the Culion Islands. The fringes of the bay are peppered with little button islands covered in dense forest.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO inside the wrecks, but if the opportunity arises…
I will start my description of the diving in the middle. In the middle of my trip and in the middle of the IJNS Akitsushima.
The Akitsushima was a purpose-built tender for H8K Emily flying-boats. The forward part of the ship was a typical light cruiser with guns, bridge, masts and superstructure, then the aft part was a flat working deck serviced by a huge crane to lift the flying-boats on board for servicing.
Why start in the middle of the Akitsushima? Because it’s the most complex route I followed during my week in Coron Bay, and I saw stuff I wouldn’t have found without Jojo guiding me. While I had dived the wrecks briefly 20 years ago, dive-centre manager Jojo Lorenz arrived in Coron about a year before then, and has been diving the wrecks almost every day since.
From behind the forward gun, Jojo leads us through a hatch in the deck and we follow the magazine lift three decks down. Four helical shafts geared together provide a continuous elevator for a stream of 5in shells, one remaining fallen just out of place as a hint to its function.
From the magazine lift we head aft, up and down decks to dodge bulkheads, and arrive at the long motor-room containing four big marine diesel engines geared to two shafts. In a merchant ship the engine-room is usually big and easily accessible through the skylights. In a military ship it is buried several decks down, and packed tightly.
Maybe I could have found my own way there, but without Jojo guiding I wouldn’t have found the control console in a small compartment off the forward end, with a narrow hatch and a barred window looking out along the engines.
The way onward and out connects with a split in the working deck we had entered the day before, though on that dive we had turned aft to see the winch motor and cable drums for the flying-boat crane.
As I said, you don’t have to go inside the wrecks, but if the opportunity arises… We had begun gently with the upright wrecks Morazan and then the Olympia Maru, both easily navigable steamship wrecks, nicely intact and with some easy routes through the engine-rooms and superstructures.
Outside there are guns, masts and other ship’s fittings, mostly covered in a mix of hard and soft corals and with a surprising variation in resident fish. Some wrecks have enormous shoals, while others have more hidden reef life.
Jojo tells me that manta rays and even whale sharks have been sighted on the wrecks, but not often enough to be relied upon.

THE MASTS OF THE capsized Kogyo Maru have wafting soft corals and sponges with enormous shoals of glassfish writhing round them – a complete contrast to the bulldozer and building materials for an airfield stacked in the holds.
Even denser shoals of fish inhabit the collapsed superstructure of the Irako.
My first dive on that wreck begins at the stern, down one deck, through some crew accommodation with portholes and a sewing machine, then through the aft holds and a broken bulkhead to the engine-room.
Cross-cut gears connect steam turbines to the propeller-shafts. Turbine drives always strike me as very compact compared to triple-expansion engines.
To the port side, a small cabinet houses speaking tubes to the bridge.
Even with nitrox that is about as much deep time as we can fit into one dive, so it’s up to the wafting soft corals and glassfish above, then forward for a quick look in the forecastle. To port are the heads, with a bicycle stored behind them.
The Irako was the most heavily armed of the merchant ships and in the centre of the forecastle is a hand-cranked ammunition lift to the 5in gun platform above, just one shell at a time rather than the continuous feed on the Akitsushima.
We return to the Irako to see another part of the interior I can remember from 20 years ago, the kitchens.
As a troopship with a refrigerated hold for supplies, the Irako was fitted with kitchens on an industrial scale, one deck down to either side of the superstructure with the gallery to the engine-room descending between them.
While easier to locate than the engine-room of the Akitsushima, the kitchens of the Irako are in all ways a more serious wreck penetration.
The Irako is upright and the decks are beginning to compress in places. Cabins with limited access are banked with fine silt and cables hang from above. One false move and, while I am confident that I could find a way out, my chance of photographs would be curtailed.

