Friday, April 29, 2005
A diving trip to the islands of Truk Lagoon
It was still dark on the morning of February 17, 1944, when Japanese radar detected the approach of a large group of airplanes. Those airplanes signaled the commencement of Operation Hailstone, an air assault of unprecedented firepower against the formidable Japanese naval outpost of Truk Lagoon.
Following the First World War, Japan occupied the Micronesian islands, which included the islands of the Truk Lagoon. Truk is the world's largest lagoon. With 140 miles of barrier reef, 11 high islands and only five passages, the lagoon would serve Japan as a naturally protected harbor for the emerging Imperial fleet.
Operation Hailstone would unleash devastating firepower against the Japanese naval stronghold. The carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, Essex, and Intrepid would lead a naval armada of 62 warships and submarines and 500 carrier-based attack aircraft. History has characterized Operation Hailstone as the payback for Pearl Harbor. In reality, Hailstone would pummel the Japanese base with 35 times the firepower that was unleashed against the US Pacific fleet two years earlier at the onset of the war.
Two weeks before Hailstone, the Japanese Navy, sensing an impending US Naval assault, relocated many of their warships, but their merchant fleet was left behind and irreparably crippled. Over 50 ships were sunk, 400 aircraft lost, support and communications facilities destroyed, and thousands of Japanese casualties inflicted.
Sixty-one years later, a group of 14 divers from eastern Massachusetts embarked on a 19,000 mile journey to dive the wrecks of Operation Hailstone — a legacy that was first revealed to the world by Jacques Cousteau in the early 1970s. I was fortunate to be one of them. We left for Truk on March 18. Our trip began with a quick flight to Newark, followed by a grueling 14-hour stretch to Tokyo. A two hour layover at Narita Airport afforded this weary traveler just enough time to dine on a cup of traditional soup noodles and buy a few souvenir bottles of sake. Then, it was on to a four-hour flight to Guam, the air hub for all Micronesian destinations.
Guam is 15 time zones ahead of the Eastern United States and the westernmost outpost of all things American in the world. Replete with a major U.S. military presence, the world's largest K-Mart, and every well-known fast food franchise, we all felt like we were right back home. We had a one-day respite from our travels in Guam, affording me just enough time to acquire a nasty sunburn and to test my aim at one of Guam's many notorious local gun clubs. The gun clubs are patronized by throngs of firearms-deprived Japanese tourists. Then, it was back to the airport. After spending a half hour in airport security explaining the gunshot residue in my luggage, we boarded our last plane for a two-hour evening flight to Truk Lagoon.
Truk is remote and primitive. There are few phones, no television, sporadic electrical service, and few automobiles. Divers provide the only real connection with the outside world. There is no other reason to come here. Upon our arrival, we were quickly escorted to a ramshackle bus and driven over bone-jarring roads to the small boat docks behind the Blue Lagoon Hotel. We boarded a skiff for a short ride out to the Truk Odyssey, the 130-foot live-aboard dive boat that would become our home and oasis for the next week.
The Truk Odyssey
The Odyssey was indeed luxurious. Consistently rated as the world's best live-aboard dive boat, the Odyssey had every convenience we could want. Spacious staterooms, a huge media library, gourmet food, and world-class diving was ours at last.
That night we were briefed by Lenny, the boat captain, on Truk diving. Wreck diving is advanced diving. Wrecks are usually deep, and deep diving is hazardous. The wrecks in Truk are all deep. Two of the wrecks we planned to dive were beyond the maximum130-foot depth limit typically recommended for recreational sport divers. The Nippo Maru sat in 165 feet of water with the ship's deck at 130 feet. The San Francisco Maru, one of the signature wrecks of the Lagoon, sat in 200 feet of water with the deck at 160 feet. Deep diving increases the risk of developing DCS, better known to non-divers as the "bends." Repeated deep diving further increases this risk. We would be diving four-five times per day for six days. Remote Truk, with no modern medical facilities, was no place to get bent.
Wreck penetration also entails numerous risks. There is no way to ascend quickly in an emergency. There is the risk of getting lost inside and running out of air. This risk is much greater than might be thought. Divers entering a wreck can kick up silt in the interior with their fin kicks and even with their bubbles, reducing visibility to zero. Some of the wrecks sit upside down or on their sides further increasing disorientation. After 60 years of deterioration, many of the structures are unstable. Hoses and gauges are easily snagged on rusty metal in narrow passages. In addition, a number of chemical hazards still persist on the wrecks. Aviation fuel, for example, causes caustic skin burns. Then there is the live ordnance, as commonplace as sake bottles, that still sits in the holds of the wrecks, which is every bit as lethal as it was during WWII.
Properly advised, we began our diving the next morning. With over 40 diveable wrecks and each longer than a football field, it would be impossible to dive and see them all. Unlike the cold, dark wrecks of the North Atlantic, these wrecks are now works of great beauty. After 60 years in the nutrient-rich tropical waters of the lagoon, the wrecks of Truk are all encrusted with corals and other marine life. Lionfish hide under the lifeboat davits. Clownfish seek refuge inside anemones on the ships' masts. Sea fans and soft corals create a myriad of colors and textures.
Despite the demands and restrictions of deep diving, I was able to get in 21 dives on 14 different wrecks over six days of diving. Each wreck was special and memorable, but two stand out in my memory. The Fujikawa Maru was a 435-foot cargo ship that had been a passenger liner in the pre-war era. The Fujikawa is considered by many to be the signature dive of Truk Lagoon. The ship sits upright with the stack rising to a depth of 30 feet. The relative shallowness of the Fujikawa has imbued it with all kinds of marine growth.
Coral-encrusted lifeboat davit on the Fujikawa Maru
The holds of the Fujikawa contain all kinds of things including shells, machine guns, and a fuselage from a Zero fighter plane. Corals cover just about all of the exposed surfaces of the ship's exterior.
The San Francisco Maru was my other notable dive. Known as the "Million Dollar Wreck" because of the wealth of artifacts to be found, the San Francisco is also very deep. At 160 feet to the deck and 200 feet to the sand, it is not practical to dive the wreck without mandatory decompression stops. Because of the depth involved, the Odyssey normally does not offer the San Francisco in its diving plans. However, they honored our request to dive the wreck and also offered an alternative for those not inclined to go so deep. In my previous diving experience, I had confined my depths to the recommended sport diving limit of 130 foot and I had very limited decompression experience. In order to prepare for the San Francisco, I did a 145-foot deco dive on the Nippo Maru the day before. The dive on the San Francisco was worth the effort. The ship abounds with war relics. The deck has three tanks on it — one on the port side and two together on the starboard side.
Port side tank on the San Francisco Maru
The San Francisco was the climax of our wreck diving activities in Truk Lagoon. The next night, we left Truk. We had a two-day respite from our travels on the way back in Hawaii, the midpoint on our return. I had considered diving on Oahu, but our time was limited, and I was weary of diving after so many outstanding dives the prior week. Instead we shopped and relaxed now that we were back in civilization and spent the night at a luau. The next day we concluded our trip with a tour of Pearl Harbor, which seemed like an appropriate destination to end our odyssey. Having spent a week observing the remnants of the destruction of the Japanese fleet, we could now reflect on the war's origins and its impact on our own homeland.
Editor's note: Ken Mostello of Hutchins Road is a serious scuba-diving enthusiast.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito