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You sank my battleship!

Truck chassis decaying in the hold of the Sankisan

Actually, no… no battleships were sunk in Operation Hailstone on Feb 17-18, 1944 although two destroyers and a submarine were sent to the bottom. The vast majority of the tonnage sank was in fact merchant marine or “Maru” ships (Kobyashi Maru anyone?). But let’s back up a bit. On February 4th, 1944, knowing that Truk Lagoon inMicronesia was a major forward logistics center for the Japanese, American war planners sent a pair of PB4Y reconnaissance aircraft to survey the area. They returned with photos and reports of carriers, destroyers, submarines and the super battleship and flagship Musashi all located within the lagoons natural protection. It’s a really big lagoon! The Americans ordered an attack to occur at the first opportunity, hoping to remove a significant portion of the Japanese Navy from duty. But their reconnaissance flights from the nearby, newly captured Marshall Islands gave the startled Imperial Navy cause for concern and the ships were withdrawn prior to the attack on February 17-18.

Machine gun still in turret.

Viewed in this simple context, it might initially seem as though the attack was a failure however anywhere from forty four to sixty five ships were sunk and approximately two hundred and seventy five planes destroyed along with the airfield used to launch them. The Japanese subsequently abandoned the strategically important Truk Lagoon stranding thousands of troops who had to then await the end of hostilities with nothing more than basic survival tools to depend on.

This is why Truk Lagoon in Chuuk, Micronesia is considered the worlds #1 wreck diving destination. Sure the tourism infrastructure sucks and it’s incredibly difficult to get here… AND there’s nothing else to do BUT if you’re a diver and even mildly interested in history, you can dive a different ship morning and afternoon (and even night) for almost a month without ever visiting the same wreck twice. That’s why divers come to Truk!

Light plays along the wreck of the Gosei Maru

So, last day, last couple dives. On tap this morning are the Gosei Maru and the Sankisan Maru. Both are fairly shallow dives to the extent that one can almost stand on the top of the wrecks highest point and be head out of the water.

Almost.

Torpedoes scattered about the Goseis hold

The Gosei is a large freighter that was struck by two Hellcat torpedo bombers simultaneously and lies on her side. The torpedoes ripped a massive hole in the ships hull through which we swim emerging in the ships mostly empty holds. There are still pieces of cordite and oil drums lying about the twisted wreckage but more interesting are the torpedo bodies looking for all the world like 23 foot cigar tubes. Fortunately the warheads have long been removed. The ship lies on an incline and the stern is so shallow that lush marine life has taken hold on her visible propeller and corrosion is advancing rapidly. Our safety stops at 60, 30 and 15 feet are all within the ships current depth so instead of hanging about trying to float perfectly neutral at 15 feet I’m able to swim about, still exploring through windows, doors and other holes possibly related to her demise. At one point Wil our dive master points out a section of tiled surface and I realize it must be a washroom of some sort that now lies open to the sea and tilted ninety degrees from its usual installation.

The Gosei's dive plan

The Sankisan... both halves!

Wreck two is the Sankisan. A cargo ship, or rather half a cargo ship, that took a direct hit to the aft hold where ordinances were being held. The resulting explosion tore the ship in two and the stern of this 367’ freighter lies in bits buried at the bottom of an underwater explosion crater some 600 feet away. The front two thirds however is upright in fairly shallow water and contains thousands upon thousands of bullets in her first hold and a collection of trucks and truck chassis both in the holds and on the decks. I write my daughters name in bullets and take a picture just to say her name is at the bottom of the pacific. There are also medicine bottles, radios, boxes machine guns and aircraft engines. Ironically, the Sankisan was actually an American ship captured by the Japanese in 1942 and converted to military cargo transport. I record pictures and lots and lots of video with my trusty little Elph but I fear the case has developed a slow leak which is permitting water to enter and form condensation meaning the last ten minutes dive time consists of foggy pictures to the point where I give up and just explore.

Is it strange to write your daughters name in bullets on the bottom of the ocean?

