Graveyard of ships
Below the surface at Chuuk Lagoon
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).