Chuuk: Wreck paradise in the Pacific
'I am slowly descending, following the line that disappears into the dark blue abyss and soon I can see the outlines of the large wreck below. After reaching the deck in front of the two Ha-Go battle tanks, I just stop and enjoy the scenery. This is wreck diving at its best!'
Chuuk Lagoon, or Truk as it used to be called, is a remote atoll in the central Pacific and is a part of the Federated States of Micronesia. The islands have been inhabited since the 1300s, and according to legend, the first settlers travelled to Chuuk from Kosrae. The Germans were the first Europeans who started trading with the islands in the 1800s before the Japanese took them over after the First World War. During that period, trade flourished in the area, mainly with the export of copra.
When World War Two broke out, everything changed, and Truk Lagoon was turned into a Japanese naval base.
In late 1943, the United States and the Allies had advanced through the Pacific Islands and were approaching Guam. On 17 February 1944, Operation Hailstone was launched by the United States. It was a massive naval air and surface attack against the Japanese fleet anchored in the lagoon. The Japanese were completely unprepared for the attack, and within two days they had lost 50 ships and over 250 planes were destroyed, many of them on the ground.
It wasn't until the late 1960s that sport divers started to dive in the area, and Jacques Cousteau shot a documentary here in 1969, called the Lagoon of Lost Ships.
Today, Chuuk Lagoon is a mecca for wreck divers who come here from all over the world to experience the well-preserved wrecks, still with large quantities of artefacts.
For almost a year I had been looking forward to a photo workshop in Chuuk, conducted by Alex Mustard. Some months before the trip I was informed that the liveaboard boat Truk Siren, which was supposed to be our home during the stay, had been damaged in a typhoon and then looted and set on fire by vandals. I had already booked non-refundable flight tickets and did not want to cancel the trip, so after some conversations with the hotels in the area, I managed to book two weeks of land-based diving.
Furthermore, I managed to extend the trip and even persuade my brother to join. By coincidence, two other diving friends were booked at the same hotel at the same time.
A few months later I found myself on a plane with my brother and 100 kilos of baggage. We make a short stop in Tokyo before heading to Guam, where we get a few hours of sleep in a cheap hotel next to the airport. In the morning, we took the next flight to our final destination, and I am still tired when we arrive at the small airport on the island of Weno, after a journey of almost 36 hours.
It is ten years since I had last visited Chuuk when I had stayed on the liveaboard, Truk Odyssey. This time, we stayed at the popular hotel, Truk Stop, which is only a short drive from the airport. The standard of the hotel is simple, but the rooms are quite spacious with magnificent views of the ocean from the balcony.
The diving is well organised, with daily trips where you decide how many dives you want to do. There are also gas and facilities for technical diving, although the price of helium is very high.
Upon arriving at the hotel, I am a bit surprised that there are so few diving guests, and we are delighted to have the dive boat to ourselves with only our Chuukese guide, Jerson, and the boat driver, Kennet, on board.
Our first dive is on the Rio de Janeiro Maru, a former passenger liner lying on its starboard side. We spend most of the time inside the cargo hold filled with sake bottles and gun barrels.
After a surface interval in a sheltered bay, we head to the legendary Fujikawa Maru. You can do lots of dives on the Fujikawa without getting bored, there are plenty of things to see.
After swimming through the blast hole down at the bottom we slowly ascend up through the different levels inside the wreck. In the forward cargo hold, there are some disassembled Zero fighter planes, including fuselages, radial engines and lots of other spare parts. The faint light coming down through the holds is really beautiful, and I stay in that spot for about 15 minutes taking photos from different angles before moving on up to the deck level.
The huge bow gun is overgrown with soft corals, and there is lots of marine life on top of the wreck. On the bow, there is a beautiful engine telegraph, and I am surprised that it ́s still intact after all the pictures I've seen with divers pulling the levers on it.
The wrecks in Chuuk are starting to suffer the ravages of time, and the Fujikawa is no exception. The bridge has fallen, and most of the beautiful engine room has collapsed too. The last time I was here a decade ago both of those areas where still intact. However, you can still access the officers' tiled bathrooms as well as the workshop, with a variety of machinery, including the famous compressor 'R2D2'.