So all in all a great end to a great week and a fantastic conclusion to an incredible journey. I have almost thirty six hours of travel ahead of me starting early tomorrow and during which I will write one last blog post before retiring for a rest.  I wish you all well and look forward to seeing many of your shortly… it will be a warm welcome for family and my own pillow with only one (perhaps three) bunk mates for the first night home.

Take care my friends…

rn

Wil bails while Jeerson steers. At this rate we'll be diving on our own boat before the days out!

That's me! Just hangin' out in Micronesia...

Just another day in paradise…

Bridge of the Nippo Maru

Day 5 in Truk

It’s a good thing this is the world’s #1 wreck diving destination because there’s absolutely sweet f-all to do in Chuuk outside diving and I know because I’ve looked! Locals cruise the 1 km main street in their RAV4’s all day despite having no job and gas being $6.50/gallon I’m thinking maybe that’s why they all drive so slow?

Zeros in the hold of the Fujikawa

Going down? I'm on the surface and this is the tip of the Fujikawas mast. It's that close!

Today is a two dive day, nothing in the afternoon. Diving can really tire you out (I know, great waves of sympathy but it’s true) and I’ve been really packing them in doing 2,3 and sometimes 4 dives per day. When you’re out in the sun and on the water from 6 am till sundown it eventually catches up and today when I came in at 2 and showered I fell directly asleep, missing lunch which was not my intention. The good news is I have enough stored carbohydrates to survive an ice age so no permanent damage was done.

Battle tank on the deck of the Nippo Maru

Today we start with the Nippo Maru which is the last on my list of “must dive” wrecks here in Truk. Not that there aren’t a million great wreck to dive, there are… but when I compiled the list of wrecks accessible with a PADI Advance certification that held interest for me there were only a few that could be done in 6 days and the Nippo is the last of them. Why the Nippo? Simple; it has a tank on the deck! Not a gas tank silly, an armored vehicle that shoots massive bullets! And sure enough when we get there… there it is all covered in coral and barnacles and other sea crap but unmistakable… it’s a tank! Not only that but there’s a beautiful bridge complete with wheel and binnacle (the mount they put the compass in) and Howitzers on the aft deck. No one can explain why a Japanese warship from WWII has American Howitzer guns on it but it does and I take pictures because they’re just interesting.

American Howitzers on the deck of the Nippo

Dive two is the Fujikawa again which is fine because theres lots to do on the wreck including looking foir the flashlight I dropped yesterday. I take 7 minutes to scan the deck and sand underneath and beside where the boat was moored but no joy. I’m kinda bummed because even though I’ve looked it up and dive lights are only $50-100, the fellow who runs the diving made an offhand comment about it being a $200 light. I really hope he doesn’t try and charge me that much because I’d just rather avoid a confrontation but the reality is I dropped the light so looks like I’m going to have to replace it.

After my unplanned snooze in the afternoon I try a couple minor photo projects including a sunset shot which requires me to sneak onto the roof of the hotel. I know they’d disapprove but hey, the door was unlocked, the ladder was there and they run a hotel that caters to folks who travel vast distances to partake in extreme sports such as shark and wreck diving. Surely a little rooftop reconnaissance was as inevitable as a dropped dive light right?

But the trespass goes undetected and soon I’m off to bed again. Tomorrow is my last day of diving followed by a plane ride home on Friday. I’m both tired, excited and sunburned. I don’t know how much more of this I can take!

The case of the missing flashlight…

Enlisted washroom aboard the Fujikawa

Matt saw it go down the moment I went over the side, sparkling as it tumbled end over end but of course he didn’t have a clue what it was and I didn’t know it was missing. Until that is, we got to Hold #2 where the Mitsubishi Zeros were kept and I tried to find my $200 rental torch. But a small black torch with a tiny steel clip against the deck of a seventy year old shipwreck covered in coral isn’t really going to leap out at anyone and by the time we were back on board I only had 400 lbs of air left with no spare tank. Problem is, if I dont find it I’m liable for the coin. The good news is the Fujikawa is definitely the “must do” winner of the diving crown for Truk Harbor.

