Unveiling the SS Mauna Loa: A Journey Through Time

November 4, 2023BlogNo Comments »

Mauna Loa Shipwreck

Unveiling the SS Mauna Loa: A Journey Through Time

As we gear up, performing our buddy and safety checks, and venture out towards the dive site, our excitement grows palpable. The seas are calm, and our team is ready for an unforgettable adventure. We descend down the shot line, and as we sink into the depths, an awe-inspiring sight emerges from the darkness – the SS Mauna Loa, a legendary shipwreck, patiently rests on the ocean floor. This is a dive into history, an experience that sends thrilling shivers down our spines.

The Enigmatic Giant Beneath

Beneath the ocean’s surface, the SS Mauna Loa slumbers like a forgotten giant, cradled in the heart of Darwin Harbour. This colossal wreck, oriented North-South, lies in approximately 18 meters of water. The seabed, a silty expanse, dances with the ebb and flow of divers and currents, creating an otherworldly ambiance around this sunken behemoth. But what truly makes this underwater journey extraordinary is the ever-shifting visibility – a hallmark of Darwin Harbour. Underwater clarity can drop to just two to three meters, a whimsical play of weather, tides, and currents.

Mauna Loa Shipwreck

Mauna Loa Shipwreck: Photo by Mark Tozer

The Ghostly Cargo Revealed

Approaching the Mauna Loa, the dive takes a captivating turn. The upper hull and superstructure have been artfully stripped away, unveiling the ship’s inner sanctum – the bottom of the hull and its robust ribs. As the wreck unveils itself, the ghostly remnants of its cargo come to life, frozen in time. Amidst the silty depths, a treasure trove unfolds, featuring the remains of motorcycles, vehicles, and ammunition, vivid relics from a bygone era.

Relics Whispering Forgotten Stories

At the heart of the site, in the depths of enigmatic shadows, the remnants of mast bases and support beams bear witness to the grandeur of the Mauna Loa. Delving further, the remains of funnels and crane derricks emerge, whispering stories of the ship’s former glory. Yet, what truly captivates is the chaotic assortment of cut-off beams and twisted metal off-cuts strewn around the site, as if an underwater blacksmith’s workshop has been preserved in time.

Mauna Loa Shipwreck

Mauna Loa Shipwreck: Photo by Mark Tozer

Pieces of a Submerged Puzzle

As we journey towards the center of the wreck, we encounter relics scattered like pieces of a submerged jigsaw puzzle. Here, you may stumble upon ladder sections, bricks from the engine room, and the remnants of bulkheads – each offering a window into the ship’s inner workings and the lives of those who once sailed aboard the Mauna Loa.

  • Remains of Trucks: These trucks, encrusted by the ocean’s embrace, serve as a haunting reminder of the Mauna Loa’s forgotten cargo.
  • Engine Room Bricks: These bricks, worn by time and the sea’s caress, safeguard the secrets of the ship’s mechanical heart.
  • BSA Motorbikes: Silent witnesses to the ship’s tragic fate, these motorbikes add a touch of poignant history.
  • Bren Gun Carriers: Once instruments of war, these carriers now rest in a different kind of peace.
  • Ammunition: The cargo that never reached its intended destination – the ammunition – still lies silent, its deadly purpose long forgotten.
  • Exposed Deck Plating: Sections of scorched deck plating stand bare, bearing the weight of untold stories.
  • Sand Patches: Amidst the wreckage, these sand patches serve as temporary resting places, creating an ethereal contrast with the metallic remnants.

A Dive into Living History

Diving the SS Mauna Loa shipwreck is like stepping into a living, breathing time machine. It’s a chance to relive history in all its eerie beauty, to explore the hidden treasures concealed within this sunken maritime titan. The stories of those who sailed aboard her and the fate that befell this once-mighty vessel will humble even the most experienced divers.

The Mauna Loa stands as a solemn reminder of the enduring might of the ocean and the relentless passage of time. As you explore its depths, you pay homage to the crew members who served on this ship and honor the sacrifices made during the turbulent days of World War II. This underwater adventure not only grants you a front-row seat to history but also calls you to unravel the enigmatic tales awaiting discovery in the ocean’s embrace.

So, gear up, dive in, and let the SS Mauna Loa unveil its secrets. The journey may be challenging, but the rewards are boundless. You become an explorer of forgotten chapters in the vast narrative of our maritime history.

