Underwater tribute honours the fallen

James Kon

Divers from the British Forces Brunei and the Poni Divers community yesterday participated in a memorial dive and the laying of a wreath at the Australian Wreck, as a tribute to those who lost their lives in World War II.

The Australian Wreck is one of Brunei’s iconic wartime shipwrecks, which is easily accessible by speedboat about 40 minutes away from the Poni Divers Centre at the Serasa Watersports Complex.

The majestic wreck that spans 90m-long from bow to stern and 12m-wide across its berth is mostly intact but tilted onto the port side, lying on a 33m deep sandy bottom, with easy penetration points or technical penetration routes.

First Secretary at the Embassy of Japan in Brunei Darussalam Rie Arai attended a pre-dive briefing by Poni Divers Managing Director Mohd Tahsin Wong bin Abdullah, on the history of the Australian Wreck. The ship was built in 1900 in Amsterdam, Holland.

Then called the SS De Klerk, she had been an ordinary passenger cargo ship operated by the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies, serving as a link between the Indonesian islands and Australia.

ABOVE & BELOW: Divers from the British Forces Brunei and the Poni Divers community during the memorial dive and the laying of a wreath at the Australian Wreck. PHOTOS: PONI DIVERS

However, in 1942, she was taken over by the Royal Dutch Navy in Cilacap, for conversion to a troop carrier. Cilacap is a little town in Central Java which played a significant role during World War II, as an important departure point for the Dutch colonists to flee the Japanese invaders.

During the Japanese invasion, the SS De Klerk, halfway through conversion to a troop carrier, had to be sunk by the Royal Dutch Navy to prevent her from falling into the wrong hands.

The Japanese later salvaged the ship and renamed her Imaji Maru. On September 16, 1944, while transporting 1,210 personnel to Manila from Java, she sank after hitting a mine 23km southwest of Labuan. A total of 339 people perished along with the ship, most of whom were prisoners of war chained up in the cargo holds below deck.

There are varying versions from different sources on the sinking of the Imaji Maru. One source states that she was sunk by the Royal Australian Air Force, thus the name of the Australian Wreck, while another states the possibility that she was torpedoed, given the size of the bomb hole on her starboard mid-section.

Over the years, the ship’s teak decking and wooden wheelhouse rotted away, enabling easy access into the cargo holds which contain various war goods, china crockery and bottles, plus some human remains. The lack of decking allows for some interesting forays into the hull’s interior, some three floors down.

Many surfaces are covered in sea squirts, which appear an uninteresting dull brown, until illuminated by torchlight. The wreck is also home to species of lionfish, barracuda, shrimp, grouper and schooling trevally.

Poni Divers has hosted thousands of divers from all over the world, not to mention the likes of CNN, Korean Broadcasting System, National Geographic and well-known underwater photographers like Peter Collings, Zul Ng and most recently, Ram Yoro, who will be publishing the first ever book on Brunei wrecks next year.