The Ghost Fleet of Operation Desecrate One
Operation Desecrate One
The well-defined, coral-caked bow of the massive Iro is covered with life.
It’s not the darkness below that unnerves me. Nor is it the thought of the dozens of sharks I’ve been diving with on nearby reefs. What’s nagging me is the uneasiness that goes with exploring a tomb. Bathed by soft morning light, I’m descending toward a ship where men spent their last moments, where lives ended in dramatic, violent fashion 68 years ago. Materializing slowly from the blue, the monochromatic details of Iro, a colossal Japanese fleet oiler, abruptly become sharper and more precise.
My uneasiness is trivial compared with what the Japanese must have felt. By late March 1944, most of the Pacific islands had fallen into American hands. The Japanese Navy was all but decimated. What was left was a small number of war ships, tankers, cargo ships, troop carriers and a few seaplanes at anchor within the confusing warren of Palau’s limestone islands. Their sailors must have known the Americans were coming.
Hovering above Iro’s coral-encrusted bow and its huge, circular gun platform, I imagine the morning of March 30, 1944. Early on, American planes appeared over Palau and rained high explosives on the remnants of the Japanese fleet, part of Operation Desecrate One. Sailors aboard the already damaged vessel must have scrambled for lifeboats or dived overboard into the lagoon as Iro met its doom. Over the next two days, almost continuous air bombardments sent at least 60 ships to the bottom.
Stretching into the distance, the ghostly ship is discernible by fractions, its entirety overgrown with sponges, hard corals, oysters and wispy black-coral colonies. The shadows of the open bridge and main superstructure come into view as I proceed. Turning on my focusing lights, the true, vibrant colors of the artificial reef that has taken hold of the deck, its fuel equipment, hatches and portholes are brought to life. Entering a long, narrow companionway beneath the bridge, I navigate above a thick layer of accumulated sediment that coats the dark hallway floor. Fine silt hides any personal effects that may lie in the gloomy rooms opening on either side of the passage.
Exiting the ship’s dim confines back onto the open deck, I float like a troubled spirit above the large engine room lined by catwalks. Adding motion to the eerie scene, a thick school of bigeye jacks swarms near the stern, spiraling around a loading tower that rises into the distant sky. Circling Iro’s stern gun, I realize it’s time to journey forward in time and begin ascending the nearest mast. Like Palau’s terrestrial hardwoods, Iro’s masts present a vertical surface for a host of sun- loving, filter-feeding organisms, and so my safety stop is consumed with critter hunting.
During the surface interval, I marvel at the surrounding peaceful panorama. The mazelike topside scenery is incongruous with the broken skeletons hidden beneath Palau’s inner lagoon. Tough they might not be as aesthetic as Palau’s dramatic barrier- reef drop-offs, the long-lost war wrecks — forgotten about since salvage attempts in the 1940s and ’50s — have gained a following as some of the world’s most alluring underwater vessels. Diving among ruins opens a door to another world, one where sailors once lived, laughed, worked and played. The ships also offer a distinct experience from close-by sites where strong currents, bottomless walls and sharks are the mainstay.
Sixty minutes later, in the middle of Malakal Harbor, I am falling downward again. A sloped anchor line leads me toward the 285-foot Chuyo Maru, rediscovered by Francis Toribiong and Klaus Lindemann in 1989. Possibly the most aesthetic of all Palau wrecks, Chuyo sits upright, much like Iro, so it’s easy to orient myself as I begin to explore. Chuyo’s graceful profile emerges from the aqua-blue lagoon; I view the port side as I head for the deepest part of the wreck, the engine room.
Entering through an open skylight, I find myself surrounded by algae- and silt-covered catwalks, ladders and massive boilers. This is where the vague ghosts of long-gone sailors come alive as I envision engineers scrambling around this three-story room, trying to keep the heart of the ship alive, knowing theirs was a hopeless task.
After a few minutes, I exit and take a spin around the stern, where a gun mounted on the deck — enveloped in oysters, sponges and corals — points into oblivion. I’m here to see as much of the ship as possible, so I have to keep moving, this time along the starboard side past two cavernous holds and up to the freighter’s superstructure. Winding between girders that formed the spacious main structure, I hover over a spot where the captain must have stood before his ship’s life came to an abrupt end. But that ship, now changed, exists still. Where crew and officers lived and worked now thrive invertebrates of all major marine phyla and hundreds of fish species.
