Grave­yard of ships

Be­low the sur­face at Chuuk La­goon

Paradise - - Contents -

For two days in 1944, all hell rained down on Chuuk La­goon. Op­er­a­tion Hail­stone, some­times called the ‘Ja­panese Pearl Har­bour,’ was a World War 2 airstrike by the US.

The airstrike ef­fec­tively wiped out this part of Mi­crone­sia as a ma­jor base for the Ja­panese war ef­fort. The Amer­i­cans de­stroyed three air­fields, many aircraft, build­ings, and gun em­place­ments; and sunk over 40 ships in the la­goon.

The ships now serve as a re­minder of tur­bu­lent times. Amaz­ingly well pre­served, con­sid­er­ing their time in a salt­wa­ter en­vi­ron­ment, they act as a bea­con to divers and are Chuuk’s main tourist at­trac­tion, mak­ing it the best wreck-dive lo­ca­tion in the world.

One of the most com­fort­able ways to ac­cess the div­ing is on the lux­ury live-aboard dive ves­sel, the Odyssey.

It has spa­cious ac­com­mo­da­tion for 16, a large dive deck, beau­ti­ful lounge and din­ing ar­eas, great meals and ex­cel­lent dive guides. Their dive brief­ings are the best that I have ex­pe­ri­enced, and the dive sites match the stan­dard of the ves­sel.

Most of the ves­sels sunk here were pas­sen­ger lin­ers, con­verted into cargo ships and sub­ma­rine ten­ders. There are a few de­stroy­ers, and a sub­ma­rine too, though most of the war­ships had left the har­bour just be­fore the at­tack.

Many of the wrecks are for ex­pe­ri­enced divers, with the av­er­age depth of div­ing more than 30 me­tres. There is plenty to see out­side the wrecks, but more ex­pe­ri­enced divers can head in­side to see the cramped spa­ces of the holds and en­gine rooms.

In such tight spa­ces, a diver’s finning tech­nique must be per­fect to avoid stir­ring up the silt and rust that lies on the bot­tom in all of these rooms. Those that can’t, quickly find that the vis­i­bil­ity is re­duced to zero as the muck clouds the wa­ter, mak­ing the wreck a very dan­ger­ous place to be in for the un­wary. Thank­fully the Odyssey’s dive guides are all very knowl­edge­able about the routes around the in­nards of these ves­sels, and can safely lead divers through ar­eas that suit their abil­i­ties.

There are sev­eral must-dive wrecks in the la­goon. Most weeks start off with some of the eas­ier wrecks, in terms of depth and pen­e­tra­tion. Vis­i­bil­ity on these wrecks is gen­er­ally ex­cel­lent, and there are no cur­rents, mak­ing the dives much eas­ier.

My week started at the Heian Maru. ( Maru is the Ja­panese term for mer­chant ship.)

One of the most com­fort­able ways to ac­cess the div­ing is on the lux­ury live-aboard dive ves­sel, the Odyssey. Their dive brief­ings are the best that I have ex­pe­ri­enced, and the dive sites match the stan­dard of the ves­sel.

This ves­sel is ly­ing on its port side in 35 me­tres of wa­ter, with the star­board side in 18 me­tres, mak­ing it an easy dive for most. It is one of the larger ves­sels in the la­goon, at around 156 me­tres long.

As a first dive here, it is jaw-drop­ping. Drop­ping down near the bow, the huge shape of the wreck be­comes ap­par­ent. Easy ac­cess to the for­ward hold shows divers mas­sive ar­ma­ment shells, once des­tined for a Ja­panese bat­tle­ship.

Divers then pass through the su­per­struc­ture, along walk­ways to the stern of the ship where mas­sive pro­pel­lers and a huge rud­der await, be­fore a slow as­cent takes them to the deco bar for an oblig­a­tory stop be­fore re­turn­ing to the dive boat.

The Hoki Maru has a hold filled with trucks, the Nippo Maru has a tank on its main deck, and the Fu­jikawa Maru has a hold filled with Zero aero­plane bod­ies and mo­tors, all at a depth of 35 me­tres or less. For some­thing dif­fer­ent, a Betty bomber lies just short of the air­field on Et­ten Is­land, one of sev­eral plane wrecks in the area.

The Odyssey also does a shark dive at Pizion Pas­sage, a south­ern en­trance to the la­goon. Black­tip, grey-reef and sil­ver­tip sharks come to feed on the bait and de­light the watch­ing divers.

The best wreck in the la­goon, and pos­si­bly the world, is left for late in the trip. The

San Fran­cisco Maru lies up­right in just over 60 me­tres of wa­ter. The top of the mast is around the 30-me­tre mark, and the deck is at 50 me­tres, mak­ing it a dive only for the ex­pe­ri­enced.

For those who are able to dive it, the tag of ‘Mil­lion Dol­lar Wreck’ is au­to­mat­i­cally ap­par­ent. It still has most of its cargo in­tact. Three bat­tle tanks sit on the deck at 50 me­tres, as does a truck, slightly lean­ing over the side and point­ing down at its twin, which now re­sides on the seafloor be­low. Descend­ing into its holds, divers see more trucks, hemi­spher­i­cal shaped land mines, boxes full of cordite, and more.

The bow gun is par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive, and due to the depth and lo­ca­tion the vis­i­bil­ity here is usu­ally ex­cel­lent. Bot­tom times are short due to the ex­treme depths, and de­com­pres­sion stops long, but this dive alone makes the trip worth­while.

Air Ni­ug­ini flies from Port Moresby to Chuuk every Wed­nes­day and Satur­day. See airni­ug­ini.com.pg.

Get­ting wrecked ... 20 me­tres be­low the sur­face, a diver floats over a Betty bomber (op­po­site page); the live- aboard Odyssey (above); the Odyssey's din­ing room (left); an air com­pres­sor in the en­gine room of the

Fu­jikawa Maru (right).

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