Dive Trips: Pacific Odyssey
In November 2008, five members of the Wexford Sub Aqua Club along with members of the Blackwater Sub Aqua Club made the trip of a lifetime to Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia. Here is John Redmond’s account of that fantastic trip….
We got to Truk at ten in the morning and stepped out of the plane in to a very hot oppressive heat. It took ages to get through customs; thank god we were first out and into the building while the others had to queue out on the tarmac. At the time we couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t turned on the air conditioning. Hah! We were soon to find out. Baggage reclaim was unique to say the least. It was a big room with a hole in one end with black rubber flaps through which the bags were eventually flung and no one there to turn them up the right way so as we could read our labels.
We were met by the crew of ‘The Thorfinn’ who loaded our bags onto the back of a truck and then put a young fellow in with them to serve a dual purpose. One, to stop them falling off and the second to stop them from being stolen. Straightaway the hopelessness of engrained abject poverty hits you right between the eyes. Everything was in a world of destitution, the roads; whatever cars were running the galvanised sheeted homes. We stopped outside one house while the driver was deciding on which route to take through a pothole, we could see into a family home. They had no furniture, no chairs, tables or any thing.
There are no grave yards on Truk so you can see graves and crosses where they have buried their family members in the garden, which is surprising as the missionaries has such a strong influence on the islands you would think they would have set up a grave yard. We were picked up at the slipway and brought out to the ship. The Thorfinn was impressive, decent rooms, a spacious relaxing lounge with a 42 “ TV screen with plenty of DVDs and videos. After orientation we were shown to our rooms and told to get ready to go diving.
The first wreck that we dived on was called the ********* Maru; it lies in about 40 mts of water. The first thing that strikes you the water temperature it’s a very warm 30 degrees. Shorts and t-shirt diving! A nice first dive, very much intact with plenty of room to swim through the gangways and there are a lot of big shells in one of the holds. Not a pleasant dive for my as my mask kept flooding and whatever it is about the sea water here it seemed to really burn the bugger out of my eyes and nostrils. Towards the end of the dive I really felt positively buoyant, ya gotta watch out for those aluminium tanks when they get low.
Then at five o’ clock we went on our second dive of the day. This time it was a 15 m dive on a fairly modern ship. The local legend has it that it was used by Ferdinand Marcos the ex president of the Philippines to smuggle gold out of the country. It was then left abandoned in the middle of the lagoon until one day it was seen to be listing. When it was eventually boarded by the local authorities, they decided that it was too far-gone and just sank her. It’s a nice handy wreck with engine room penetration. As it gets dark quickly the second half of the dive was very much a night dive. If you are going to Truk bring a good torch the ones on Thorfinn are very wishy-washy.
We got back to the boat for a rest and to have a BBQ as Friday night is usually the last night for guests and the dives from the previous week are going home tomorrow. Most of the guys spent the time putting vinegar on their jellyfish stings. None for me though. BBQ was a big disappointment, smelled great, burnt on the out side raw in the middle. Lots of rice to fill up on. By 9.30 that night we were all in bed knackered. I think the last time that I was in bed at that time I was seven.
Next morning we were up at 6.30, had breakfast and got ourselves ready for the dive. The dive was on a big Japanese submarine called the I-169, which was lost on 1/4/1944. When an air attack was taking place she dived, but one of her hatches was left open and she flooded leading to a loss with all hands, a crew of seventy. It is a nice easy dive at about 40m but the bow is heavily damaged due to the Japanese setting explosives on it to stop it be raised by the Americans, they tried to raise it themselves but couldn’t. We had a fairly long bottom time of about 25 minutes, which meant I had to go into my pony bottle. The dive brief for decompression was 3 minutes @ 18m, 6 minutes @ 9 and 10 minutes@ 6m, which actually tallied exactly with the Vytec.
Had a rest and then back out at 11.00 to dive the Yamagiri Maru. The ship lies in about 35m of water but she rises up much higher. We reached the start point of the dive at about 20m. We were guided into the wreck through a huge blast hole from a torpedo.
The dive guide brought us through the holds of the ship and down through the gantries and corridors. After a while he brought us into one hold that had big 14 inch shells, that when fired could travel a distance of 20 miles to their target. He then took us into the next hold, as we went in deeper I was trying to figure out where he was going with this as my mask was filling up and regular basis, I tried tightening it, loosening it, clearing it, taking it off and putting it on again, no joy. Suddenly the guide stopped and shone his torch into a jumble of metal beams to reveal a human skull, which has been wedged in place for the last 64 years. A point of interest on a dive now, but he was probably a young man with his whole life before him who didn’t want to be there and who died in absolute terror.
