Subic Bay, May 2010

After the Truk trip in April, were we all-wrecked-out? Not entirely. So given the opportunity to go to Subic Bay with Trevor over a Bank Holiday weekend in May, Rita and I jumped at it.

We flew out of Hong Kong on a Cebu Pacific flight at 9:55pm, and Trevor picked us up from Manila airport at midnight. Since we had a very early start and a long drive ahead of us, we prepared physically and mentally for the journey by drinking beer and shooting the breeze until well after 2am. At 6 am, we were up bleary-eyed and whatever the opposite of bushy-tailed is. After a leisurely breakfast, we finally made it out on to the road at around 7:30. Once out of Manila, the drive was very pleasant, particularly the stretch along a new highway between Clark and Subic Bay. It’s a good road, wasn’t very busy, and passes through some beautiful countryside.

We arrived at the Blue Rock resort around 11am and checked in. We’d got deluxe rooms for 2,500 pesos per night, as the 2000 peso standard rooms were all full. The only difference seems to be that ours were upstairs. The resort has a dive operation attached, but on a previous visit, they’d told Trevor that he needed to book diving a day in advance. So instead, we walked 200 yards down the road to Johan’s, and they couldn’t have been more helpful. Johan himself is originally from Belgium. He has been diving the wrecks around here ever since the Americans left, and he has established a good dive operation, allied to a resort, complete with bar and restaurant.

Our divemaster, Weng, got us all organised and after lunch we were heading out for our first dive. Since one of our number had only just passed her PADI Open Water, this was going to be a very gentle checkout dive. We dived The Barges, which is a series of sections from a floating dock on a sandy bottom near Grande island. The shallowest section is in about 6 metres, heading down to the deeper ones at 32m. We stayed relatively shallow, and it was a surprisingly good dive with lots of marine life. The highlights included titan triggerfish, blue fin trevally, lion fish, orange lined trigger fish, a number of trumpet fish, as well as a large octopus. There was also a Mantis shrimp which must have been nearly  6″ long, and instead of hiding in a hole, it was wandering across the sand. Although it wasn’t looking quite so brave after it saw Rita salivating and frantically looking around for a pair of chopsticks and a wok.

Lion Fish

Lion Fish

Our second dive was on El Capitan, which was a 3,000 ton freighter that now rests on her port side on a slight slope. Because it was getting a bit late it was quite dark on the wreck, which is quite silty in parts. We swam along the deck and there were some large sweetlips, a big snapper, several nice nudibranchs. There was also a nice black lion fish. On the way back we swam along the hull. We stayed on the outside, and the visibility wasn’t as good as on the first dive, but it was still interesting.

The menu at Blue Rock is substantial, and it takes several meals to read it all. The food is also substantial, which caught us out a bit on the first night when we made the mistake of ordering a soup a main course – we didn’t do that again! Draft beer was 50 pesos, and went down very smoothly. On the Friday night they had a live band who were good fun, and it was a really nice evening, in a lovely beach-side setting. At 11pm the band finished up with The Eagles’ Hotel California. When I got back to my room, there was no pink champagne on ice, but there was a mirror on the ceiling.  I have to confess that that mirror got quite a lot of use over the next couple of days, after I realised that I could have a shave without getting out of bed.

The following morning, pausing only to eat a massive breakfast, we headed off to Johan’s for a 10am dive. We were going to dive the USS New York.  This is an armoured cruiser which was launched in 1891. She was later renamed the Saratoga and finally the Rochester, but is still referred to as the New York. She was decommissioned in 1933, and was scuttled in December 1941 to prevent her falling into Japanese hands.

She now lies on her port side in about 27 metres, with her starboard side coming up to around 15 metres. We dropped down to the stern and had a look at one of the propeller shafts and the rudder, before coming around to the deck. Before long we arrived at her rear turret, which is intact and still contains 2×8 inch guns. We carried on forward past the superstructure, finally reaching the forward turret. This is also intact and also has 2×8 inch guns, although Rita didn’t see these as she was busy taking a photo of a pair of nudibranchs that were nestled between them. We went around the bow and then swam along a companionway until we arrived back at the line on the stern. There was a lot of fish life, including some of the biggest bat fish that I’ve ever seen. There were also some large snapper and sweetlips, moorish idols, trevally and several big nudibranchs.
After an hour long surface interval, our second dive of the day was on a Japanese Patrol boat, which may have originally been a converted trawler. She was upright, between 18 and 25 metres. It is not known exactly when she sank. Some sources have suggested that 1944 or 1945 after the American air raids started to increase, but another source has suggested as early as March 1942. The visibility wasn’t particularly good, but there was a lot of coral and marine life on the wreck including some tasty looking coral trout. We did several circuits, and had a look into the engine room and the wheelhouse, which is quite open. Then our computers started complaining, so we headed back to the line which was tied off near the bow.