The majority of the deeper wrecks are located on the eastern side of Dublon Island where the visibility is great.
One of these wrecks is the San Francisco Maru, lying at a depth of 63m with the deck at 50m. We decide to do a morning dive here, and after an early breakfast, we load the boat with extra gas and photo gear before we head off.
I am slowly descending, following the line that disappears into the dark blue abyss, and soon I can see the outlines of the large wreck below. After reaching the deck in front of the two Ha-Go battle tanks, I just stop and enjoy the scenery. This is really wreck diving at its best!
On this dive we focus on the forward part of the wreck, which has the most things to see, such as trucks, tanks and mines as well as ammunition in the cargo holds. In front of the holds there is a magnificent bow gun with little growth of corals, due to the depth.
The clock is ticking fast, and it is time to end the dive with some decompression time on the way up.
Later in the week we also dive on the Aikoku Maru, which rests at a depth of 64m. The entire bow of the ship has been blown off, but the stern is still very intact. Here you will find an anti-aircraft gun still pointing skywards making it a good photo subject.
This wreck is a mass grave, and no one survived the immense explosion from aviation fuel and ammunition in the final attack, not even the crew of the attacking plane. The remains of about 400 men were recovered some years ago, but there are still many left inside the wreck and you can see some skulls and bones on the deck.
The following day begins with a dive on the 156m-long oil tanker Fujisan Maru, sitting nearly upright on almost the same depth as Aikoku. It ́s a huge wreck, and we only have time to explore the ship from the bridge towards the bow, where we have a magnificent view of the foredeck full of pipes and valves.
After the dive we head to a sheltered bay, and on the way, our boat driver Kennet spots some dolphins. We instantly jump into the water for some free-diving, and there is a whole pack of over 15 individuals slowly swimming in front of me. After a few minutes the dolphins start to go deeper and then disappear into the distance.
With three dives a day for two weeks, you soon lost count of all the 'Maru's', and it was hard to remember all the details of wrecks. The word Maru indicates that it is a merchant ship, and the vast majority of the wrecks in the area are of this type, but there are some exceptions.
There were several wartime airstrips and seaplane bases in Truk, and there are some aircraft wrecks there to see as well. The most popular is a Mitsubishi G4M, also called a 'Betty Bomber' by the Americans. The plane is pretty intact apart from the front of the cockpit, and it is located at 15-20m depth just outside Eten Island, where one of the airfields was located during the war.
Both inside and around the wreck there are many photogenic subjects, including schools of glassfish inside the fuselage, which is also possible to swim through.
During one of the surface intervals, we stop the boat next to the old runway of Eten Island under a big mango tree, where we pick some fresh fruit that tastes wonderful. Just outside the airstrip there is a Zero fighter at snorkelling depth. We take a short swim and dip down to the aircraft, which is lying upside down with some corals on it but in good condition.
The third aircraft we dive to is a Kawanishi H8K2 (Emily) flying boat. This one is a bit more broken down, but there are a lot of interesting details and parts on the wreck site, and it is well worth a visit.
Another different wreck is the submarine I-169 located in the middle of the lagoon. It is not possible to go inside the sub with twin-sets, so we stay on the outside and follow the hull to the bow and back. There is an impressively large anchor close to the wreck, where I stop to take some pictures before we begin ascending up the shot line.
The only true warship that we dive to on this trip is Fumizuki, a 97m-long Mutsuki Class Destroyer. The bridge section of the ship is smashed, but the rest of the wreck is in rather good condition, with the deck gun and torpedo launcher in place.
One afternoon we decide to do some 'de-rusting' and skip the last wreck dive. Instead, we head to a place north of Weno called Shark Island. It is a classic deserted island with a few coconut trees in the middle on a sandy outcrop surrounded by turquoise water. Next to the island there is a shark cleaning station, and when we stop the boat, I can clearly see the silhouettes of sharks swimming over the sandy bottom.