Like its sunken counterparts, Chuyo Maru isn’t just a historic recreational dive site. Over decades it has transformed into an artificial reef, providing shelter for prey, food sources for predators, and settlement space for all sorts of marine organisms that, elsewhere in the world, have decreasing natural habitat in which to flourish. Due to optimal depth, warm water temperatures and lack of noticeable currents, the ship’s steel carcass provides ample area for calcareous algae, which in turn provides a surface for corals to begin life. Researchers from other parts of the world have found shipwrecks are often thriving coral communities; over time they become part of the natural environment. Populations of rare corals, corallimorphs, zoanthids and other invertebrates can be enhanced on wrecks, compared with natural reefs. But perhaps the most unexpected advantage of having a host of World War II wrecks on Palau’s lagoon floor is that they can ease human pressure and stresses on overused dive sites such as world-famous Blue Corner, New Dropoff and Ulong Channel.
It’s now the middle of the afternoon, time for the last dive of the day. My boat has moved only a mile from Chuyo — after a surface interval, I drop into one of my favorite sites in all of Micronesia: Lighthouse Channel. Strong currents make this a very different dive than the two previous. Whipping past oversize colonies of Tubastrea corals and a slope of sea whips while shooting toward the channel’s sandy floor, it feels as if I’m flying. In less than two minutes, the current has brought me to a wall, perpendicular to the channel. It’s not a natural reef — it’s the port side of another shipwreck sunk in 80 feet of water. The name of the 100-foot ship — a fishing vessel turned submarine chaser — remains a mystery; it’s dubbed the Buoy 6 wreck. Where current encounters the ship’s vertical structure, it creates a plankton-rich upwelling that provides a reliable feeding spot for small planktivorous anthias and chromis. Lying fairly upright, with plenty of holes, holds and wreckage, the ship offers plenty of protected dwellings where critters have taken up residence. In turn, that draws predators from small to large.
It might be less sizeable than many of the monstrous wrecks here, but it is without doubt the most colorful. Feasting on plankton swept in and out of Malakal Harbor on rising and falling tides, huge gorgonians and inflated, multihued soft corals decorate the deteriorating deck and hull from bow to stern. The flow of water sweeps me along the port side and around the bow into the lee of the wreck, where the current subsides. There I watch the chaotic feeding frenzy caused by the relation of the wreck to the current. Along the leeward hull — amid Tubastrea polyps, sponges and black corals — crawl numerous Blue Dragon nudibranchs, their elongate bodies designed to feed on hydroids. While edging around the stern and checking out the ship’s rudder, I’m caught by a pair of lionfish staring with haughty expressions, daring me to get close with my camera. Nearby, a semicircle angelfish pokes its head out of a hole in the hull then disappears into the twisted innards of the wreck. The ship has been submerged going on seven decades, yet it appears as if it grew naturally over eons, reef-producing organisms growing on its steel bones, colonizing invertebrates spreading through its rigging.
Drifting farther down the channel, I muse over what I’ve seen. The Buoy 6 wreck, like the others, seems a testament to the awesome power of the sea to claim almost any object, and cause it to blossom with energy and life.
Whether they are reminders of past violence or historic landmarks, Palau’s war wrecks are residences for fish and invertebrates now. The sunken Japanese fleet in Palau is one of the world’s most unique sets of ships due to its history, marine-life diversity and accessibility. Of course, the ships are deteriorating with time, as saltwater corrodes and continuously eats at the once-mighty vessels. As the years go by, these ships will be swallowed completely by the lagoon, fading away as if they were merely legend. With great respect and a feeling of having explored bits of living history, I surface, always remembering the past.
When to Go: Palau’s wrecks are accessible the entire year, even in inclement weather.
Diving Conditions: Water temp runs between 82 and 84 degrees year-round. Visibility is 30 to 90 feet, but varies with weather, tides and dive sites.
Operator: Sam’s Tours Palau, Fish N Fins or Palau Dive Adventures can take you to every known wreck. Before you go, let your operator know you want to concentrate on wrecks. 10 wrecks to consider: Iro, Chuyo Maru, Buoy 6 Wreck, Teshio Maru, Gozan, Jake seaplane, Ryuku Maru, Helmet Wreck, Bichu Maru and Amatsu Maru.
Price Tag: Seven nights' accommodations wuth five days of two-tank diving start at $900, depending on where you'd like to stay.
5 Tips for Shooting Wrecks
1. Be Picky. Go for a single part of the ship — for instance, the engine room — and concen- trate your efforts there. Make sure your guide knows what you want.
2. Use Ambient Light. Available light is usually the only way to show the whole wreck.
3. Use Divers. A model in the frame provides scale: that 20-foot propeller won’t seem so large without a reference point.
4. Careful of Sediment/ Backscatter Layers of silt can degrade visibility instantly — watch what you touch. Every exhalation also can bring down overhead sediment.
5. Be land based. Live-aboards only occasionally do wrecks.
Want the Complete package? To execute this story, photographer Ethan Daniels used a Canon 5D MkII; Aquatica housing; TLC arms; and two Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes.