It's completely quiet.
No one else is around me and I'm hovering above the deck of a behemoth shipwreck--the Nippo Maru--surrounded by the litter of war. Large artillery guns lie scattered across the deck as if haphazardly tossed there like children's toys, while beneath me in the open cargo hold sits a chaotic jumble of electrical equipment, china and water tanks. When this vessel, a World War II Japanese freighter, sank in 1944, she was besieged by American dive bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, and looking at the carnage, it's easy to imagine the staccato of machine gun fire, the descending roar of aircraft engines and the deafening explosions of torpedoes finding their mark.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of something large moving near me. I look up to see a ghostly apparition soaring just above a skyward-pointing howitzer to my right. In the Nippo Maru's final moments, the flying object overhead would've been a Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter, TBF Avenger torpedo bomber, or Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. Today, the object is one of the ship's current inhabitants--a spotted eagle ray, gracefully performing a fly-by while silhouetted by sunlight.
Like every wreck in Chuuk Lagoon, the Nippo Maru is a study in contrasts. The sharp edges of her violent end have been softened by 60-plus years of steady coral growth, and the surrounding calm blue water is the epitome of serenity, not violence. And like thousands of divers before me, I departed after a week-long dive excursion changed in my perceptions. I came in search of wrecks, but found so much more.
Treasure Trove of Wrecks
The tiny island nation of Chuuk, located in the Central Pacific, about 700 miles north of Papua New Guinea, confidently bills itself as the "World's Greatest Wreck Diving Destination," and nobody's disputing it. During World War II, the Japanese seized Chuuk and used its natural deep-water lagoon as a naval base. During Operation Hailstone, which took place on Feb. 17 and 18, 1944, the Nippo Maru and pretty much everything thing else the Japanese floated or flew plummeted to the bottom of the lagoon in the fierce onslaught of American air power. Although the Japanese sensed an assault days earlier and moved many of their combat ships from Chuuk Lagoon, their massive freighters were sitting ducks. More than 220,000 tons of vessels and cargo plunged to the bottom of the ocean, unwittingly creating a treasure trove of wrecks for future generations of divers.
While it's easy to see why dedicated wreck hounds sniff out Chuuk, the vessels' history-laden hulls are impressive enough to lure even the most hard-core reef and marine life lovers who typically turn up their masks at metal carnage. With the abundance of hard and soft coral overgrowth on Chuuk's wrecks, there are times I can't distinguish the sunken vessels from healthy coral reefs. And eye-catching marine life, from hawksbill turtles and eagle rays to pink anemonefish and yellowtail damsels, which now make these wrecks their homes, is a compelling added bonus. Add tropical waters and a healthy ecosystem, and you've got a unique dive destination that appeals to all kinds of divers.
Diving the Living Time Capsules
I'm eager to dive as many wrecks as I can during my stay, so I book a berth on the live-aboard Odyssey. Moorings allow her to float just above the wrecks without damaging the aging structures. It's like diving off your back porch into history. The boat's six guides are eager to share each wreck's story and highlight key locations in their dive briefings. We dive the shallower wrecks early in the trip and save the more challenging ones for the end. But no matter what your skill level, the Odyssey's dive guides are always up for taking you on a tour of a wreck, should you ask for one.
Diving Chuuk is like mixing modern History Channel programming with Jacques Cousteau's documentary Silent World. In 1969, Cousteau and his son Philippe, aided by Chuukese diver Kimiuo Aisek, were among the first to dive these wrecks. Cousteau's documentary helped launch Chuuk's dive tourism industry, which today consists of a small number of land-based and live-aboard options--including the Blue Lagoon Resort, run by Aisek's descendants. Aisek himself was on Chuuk during Operation Hailstone and personally witnessed many of the Japanese ships sinking. One of them was the Unkai Maru, a 300-foot-long freighter, which was mostly empty at the time of her sinking. Gas masks and boots--grim reminders of war, are in her forward hold. A deck gun that has, curiously, a British manufacturer's markings is on her bow, at about 100 feet. As I prepare to ascend from her deck level, I see a group of divers heading back to the superstructure to make their ascent. But because I notice the Odyssey's stern is directly above my head, I swim up the forward mast, which reaches up to about 50 feet, instead of heading aft. From the top of the mast, I'm planning to free ascend to the boat's hang bar at 15 feet. Then I find an added bonus for taking this improvised route.
With a rebreather on my back I slowly make my way up the coral-encrusted mast, free from the noise of bubble exhaust. I look closely for small critters like nudibranchs as I go. Then, to my complete surprise, I see something much larger than a diminutive sea slug--a hawksbill turtle, which has selected the top of the mast as its perfect place for a mid-morning nap. Because of my stealthy approach, the turtle is completely unaware of my presence--until I start firing off my camera's flashes. Then the turtle awakens and looks at me with sleepy eyes. It studies me for a while and then gracefully swims away. While the hawksbill encounter is a one of a kind during my visit to Chuuk, I regularly encounter other varieties of marine life. Anemonefish populate all the wrecks and yellowtail demoiselles are a staple in the cast of creatures. The ubiquitous demoiselles look like small blue anthias and sometimes gather in large schools to feed on the passing plankton.
Myriad of Marus
As on many of the wrecks, the 450-foot Kiyozumi Maru has a collection of artifacts placed near the ascent line by the dive guides, giving divers something to look at while they off-gas. In her heyday, she was a freighter/passenger liner, but she now rests on her port side and ranges in depth from a shallow 40 to 100 feet at the sand. A steering wheel, sheets of silver-colored metal with Japanese Kanji characters and a case of thick bottles that appear to once have contained medicine, are among the Kiyozumi's artifacts. I watch yellowtail demoiselles use these bottles for cover, as they might with coral heads. As predators like jacks and barracudas swim past, the smaller fish dive into, or between, the nearest bottles.
While exploring this wreck and other incredible time capsules, we find torpedoes, mines, trucks, bulldozers, tanks, planes, guns, ammunition, medicine, periscopes, gas masks--and tons of beer bottles. I'm shocked to see how much beer the Japanese seemed to be hauling into battle. Each ship we explore seems to have at least one cargo hold loaded with brew. By the looks of it, you might think the sailors were headed for a fraternity party, not the throes of a battle. As I find the bottles, I wonder: Were the Japanese commanders trying to keep the enlisted men motivated by plying them with beer, especially after the tide of the war had turned and was surging against them?
The Shinkoku Maru, which sits upright in 125 feet of water, with her main deck at 65, is another place where bottles are prominent. With the advantage of being able to do multiple dives here, I peruse her wheelhouse's roof, with its collection of artifacts, including china, teacups, machine parts, and a case filled with bottles. A red cross is clearly visible on the side of the case, now marred by the persistent scraping of algae-grazing fish. A redbreasted wrasse, a scavenger, seems to have claimed this spot as his territory. It persistently patrols the route in and around the artifact collection and occasionally checks out its reflection in my camera's lens. This vessel also had a hospital on board, and while its intact operating table is a highlight, I get a glimpse of the most macabre reminder of war. Several human femurs (leg bones) are displayed on the table like a gruesome decoration. Dive guides here tell me human remains were once commonly found in Chuuk's wrecks, but recently, after the Japanese news media reported divers handling them, local dive operators agreed to move the remains they knew of out of sight.
Other wrecks, like the Rio de Janeiro Maru (which has an entire hold filled with beer bottles) and Heian Maru, were built as passenger liners, then pressed into wartime duty and used as submarine tenders, while the Shinkoku Maru was built and used as a tanker. Each vessel is so massive that even with 16 divers in the water, we hardly ever cross paths with another buddy team. On the Heian Maru, periscopes can be seen on her promenade deck, while her forward cargo hold has torpedoes 20 feet long and 2 feet in diameter that, over time, have fallen out of their mounts and stick into the silty bottom like lawn darts in someone's back yard. The 440-foot passenger liner Yamagiri Maru doubled as a freighter and lies on her port side. While exploring this shallow wreck's engine room, a guide points out a skull--which has taken on the same rust color as the ship's metal--embedded in the wall where an explosion planted it.
The Rio de Janeiro Maru rests on her side in 115 feet and tops out at 40. Her rear cargo hold is filled with a precariously tilting stack of beer bottles, and small coral heads grow on her side. Guides have placed collections of artifacts around the large expanse of hull that now lies horizontally. But don't feel guilty if you can't remember everything you see and where you see it. Without a video camera to record your dive, it's a nearly impossible task to accurately catalog everything. That's why divers' post-dive dialogue after several days may go something like this:
"Did you see the telegraph?"
"I think so ... Do you mean the one on the bridge or the stern?"
"There was a telegraph on the stern?!"
"I'm not sure. I must be thinking of that other wreck, the ... uh ... something something Maru? You know, the one we dived yesterday ... Or was that two days ago?"
"I don't know. I'm not even sure if I was at the stern or the bow. I never made it all the way to ... to whichever end I was exploring ..."
My advice? Be meticulous about writing in your logbook each wreck's highlights. If you take photographs, that'll help you correctly identify your images later on.
