Return to Truk Lagoon
By Guy Shockey
In a 2003 issue of Quest, Dave Ross wrote about his experiences diving from the Truk Aggressor II in one of the first technical diving charters in Truk Lagoon. Dave’s trip was difficult to set up and a rarity in the lagoon. This past November, over seven years later, we visited Truk Lagoon and combined a recreational diving trip with some technical diving, and I am happy to report that the diving that “defied all description” in 2003 is definitely still there!
We had originally been scheduled to dive from the Thorfinn, a liveaboard steamship based out of Truk Lagoon, but our plans were changed in mid-stride when the Thorfinn struck a glancing blow on a reef near Pohnpei and was put out of commission for several months as it awaited an extensive repair and refit project. Rather than face the prospect of simply cancelling the fall’s bookings, the Thorfinn made arrangements for our group to stay at the Blue Lagoon Resort on Chuuk. This resort is truly the nicest accommodation on the island and is owned by the same family that owns the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop. We were originally a bit disappointed not to be staying on the Thorfinn and enjoying the convenience of liveaboard diving. However, as things turned out, the service and experience we had with the Blue Lagoon Resort and the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop was so exemplary I can’t imagine a better dive experience.
Upon arrival, as ex officio dive trip leader, I made my way across the resort property to the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop with my fingers crossed to see what fate held in store for us during the coming week. The first person I met in the dive shop was Gradvin Aisek, owner and operator of Blue Lagoon Dive Shop and the son of Kimiou Aisek, the founding father of Truk wreck diving. My first impression of Gradvin was one of honesty, graciousness, and genuine sincerity. These impressions would later be proven tenfold as we got to know Gradvin and his family better during the coming week.
Because our plans had been changed with fairly short notice, this was my first actual dialogue with Gradvin himself, so I sketched out for him who we were, what our experience levels were, and what our plans were for our Truk Lagoon film project. Gradvin listened with interest and assigned to us his most experienced divemaster, who had been guiding divers in Truk Lagoon for 25 years, an assistant divemaster (who I was later to find out was his son), and one of his nephews as our boat captain. As most divers know, the divemaster can make or break a dive vacation. I have experienced the type of divemaster who makes the average seem extraordinary as well as the one who clearly just wants to get the job done and go home. Our divemaster on this trip was in a class unto himself.
Chenny Tipowek is the nephew of Kimiou Aisek and has been leading divers on the wrecks in Truk Lagoon for nearly a quarter of a century. I have very seldom in my life experienced the level of competence and ability in any endeavor that “Chini,” as he was known, brought to our dive trip. His knowledge of the wrecks was nothing short of phenomenal. He located 180ft deep wrecks in the 40-mile diameter open lagoon with no marker buoys, showed us the hidden secrets and treasures that each wreck held, and constantly amazed us with his knowledge of the dive sites. Chini also ran a very tight ship and even with the language barriers between ourselves and our boat crew, we always knew exactly what to expect and when to expect it. It was very clear that there was a great deal of respect for Chini from his assistant divemaster and boat captain, and this translated into a very organized dive boat. Being a divemaster on Chuuk is a respected career and it was obvious that Chini deserved this respect. After our first check-out dive, he also complimented us by pointing out off-the-beaten-path artifacts and areas that were normally not visited by recreational divers who have limited skills; this helped make our trip a true adventure in every sense of the word.
Our trip was planned to be primarily recreational in nature, as most of the wrecks can be extensively explored within 100ft. Generally speaking, most of the divers visiting Truk choose to dive air. However, everyone in our group was strictly “32 percenters” and with the general depths and repetitive diving common in Truk, this seemed the prudent thing to do. Our nitrox blending was done by master gas blender Ishiro Aisek, another member of Gradvin Aisek’s family. Ishi worked tirelessly making sure all the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop guests had the cylinders ready when they needed them. Chuuk State is significantly remote and anything other than air comes at a premium. Unfortunately, due to third-world economics, they are unable to remove empty oxygen and helium cylinders from the island and this additional cost is passed on to nitrox and trimix divers.
We started our diving on what is arguably the most famous of all the Truk wrecks, the Fujikawa Maru. The visibility in the part of the lagoon where the Fujikawa sank is usually better than other areas and provided some truly spectacular underwater vistas. The wreck is simply covered with life on every exposed surface. Soft corals, anemones, and the ubiquitous razor oysters in a riot of colors lent an almost surreal aspect to the wreck. With sunlight streaming through every opening in the hull, traveling down hallways and passageways was akin to walking through a cathedral with stained glass windows. Each of the holds of the Fujikawa was a new adventure, from machine gun bullets and artillery shells to the still-intact fuselages and wings of several Zero fighter planes. On one of the tail sections, divers can still clearly make out the tail number of that particular aircraft. Chini took us into the engine room of the Fujikawa and then into the engine control room. Both this room and the machine shop have to be experienced to be appreciated. Both rooms still contain various pieces of machinery and control apparatus, and many of the more memorable photos of Truk Lagoon have been taken in those areas.