Mauna Loa Shipwreck

Mauna Loa Shipwreck: Photo by Mark Tozer

From Birth to Legend

The SS Mauna Loa, originally christened as the West Conob, came to life in 1919 at the Los Angeles Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in San Pedro, California. It was a part of the distinguished West series of cargo ships, conceived during the tumultuous days of World War I. The vessel commenced its seafaring life under the flag of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and had, incredibly, circumnavigated the globe twice by 1921. From 1925 to 1934, it became a loyal servant of Swayne & Hoyt Lines, traversing the seas while ferrying cargo between the USA, South America, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Journey to Transformation

In 1928, the ship, together with Swayne & Hoyt Lines, was acquired by the Oceanic and Oriental Navigation Company. A significant transformation took place in 1934 when the Matson Navigation Company assumed control and renamed the vessel the Mauna Loa, a homage to the grand volcano on the Island of Hawaii.

The Dramatic Turn of History

As the world teetered on the brink of World War II, in November 1941, the Mauna Loa, along with seven other merchant vessels, was chartered by the US War Department for a crucial mission: transporting vital supplies to the Philippines. But, as history took a dramatic turn with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the convoy’s course was rerouted to Australia, eventually making landfall in Darwin in mid-January 1942.

Mauna Loa Shipwreck

Mauna Loa Shipwreck

A Heroic Mission

The Mauna Loa played a pivotal role in a convoy of four merchant vessels destined for Kupang, bearing supplies, armaments, and reinforcements for the Allied defense of Timor. This mission was fraught with peril, as the convoy came under relentless attacks by Japanese aircraft. Ultimately, they were forced to turn back to Darwin on February 17, 1942.

Tragedy Strikes

On the fateful day of February 19, 1942, Darwin Harbor became the theater of a direct air assault by Japanese forces. At that moment, the Mauna Loa was anchored in Port Darwin, laden with a cargo of ammunition and equipment belonging to the 2nd and 4th Pioneer Regiment of the Australian Army. This cargo included a fleet of army trucks, motorbikes, and armored vehicles.

During the air raid, the Mauna Loa suffered two direct hits by bombs that penetrated an open deck hatch, igniting a raging inferno. The ship’s stern succumbed to the depths of the ocean swiftly. Tragically, the attack led to the loss of five lives among the thirty-eight crew members, while the rest managed to escape to safety on lifeboats. The Mauna Loa clung precariously to the surface for another day before finally succumbing to the seafloor as the forward holds flooded.

The Legacy Lives On

With the conclusion of the war, the idea of salvage operations was considered but ultimately discarded. In late 1946, ownership of the Mauna Loa was transferred to the Commonwealth and subsequently sold to Mr. Carl Atkinson in early 1947. While Atkinson initiated some salvage efforts, the burden of high customs taxes on each recovered vehicle proved discouraging.

In 1958, the ship underwent yet another change of hands, this time coming under the ownership of the Japanese Fujita Salvage Company. Between 1959 and 1960, Fujita embarked on a salvage operation, systematically removing the superstructure and most of the upper hull and decks for scrap metal. Intriguingly, they chose to leave the cargo holds exposed, an act that would later gift future generations of divers the opportunity to explore. Over the decades, as recreational divers descended into the depths, various cargo items were recovered and now find their home in private collections.

The Time Capsule of World War II

Today, the SS Mauna Loa stands as a captivating underwater museum, offering divers a unique opportunity to explore a time capsule from World War II. As we descend into the depths, the wreckage of this historic ship takes on a life of its own, with remnants of the past waiting to be discovered. The cargo holds, once repositories of ammunition, vehicles, and equipment, now house a treasure trove of historical artifacts. Divers find themselves encircled by vehicles frozen in time, an eerie reminder of the ship’s wartime mission.

Diving the SS Mauna Loa shipwreck is a thrilling journey into history, an opportunity to explore the remnants of a bygone era and pay homage to those who lived and served during World War II. The ship’s transformation from a cargo vessel to a submerged time capsule is a testament to the power of nature and the resilience of history. As we traverse the depths of the Mauna Loa, we pay tribute to the crew members who served on this vessel and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. This underwater adventure not only allows us to witness history firsthand but also serves as a reminder of the enduring spirit of exploration and the mysteries that await in the depths of the ocean. Dive in, and let the SS Mauna Loa reveal its secrets to you!

Mark Tozer

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