Diving in Micronesia: The Ghost Ships of Chuuk

Fujikawa Maru - Dedication plate on Fujikawa Maru. Photo by Flickr/Stephen Masters
Fujikawa Maru – Dedication plate on Fujikawa Maru. Photo by Flickr/Stephen Masters

The Fujikawa Maru (at 111ft) contains Zero aircraft in one hold, transported with their wings removed (they can be seen in the adjoining hold); the instrument panels, joysticks and pilot seats are clearly evident in the slim tubes of the undamaged fuselages.

The deck of the Hoki Maru lies at 150 ft; she contains Caterpillar tractors, a steamroller and other large construction machinery.

Inevitably, there are also human remains; all the wrecks are designated as war graves and tourists are asked to not remove anything while diving. There is a skull clearly visible in one of the shallower wrecks designated safe for sport divers; it has been placed on a shelf by the local dive guides to provide a frisson for the less-experienced adventurer.

The wreck of the Shinkoku Maru has a well-preserved operating theatre deep in its bowels (the only one in Chuuk, as it turns out); the former oil tanker that participated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sank so quickly that surgical instruments and other equipment is still on the operating table, along with a rather theatrical pile of human femurs.

The temptation to souvenir one of the countless artifacts is strong, but the penalties if caught are severe, with good reason. During my stay divers from several nations complained bitterly about the rules; more than a few boasted of the items they’d pilfered from wrecks where no rules applied.

Gas masks and other relics from the Nippo Muru. Flickr/Stephen Masters
Gas masks and other relics from the Nippo Muru. Flickr/Stephen Masters

One said he and his friends regularly dived with a pinch bar to remove portholes and other fittings, which he’d had built into his home as architectural features; he admitted (with not a trace of embarrassment) that those particular wrecks were no longer worth diving on as there was nothing left to see.

Bags are frequently searched when divers are departing Chuuk for home; hopefully their strict regulations will ensure that the experience will be available to others for a few more years at least.

The ocean, however, is not a kind environment for man-made objects; some of our party who dived the site several years ago noticed a marked deterioration of the wrecks and a serious reduction in fish life. There will come a time in the near future when the area is no longer safe for penetrating dives.

The depth of the technical dives demands a slow and steady ascent, with a swap to the Nitrox pony bottle at a depth preordained by a set of tables that must be strictly adhered to. Deep dives are carefully planned before they are embarked upon, with “bottom time” (duration of the time spent on the wreck) and times and depths of stops written on an underwater slate carried by each diver. Stops are made hanging onto a shot line, a rope dropped from the dive boat that is attached to the wreck.

Soft coral on Sankisan Maru.
Soft coral on Sankisan Maru. Photo by Flickr/NOAA Photo Library

Divers must remain as horizontal as possible during the lengthy wait, as that position aids in the elimination of excess nitrogen from the body. If anyone ever invents a waterproof digital reading device, I predict the main users will be tech divers. Forty minutes spent gazing at an invisible ocean floor seems like an eternity.

All divers have an enforced period on dry land for a set time before they can be on an aircraft, otherwise the change in atmosphere can bring on a case of decompression sickness (otherwise known as the bends). So it’s as well that there are activities to keep them amused for the last day of the trip.

For the duration of my stay on Weno, the prospect of developing the dreaded condition – brought on by gases dissolved in the bloodstream while diving converting back to gas (causing bubbles in the body) – caused me to be especially diligent in following the rules.

The most common treatment for the potentially fatal condition is hyperbaric oxygen therapy delivered inside a recompression chamber; all well and good but the one outside the dive shop from which we departed daily was a torpedo-shaped iron device covered with surface rust about the size of a large coffin, with the lid secured by huge bolts.

Safe end-of-trip activities include snorkeling off the resort where I stayed on the main island of Weno; the coral is good and there are several wrecks in very shallow water, visible from the shore, that are accessible without scuba gear.

Kayaking, windsurfing, fishing trips and other water activities are available, and there are sightseeing mini-buses that allow tours of the bomb-damaged former Japanese communications headquarters (now the Jesuit-run Xavier High School), and a huge cannon-like gun bolted to the floor of a mountainside cave hewn by hand, using crowbars, by the Chuukese under the “guidance” of Japanese military personnel.

Day trips are also available to other islands and atolls in the group; visitors can explore the ruin of the original WWII airstrip and snorkel around the wrecks of two aircraft in shallow water.

Tourism is the chief source of income for the locals; the poverty is sobering and many live a subsistence lifestyle. Roads are in an appalling state of repair – the trip from the airport in Weno to the resort took us 45 minutes to travel less than six miles – and the Chuuk custom appears to be to abandon cars if they break down; the roadsides are littered with derelict vehicles.

The Chuukese are mostly friendly but tourists are advised to not venture outside the resort compounds at night. The contrast within the resort area to the lifestyles of the indigenous population is marked. Most of the houses are crumbling concrete with rusting iron roofs, many with enormous holes, and a typical family home has headstones in the yard marking the resting place of loved ones. The influence of the missionary school is evident in the spotless uniforms of schoolchildren.

Access to Chuuk is via Guam; the flight ends on a hair-raisingly short runway – a meager 1640ft. The jolt from the rapid deceleration is rather stimulating,and that’s just the start of the adventure.

Good thing I packed extra adrenaline.

Biography: Maggie Cooper is a freelance food, travel and pop-culture writer whose columns appear weekly in an Australian newspaper. She lives in several locations surrounded by the spectacular natural beauty of Tasmania, Australia’s island state.