At 433 feet, the cargo ship Fujikawa Maru isn't one of Chuuk Lagoon's biggest wrecks, but she's definitely one of its highlights. It takes us several dives to explore her. Inside one of her holds we see the remains of at least five Japanese zero fighters in various states of disassembly. In another hold we find artillery shells, rifles and gas masks. There is plenty to see around every corner.
So with reasonably high expectations, I dive the Fujikawa Maru a second time. This time, my buddy and I follow our guide into the ship's engine room. We easily navigate our way into the wide-open space at the ship's center. From there, we make our way down a short flight of stairs into a hallway where we find a small door leading to the entrance of the ship's machine shop. My buddy and the guide motion for me to peek my head in first. I oblige. As I look around the corner, I'm startled by what looks to be a pair of mechanical eyes staring back at me from only a foot away. It's an air compressor that used to power the tools in the machine shop. I'm later told the compressor is affectionately named "R2D2" for its resemblance to the fire hydrant-shaped robot character of Star Wars fame.
At first I see only a mild "family" resemblance to R2, but the longer I look at the compressor, the more personality I see it taking on. The staring "eyes" I see are actually two gauges that used to indicate the system pressure. Other fittings just beneath the gauges form a composition resembling a nose and mouth. In a way, the compressor looks more human than robot.
After taking a few photos, I delve deeper into the machine shop and allow the others to get a good look at R2. Inside the shop, a small, square room with rust-colored walls, ceiling and floor, I find a neatly arranged tool bench with wrenches still hanging in descending order of size, and a box filled with rusty, spare fuses. I'm eerily feeling as if I've just been transported back to 1944. I forget for a moment that I'm exploring a wreck and feeling more like I'm in a mechanic's attic.
After circling the room and bidding adieu to R2, we swim out the small doorway through which we entered. As I scale the small staircase leading back to the engine room, I look up to see an inspirational sight I won't soon forget. Heavenly beams of sunlight cut through the skylights and doorways of the four-story room, illuminating delicate-looking beams and catwalks crisscrossing the open space above like steel spider webs. The Fujikawa Maru's exceptionally tall, narrow vertical space is shaped much like a cathedral's, and in the engine room's lower levels, where the ship is more intact, doorways lead to small dark spaces like chapels adjacent to a medieval church's nave.
The beauty of the scene and the moment transcends everything--the firestorm that long ago sunk this ship, the distance I've traveled to get here, and my thought that one day the Fujikawa Maru will cease to exist.
The graceful, passing eagle rays will continue to glide by, oblivious to the folly of man that long ago created this steel, coral-encrusted reef that has become their home. Eventually, though, the ship will likely decay back into the sand on which she now rests. But that's far in the future, just as the rumblings of war responsible for her sinking are in the distant past. So for right now, I'll savor as much as I can, the overwhelming aura of history and tranquility.
Beyond the Lagoon, Chuuk Shark Feedings Are a Break From the Norm
Halfway through the week of wreck exploration, we try a radical and unexpected change of pace. We take a break from methodically touring engine rooms and sifting through cargo holds for the fast-paced action of a shark feed. Yes, it's true, they're offered in Chuuk, where it's easy to forget what diving destinations are like without wrecks. Perhaps that's why this shark feed is offered, to show there's more here than only wreck diving. This shark feed is outside the barrier reef, beyond the protected confines of Chuuk Lagoon, and it's here that the Odyssey crew stages a show similar to ones in the Bahamian waters of New Providence and Grand Bahama. Minutes after the crew drops down a frozen tuna, dozens of reef sharks and a silver-tip or two fiercely converge on the bait. Within moments, the bait is eagerly devoured. I don't care how many times I've seen shark feeds in my dive life--the high-voltage action never gets old.
Our appreciation also goes out to the crew of the
Without their detailed dive briefings, the history of these wrecks wouldn't have come alive as vividly as it did.
Chuuk Lagoon Resources
Water temps are in the high 70s to mid-80s year-round. Vis is about 60 feet in Chuuk Lagoon.
Mid- to high 80s year-round. Rainy season is April to December.
International flights to Chuuk (TKK) connect through Guam (GUM) and Honolulu (HNL). Approximate flying times: 5 hours from Los Angeles to Honolulu, 7 hours from Honolulu to Guam, 2 hours from Guam to Chuuk.
A passport is required.
Currency is the U.S. dollar. One-week Chuuk live-aboard trips start at $2,695. Departure tax is $15.
Chuuk is 15 hours ahead of New York.
110 volts, 60 cycles, same as the United States.