In Memoriam: DIVE Talks With Celebrated Guide and Captain, Martin Cridge
DIVE had the honour of speaking to Captain Martin Cridge, one of Truk Lagoon's most popular and well-respected dive guides, for an in-depth feature about Truk's history in our Spring 2021 print issue. To honour Captain Cridge in light of his recent, sudden passing, here's the full interview as printed in the magazine. Words and Pictures: Steve Jones
It takes a certain level of trust in the skill of your dive guide to follow them into the heart of a deep wreck you’ve never before dived, where you will spend over an hour navigating a labyrinth of cramped, dark corridors, as your decompression stops multiply exponentially. Fortunately, when the guide happens to be former Royal Navy diver Martin Cridge that trust is well placed.
Martin, 52, is the affable captain of the liveaboard vessel Truk Master and has logged thousands of hours diving the Japanese fleet sunk in Truk Lagoon, in addition to leading expeditions to the remote Bikini Atoll, home of the sunken Atomic test fleet. DIVE spoke to him to gain an insider’s view of this unique location and hear the recommendations of a true wreck connoisseur.
DIVE Tell us how you ended up living and working in Truk.
MARTIN After leaving school I joined the Royal Navy, where I learned to dive. Following that, I ran a dive centre in the north of England with my own liveaboard dive boat for several years. Having an interest in the medical side of diving, I spent more than 15 years as a hyperbaric chamber supervisor and operator before deciding to get back into liveaboards. I’ve been in based in Micronesia and living in Truk now over seven years and what attracted me to this place was the opportunity to dive in a truly world-class location. Truk Lagoon has such a vast number of wrecks concentrated in one area, and it’s hard to imagine there will ever be another historical collection like this, so I consider myself fortunate to get to spend so much time on them.
DIVE For you, what is the most special aspect of diving in Truk?
MARTIN The most remarkable thing about these wrecks is the number of artefacts that can still be found. They were protected by law relatively early, and no commercial salvage has ever been carried out. It was many years before I found an intact porthole on a British wreck and many more until I found a telegraph, yet items like these are commonplace here, sometimes just lying there on the seabed. Incredibly, every wreck still has its propellers and something of interest to see. There are also many personal items that serve as a reminder that there were once people on these ships; beer and saké bottles are scattered everywhere, china crockery, uniforms and even bicycles.
DIVE What level of experience do you need to dive here?
MARTIN It’s accessible to all experience levels, unlike Bikini Atoll, which is more the domain of technical divers. There are more than ten huge wrecks lying at easily accessible recreational depth ranges, including some of the signature wrecks like the Rio de Janeiro Maru, and the ship with one of the finest engine rooms, the Kensho Maru. You can do multiple dives on any of these and still be wanting to see more of them. There are also smaller wrecks such as aircraft, that are easy dives. For the rest, you’ll need to dive a bit deeper. Notable wrecks such as the Amagisan, Hoki, Seiko and Shotan along with the Japanese sub I-169 require a 30m+ dive but are still accessible to experienced and certified recreational divers. Deeper still, you need to do a 50m dive to see the wrecks that are at the top of technical divers lists, such as the Aikoku Maru and San Francisco Maru, both of which are awe-inspiring. It’s fair to say that the many deep, penetrable wrecks make Truk Lagoon a real hot spot for technical divers, so we cater for all experience levels on the boat, you just need to be certified for the depth you will be diving to.
DIVE Have you seen the wrecks deteriorate during your time there?
MARTIN 2019 was the 75th anniversary of these ships being sunk. They had seemed pretty resilient for more than half a century but in the past 20 years or so there has been noticeable deterioration. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is the natural evolution of the wrecks as they slowly age and corrode. Other contributing factors are due to divers and also changing weather patterns. A good example is the Shinkoku Maru which over the years has been adorned with a great deal of hard and soft coral due to the nutrient-rich waters. These corals add a lot of weight to the upper structures and when storms hit, the resulting water movement can cause items such as funnels to collapse – they cannot withstand such forces having only been lightly built to reduce top weight. When Typhoon Maysak hit the lagoon on 29 March, 2015 it was one of the strongest typhoons on record. It was also the first typhoon to pass directly over the lagoon in more than forty years. The typhoon set off a process which is still continuing today. It caused the hard coral from the superstructure and rigging to come crashing down, forming huge piles of coral, some over a metre high. Huge sheets of metal were also ripped from the wreck, particularly around the funnel and forward superstructure. The funnel has been slowly collapsing since then, and a couple of years ago the bridge superstructure collapsed backwards. The Shinkoku remains a fantastic wreck to explore. It’s still possible to see the ship’s telegraphs on the bridge and to explore inside the superstructure, but it’s a changing wreck, and after each storm it seems a little bit more has collapsed. It is a sad fact that these wrecks have a finite life span and they are slowly being reclaimed by the sea.