Mitsubishi Zsro in Hold #2 of the Fujikawa

The wreck is shallow so there’s lots of bottom time When you hit the water and look down, the top of the superstructure is just 20 feet below your fins which LOOKS like 5 feet when the water’s done magnifying it. The ship is upright and we beeline for the holds where multiple Mistubishi zeros are lying dormant, their transit to the war interrupted by Operation Hailstone. My tiny Elph takes decent photos but later I see the images from a DSLR shooter with a fisheye and realize I’m sorely lacking in the underwater camera mojo department! Time to talk to the minister about applying for a photographic equipment grant… (yeah right!)

Engine room (and engines) aboard the Kensho Maru

Somewhere deep under the pacific ocean, exploring the inside of a sunken japanese warship.

Party on the bottom! (Empty) beer bottles all over the hold... 😦

After ‘fessing up in sign language that I’ve lost my torch I’m terrified Wil will cancel our swim through of the ship due to my lack of intelligence but thankfully he proceeds. Probably because the ship is so corroded and full of holes the available light is plenty to see our way around but possibly he’s hoping to lose me in the dark parts and free himself from the dumbest tourist in a manner he can submit to the annual Darwin Awards. Either way we hit the engine room with its massive stacks and free-float in the middle of the cavernous space, stupified by the immensity of it all from the 4 story open atrium down to the giant nuts and bolts and their leviathon-sized counterpart tools hanging on the wall. We explore and take photos then swim into tiny passageways that lead past staterooms and washrooms (complete with shower stalls and washbasins) then on to the galley. We emerge into what must be forward holds and rise like magic up to the deck again. It feels like superman to fly through the ships halls with such ease, not touching a thing then rise and fall through decks and hatches just by virtue of inhaling and exhaling. I mean Urban Exploration with my buddies back in Toronto has been cool but this is a completely wild end of the UrbEx spectrum with the ability to fly thrown in! Awesome!!

Exploring the Fujikawa

Not sure what these are, but theyre big and in the engine room!

But the adventure is short… I’ve been wrestling with a troublesome swim fin and so have burned through most of my air forcing an early rise to the surface where I learn what happened to my torch… Wil does a quick search but it appears to be gone meaning I’ll have to either pay the price or look for it if we happen to come back.

Interior staircases in engineering

The days other dives were similarly spectacular albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. The Rio De Janeiro is beautiful with a decent sized sea turtle camped out by the rear prop at a depth of 90+ feet, big guns, a hold full of beer bottles and a massive canon like barrel sitting upright in the hold. Dive two was the <>, a merchant ship converted to wartime use with an open superstructure and bridge divers can swim into. The ships wheel and radio gear are still present and with the ship upright it’s actually possible to visualize what this must have looked and felt like in the height of battle in 1944, the crew in panic trying to get the ship out of port while the captain and officers make futile calls for help on the radio. The excitement is to tangible I can taste it, salty in my mouth. Either that or my regulator’s leaking again! Down below in the engine room I pose for a photo op with the giant valves on top of the cylinder heads. Each of these cyliners must be as big as a garbage can and there’s a line of them clear through the room all in a neat row. Across the breadth of the room, suspended in space, is a catwalk leading to stairs that go both up to the surface and down into the dark bowels of the ship.

Bridge of the Rio De Janeiro

I levitate up through the hatchway onto the deck and we swim back to the mooring line, studying artifacts that have been pulled out and left for divers.  All in all another pretty good dive, kind of average by Truk standards, incredible by comparison to anything I’ve done before.

Post dive is a walk into town. Chuuk is a small state and Truk an even smaller town. The trip takes all of five minutes each way but proves interesting. Folks are pretty poor here and there’s no real space nor incentive to clear out things like old cars so the resulting squalor is reminiscent of India with young babies and children playing amidst household trash and general scrap yard debris of old cars and trucks. The general lack of civic pride seems like a strange contradiction for a place where a majority of the girls have gold caps on their teeth purely for aesthetics. But this place is chockablock full of these kinds of dichotomies. Like gas at $6.50 a gallon, which I expect, but imported beer is only $7 per six pack. The supermarket is a real eye opener as well. Pretty much everything is canned or dried with row upon row of round tins and massive bags of rice but very little in the way of fresh bread or produce. There is a market for fresh things but the supermarket is clearly the big store in town yet it looks more like a post apocalyptic set from the walking dead than anything I’ve seen back in Canada.

