|Photograph by Chris Crumley.|
The man's skull was wedged into the crook of two steel girders, blasted into the wall of the engine room, and it stares out at you, 60 years later, from yellow eye sockets, magnified by depth. I swam closer, careful to breathe slowly and smoothly, not to panic. The sailor, some say he was the chief engineer, had most likely been thrown back by the force of a 2,000-pound bomb. Only after much time did his body drop away from his head. The water is green in the engine room of the freighter Yamagiri Maru, 91 feet down, flecks of algae stirred up by our fins. If we switched off our dive lights, it would be pitch-black.
I put my face almost next to the skull, not out of disrespect, I hope, and I certainly did not want to tempt fate by embedding the image of the man's screaming face in my memory, the way his head had been embedded in the wall. I did it because I just wanted to feel, to understand, what had gone down that day in February 1944 when the Allies, in an attack known as Operation Hailstone, used 30 waves of carrier planes to strike Truk Lagoon, Japan's staging area for much of its Pacific theater. More than 60 major ships and some 250 warplanes were sunk in two days, in a place thought to be impregnable by the Imperial Navy.
My cousin, Rear Admiral Wreford Chapple, took out the first Japanese ship of World War II, the Hayo Maru, as a young submariner, 2nd Lt. Captain of the USS-38. He once told me how, years after the war was over, he would walk into his bedroom closet in Coronado, Calif., and not stop screaming until his wife woke him up and led him out. Another cousin of mine had been a surgeon, operating in makeshift hospitals constructed under the sands of these islands as the battles raged on the beaches above. You learn to make tough decisions quickly under those conditions. So I looked at these wrecks with a diver's awe--this is the Valhalla of underwater defeats--but also with a mix of emotions, anger and, frankly, finally, a horror for dying this way. Everybody's a hero in death.
We had entered the ship through the torpedo hole 50 feet down on the starboard side--the Yamagiri Maru lies to port--and swam out and under the bridge, back through another blast hole and up the increasingly claustrophobic interior. It was like cave diving, but with more gnarly metal things to hang you up. I checked my hoses, looking up constantly to make sure I was not about to whack my head against the girders. I felt as if I were inside my own video game, spooked but engaged.
We swam out of the engine room's hatch, dive instructor Warren Webster, a former underwater demolitions expert with the British army, covering our rear, and into a rush of filtered light. Webster pointed down. It looked like a jumbled pile of huge lipsticks, but these were 14-inch warheads destined for battleships, and then we began to dodge little blue jellyfish thrown at us by the slight current. We rose over the top of the stern and stared at the single gargantuan propeller forged in phospho-bronze, as valuable today as gold, and then we wafted our way to the surface of the lagoon after safety-stopping for five minutes to off-gas, and in my case, sort out the emotions.
|A skull peers out from the Yamagiri Maru, sunk by the Allies in Operation Hailstone. Photograph by Tim Rock.|
The day had begun with a shakedown dive to the Shinkoku Maru, sunny and full of fish and exotic soft corals, as if Wyland, the painter of underwater scenes, had gone goofy and thrown cans of Sherwin-Williams at the 500-foot-long hull. I had noticed the little things at first, anemones and clownfish; skipjacks hanging in the water like an undulating silver ladder; opal sweepers; angelfish; fluted oysters; porites corals, which look like twisted, pocket-sized pipe organs; and sea whips, which I misunderstood to be cables sticking out of the hull, thickened by time. These whips fit well on a shipwreck. And then I came upon the massive bow gun and was reminded that this beautiful sunken reef--artificially sunk, you might say--once supplied oil for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway, too. Shinkoku means "divine country," a sinister meaning in the winter of 1941, a phrase softened, I think, by the spotted eagle ray trailing me alongside the superstructure this morning, its finely spotted gills flapping like the keys of a syncopated piano.
Strange, all these life forms on a death ship--a tanker on fire, men screaming, caught in holds--now a cheerful nursery for a million reef fish.
Topside, Webster explained that the hanging ladder of skipjacks was defensive in nature. We had not seen the shark that was surely there. We pulled anchor and scooted high-speed through the islands, some steeply mountainous, others almost spongy with canopy forests, in a custom Trukese launch powered by two rowdy 90-horsepower outboards. Maybe it was the residual nitrogen, but the clouds in Micronesia are a psychedelic vision in white: volcanoes of vanilla, space stations of cumulus, whales spouting on the horizon. It was like wearing 3-D glasses while looking up at heaven.
