Princess of the Orient
Sept 19th 1998. Tropical Storm Vicki was beating the northern Philippines with 45 mph (75 km/h) winds when The Princess of the Orient left Manila at 8 p.m. bound for Cebu, about a day's journey to the south. A storm warning prohibited ships of less than 500 tons from sailing, however this did not apply to the huge 13,734 ton ferry. Four hours later she was reported listing, a state from which she was unable to recover.
Survivors said the ship sank in less than an hour -- highly unusual for a ship of her size with no apparent damage. Although 29 years old the 200m long ferry was a sturdy vessel not even close to overloaded, the Princess should have handled the storm with ease. Authorities now suspect that cargo shifted leaving her vulnerable to the churning sea.
As an island chain almost 1000 miles long containing 7107 islands the Philippines has vast and effective network of ferries, linking virtually everywhere from the smallest to the biggest province. Sulpicio lines is one of the biggest shipping lines, started by Don Sulpicio Go in 1973 and currently has 17 large ships in their fleet. The largest of which, and the largest ferry to ever sail in Filipino waters was the Princess of the Orient. She was capable of carrying 3900 passengers and had more than 3 decks of passenger dormitories and cabins, some protected from the wind by only a sheet of plastic.
The complement of 102 crew members were accompanied by only several hundred passengers the night she sank, a fact which surely kept the losses to a minimum. Many people spent hours floating on the surface waiting for help to arrive which came in the form of Navy and other private vessels.
Although the truth of her demise remains a mystery, her whereabouts have been known for some time. She rests peacefully just outside Manila Bay in a 125 meters. And in the early 2000s John Bennett, the first man to break the 1000ft barrier on open circuit, and Ron Loos, were the first two explorers to dive her.
In April 2008 Triton Oceanic’s Matt Reed and Mike Taylor, were in the water, nerves tingling with anticipation and a maybe a hint of trepidation. This was a big dive by most people’s standards, 115m is a long way down and three hours decompressing makes it a very long way up. John and Ron, both friends of Matt, did a similar length dive and were faced with a very difficult decompression due to vicious currents and worsening surface conditions.
Both divers were confident of their preparation. Matt had introduced Mike to tech diving some years ago, and they’ve now been diving and working together for nearly 4 years in the Philippines. Matt and Mike had always set very high standards in both their training and fun dives. Matt was taught under the very rigorous standards of John Bennett, and for the past four years they had continuously strived to raise the bar even higher. Having aimed at this goal for a number of years the guys felt ready.
The team were taking all of the gas that they’d need on the dive plus two spare bottles of deeper gas. Support divers would provide spares if needed once they hit the shallows. This meant carrying two 80cuft tanks on the left and three behind on a leash from the left hip d-ring. There were a lot of failure points and three hours was a long time to be in an unpredictable ocean, much longer than generally recommended. But all of this had been planned for and trained for, and the weather forecasts looked good. The team was right and now it was time to enjoy. So final OKs to the support team and then big grins all round on the decent.
Matt had always said that one of his motivations for tech diving was the exploration aspect of it. He loved the feeling that there were some places that he’d dived which were less often visited than the moon. Mike says that never really understood this, and had a sneaking feeling that it was just a line for students that sounded good in the introduction to courses. As they reached 80m and the blurred darkness below was rapidly revealing a wreck, a really really big wreck, for the first time he says he totally understood what Matt had meant and a surge of excitement washed over him.
The mixture of feelings felt as realisation dawned that they were finally diving The Princess Of The Orient were overwhelming. The last three years had been a steady build up to this, and now there she was, taking shape in the gloom below.
The sense of excitement and adventure, which had been in constant attendance so far on the descent to the wreck, gave way to very sombre feelings. Mike tells us: “It is difficult to put down on paper the thoughts going through your mind when you see a life jacket caught in the ships railings, a very poignant reminder of the tragedy that had taken place here and of the people that would never see their families again”.
These feelings were quickly followed again by the excitement of it all. John and Ron were the first two people to dive her, and since then a total of only seven others had had that privilege. The knowledge that they were going to be the first to dive her with scooters, and therefore that they would see more of her than any of her previous explorers, was putting a pretty big grin on Mike’s face and as he looked over at Matt he could see that he wasn’t the only one.
As the team hit the wreck they saw that the line was hooked in just aft of the rear smoke stack. Their aim over the two dives was to reach the bow, no one had dived there before and a “first” would be nice.