DIVE Wreck divers from some countries are infamous for taking artefacts from wrecks. Ever had any incidents on your watch?
MARTIN There are big fines of as much as $10,000 US dollars for anyone caught removing artefacts from the wrecks. Unfortunately, still some items have disappeared over the years. Whenever I’ve been aware of something being removed, I’ve always confronted the diver and replaced the item where it came from. A popular item to be removed is the small and colourful medicine bottles on the Sankisan Maru. Because there are so many, some divers think removing one won’t matter, but if everybody had that attitude there would be none left.
DIVE Given the adventurous nature of the diving in Truk Lagoon, have you seen many incidents?
MARTIN Serious incidents, thankfully are relatively rare here, and most that do occur happen because people don’t follow the rules or the advice that they are given. Most of the operators follow similar guidelines that have been developed over the years, and they work well. But you always get someone who thinks they know better. One common place for people to get themselves into trouble is the lower engine room of the Fujikawa Maru. While it is still accessible, it isn’t for everyone, and any exploration in there needs to be planned properly. However, temptation can get the better of some divers who venture into the depths illprepared, only to get disorientated and lost. A number of times I’ve had to go in there and pull people out because they didn’t do what they were told.
DIVE Have you have dived anywhere else you consider to be of this quality?
MARTIN Truk Lagoon is simply unique A medical kit inside the Heian Maru, recovered from the debris and placed carefully on display by dive guides and there is nowhere else like it, given the number, accessibility and condition of the wrecks. One thing Truk lacks is warships, as most of the ships sunk were merchant vessels (marus). Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands has a number of warships that were sunk during Operation Crossroads, the first atomic bomb tests after the Second World War. But it’s a different experience, being very remote, and the wrecks are generally deeper. Closer to Europe people often talk about the Thistlegorm in the Red Sea, or Zenobia in Cyprus, but for me I have a dozen such artefact-strewn wrecks here, all in one location.
DIVE You’ve made your home in Truk and have a family there. Can you tell us what it’s like living in such a remote location – the challenges and rewards, particularly during the COVID pandemic?
MARTIN Although we have managed so far to stay COVID free, the pandemic has had a large impact locally. The president was very quick closing the country’s borders to keep the virus out, but that also meant that almost overnight the tourist industry came to a halt, as it has done in many places globally. Living and working in Micronesia can certainly be challenging, although the local infrastructure has slowly been developing over the past few years. As with other island nations, the majority of things need to be imported and container ships normally come in every couple of weeks. The local postal system is operated by the US postal service, so getting stuff sent from the US is relatively painless, but you just never know if something will take two weeks or two months to arrive. Internet provision has greatly improved recently, due to undersea fibre-optic connections. What you learn after a while is that, while things do eventually get done, everything happens slowly and the Chuukese certainly do have their own brand of island time. They also have a great sense of community and are always willing to help each other, which is refreshing to see. It’s more than six years since I was last in the UK, to renew my passport, and to be honest there isn’t too much I miss any more. It would be nice to get a decent pint of Yorkshire bitter and some proper fish and chips every now and again.
DIVE Finally, which is your favourite wreck in Truk, and why? Also, what are your other top must-sees?
MARTIN With so many wrecks to choose from it is surprisingly difficult to single out just one, and they all have something of interest to see. Even the little tugboat sunk in 14m has a unique horizontal bridge telegraph with Japanese writing that cannot be found elsewhere. My best dive, however, in Truk was on the Nippo Maru. A fantastic dive, with lots to see including a Japanese tank on deck and great marine life, and occasionally if you are very lucky dolphins will come and play while you do your safety stop. Other notable dives are Shinkoku Maru, Heian Maru, Fujikawa Maru and San Francisco Maru.
Captain Martin Cridge
Martin leaves behind his wife, Elaine, and young son Tyke. A Go Fund Me page has been created to support his family and assist in his repatriation to Micronesia. Donations are welcomed at www.gofundme.com/f/martin-cridge-memorial-fundraiser.