As we drew close to the anchorage for the Fujikawa Maru, a rival boat of fishermen, or looters, charged away. We flopped over and floated down, through the cross-deck girders, floor after floor, the wooden decking long gone, till we reached--and it is a phrase that works for me--the bowels of the ship. Then we swam far below the bridge house and into the engine room, where huge piston cylinders, or steam exchangers, sat open like tin cans. We swam relatively quickly, with so much space to cover. The goal was the No. 2 hold, where an intact Zero Fighter lay. The plane was bigger than I had expected, with a wingspan of about 50 feet and two cockpits. I hovered over the copilot's seat and then, for the first time that day, disturbed something. It was a metal flask twice the size of a Mateus bottle, a flagon in treasure-hunter talk, sitting there on the seat, as if the pilot needed many stiff drinks to go kamikaze, as many reputedly did. I picked up the bottle, only guessing which part of the ship it had really come from, and then gently put it back.
I was down to 1,000 psi. I followed my bubbles to the safety stop. Fifty feet below, Webster suddenly called me back, making the caribou-horn sign for shark, vertical hand on top of head. It was a reef shark, sleek and skittish like a cat, tucking back and forth between open water and Webster's face. Webster wanted everybody down low and flat. These landlord sharks are usually no big deal, but getting flat, to decking or reef, Webster would tell me later, was a safety measure, because in his experience sharks prefer to attack from below. Paranoia in the service of safety is no vice, I say. We emerged a few minutes later, the shark hanging like a gray suit off in deep water.
On the 737 back to Guam for the transfer to Palau, I sat next to a turtle hunter from Yap. He told me that each week he speared three hawksbills, receiving $400 per turtle. I took this as a bit of a fish story. The man wore a lei around his forehead and in his lap cradled a palm purse encrusted with cowrie shells. He sported many tattoos and, in the little basket, a supply of green betel nuts. Pulling out a small curved knife (questions about airport security crossed my mind), he carved a couple of nuts and offered me some. Betel gives clarity and a little kick, he said in as many words, but I didn't break a sweat. I stared long at the stewardess, to test the clarity claim. She looked as pretty after chewing as she had before, but not any better. Later I was told I should not have declined the powdered lime and tobacco mix, which was part of the ritual chaw, because lime activates the betel.
|The Rock Islands form an intricate limestone maze in Palau's southern lagoon. Photograph by Tim Rock.|
Best not to be too animated under water, I think. Next morning by 9 a.m., I was surfing the wall at New Drop-Off, 70 feet down, feeling like a Buddha sitting in a blue sofa chair, my fingers folded and pointed, floating on the open aquarium's conveyor belt. I moved past stiff red branching fans, peacock groupers, anemones and clownfish, endless schools of snapper. Occasionally a white-tip shark lolled up from the gathering blue, cat-eyed and bored. Until the last few minutes, however, this seemed to be a place for macro and corals. I made a game of hunting wormy nudibranchs, oily bits of undulating brushstrokes only a few inches long, as wild in color as tree frogs in a rain forest. As I was coming up, I watched two white-tips chomp at least one snapper, a fairly rare daytime feed. A sluggish Napoleon wrasse smoothed over for missed chunks.
The place for the big stuff proved to be Blue Corner, which I dived the next afternoon. We did German Channel first, in the morning. German Channel has a safe, sandy bottom. I got to observe a turtle-feeding station, where a three-foot remora sucked the back of a hawksbill; I also saw a cranberry-red leaf-fish camouflaged in the coral and two feather-tailed stingrays, six-foot strange guys with raised, stealth-bomber skulls and tired-man eyes. The stingrays were cuddling, or something more fun, or else sleeping. I am not yet an expert on the lower chordates.
At lunch we snorkeled around a wire cage stuffed with chambered nautiluses that had been baited with chicken carcasses and brought up from about 450 feet. These elegant ochre-and-white-shelled fossils have survived from the time land was water.
Then it was time for the Corner, which many consider to be one of the best dives in the world. As two gray reef sharks looked up, I slipped my reef hook from my pocket. The simple hook snugs under a solid hunk of dead coral at the current edge of the drop-off, and you hold onto a few feet of parachute cord, kiting around the pivot point, after puffing a little air into your BC. I felt like an alien hooking onto the projection house at a drive-in movie theater, watching the show all around: gray reef sharks, white-tips, drifting mantas, escalators of barracuda. The sharks were here, I was told, not to feed but to conserve energy and gain easy oxygen, riding the currents the way hawks surf thermals. At nightfall, the real killing would begin.
A Napoleon wrasse eyed me up close. Napoleons, one of the signature fish in Palau, have jerky chameleon eyes that snip-snap around in their sockets. They are up to seven feet long, a sort of muddy neon green, with protruding chins. Their sad, blasA© eyes could melt the heart of all but a chef. Smuggled Napoleons command $60 a pound in Hong Kong and are a popular menu item in Koror, the capital of Palau. At the Dragon Tei restaurant, for instance, the tasty Napoleon can be had poached, sautA©ed or fried in chunks with cheese, "Heidi style." I opted for snapper the night I was there, because the alternative would have been like eating the family dog, if your dog were a giant Newfoundland.