My air consumption on this dive wasn’t great and had to go into my pony bottle. I got John o’ Leary to get the dive guide’s attention to let him know that I was heading to the shot line to ascend. Using hand gestures I tried to find out where the shot line was. He pointed up over the side of the ship and towards the stern. Up and over I went but the viz wasn’t great and no sodding sign of the shotline, which wasn’t great as I was on my pony bottle and didn’t want to have to do a mid water ascent on that especially with deco to do. But got to the shot with John and up we went did our decompression and he had a good look at my mask for me and saw what the problem was.
On the boat afterwards we all agreed that the dive wasn’t handled well. Too many people going through at the same time, which was leading to confusion as some were going in, and others coming out. So a new plan for the afternoon.
Lunch back on the Thorfinn, a kip for those who needed it then back out for the next dive which was on the Shinkkoku Maru. A massive wreck at 500 ft long. We met the top of the bridge at 15m; we then dropped down on to the decks and proceeded along until the guide brought us to a doorway with a ladder going down in to the engine room. Down and down we went through narrow doors and gangways until we hit 33m, which was a far cry from the 15m dive that we were told that we would be doing. My computer was doing a jig because I had a 34% nitrox mix set at a ppo2 of 1.4 I was happy enough to get out of there but I missed seeing the ships infirmary because I wasn’t going to let the dive guide out of my sight just in case I got disorientated and I certainly didn’t have the luxury of endless air to find my way out on my own.
So when we came out into the open again I gave the guide the signal I was heading back to the shotline, which was grand, as I knew that it was at the back of the bridge near the stern gun. This afforded me a nice leisurely swim back stopping off at the bridge on the way to have a look at the telegraphs. Up the line where I met John O’ Leary and back onto the boat. Good dive all in all.
The fourth dive of the day was to be on a tug wreck but when we got to the dive site it was just a carpet of Jellyfish. As poor George’s legs and arms were now beginning to look like a patchwork quilt we decided to go further out to another dive site. This was a fantastic dive. It was on a flying boat called The Emily, a Japanese plane. It has four engines with there propellers still attached. It’s broken in the middle and at the tail but over all a real nice handy 15m dive. What made the dive so good was because we had switched dive sites it soon became a night dive and because the site was relatively small but lots places to poke in around about with 8 torches illuminating from all different angles just made it a visual treat. We headed back to the boat in complete darkness as none of the islands have any electricity. We had dinner at seven and the opportunity to do another dive at 8 but watching the shark circling the boat looking for scraps I decide maybe not!
Up again at 6.00 breakfast at 7 dive at 8. The best dive yet. Loved it! It was on the Nippo Maru, again another armed transport ship. We dropped down the line, which was off the front of the bow, so when we turn to go back upon to ship the bow rose so proud off the bottom so sharp and high it made for an indelible image. As we swam over the railings we passed a mounted machine gun to where we were just about to drop down to the deck the dive guide pulled up another human skull. We swam over past the remains of a lorry hanging over the side to a three man tank just sitting on the deck, how they got three people into it is beyond me, and from the size of it, it leads one to think that a career in the Japanese tank corps was going to be a very short one indeed.
Over through the bridge where we saw the telegraphs out the back and down into the hold, but on the way in to it on the starboard side there are three artillery pieces. We drop into the hold where there are loads of bullets and Saki wine bottles, and from the regularity that we see huge volumes of saki bottles on every dives leads us to think one of the main reasons the Japanese lost the war was not because of the atomic bomb but they were pissed for a lot of the time. On the decompression we had a school of Barracuda accompanying us for a while.
The next dive at 11.00 was on the Heian Maru a huge converted passenger liner 500 ft in length. It was used to supply submarines. We saw torpedoes and radio sets and of course more saki bottles. The viz wasn’t great on this dive and you would need to do several dives to become somewhat familiar with this wreck due to the sheer size of it.
After lunch we headed out for our third dive of the day on the Fujikawa Maru. A great dive, so good that the dive guide said beforehand that we will be doing it twice. We dropped on to the deck in front of the bridge and on down into the engine room which was big, we then followed the guide into the forward hold where the bodies of Japanese aircraft one a Zero. All around were many crumpled oil drums, either from the concussion from the explosions or the pressure of the water. We went up towards the bow to see the very complete gun with loading breech still intact. A lot of very beautiful coral and fish life on it.
The fourth and last dive was pretty crap. The japs had used it to dump a few old truck and damaged landing craft al in all pretty unspectacular. We saw a stingray with two remora fish on it and then a small baby ray. The dive was done in the dark and having no one reference point to get back to the shot we all followed the guide like lost sheep.