Say... who's the good looking fellow in the wetsuit? And check out the massive engine valves on the right bottom

Dead men tell no tales

Diver is dwarfed by the scale of the Kiyosumi

Day 3

We’re diving the Rio De Janiero today as our first dive but when we suit up after the 30 minute boat ride Matt, my dive buddy, finds a laceration in his air hose that’s clearly leaking air. It’s questionable whether the amount of the leak is enough to make a difference but that’s not really the point. Faulty equipment is a huge no-no for diving and if the weakened line was to rupture at a depth of say 130 feet you’d have about twenty seconds to get to the surface before your tank would be dry then you’d spend the rest of your stay in the hyperbaric chamber trying to survive the bends.  If you happened to be deep inside a wreck at the time you wouldn’t need the chamber ‘cause you’d most likely be dead.

So we abort dive #1 and head back for replacement gear. There is much sadness in the boat.

It's like going into space!

Dive two is on the Yamagiri Maru and this is the most totally awesome, coolest dive I think I’ve ever been on. The ship lies on her side with the holds open to the ocean. You swim in through giant openings where hatches the size of dump trucks used to cover the holds on the upper deck but which are now open and vertical then past a debris field of unopened beer bottles, 14 inch (diameter) battleship shells and all kinds of construction equipment which has been tossed about in a giant mess when the ship went down.  As you swim in, outside light fades and torches are necessary. You float up through hatches and sideways to go down stairs and it’s more than a little spooky. In fact it reminds me of a set from Aliens where everything is sinister and creepy and the world consists of small passages at strange angles. After a few minutes we arrive in the engine room which is crowded with a spaghetti work of pipes, dials, switches and fuses. In a corner, embedded in the ceiling is the engineers skull staring out at you through vacant sockets. Beneath his skull lie the rest of his remains, just bones now. It’s so dark most of my photos don’t turn out. We continue to swim through the ship, typically in total darkness with only our flashlights to illuminate the way through the bizarre maze of pipes and passageways with various fish mildly perturbed at our intrusion into what’s become their domain.

The Engineer's bones lie neatly under his skull which is embedded in the ceiling of the Yamagiri's engine room.

Dive Three in the afternoon is the Kiyosumi Maru, a 450+ foot passenger liner and cargo ship converted by the japanese to wartime use. No visible human remains on this one but the ship lies on her side as well and we swim through the enormous torpedo hole that sank her and into the ships hold spotting cordite, construction materials, and even a bicycle. Outside on the deck are a pair of anti-aircraft machine guns the size of a small car. The entire journey seems strangely haunting but it’s second only to the Yamagiri for its wow factor. Either could easily be ancient spaceships from another planet, built to scale for creatures twenty feet tall.

The flying boat "Emily" lies upside down and broken on the bottom.

Emily lies in pieces on the ocean floor

The last dive of the day is “Emily”, a four engine Kaswanishi H8K Flying boat that was ambushed by American fighters while en route fromPalauwith several high-ranking Japanese officers on board. The Americans strafed the plane killing many of the passengers and the copilot before losing the plane in the cloud. She managed to limp to Truk where she crash landed and sank in the lagoon but not before the remaining crew was rescued. The plane is upside down on the bottom and broken into several pieces. Penetrating the wreck is considered too dangerous however the debris field is littered with radios, instruments and all four engines are intact with propellers still attached. I pose for a picture with and engine and am dwarfed by just one of the three blades.

Rob posing behind one of the Emilys four propellors

Upon coming up to the surface I realize it’s later than I thought and the sun it setting is a display of fiery pinks and blues. Fisherman in rowboats wave at us on our way home just like we do back on the river inSeverntownship and I’m reminded how small the world actually is. I’m cold and wet and going home in three days… I just couldn’t be happier.

Sunset over Truk Lagoon

Look Ma, No Brains!

Swimming through the smokestack of the Futagami

Day 2

It took 3 dives and 1 beer to have me asleep by 9:30 and today I’ll probably be asleep earlier and with less lager. The diving is excellent but tiring and the sun takes the wind out of you pretty quick. To top it off, sunscreen wreaks havoc with the seal on a facemask and yesterday’s leaky seal put suncream in my eyes at 130 feet. Not a good situation, not at all. So today I elected to skip the suncream (just on my face) and live with the resulting burn.

