Chuuk Lagoon

By Fiona McIntosh

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The tiny archipelago of Chuuk in Micronesia is a wreck diving mecca that you will return to again and again.

“If you can’t dive Chuuk, you can’t dive anywhere,” insisted Captain Lance Higgs. “It’s warm, there’s no current and the viz is 90ft – like diving in a bath tub.” The almost entirely British group looked somewhat confused, having never fathomed the North American preference for imperial measures, but we got the gist.

I’d always imagined wreck diving to be the realm of the macho, yet while there are numerous deep wrecks to amuse techies, many of the wrecks are well within openwater limits. Nonetheless, I wasn’t so sure about the captain’s diving habits as I rolled backward into the swell the next day and descended down the line – we were going deeper and deeper into a dark ocean and this was a bit more testing than he’d made it out to be. The outline of a huge destroyer began to take shape after a few metres. 

It was the Fumitsuki (meaning, in true Japanese naming fashion, “month of rice ears”.) It was sitting upright on the seabed, almost as if it was fl oating on the sand. As we sank to the bottom of the mooring, the detail of the huge and coral-encrusted form became clearer. It was evident that we’d have to be selective – at 100m long and lying 30m to 45m deep, exploring the whole boat would clearly take several dives.

The scene was tranquil. The bow, though covered with marine life, was intact and majestic. There was no sign of any damage – no evidence of the cataclysmic events that had sent her to these depths over 60 years ago. But as we swam towards the stern, past a large anti-aircraft gun and torpedo launcher, the reason for her demise was quickly apparent. The bridge had been blown off, the conning tower lay broken in the sand. We swam along the decks, noting the massive guns and propeller, the intact rigging, the torpedo tubes, spent shell casings and a collection of gas masks, ceramic bowls, binoculars and other artefacts. We began our slow ascent with squadrons of batfish flitting silently among us as we hovered over the world’s most famous underwater graveyard. The ghost fleet of Chuuk is a chilling reminder of the carnage of war.


The coral reef surrounding Chuuk is the third largest in the world and makes for great diving already, but the presence of wrecks is what makes it legendary. Strategically situated in the middle of shipping lanes between Japan, Australia and Hawaii, Chuuk Lagoon is a huge, deep, reef-encircled natural harbour. The high, pointed islands, appearing as jungle-covered shark fins, are the tips of a vast volcanic pinnacle that thrust up from the deep seabed to create a giant ocean lake within a ring of living corals – a huge sheltered anchorage. Prior to Imagethe outbreak of WWII, Japanese administrators employed nearly 30 000 Korean, Okinawan and Chuukese labourers to convert Chuuk into the second most important naval fortress in the Pacific. It was from this base that the Japanese military launched their main offensive against Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour in 1941.

Patrol boats, torpedo boats, submarines, tugs, landing craft, gunboats and mine sweepers maintained the sea defences, while five airfields provided complete protection over Chuuk ‘s facilities. The fortified lagoon was the departure point for numerous Japanese war campaigns and a vital link in the supply line supporting the many island groups captured by Japanese forces. At its height, it’s estimated that 60 attack submarines, 250 merchant ships and 125 warships, including aircraft carriers, operated from Chuuk. By early 1944, Allied victories were forcing a Japanese retreat and Chuuk became a key target for the American military moving to recapture the Pacific. A series of attacks beginning in February 1944 completely demolished Chuuk’s fortifications, sinking some 80 ships and destroying nearly 500 aircraft. Thousands of Japanese and locals were killed under ferocious bombing, but worse was to follow.

ImageWith supply lines to the isolated lagoondestroyed, the remaining Japanese and Chuuk islanders struggled to survive in the rat-infested jungles and more than 15 000 Japanese starved to death before the war’s end.

The first and most devastating of the attacks was Operation Hailstorm. US surveillance aircraft flew over the lagoon on 4 February 1944, revealing the location of the Eten airfields and the Dublon seaplane-base – and the fact that nearly all of the Japanese Combined Fleet was gathered in Chuuk. An attack planned for mid-April was brought forward. And although the Japanese Admiral, Koga, had correctly predicted a strike and had ordered the warships, various cruisers and supply ships to retreat, a large number of small combatant and supply ships remained.

A pre-dawn attack began at 4.40am on 17 February, with 350 US fighters and fighterbombers taking off from twelve aircraft carriers. With a rising sun shining into the eyes of Japanese gunners, the American bombers approached from the east, flying low under Japanese radar, strafing the airfields. The first bombs produced brilliant, blinding flashes as heat and light burst in a blazing flame. Operation Hailstorm was underway. The Japanese were caught by surprise. Desperate to save as many planes as possible, officers were ordering aircraft mechanics and technicians to take off and head north, while the pilots frantically swam to or leapt on boats headed for the airfields.

Many aircraft were disabled by enemy fire asthey taxied down the runway and countless dogfights filled the air. The Japanese lost 170 aircraft in aerial combat and literally hundreds on the ground.