JOJO LEADS ME AFT through the kitchens of the starboard side, pausing at mixers that would not be out of place on a building site and rice cookers almost as big as the steam turbines below.
We then cut through a narrow cross-corridor to the port side, where further kitchens have rows of big sinks and some evil-looking machines that could be meat-grinders.
I could benefit from the expertise of an Internet forum on vintage Japanese industrial kitchen machinery to do the equivalent exercise to that Alex Mustard did for the vehicles in the Thistlegorm.
As I said, you don’t have to go inside the wrecks, but… On the tanker Okikawa Maru the inside parts worth exploring are the forecastle at the bow and the engine-room located all the way aft. Between these many of the oil-tanks are accessible, but even a dedicated wreck-ferret would be unlikely to find an empty oil tank interesting.
Upright, with the deck shallower than 15m, the Okikawa is a good location for a third dive. As we follow the deck and catwalk aft, perhaps it is the only wreck on which I pay particular attention to the macro-life, or perhaps it really is the wreck of a billion nudibranchs (and a very tolerant turtle).
Anyway, having seen some particularly unusual slugs on a dive on which I was set up for wide-angle wreck shots, I return an afternoon later fully prepared with a macro lens. We find plenty of nudibranchs and flatworms, but no matter how hard we search, all the unusual slugs from the day before have either run away or hidden.
With six main wrecks and a couple of smaller ones, a week gives me just about enough time to see everything once and get into some of the more advanced inside routes on repeat dives.
Even so, there are things for which I just don’t have enough dives. A few more days on location would have rounded things off nicely.
On the Irako, Jojo tells me that there is a fully equipped machine-shop off to the side of the engine-room that is a dive in itself. Within the lagoon at Coron are many coral reefs, but I have time only to explore reefs in passing at the gunboat and sub-chaser wreck sites.
A day trip away is a small coaster wrecked at Black Island. Some like to claim it as another Japanese wartime casualty, but it is actually a more recent Philippine vessel. Further afield is the wreck of the Kyokuzan Maru.
Lying on a sloping reef towards Coron are the ribs of another small wreck often referred to as a “gunboat”, though again there is no evidence to connect this with the Japanese wrecks.
For something completely different there is an enclosed inland hotwater lake with barracuda, accessible via boat and a short hike up the cliffs carrying your dive-kit. And beneath the cliffs of Coron island is a fully submerged “Cathedral” cave system that combines large chambers with narrow connections. These are fitted with guide-ropes, but a guide is still essential.

Wreck Specs
IJNS Akitsushima
4900-ton seaplane tender built by Kawasaki-Kobe in 1942. Light cruiser hull with a flat aft deck used to carry and service H8K Emily flying-boats. Four 5in guns and four 25mm anti-aircraft guns. Four diesel engines on two shafts. The wreck of an Emily rumoured to have been sunk nearby has yet to be found. Lying on port side in 38m.
Okikawa Maru
10,241-ton tanker completed in 1944 by Kawasaki-Kobe. Laid down as a type 1TL, completed as a type 2TL standard tanker. Powered by a single shaft of geared steam turbine. Type 1TL and 2TL were standardised tanker designs built from 1942 onwards, with 22 1TLs and 32 2TLs completed. Two hulls were converted to escort carriers, but never used. Upright with bow broken off in 26m.
Irako Maru
9570-ton refrigerated cargo ship built in 1941 by Kawasaki-Kobe. Equipped for transporting and supplying troops, with extensive kitchens. Powered by six boilers to two steam turbines and two shafts. Four 4.7in and ten 25mm guns. Upright in 40m.
Olympia Maru
5612-ton motor ship built in 1927 by Mitsubishi-Nagasaki. Two 25mm guns. Upright in 27m.
Kogyo Maru
6352-ton oil-fired steamship built by Uraga Dock Co in 1938. Powered by two turbines geared to a single shaft. Cargo includes a tractor, a bulldozer, a cement-mixer and various construction materials for creating an airfield. Lying on starboard side in 34m.
Morazan (Ekkai Maru)

2984-ton steamship powered by a triple-expansion engine. Built in 1908 as the Manco by Scott of Greenock for the Booth Line. During WW1 the Manco served as an auxiliary for the Royal Navy. In 1922 the ship was purchased by the Vaccaro Steamship company and renamed Morazan. In 1941 she was sold to Wallem & Co of Hong Kong, then seized by Japan in Shanghai on 8 December, 1941, and renamed Ekkai Maru. Lying on starboard side in 26m.



FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: International flights to Manila, then an overnight stay before a domestic flight to Coron, a minibus ride to the dock, and finally transfer by bangka to Sangat Island.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Sangat Island Dive Resort is the only resort island offering diving facilities in Coron Bay, www.sangat.com.ph.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. The climate is driest and warmest from November to May.
MONEY: Philippines peso.
HEALTH: Cebu is malaria-free. Deco chamber in Cebu City.
PRICES: Dive Worldwide can provide nine nights’ full board at Sangat Island Dive Resort inclusive of 14 dives, flights and transfers for £1835pp (two sharing), www.diveworldwide.com.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.morefunphilippines.co.uk