WWII Gas mask on the Unkai Maru

Today’s first dive was the Unkai Maru, an older boat that went down in the allied operations in 1944. The ship has corroded to the extent that the holds are freely accessible and various artifacts lie scattered around. China, shoes and old style gas masks with hoses and separate canisters are available for anyone to pick up and examine. Various bits of the ship are open to swim thrus but you want to be first because everyone kicks up so much silt the poor fellow in the back can’t see anything! (Sometimes when I lose track of my dive buddy I just look around to see where the cloud of silt is and follow it to find him). On the way up, two of us are marginal on air and Wil our dive master calls for a long safety stop (20 minutes as opposed to ten or sometimes three) meaning Richard and I have to suck on the spare hang tank at 15 feet for twenty minutes. When I ask afterwards why we had a twenty minute deco Wil simply says he’s “being careful” but I make a mental note to come up a hundred pounds earlier on the next dive. Yesterday I did the same thing and let go the hang tank only to have it swing wildly under the boat, the free-flowing regulator rocketly the tank drunkenly right where everyone to see it.

Wheelhouse on board the Futagami

Second dive is the tugboat Futagami which has no guns, no gas masks and no remains. What the Futagami DOES have is a really cool wheelhouse you can swim into, a neat smokestack which has fallen down and makes a fantastic swim thru and a really totally cool, amazing, AWESOME engine room full of dials and fuses. Unfortunately the engine room is dark and only big enough for one meaning no pictures are possible. On the way out we peek over the backside (the tug is lying on its side) and find one of the tug’s two massive screws is up out of the sand. We fill the memory card on my hacked Canon point and shoot but that’s just fine… It means there’s lots of raw material to work with.

Propeller of the Unkai Maru

Afterwards I come back to the room and read a little bit of “The Help” while cooling off. At sunset I shoot pictures from the pier and meet Bruce from Guam who’s come out to do the ritual sunset “Toast to the Navigator” with a shot of Jose Cuervo. I join him in the toast then pour the remaining drops of tequila in my ear to free up some water that’s been stuck there since noon. I probably smell like a boozehound at dinner but only cause I’m wearing it as opposed to drinking it!

PS:  If you care (and most of you don’t) I’m running a Digital Elph 300 as my underwater camera. It’s a small point and shoot from Canon That has a great backlit CMOS sensor which means its good in low light. After researching a good pocket camera for my brother in law I concluded it would be an excellent choice for my trip. Cheap enough to be replaced if stolen or damaged and good in low light. And underwater is all about low light. Plus it can be hacked using the Canon Hack Development Kit to produce raw images meaning I have better latitude in the post processing stage. And yes Steve, you can borrow the underwater case!

Dive map of the Futagami

Dive map of the Unkai Maru

Hello Tokyo Rose!

Poorly edited sunset photo over Truk Lagoon

Micronesia is small… how small? I’m glad you asked, it’s so small that while they have a bank machine, it hasn’t worked in years and it’s entirely possible to have the same bank note cross your palm several times in the course of one visit. Which is a very good reason to take out US dollars from the ATM when transiting through Guam. You’ll know the machine dispenses greenback because the moment you land you’ll to be hassled and harassed as only the TSA can.

I’ll spare you all the diatribe but I swear, it’s as if you’re personally responsible for the fact they’ve pissed half the world off. You know the old line, “It’s not you, it’s me…” In this case it was definitely you!

But I digress….

It takes thirty hours to get fromNew Zealand to Truk Micronesia which is kind of silly when you look at it on a globe. Realistically you should be able to throw a bowl of half-chilled raspberry jello off the north shore and 9 times out of ten hit Truk. I’m exaggerating of course but getting up at 4 am to fly to Cairns, Australia to wait for 16 hours then fly to Guam then wait another six then off to Truk just doesn’t seem like the most direct route possible.