Back to Blue Rock for the obligatory massive lunch to set us up for the final dive of our trip. This was on the LCU, which is a “Landing Craft Utility”. It is on a slope with the starboard side of the bow being the deepest part of the wreck, and the port side of the stern the shallowest. The depth varied from 9 to 20 metres. We dropped down on the stern, close  to a lovely stingray, before swimming towards the bow. The forward part of the wreck is quite open but you can see the ramp at the front, as well as some of the gear which was presumably for raising and lowering it. Near the stern are several cabins, one of which was stuffed full of glassfish. On the reef to the side of the wreck we came across a large octopus, puffer fish and several nice lion fish. A great dive to finish on.

Back at Johan’s and the staff helped us to wash out all our gear and hang it up to dry. We then headed to Blue Rock for yet another massive dinner and a few beers.

Sunday was quite a leisurely day. We paid our bills, then set off back to Manila at 9:30. We made good time and everything was going well. Too well. In the pantheon of famous last words “We’re almost home, another 5 minutes should do it” must rank right up there alongside “What happens if I press this?”. Trevor had just uttered those very words when a woman in a dark green SUV decided to swerve into our lane without warning, and presumably without looking. Trevor braked sharply to avoid hitting her, and I was relieved to see how effective the brakes on his car are, because we somehow managed to stop in time. However my relief was short-lived, as a taxisecond* later a bus drove through our rear window.

* A taxisecond: Rather like a millisecond only shorter. In fact it is the shortest known time in the universe, being the difference between the light going green and the taxi behind you blowing his horn. **

** Originally inspired by either Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, but well worth plagiarising!

The bus driver did his best to absolve Trevor of all blame by doing a runner, leaving the conductor to face the music, which at least is something a conductor should be used to.  The last I heard the police were planning to arrest the driver for fleeing the scene of an accident. Actually the police were very friendly and helpful. One of them had 2 mobile phones and when I asked if that was one for the wife and one for the girlfriend, he gave me a serious explanation of how it was a backup in case they were out of range of one network. Then he laughed and said that it worked for the chicks too.

The diving in Subic was actually much better than I had expected. I think we were lucky with the visibility, perhaps because there has been very little rain in the Philippines recently. We probably had 10 – 15 metres visibility, which is far better than Trevor has had there in the past. The wrecks we dived were all interesting and, unlike the ones at Coron, they still have a lot on them. This may be because Subic Bay was a restricted area until recently because of the American base, which meant the wrecks haven’t been salvaged significantly.

It was a pretty good value trip. The Cebu Pacific flights cost us HKD 1000 each and we paid an extra HKD 350 to upgrade our luggage allowance from 15kg to 25kg. Johan’s charged us 1,000 pesos per dive and we did 5 dives. Blue Rock’s deluxe rooms were 2,500 pesos per night and we were there for 2 nights. Food and drinks for 2 of us worked out at just under 5,000 pesos, and we certainly didn’t stint on the food, or the drinks. So overall the long weekend for 2 people cost 20,000 pesos plus flights, so approximately  HKD 6,000 in total. Of course that didn’t include getting from Manila to Subic Bay, as Trevor drove, so if anyone is thinking of going, you will need to factor that in. Another alternative might be to look at flying into Clark which is only an hour away, rather than Manila. There seem to be fairly regular jeepneys between Clark and Subic Bay.

I would like to thank Trevor for organising a fantastic diving trip as well. I’d also like to thank him for buying a very strong car, without which we might have ended up with a lot worse than minor scratches and a headache.

About Neil Hambleton

I am a British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) Advanced Diver and an Open Water Instructor. I have been diving since 1992, after joining South China Diving Club (SCDC), which is a Hong Kong-based branch of the BSAC. Having moved to New Zealand, I am now a member of BSAC New Zealand.
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