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Stonefish on the Pioneer, Philippines dive site - Courtesy of Rik Vercoe

Scuba Diving in Malapascua Island, Cebu, the Philippines

Reader Reviews:

Dive Site: Pioneer

Location: Malapascua Island, Cebu

Description: Japanese Warship

Length: 65 metres (214 feet)

Depth: 54 metres (178 feet) to seabed

Visibility: 30 metres (100 feet)

Rating: *****

The Pioneer wreck is a Japanese Warship, sunk in 1944. Pioneer is not actually the name of the vessel, but in the absence of identification this is the name which has been adopted. At a depth of 54 metres she is one of the deeper wrecks around Malapascua Island, something which has protected her from the local Hookah divers who have stripped several of the shallower wrecks in the area. Her depth also makes her less accessible to many divers meaning if you have the experience to dive here you are likely to be the only divers on site. Additionally, the visibility in the area was much better past the 40 metre point making for some very clear diving. To my knowledge there is only one resort on Malapascua which offers technical diving to the wreck, although I am sure others will follow suit. If you want to actually do a technical diving course then it is likely part of your training will be done on the wreck.

The Pioneer sits upright on the sea bed with her stern at around 54m at its deepest point. The propeller is intact and only partially obscured by the sandy sea floor. At around 65 metres in length with a beam of around 4 metres she is a small vessel. The stern is a little broken on the starboard side and evidence of strafing would suggest that an aerial attack from the stern / port side was the cause of her demise. There is strong evidence that the bridge was attached from the stern and damage would suggest that this was devastating. Aside from the obvious damage the wreck is largely intact especially at the bow where her anchors are still attached. It is possible to swim under the decking and into the lower decks, although I would advise caution and not condone wreck penetration at this depth unless you are experienced and prepared.

As I travel as light as possible I didn't arrive in Malapascua with any of my technical dive equipment apart from 2 Poseidon regulators. The dive centre at Exotic divers however was fully equipped to deliver IANTD Tech courses and as such had a good selection of technical diving equipment available. My buddy and I elected for a 20 minute bottom time, planned to a max depth of 51m, with slightly differing ascent plans. I was keen to use my air computer for the dive to ensure my diving history for subsequent dives would be correct and past dives taken into consideration. My buddy selected accelerated decompression using 50% nitrox on ascent, with deeper air stops beginning at 30m. Using computer software to cut his tables, and more recent deeper decompression stop theory it was interesting to see just how conservative the latest computer software is. A 20 minute bottom time, with 1 minute stops at 30m, 27m, 24m, 21m (switching to 50% here) and then 1 minute stops every 3m up to 9m and 6m where longer stops were performed (there were no stops at 3m) resulted in a dive plan of 56 minutes. Using my Aladdin Air to plan a 20 minute bottom time to 51m with decompression stops of 3 minutes at 9m, 8 minutes at 6m and 20 minutes at 3m resulted in a total time of 55 minutes, showing the conservative nature of the computer software. Especially true when you consider that my computer was assuming I would make the entire dive using just air, and my buddy's software was accounting for accelerated decompression on 50% nitrox - I could still get out of the water 1 minute before him! The advantage of these two dive plans was that although different on ascent we could both make the descent and dive simultaneously and be within a short distance of each other on the shot line during ascent, exiting the water together. This catered for both our diving preferences. I added 5 minutes to my 3m stop time making a 1 hour dive and elected to also use 50% nitrox from 21m up for added safety (I also breathed my 5 litre nitrox on the return boat trip - I'd paid for it after all). We were limited to the dive centres standard cylinder size and both dived with twin 12 litre alloys (more than double the amount of air required). A 5 litre front slung steel cylinder with an apex valve provided our travel mix of 50% nitrox. I used one of the centres Custom Diver TCW single bladder wing (very similar to my own twin Customer Diver TDB wing and therefore familiar).

As we arrived on site it took a while for the crew to lay a shot line giving us ample time to check equipment. As we were the only two on the boat it was great to have plenty of space. The current was a major consideration and we had asked the crew to arrive at slack water. When we arrived the current was running strongly and we were expecting an uncomfortable ascent. Once in the water we descended quickly to the wreck to discover the crew had laid the shot line perfectly amidships. Heading to the stern we looked over to the prop and spent some time investigating the rear of the helm using the ships structure to shield us from the fast diminishing current. Evidence of an aerial attack was very clear with considerable bullet and bombardment damage at the helm. (The steering column has already been recovered and whilst I am not an advocate of removing anything from the sea I did actually manage to track this down on land. Now polished back to its brass glory the support stem is badly damaged at the base with blast damage and there are bullet holes gouged across the direction pointer and section where the wheel would have been attached). Huge stonefish were numerous around the structure and it was possible to drop in an under the rear decking. There is a healthy growth of soft coral all over the wreck and moving forwards we easily covered the whole vessel with our 20 minute bottom time. The winches and anchor are clearly visible at the intact bow section and again here it is possible to do some comprehensive penetration. The visibility was a good 30m plus on the wreck and sealife plentiful. By the time we started our ascents the current had dropped away and we both ascended and made our differing decompression stops meeting at our top stops. If the depth of the Pioneer is within your experience I would highly recommend a dive on this excellent wreck.

Rik Vercoe, BSAC Advanced Instructor

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