 
As you glide among the stately wrecks, it’s hard to imagine the scene on the water that day. Huge 500-pound bombs split the decks of destroyers and exploded amidships in a deafening, ear-splitting roar, creating hot balls of red, orange and black flames and smoke billowing skyward. Low-flying torpedo attack planes released deadly long cylinders that sped towards the ships. The torpedoes ripped into ship’s bows, buckling steel plates, collapsing bulkheads and tearing out jagged holes through which raging waters flooded in. Chaos prevailed with frightened crews trapped inside, trying to escape or find air pockets as the ships rolled and sunk. In no time the lagoon was full of stricken ships belching clouds of rolling black smoke. Those still afloat lined up in single file to escape through the only nonmined channel in the south as torpedoes streaked towards them. Many ships were downed as they fled.

The Fumitsuki is one of them and, as we floated over the decks, we recognised what must have been the belongings of the surprised crew scattered haphazardly amongst the munitions – a shoe, books, a torn jacket and a cup, still in good nick after all these years. A looting hold was put in place during the late 60s, but evidence of some early staged pilfering is clear. These ships were “discovered” by adventure divers such as Jacques Cousteau, Al Giddings and Klaus Lindemann, and reliable sources report that in the 70s Cousteau shipped out many tonnes of artefacts, including nameplates, clocks, bells and other easily removable and potentially valuable items.

There are over 70 wrecks that can be dived in the lagoon. The classics include the Fumitsuki and Shinkoku Maru, a wellpreserved tanker built in 1939 that took part in the Pearl Harbour attack. For a 60 year-old wreck, the Shinkoku Maru is in amazingly good shape. We started at the bow – a vast artificial reef of vivid pink, blue and orange corals. Big barrel-shaped sponges give way to delicate fans; whip corals penetrate eerily into the deep blue and vast clams display their speckled velvet bodies. We swam through the holds and lower decks, inspecting the contents of her bowels: the galley, the officers’ quarters with its wellpreserved array of cut glass decanters and glasses, sake bowls and officers’ uniforms, and her operating room complete with medicine bottles, instruments and a pile of gramophone records – all part of the old infirmary.

But even from the outside the ship is mindblowing, what with her big masthead jutting up to the surface, vast spare prop blades on her stern, well-preserved bow and stern guns, and a massive propeller. As you slowly explore, you’ll see a solid brass bridge to engine room telegraphs, a box of bottles, a large brass chest and a telephone as well as numerous lengths of piping and rounds of ammunition. There was so much to see that even the presence of several black-tip sharks circling the bow couldn’t divert our attentions. We dived her twice more that week – once at night when she was even more amazing.

As if we hadn’t been spoilt enough for one day, our next dive was on the Fujikawa Maru, a massive aircraft ferry that’s considered by veterans to be a top wreck in the Ghost Fleet. There are plenty of penetration dives through holds and spacious lower decks past endless cables, ladders, cans and shells.

The sight of a bathtub sent shivers upmy spine as I thought of the poor people entombed in the ship during those days of horror. The Fujikawa Maru was delivering its cargo of planes, and while most had been landed, there are still disassembled parts of Japanese Zeros in hold two. The long-range and easily manoeuvrable Zero was a superb weapon for off ensive warfare, but these sleek fighters had little protective armour and when hit they’d burst into fl ames and burn like tinderboxes. Not that we spent too much time contemplating the fate of the combatants – a turtle swimming out of one of the upper decks soon dispelled any melancholy.

 
ImageWe finished the day with a magnificent dive on a Mitsubishi G4M bomber, foregoing the night dive for Christmas Day turkey and festivities. The fairly intact G4M, or “Betty bomber” as it was known to the Allied forces, lies in 12m to 17m of water. Night was falling as we descended, but the wings and cockpit were visible from the surface. We swam through the plane, inspected the cockpit then checked out the engines and propellers about 50m away – a pleasant swim over undulating coral reef.

The pattern was thus set for the week: five dives a day if you had the stamina, comprising a deep dive after breakfast, a couple of colourful or dramatic shallower dives, followed by an aircraft or small vessel late in the day, and a night dive after dinner.

We dived flying boats, fighter planes,bombers, transport vessels, destroyers, freighters and a huge submarine. We saw tanks, trucks, dramatic guns, munitions, towering gantries and masts as well as the living quarters, kitchens, urinals, sake bottles, teacups and personal belongings of the people fighting in the Pacific arena of WWII. Sometimes it was the superstructure of the wreck that impressed; other times it was the detail as we penetrated the holds – the instruments of the plane, the ship’s nameplate, piles of cartridge belts and bullets, or a haunting skull. At least once a day we were treated to a wreck barely recognisable from under the amount of marine life colonising it. These tapestries of nature challenge the most beautiful reefs in the world for colour and complexity.