Matt and Mike quickly got on with the job at hand and began the exploration of the huge ship. The first dive involved taking a look at the twin smoke stacks lying at 115m. They scootered to the forward smoke stack and had a good look around her. The depth and the fact that the sinking was relatively recent mean that there is very little growth on her. As a result the paintwork is still showing and each smoke stack had the familiar red emblem of diamond enclosed “S”, the insignia of the ship’s owners the Sulpicio Lines clearly visible.
The guys had seen from watching video of the previous dives that she was lying on her port side and had been told that the bow was to the north. At about 15 minutes into the dive this was causing a little confusion as their reckoning whilst down there suggested that the bow was to the south. Maybe compasses were being affected by the huge chunk of metal? They would have to have a bit of a chit chat on the surface before the next dive. For now a nice leisurely scooter back to the rear smoke stack was in order.
It was a strange feeling seeing upturned beds and a TV set. Again the realities of the losses experienced that night hit home Scootering past the rear smoke stack and towards what their minds said was the stern and their compasses said should be the bow, it was suddenly time to call the dive and go home, Mike thumbed it and the two headed back to the strobe along the top of the wreck.
The ascent and first switch went smoothly, and the team noticed that as they ascended a certain amount of tension disappeared. This is normal on a dive like this and is an indicator of the additional edge the brain needs to take on for dives of this complexity.
At 40m Mike looked to his left and was faced with the sight of a strange man hovering upside down taking photos. Obviously “more helium needed in the 57m bottle” as Mike remembers thinking. Dennis, one of the members of the support team and a fellow Tritone, had a reputation for taking photos this way but Mike never seen it first hand and was totally unprepared. The guys had a great giggle, which was probably as much to do with release of tension as anything else.
For the second day and second dive they made sure they’d watched the old video again and decided that they had been correct and that the need was to head south. Scootering towards the bow at 85m into the descent they hit the wreck at 4.5 minutes. The team quickly passed the forward smoke stack and hovered over the radio mast on top of the wheelhouse. Amazed that there was an anemone growing at 110m, they then moved towards the bow.
As the superstructure dropped away and they scootered over the forward deck area, the scale of the ship became very clear, and everything seemed to slow down in Matt’s mind. The lack of white paint on the deck meant the whole scene took on a slightly eerie atmosphere, and as his light picked out bollards and machinery on deck a trevally shooting past his shoulder gave him a shiver.
The massive bow sticking up into the water column easily evoked images of the ship crashing through the waves almost ten years ago. A “king of the world” moment was only narrowly avoided by Matt signalling to Mike that it was time to move on, and with a sheepish grin Mike confirmed the signal. Four years of diving together means that Matt knows him too well!
As they moved over to the starboard side of the hull which lay virtually horizontal one of the massive anchors came into view and then the search for the name on the bow began. The raised lettering of the word “Flower”, part of her old name “Sun Flower” which must have rusted through the paint became visible and above this Matt and Mike found the green coloured letters spelling out Princess Of The Orient, they paused to catch this on video and to enjoy the feeling of immense satisfaction that it gave them.
They then headed back towards the line and, since they were still within the planned dive time, as the divers passed the wheelhouse the decision was made to stop and have a look. There were some glassless windows and the urge to become the first people to penetrate was strong; but with a scooter and video and a lot of tanks it was just not feasible, plus it was not in the plan! It was nearly time to go and at 18 minutes the team started their ascent. They collected the strobe and ascended the line side by side. Matt says: “At about 80m we looked at each other as the wreck faded from view, we could both see grins from ear to ear”. Conditions were again ideal and the deco passed with ease, the support team agreed that they didn’t stop grinning during the whole three hours.
It seems clear that due to the fairly extreme depth, and the open ocean positioning of this wreck that nobody will never know exactly why she sank; and that only a privileged few will get to see even the outside of this ship. She is however an incredible dive in warm clear water for those who need a challenge a little beyond the normal weekend trip.
renmar bandong on 23 Aug 2009 at 10:22
the princess of the orient is very beautiful,,
it is really in deed a real princess…
its so sad i didnt saw it..
because when we ride on it,
im only a baby…
its the biggest ship in the philippines..
and its fate is very pity,,
so sad that it sank…
Lovella Mae S. Almanzor on 14 Feb 2010 at 10:09
How I wish I know how to dive also so that I could be with the divers exploring the Princess of the Orient.
It is the biggest ship in the Philippines he had ever seen!, my husband told in a letter.He is still missing.One of the crew of the ship.
That was already 12 years ago.