We ran line on many of the wrecks but most of the spaces of interest were easily accessible with very little silt and multiple entry and exit points. Some of the high points of the trip were definitely the limited penetrations of the living spaces and bridges of the Truk wrecks. Most of the wrecks still contain artifacts, and these dives were like trips in a time machine back to the day the ships were sunk. On one occasion, Chini showed us a clock in an engine control room that was forever stopped at the exact time the ship was sunk. It was little details like this that kept us captivated for the entire trip.
Our overall impression of diving the wrecks was that while it was interesting to see them from the outside, the real adventure was the hidden mystery that awaited us inside. Most of the cargo-hold spaces and engine rooms had direct access to the surface because hold doors and engine room skylights were either blown off during the initial attacks on the ships or have subsequently disintegrated. Many of the wrecks in the lagoon still sit in an upright position and here penetration of the engine rooms often began with a descent down through the engine skylights and then a drift down a further three or four stories to the engine itself. Some of these engines were huge with cylinder head bolts over seven or eight inches in diameter. In most cases, we would then exit the engine room straight up again, which gave us a chance to examine all the catwalks, stairways, and equipment that wrapped around the inside of the engine compartment.
Because these are real war wrecks, penetration of many of the wrecks was also done through holes in the ship caused by torpedo impacts. These holes were so large and so covered with sea life that it was difficult to picture them as what they were. In many cases the thick ship skin had been peeled back not unlike peeling a banana to create massive 20-foot diameter holes. The force and violence of these explosions must have been incredible and, in many instances, portions of the wrecks were simply demolished and now resemble nothing more than piles of scrap iron.
Another of our favorites was the Heian Maru, a 600ft submarine tender and one of the largest ships sunk during Operation Hailstone. This ship is massive and lies on her side in about 100ft of seawater. The two propellers of this ship are unbelievably huge but it is what is inside the holds that captured our attention. Inside several of the forward holds, massive torpedoes were stacked up like matchsticks, many with the propellers still attached. I have seen aerial-launched torpedoes before, but these submarine-launched weapons were in a class of their own. They were very nearly the size of a small submarine themselves and swimming beside these huge weapons was an exhilarating experience. As we swam through an upper hold, we also saw navigational and attack periscopes that the submarine tender was carrying as submarine spare parts. Finally, in one of the holds, Chini showed us piles of china that were literally spilling from a crate.
While the majority of our group dove exclusively in the 100ft range, three of our group, GUE-trained in technical diving, were not going to miss out on the chance to dive a few of the famous deeper wrecks in the lagoon such as the San Francisco Maru and the Aikoku Maru. Preplanning for trimix diving in Truk Lagoon is a must but no longer tremendously difficult to arrange. We had contacted the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop gas blender earlier by email and arranged for several “K” bottles of helium to be reserved for our use. Here again, with very little direction, our “mixologist” Ishi competently prepared our standard gases for our trimix dives.
As a word of warning, don’t expect the costs of helium here to be anything near the costs of helium in North America. You will pay dearly for the gas in third-world countries, when you can get it. However, the extra cost and hassle were well worth it when we began diving on the world-class wrecks of San Francisco Maru and Aikoku Maru.
The San Francisco Maru and the Aikoku Maru are deeper than the majority of Truk wrecks and you should be prepared to dive in the 160 to180ft range to really appreciate them. Being deeper, they are also dived less frequently and are in better condition. Swimming around the three tanks sitting on the San Francisco’s deck at 165ft was for me the high point of the trip. These battle tanks are in pristine condition and somehow managed to remain on the deck while the ship sunk. Each tank held three crewmen, and their small size must have made for very cramped quarters. We spent as much bottom time as we could on the San Francisco and would have liked to spend even more; however, our limited helium had been rationed according to a preplanned schedule and we still had other wrecks to visit.
The Aikoku Maru was our second deep wreck and it was also fascinating. On the stern of this ship a huge anti-aircraft gun still points skyward in firing position as it did on the morning the ship was sunk. Over 700 Japanese soldiers and naval crewmen died when the Aikoku Maru sank as the violence of the attack practically demolished the bow of the ship. It was difficult to even recognize ship structures forward of the bridge and it was easy to understand the loss of life. The wreck itself is amazing to behold and provided some spectacular video footage for our project.
For me, our trip to Chuuk State and Truk Lagoon was easily the most exciting diving I have ever done. The historical significance of the wrecks, coupled with the fact that many of the wrecks sank with nearly full cargo loads, provided a memorable experience that we documented with nearly 20 hours of HD camera footage. As we completed our diving logs, we were amazed to discover that even after a week of non-stop diving, we had explored no more than one-third of the wrecks in the lagoon. We are already planning our return trip to Truk Lagoon with the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop for next year.