On the plus side, I got an exit row all to myself. The kind with no seat in front of me. On the downside, that seat is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. What’d they do? take all the insulation out of the emergency exit door? Oh yeah… that’s exactly what they did!

I’ve also managed to buy a set of boardshorts and pants in Cairns but that creates another problem, space. I’m fairly over my weight limit by now. The backpack is now packed in a larger (slightly over the limit) soft bag I purchased in Sydneyand the daypack gets placed in a larger North Face bag when I actually board the plane. Auckland security weighed the new carry on and it blew merrily past the weight and size limit with nary a look back. I managed to talk my way through but there are a few more hops before I’m done so things could yet get messy… I may have to break down and be nice to a TSA screener… Oh the horror.

We eventually get to Truk but not before the mandatory moment of panic. Gotta have one on each hop y’know! This time it happens when the airline announces there’s no more room in the overhead bins and forces everyone still in line to check their carry on. Blissfully ignorant, I agree. The panic occurs at the Truk end when camera, computer, image backups and everything else in the black bag fails to emerge on the conveyor until the absolute last bag is offloaded, long after UA 172 has departed for the next island in the chain. In the process I learn why the cabin has been deemed full. Load after load of igloo coolers come out of the overheads, apparently full of frozen meat which is incredibly expensive on the tiny island. The spectacle continues at the baggage carousel but regrettably I don’t have a camera to capture it with! When my carryon does finally appear I feel relief as though I’ve just lost my wallet and found it again which is humorous because in fact I have…

Day 1, Dive 1

The day starts with a dive to 130 feet on the Shinkoku Maru. The ship is upright and littered with artifacts… old radio sets, crockery with the makers stamp still visible and oh yeah… human remains in the form of bones lie on the infirmary room operating table. Outside Wil, our Dive Master picks up a human jawbone and displays it to the group.

Human jawbone aboard the Shinkoku Maru

Inside the Betty Bomber

Dive 2: Betty Bomber aka Mitsubishi G4M. This uber-cool WWII Japanese bomber has had it’s nose torn off by the impact making it possible to swim into the fuselage through the nose and out through the aft doors or up through the gunners turret. Beside the plane sit artifacts which have been removed for easier perusal, the radio, a machine gun, bottles and the planes toilet. Probably because it’s made mostly from aircraft aluminum the bomber is relatively free from corrosion and coral. It’s possible to run your fingers along the outer skin and feel the subtle indentation the rivets make. This is probably the coolest wreck I’ve ever been to and it’s not hurt by the pair of damaged Mitsubishi Zeros lying on the ocean floor nearby.

Map of Betty Bomber on the bottom in Truk Lagoon

Reef shark in Truk

Dive 3 Shark Island

Nothing screams “Cool” like a shark dive and when the place you’re going is called Shark Island you know you’re gonna see some cool shit. The island itself is only a scant 50 feet in diameter so it’s the classic comic book version of a deserted island. We anchor just a few feet offshore in perhaps twenty feet of water. Descending to a depth of sixty feet we sit on the sandy bottom for thirty minutes and watch grey and white tipped reef sharks cruise by inquisitively. I snap a hundred photos, most of which are dim grey blurs against a blue background. Wish I had one of those ten thousand dollar underwater cases with me but it’d be a real pain to haul all that weight for three months only to use it in the last week. And good luck renting such a thing here… Chuk is pretty much third world in the middle of nowhere so if you didn’t bring it the odds are it ain’t here!

At the end of the dive I’m taking pictures from the boat with my hands and camera in the water when the divemaster starts throwing chum (fish parts) into the sea. In seconds we have scads of sharks all around the boat and a mini feeding frenzy starts up. It’s a bit of a shock when you’ve got two hands in the ocean and three sharks suddenly appear inches away but it’s not me they’re after and I’ve got my hands outta there before you can say “chicken fingers”. All five divers ohh and ahh as they snap photo after photo.

All in all I think I’ve seen more stuff on this first day of diving in Truk than most of my previous dive experience combined. Maybe that’s just cause I’m a fan of wrecks and sharks but I’d bet anyone into diving would have a hard time complaining.

Tokyo Rose, Signing off!

PS: I was wrong about internet access… it’s slow as molasses but it’s available!!