We swam with squadrons of eagle rays and great shoals of barracuda, watched tiny clown fish, bright butterfl y fish, striking blue-and-yellow damsels and other bright tropical fish. At night the wrecks were even more dramatic and their covering reefs took on a diff erent sheen. Hydroids bloomed and we saw parrotfish encased in their nightly mucus cocoons. Most of us settled for three dives a day, occasionally rising to a fourth when we had the energy or when one of the gems was dangled before us. The rest of the time we chilled on Thorfinn, reading and watching historical films about the wrecks, lounging in the spa or sunning ourselves on deck. It was the perfect lazy existence and the 22 crew members on board ensured that we barely lifted a finger during the trip. Our dive gear was kitted up for each dive, superb meals were served and the wine flowed.

So is Chuuk the ultimate wreck site? Well, in nine days we only touched the surface of the diving and everyday we were blown away.

One day it was the tanks sitting at 50m onthe deck of the upright San Francisco, the next day it was the instrument panel of an almost intact aircraft. The great ships, once mighty floating islands of grey steel now lying in state on the seabed, are incredible.

But so are the corals, the vast molluscs andthe number and diversity of reef and pelagic fish. There’s even a shark dive for those who can tear themselves away from the wrecks. A testament to Chuuk’s beauty and fascination is surely the fact that in our party of five couples one lot were on their eleventh visit, while another had returned eight times. I was blown away by the place, in fact, I’d go a step further: I’ve been fortunate to have dived extensively throughout the world, but if I had to name my ultimate dive site, the dramatic Ghost Fleet with its bright corals and sponges, territorial sharks and turtles, colourful fish, warm water and great viz would certainly be it.
 

FACT FILE

What’s in a name? You’ll often see Chuuk written as Truk. When the Germans bought Micronesia from the Spanish in 1899, Chuuk was soon mispronounced as Truk with a long “u”, due to the difficulty of saying “Ch” in German. With American divers arriving in the late 70’s, it went a step further with the use of the short “u” as in “truck”.

The live-aboard:

SS Thorfinn is a 170ft-long, steam-powered ex- Antarctic whaling vessel converted to a five-star live-aboard. It sleeps 22 guests in spacious air-conditioned, largely en-suite cabins, each with private TV and DVD player. A big, capable and stable ship, it suits any challenging conditions.

Captain Higgs’ principal aim is to providedive connoisseurs with different and noncrowded sites for each of five daily dive options. This system permits photographers the opportunity to get clear photos and the option to do over 30 different sites per week.

When to go:

ImageEquatorial mid-ocean diving conditions are nearly equal all year round.
Sunny periods, punctuated by brief rainshowers, are usual patterns each day.

Dive conditions:

The water temperature is generally around 28ºC and visibility is often over 30m. Most divers wore 3mm shorties or thin lycra suits.

Dive infrastructure:

SS Thorfinn has Nitrox available to any level and a full array of dive equipment to rent or purchase, including twin manifold sets, pony tanks, rebreather cylinders, sofnalime, and helium. The two new 11m RIB dive boats, custom-built by Brisbane builders, are huge and extremely comfortable with individual under-seat gear storage facilities, on-board camera stowage racks and even a shower. Thorfinn moves anchor every couple of days to easily access different sections of the lagoon, and transfers to and from the sites rarely take more than ten minutes. We had two dive guides per group, and never had more than nine divers on the boat. Chuuk has a privately run deco chamber on the main island of Moen.

Who to contact:

Phone Hartleys Oceans and Islands on 011 467 4704 or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
For more information on SS Thorfinn visit www.thorfinn.net.
 

Getting there:

Chuuk is seven degrees north of the Equator, approximately 1 300 nautical miles southeast of Japan and about 1 000 miles north of Papua New Guinea.

Whichever way you go, it’s a mission – butit’s worth it. You can choose many cities via which to go and they’re all worth a visit.

Basically, you need to get to Manila in the Philippines by way of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, from where Continental Micronesia Airlines fly to Chuuk via Guam.

Visas:

South African passport holders require US transit visas for transit through Guam en route to Chuuk.
Contact the US Consulate on 011 275 6300 to arrange an appointment.

Health requirements:

Chuuk is nonmalarial.
Cholera and typhoid vaccinationsare recommended.

Language:

Chuukese and English.

Currency:

US dollar.

Further reading:

It’s impossible to describe the most popular wrecks in these pages, but fortunately there’s excellent literature available.

Among the best are:

Lindemann, Klaus. 1989. Hailstorm over Truk Lagoon (Pacific Press Publications).
Bailey, Dan E. 2000. WW II Wrecks of the TrukLagoon (North Valley Diver Publications).
Stewart William H. 2001 6th Edition. GhostFleet of the Truk Lagoon (Pictorial Histories Publishing).

“It’s warm, there’s no current and the viz is 90ft – like diving in a bath tub.”

Author: Fiona McIntosh