On the way back to the dock at Malakal Harbor on Koror, we stopped by Jellyfish Lake, one of 70 marine lakes and coves in the Rock Islands scattered about Palau's southern lagoon. Here, millions of mastigias jellyfish appear to have lost their sting, and it was like bathing in a tub of clear tapioca. There were cardinalfish and gobies, and hundreds of tourists from Taiwan in life jackets, too. Some could not swim, and many screamed and coughed through their snorkels.
Before dinner, I went for a two-hour paddle to the mouth of the more open ocean. Rocketing by in a dive boat, the mushroom-shaped Rock Islands seem scalloped at the waterline with a butter knife, which is why they appear to float so ethereally. But up close, by kayak, I could see that these cuts were deep, four to six feet, and sometimes as tall. It's not the tide but bio-erosion, constant nibbling by chitins and sponges and hungry mollusks, that carves the indentations. Inside, past shallow, encrusted entrance reefs, I discovered that some of these islands held lakes where flat corals grew wondrously large, protected from tidal action.
|Napoleon wrasse, Palau's signature fish. Photograph by Tim Rock.|
I also explored some amusing bars on Koror. For the bohemian sailor in us all, there's Kramer's, with its world-class drunken intellectuality; the Marina, should you wish to cool off with a night dive 10 feet from the tables; or the Storyboard, for guilelessly obscene wood carvings the length of the bar. But, for the nitrogen-sated, which is half the town, it's hard to stay up past nine.
The next morning, I cabbed over to the Palau Pacific Resort, where, unknown to most military historians, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf once came inches away from being assassinated by a falling coconut, according to a cameraman friend who happened to be seated nearby. This day, I wanted to have breakfast with Al Giddings, the underwater director of photography for Titanic and consultant to the upcoming MGM picture, Into the Blue, who was in Palau to host the second Underwater Photo Festival. I thought he might provide a straight answer about that skull--you remember--the one 91 feet down in the engine room of the Yamagiri Maru.
The thought had crept up on me, after a week's diving, that maybe the old skull, which was certainly real, had nevertheless been "salted"; that is, brought up from another part of the ship, or from another wreck, to thrill naive writers. Could be that the killing joke was on me.
"No," smiled Giddings, who is a thick-bodied, measured-speaking man in his 60s. "There's been some of that, but a ship would go down, and if there was any air trapped, the bodies could wind up in all sorts of positions, based on tide and other factors. When we first entered the I-169 submarine in Truk Lagoon 40 years ago, about 60 of the Japanese crew had ended up in the engine room. We went through the hatches, and the whole top of the diesels was full of the remains of the crew. So your skull could have found its way there naturally."
Two days later, at dawn, I hopped a bush plane for Ngeaur, an isolated southern island. The pilot was a jolly, barefoot fellow who chewed betel and made a perfect landing on the gravel runway. We saw dugongs, rare manatee-like creatures, on the way down, and, later, monkeys trapezing through the ohia trees; relatively giant clams right in the small harbor; and big monitor lizards scampering over the grave markers of the Japanese war dead. That night, I hunted geckos and tree boas with a scientist from the Smithsonian who was in the islands collecting specimens. Next morning I flew back home, via Palau and Guam. Someone told me a story about two tourists who scheduled only two days in Palau. They were crying when they got back on their plane. They couldn't bear to leave. I left smiling. But I'll be back.
|Thick with corals and anemones, the massive Shinkoku Maru is the second largest wreck in Truk Lagoon. Photograph by Walt Stearns.|
Water Conditions > Because Micronesia sits atop the equator, water temps are in the low 80s (from 82 to 86 degrees) year-round. Expect consistent, triple-digit visibility in Palau. Vis can sometimes be lower inside Truk Lagoon.
Weather > This close to the equator there's little seasonal variation, so Micronesia's climate is always warm and humid. Nighttime lows hover around the mid-70s while daytime highs approach 86 degrees.
Dive Permits > On Palau, the $15 dive permit to dive Koror is included in most packages, but permits for Peleliu and Babeldoab will cost $20 extra apiece.
Entry Documents > Though you only need proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate and photo I.D., a passport is strongly recommended.
Electricity > 110 volts, 60 cycles, like the U.S. and Canada.
Currency > There's no need to change money in Micronesia as the U.S. dollar is the accepted currency.
Departure Tax > $15 for Chuuk and $20 for Palau.
For More Information > For detailed information on Micronesia dive operators, comprehensive travel guides, special dive deals and recent trip reports submitted by users, click on TripFinder at the top of our home page, www.scubadiving.com.