We jump into the crystal clear water and follow the bottom that slopes down to about 20m, where we settle down beside a coral bommie and wait for the sharks. It takes only a minute before a grey reef shark shows up a few metres away, and soon there are more than ten black tips and reef sharks circling over our heads. On the surface our boat driver is repeatedly throwing a boat fender on a rope into the water to get the sharks attention, so at the end of the dive the surface is boiling with sharks. I feel a bit uncomfortable with all the agitated predators circling around the boat, so I literally run up the ladder.
In this tropical climate the weather conditions change really quickly, and we experience a short bursts of rain nearly every day. However, the following day is no ordinary rain shower. It’s a typhoon with quite heavy winds, making it impossible to dive.
We whiled away the time at the Blue Lagoon, which is another dive resort a few kilometres to the south. The main reason was to visit the museum there that was founded by the legendary local diver Kimiuo Aisek, who was also an eyewitness to the attack on Truk when he was a boy. Luckily the typhoon only lasted for one day, and when we woke up the next morning there was almost no wind.
All wrecks are unique in their own way, but there are some favourites that we go back to. Besides the famous Fujikawa that we visit four times, we also do three dives on the Hoki Maru, an amazing wreck.
On the morning of 18 February 1944, a SB2C Helldiver delivered the coup de grace to the already damaged Hoki by dropping two bombs. The blast completely destroyed the fore ship when barrels of fuel exploded in the forward cargo holds.
Today she rests at a depth of 50m, and there is a lot to see, especially on the inside. When dropping down into the aft hold, the first thing you see is a bulldozer resting on some beams. I avoid swimming directly under it because someday it will fall down when the beams rust through.
We move down to the next level and pass a tractor before continuing into the darkness, where a number of smaller trucks are lined up. To take photographs in this environment is really challenging, not only due to the lack of natural light, but also because of rust particles raining down from the ceiling as soon as we enter. It takes three dives on the wreck, including some pre-planning, before I manage to take some pictures that I'm satisfied with.
Another wreck that we return to is the Kensho Maru, resting on an even keel at moderate depth. This is one of my absolute favourite dive sites, and I convince the others to do a third dive to the Kensho. The engine room is like a small cathedral and very photogenic. I spend a lot of time here shooting from different angles, capturing the beautiful light from the skylight that illuminates the row of cylinders below.
Just aft of the engine room is the ship's well-preserved galley, still with tiled floor and a large stove, including pots and pans. At the end of the dive we explore the radio room and the bridge, where you find a nice telegraph.
Our last dive of the trip is a fantastic twilight dive to the Fujikawa Maru. There are big schools of fish swimming all over the wreck, and the big red sun just sets behind the islands as we come out of the water.
It is time to get rid of some nitrogen before the journey back home. We decide to book a tour on the last day to explore topside of the island. The first stop is to visit the Xavier High School, located on a hill overlooking the sea. This used to be a heavily bunkered radio command centre for the Japanese fleet, and over the armoured doors you can still see bullet holes. The reinforced concrete building survived two direct hits from 500-pound bombs during Operation Hailstorm. The roof was repaired after the war, but the damage is still visible from inside the building.
We leave the school and continue to the abandoned Sapuk Lighthouse located high on another hilltop. It is not possible to drive all the way, so we have to walk through the jungle. It is hot and sweaty as we climb the hill, but as you get up in the tower, you are rewarded with a stunning panoramic view of the lagoon and a cool breeze.
The locals are friendly, waving to us along the way as we pass. Most are extremely poor – the unemployment rate is high.
The last stop on the tour is another hilltop next to a burned-out house that formerly belonged to the governor of Chuuk. We follow an elderly man up to a tunnel called Nefo Cave. The tunnel leads through the mountain to an opening on the other side where there is a large a gun that was used to guard the north pass. The gun was never used since the Allied Forces attacked the island from the air.
It’s getting dark so we head back to the hotel to pack our things before leaving. A few hours later we leave the wreck paradise behind us, with a long journey home ahead of us, but it has been well worth the long journey, and I hope to return to this diver’s heaven for as long as the wrecks still hold together.