Diving in Micronesia: The Ghost Ships of Chuuk

Diving Chuuk - Kiyosumi Maru - Gas mask. Photo by Flickr/Stephen Masters
Kiyosumi Maru – Gas mask. Photo by Flickr/Stephen Masters

The poor and the rich jostle side by side as the airport transfers ferry gadget- and cash-laden tourists through areas of great poverty, skirting the bones of buildings devastated by US bombs dropped during Operation Hailstone (sometimes mistakenly called Hailstorm) in February, 1944 and others destroyed by mudslides after cyclones.

Chuuk has endured a complex history, having been colonised and controlled by various nations since the 16th century. The Spaniards were early visitors who claimed the Caroline Islands (as the group was then named). Spain later sold the group to Germany, who lost it to the Japanese Empire following a mandate by the League of Nations after World War I.

The location of the island group sealed its fate during WWII; it was perfectly positioned to serve as the Empire of Japan’s heavily fortified main base of operations in the South Pacific theatre. Chuuk, with its calm protected lagoon, became the temporary home of a great portion of the Japanese fleet.

The Unkai Maru, a former freighter, resting upright on an even keel. Flickr/Matt Kieffer
The Unkai Maru, a former freighter, resting upright on an even keel. Flickr/Matt Kieffer

When the US discovered its location they unleashed a massive retaliation for Pearl Harbor over three days that sent many of the requisitioned Japanese merchant navy ships to the bottom, along with their crews and cargo. The previously pristine shallow tranquil waters of the lagoon were littered with wreckage and bodies.

Many of the ships sank in an upright position and all the wrecks have, in the past 70 years, been covered with spectacular hard and soft coral growths, sponges, seaweeds and other marine life, although they are still clearly recognizable as marine vessels. Brilliant tropical fish swarm around gas masks, bedpans, canvas shoes, sake flasks and live ammunition clearly visible on the decks and in the holds of the sunken fleet.

Wreck Diving in Chuuk

Many of the wrecks are classified as “penetrable” – they are open enough for sport divers with no wreck-diving experience to explore holds and passageways.

Tech divers with more training under their weight belts can enter an eerie world where time stands still.

Bathrooms with not a crack in their white porcelain tiles and urinals; galleys with pots and other cooking equipment littering the floor; army vehicles, planes in holds, and companionways and narrow staircases festooned with lush growths of seaweed and soft coral lie in wait for divers who have the necessary training and equipment.

Fujikawa Maru - Telegraph. Photo by Flickr/Stephen Masters
Fujikawa Maru – Telegraph. Photo by Flickr/Stephen Masters

The San Francisco Maru sits upright on the sandy bottom at 200 ft. The depth allowed me a maximum of 20 minutes to explore the holds in which most of the relics lie, followed by a lengthy ascent to allow for the necessary decompression stops.

Logistically it’s not an easy dive; divers carry twin tanks on their backs and a “pony” bottle (a smaller capacity tank) filled with a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen – Nitrox – slung under the left arm. Some choose to also carry unwieldy camera rigs with powerful lighting equipment.

All the gear takes a heavy toll on the back; the first time I donned the rig I remember thinking there was a distinct possibility that the weight would cause me to sink in an uncontrolled descent to the ocean floor like a very large and not terribly graceful stone.

Logistically, its not an easy dive. Flickr/Matt Kieffer
Logistically, it’s not an easy dive. Divers carry two tanks on their backs. Flickr/Matt Kieffer

Penetrating the wreck while festooned with all that stuff thus becomes an exercise in calculating if the sheer bulk of the equipment will allow you to fit through doorways and companionways without snagging. For someone who has suffered claustrophobia her whole life, it was a personal challenge that took some soul searching before tumbling backwards over the side of the dive vessel.

Apart from the obvious dangers, a tech diver must be completely confident that they will be able to control any panic they might experience; anything less can, and will, place any dive companions at risk. And there’s no quick escape from that depth.

The dangers are well worth it – the San Francisco Maru carried three Type-95 light tanks (each weighing 7.5 tons), Jeeps, fire engines, torpedoes, sea mines and shells, all largely intact and easily recognizable. Aerial photographs of Operation Hailstorm showed the ship’s stern on fire after attacks by dive-bombers; it is in remarkably good condition for all that.

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