Up at 6.30 to wind and driving rain. We headed out to the dive site at 8 as usual, the name of this wreck was supposed to be the Hoki Maru, but as the dive guide doesn’t use GPS just transits off the land he couldn’t find the wreck as it was too misty. So we switched back to finish the wreck that we did yesterday The Fujikawa Maru, again a lovely dive. We went into bridge and down some corridors and into one of the holds where there was a massive torpedo hole, through which we swam out of onto a bright golden sandy seabed. We went up towards the bow occasionally rolling over on to our backs to take in the full scale of this impressively intact up right ship. When you come around the bow you can see the anchor chain still running out from the bow going into the sand still in place from when she dropped anchor for the last time.
We then swam back towards the stern gradually rising as we went to fully appreciate the full scale of the ship, going by the bridge to get back to see the big gun on the stern. Another good dive and well worth the second visit.
As we had spent so much time looking for the Hoki Maru our four dives a day schedule has been thrown off course, so we head back to the Thorfinn for an early lunch. The second dive of the day was on the Gosei Maru. This was a submarine supply ship at a very easy depth, we drop onto the stern at about 3m to see that see lies on her port side. We follow her down along the side towards the bow until we get about half way down the ship where we drop over right under her keel where we find a massive torpedo hole, which is unusual, as torpedo holes tend to be on the side of the ship where they struck. The story on this one seems to be the crew saw the torpedo wake heading towards the ship and then nothing until awhile later when it exploded underneath it!
We swam through the hole into the forward midships hold that contains many torpedo bodies and separate warheads still packed in wooden crates. We poked around in there for a while as we took our time with a leisurely swim back to the propellers that are at about 9m with loads of fish life. On the way back there are plenty of wide openings allowing for easy penetration and a choice of exit points.
The last dive of the day was on a Japanese plane called the Betty Bomber, which lies in about 20m on a nice sandy bottom. They also called the plane the flying cigar, due to the length of it and also while it was a very versatile bomber it was poorly protected by the armour it had, with the result that when hit it tended to burst in to flames …….. A lot!
As you descend on it the plane is seen to be very much intact giving a certain ghostly quality. The nose is slightly broken off to one side and the engines have shot out of their housings further forward of the plane. When you swim through the plane what strikes you is the lack of space that the crew had to operate in. They would have had to crawl everywhere. A very handy dive with easy access, especially through the machine gun ports. Talking to the captain later he says that it was shot down on take off.
Up as usual at 6.30 heading out for the dive site at 8. Today’s first dive is on the Seiko Maru sitting on the seabed at 55m. I’m looking forward to this dive as I am now using two 12 lt tanks to give me plenty of time on the bottom and check out the wreck properly. While many people dive these wrecks on a single 12 the laws of physics still apply the deeper you are the more air you are going to use, especially if you want to do more than go down do a fifteen to twenty minute bottom time just to tick a box and say yeah I‘ve done that.
There is a large torpedo hole towards the stern on the port side at 55m but to cut down on deco penalties I didn’t bother going down to it. We went into some holds that had motor cycle wheels and torpedo bodies. We went into the bridge where you can see wash hand basins, a tiled bath and other bits and pieces. The dive was a nice easy one; we did spend quite a bit of time down there some going down to the props at 55m. My overall dive time was 66 minutes but one of the lads had a 90 minute dive time as he was down deeper for longer, but at least he can say he really saw it and he was carrying enough air to do it.
Dive no. 2 was on the Sankisan Maru but this dive was without Seamus as he slipped on an oil patch just at the top of the ladder and down he went to the bottom. The dive guides said he was lucky not to have broken his neck. This wreck is a monument to the violence of war. We dropped down to the mast at 3m and headed to the stern that had been completely blown off. The ship had been carrying munitions and ordinance for the troops when she took a direct hit and suffered a cataclysmic explosion resulting the greatest mass of tangled metal you are ever likely to see in one spot. We went forward into the holds where there were the remains of a truck and some aircraft engines. The next hold had its floor littered with machine gun bullets and some boxes of hand grenades.
We went forward and had a look at the bow and then back over the rails where we found the remains of another truck. That was it really, interesting to see the power of a huge explosion and the other artefacts of war but then came the icing on the cake. We ascended up the mast to do our safety stop and were presented with the most beautiful corals and fish life. Everybody out stayed their 3-minute stop time by ages. The variety and expanse of colours just had to be seen. I suppose the top of the mast is so close to the surface it lends itself to encouraging all sorts of life that can benefit from the light of the sun.
