KUCHING: Unscrupulous metal salvagers have caused Sarawak to lose a treasured historical shipwreck, which was on its way to become one of the state’s biggest underwater tourism attractions.
Photos of the site taken by diver Valerie Chai show the extent of destruction of the World War II (WWII) Japanese shipwreck Katori Maru. Chai, who was part of a group of divers who visited the shipwreck last Sunday, has dived at the site at least once or twice a year since 2008.
“When we first heard the news (of metal salvagers targeting the shipwreck), we were all shocked, but we didn’t know whether it was true or not and how much damage had been done because there were no further reports. I was eager to go and dive when the season was open, which is now, to see how exactly the wreck is,” she told The Borneo Post on Wednesday.
“When I went down and saw the ship for the first time, I thought, I am diving in a ruin, my God. It is beyond recognition.”
She questioned why anyone would want to cause such destruction. “I don’t know how much it will cost for them to sell this metal? As a diver, I feel very sad. I had the opportunity to take photographs and I wanted to show to everyone. This is just part of it. We did not get the chance to explore all of it (the shipwreck), but I’m sure it will be more or less the same,” she said.
Scattered all over the barren seabed where the ship once rested surrounded by coral and marine life are only debris and metal scraps. The few remaining parts, which the scavenger’s claw could not grab, show signs of gashes and puncture marks.
Site of Katori Maru shipwreck a ‘scrap metal yard’, says tour operator
On March 10, The Borneo Post had published an exclusive interview with an eyewitness, who saw a metal salvaging ship and tugboat positioned above the Katori Maru shipwreck behaving suspiciously.
The vessels fled when they noticed the eyewitness taking photos of their activities.
However, divers have only now been able to dive down to the wreck and take clear enough photos to confirm the damage as sea and weather conditions have improved enough for the start of the diving season.
Tour operator and diving business owner Edward Yong said it was very difficult for the divers to recognise where the different sections of the shipwreck used to be as there was virtually nothing left, describing the scene as a ‘scrap metal yard’.
“Only a bit of the structure is left. The bow is left. Inside, all the deck, everything is gone. There is metal falling everywhere. It is a very, very sad place to see.
“The first thing that came to my mind, only when things this bad happen then people started to talk about it. But then it’s too late already,” he said, expressing his frustration that very little had been done to protect the historical and marine value of the Katori Maru despite widespread knowledge that it was vulnerable to exploitation.
“If they had not been discovered (by the eyewitness), the wreck would have been totally gone,” he opined.
Divemaster Fum Tze Eng has brought divers to see the Katori Maru and the wide diversity of marine life that made the shipwreck home since 2006.
“I feel very angry and very sad. This beautiful thing – gone, just like that. Every year, you will hear of people clearing and cleaning the wreck. I myself have been involved two or three times to help to clear away the fishing nets and rubbish from the shipwreck. I feel all our hard work has been wasted,” he lamented.
When contacted on the investigation into the ships allegedly involved in the metal salvaging, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Sarawak chief First Admiral Ismaili Bujang Pit said the vessels were traced to Tanjung Manis and a joint inspection with a Marine Department team was carried out.
The investigation revealed that the said vessels had a permit to salvage metal but it did not include the sunken wreck area.
However, he said they could not charge those responsible “because there’s no proper provision pertaining to the protection of the site”.
“Therefore we attended a joint meeting with the Museum Department recently and we all agreed that the state government should extend the coverage of (Talang-) Satang National Park to include the Japanese wreck area,” Bujang said via WhatsApp.
The Katori Maru is one of three WWII Japanese shipwrecks identified so far in Sarawak.
Together with the Hiyoshi Maru and destroyer Sagiri, it was used during the Japanese invasion and was subsequently sunk by Dutch submarines while heading to Kuching.
On Sept 14, 2013, The Borneo Post reported the incidence of historical and cultural artefacts being removed from the wrecks of the Katori Maru and Hiyoshi Maru, which posed a threat towards their historical value and future as tourism attractions.