By Mike McCoy
his is the most dived-upon wreck in the Solomon Islands - Hirokawa Maru or Bonegi One. It is an eco system in itself - from reptiles and astounding corals to a lobster living in a loo. Learn a little bit of history as well...
A rainbow of corals, Guadalcanal. ©Mike
"When day broke on 15 November the Americans saw laying at Tassifaronga in plain view, the four surviving transports of the force which had been hit the day before. The transports had no air cover. Three were beached and unloading, while the fourth was slowly pulling northwards toward Doma Reef. F Battery of the 244th Coast Artillery Battalion had moved two of its guns from their field artillery positions on the west bank of the Lunga to the beach. These guns opened fire at 0500 and hit one beached transport 19,500 yards away; the ship began to burn. The 3rd Defense Battalion's 5-inch batteries opened fire forty-five minutes later on a second ship 15,800 yards away and hit her repeatedly. The beached target burned and listed to port. The destroyer Meade sailed over from Tulagi to shell both the ships and the landing areas, while aircraft from Henderson Field and bombers from Espiritu Santo attacked the remaining ships. By noon all four had been turned into burning, useless hulks which were abandoned to rust in the shallow water."
The forgoing succinct account is the official version of the destruction of a Japanese convoy attempting to land troops and cargo on Guadalcanal Island in the Solomons in November 1942. The "...second ship 15,800 yards away" is not named in the account and to recreational scuba divers from the 1960's onwards it became known simply as "Bonegi One" - named for a nearby river whose mouth opens into the sea a short distance away. Although the ship was later identified as the Hirokawa Maru, the name Bonegi One has stuck and the "...beached transport 19,500 yards away" has likewise become Bonegi Two.
Bonegi One is certainly the most dived-upon wreck in the Solomon Islands - due largely to its proximity and easy accessibility from the capital, Honiara, 8 kms to the east. Its final resting place is on a reef slope of about 30°ree;. It lies on its port side with the shattered remains of the bow facing the shore in 4 metres of water. The stern of the ship is at a depth of around 60 metres. The wreck is far from intact; the Americans did a thorough job in 1942 and the intervening years have not been kind. Wave action, earthquakes and the destructive work of salvage divers in the early 1970s have all taken their toll and have combined to reduce much of the structure to little more than a twisted pile of rubble. It is the stern half of the ship in the deeper water that has more successfully withstood the ravages of time.
Fairy Basslet ©Mike McCoy
Nor can it be said that Bonegi One is a romantic wreck - its lack of history prior to its abrupt, traumatic end in 1942 ensures this. Yet when you dive on it a lot, it does become reassuringly familiar and perhaps its lack of pedigree is compensated by the characters of its inhabitants. The whole wreck teems with life - its has become a home for many marine animals and plants - virtually an ecosystem within itself.
I first dived Bonegi One in 1969 and at that time and until 1977 when an earthquake collapsed the entire bridge section of the ship, you could swim through the still intact corridors and cabins in this area of the wreck. As the ship lies on its side, the cabins are of course at 90°ree; to normal orientation. Many times I went into what I assumed was the captain's private bathroom. Light blue porcelain tiles lined the entire room, the bath was more a miniature swimming pool - more than a metre square and deep enough to satisfy the most self-indulgent Sybarite. There was a toilet in the corner of the cabin and living in the bowl was a large lobster. I came to know this lobster well over the years though he would never allow a close approach; backing down into the s-bend if you came too near him.
Several large Hawksbill Turtles have also been resident on and near the wreck for many years. These beautiful reptiles forage on the adjacent reef during the day and commonly return to the same sleeping place at night - usually a sheltered crevice on the wreck. Some years ago, while diving at night on Bonegi One with some friends, we were making our way down the side of the ship when suddenly something hit me hard on the shoulder, spinning me around and knocking the light out of my hand. With an adrenaline rush I knew it was not a diver I had collided with - I could see their lights below me. Inevitably thinking of sharks, I groped frantically for my light - to illuminate the rear end of a very large Hawksbill disappearing into the darkness.
It is at night, in the illumination of an underwater torch, that Bonegi One really comes into its own. In the deeper water, below the surge zone, in sheltered overhangs and crevices, the wreck is carpeted with an abundance of corals. By day most of the polyps are retracted. At night their tentacles open and wave in the currents to trap their planktonic food. Mostly soft corals, their stunningly beautiful colors would rival any terrestrial garden. Vibrant purples, reds, oranges and yellows - the visual impact is incredible. Brightly colored cowries, their fleshy mantles folded over their shells, browse over the algae and coral-covered steel plates. Nudibranchs in a seemingly endless variety of shape and pattern; hermit crabs, starfish, huge gorgonian fans, trees of black coral - the invertebrate life is prolific.
There is little on the wreck that immediately identifies it as a victim of those desperate days of 1942. The ship could have been a relatively large cargo vessel from anywhere in the world, though if you were fortunate enough to find some of the ornamental crockery or the large metal vats for cooking rice, you probably guess that it was of Oriental origin. It is likely that there would have once been anti-aircraft guns on the deck to provide some protection, however meager, against air attack. Such guns have how gone, perhaps souvenired by salvors or buried in the general rubble. The are however, boxes and boxes of rifle ammunition scattered in the shallow water in what would have been the forward hold. Much of the ammunition is British, which, together with the Lion Beer bottles from Singapore that are also found on the wreck, testify as to their provenance - captured as the Japanese forces moved through South-East Asia more than 50 years ago.
Bonegi One is slowly coming apart. Every so often you notice large plates of steel slowly swaying in the currents. Sometimes a section has collapsed since you last dived there. Nowadays the wrecks is dived on virtually daily by groups of diving tourists that are brought there by the several dive tour operators in Honiara. Although not permitted to souvenir artifacts, they do quite a bit of foraging as evidenced by the disturbed patches of rubble here and there. Such disturbances, while minor, probably effects many of the small invertebrates on the wreck by exposing them to predators.
I would have had more than a thousand dives on Bonegi One over more than 25 years; almost always photo dives and more often than not, at night. The US artillery men could scarcely have guessed that their actions on that November morning more than 50 years ago would eventually provide so much scope for underwater recreation for so many people in the years to come.
Miller, J. 1949. Guadalcanal: The First Offensive. Historical Division, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C.
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