Dive no. 3 There was nothing much to this dive as it was a last minute switch from another dive site. The viz was the worst yet, a big enough ship that I think was lying on its starboard side. We went into a few holds with saki bottles and large shells nothing to write home about. The only memorable thing about this dive was when I was going back to the shotline I was looking down on the ship but just as I lifted my head up to see where I was going a big jellyfish slapped straight into my forehead wrapping its goddamn tentacles my ears and neck by Jaysus was that sore. I doused myself in vinegar like it was going out of style, but it did the trick.
The Shotan Maru was the first dive of the day it is a most complete wreck sitting upright on the bottom at around 55m. We went back towards the stern in and out through the bridge and in to the holds. There was nothing spectacular about this dive a few engine parts, more shells and bags of cement. The only thing was I switched gasses on the bottom but the computer wouldn’t let me change over, even though I thought I had, it calculated the dive as an air dive hence I had a 70 minute dive time.
There was a problem with the compressor when we got back so we had a nice long relaxing break between dives.
Dive 2 was on the Hoki Maru. This was high on the list for the mechanically inclined divers of the group. Its cargo consisted of bulldozers, lorries, a steamroller propeller blades and aircraft engines. The lorries were particularly nice all neatly parked side by side. The ship is very badly damaged as you head towards the bow but the dive in to the two hold that we were in was worth it alone. As we headed back to the shotline I noticed that my regulator was still giving me a little air after I had stopped drawing on it so I didn’t delay in getting back to it. I had about 20 minutes of deco to do and all was well until about 10 minutes into it the reg just took off and free flowed like nothing on earth. Fortunately I always held back around 50 bar in my main bottle so I just switched back to it and extended my deco time to be on the safe side. Mind you we had a smashing school of batfish to keep us company for a while on the line.
Our deepest dive yet is on the San Francisco Maru that lies in about 60m. The dive starts out not as planned as quite a few of us thought that the shotline was on the bow but it wasn’t it was off the bow by about 15m. As you are going down you tend to focus on the line, it wasn’t until we saw the sandy bottom that we started looking around for the ship, it was off to the right but we had wasted precious air and bottom time getting up to the decks. The first hold that we went into contained row after row of mines. You can see how a direct hit would blow the bow off. The next hold contained lorries parked side by side; one was an oil tanker with its classic 1940’s shape. As we went towards the bridge we could see three tanks just sitting on the deck, similar to the one on the Nippo Maru if not the same. We still can’t see how these were three man tanks.
Because a lot of the dive was done at more than 50m we had to keep an eye on our air consumption and decompression time. Brendan Prendergast had an interesting time on the way up as his reg also free flowed; he had 50 bar in his main bottle but 20 minutes of deco to do. We hung together at 6m when he gave me signal that he was heading back to the spare back up bottle hanging from the back of the boat, but when he got there wasn’t one, the guide had brought it with him to the bottom in case there was a problem down there and the chap up top never replaced it. He buddy breathed with the dive master Nick until they went up to the surface to get another bottle and bring it back down to finish his deco and do a little bit more. Brown underpants all round I would imagine.
The next dive we did was on a Japanese torpedo plane in 40m, the same ones that attacked Pearl Harbour. Not a great dive we had seen it completely in 10 minutes… twice !
The third and last dive of the day was on the Rio De Janeiro Maru a converted passenger liner 460 ft long. She lies on her starboard side in about 30m. The hold was full of boxes of saki crates all over the place. If they weren’t pissed they must have had the DTs. No wonder they couldn’t shoot straight. We went up towards the stern through some of the walkways, because she was a passenger line they were nice and big. We had a look at the props and came back up a long the decks to the shotline. I actually missed seeing the gun, as it was so big I didn’t take in what was in front of me. Starting to get a little spoilt now. San Francisco again tomorrow, can’t wait!
Today they dropped the shotline on the bridge of the San Francisco Maru. We dived through the bridge and came out over the starboard side on top of the two tanks. George Murphy and myself dropped down into the hold with the lorries and moved further back deeper into it where we found an opening. It was large enough to get through but with an eye on decompression versus remaining air and shitty torches we didn’t go in. Moving out of the hold I noticed crates and crates of shells in wooden boxes, four to a box. I passed over the hold with all the mines but didn’t go in. I went back to have a poke around the bridge, as that was where the shot line was. Oddly enough everybody seemed to have the same idea at the same time as we all more or less started our ascent together. After 25 minutes of deco it was back on to the boat and our last Truk dive behind us. Was it all that it was supposed to be cracked up to be? F*** yeah!
Flying out to Palau today for the rest of the holiday, not flying out until the afternoon so a lot of hanging around. The rib that brings us to the dive sites has a protection bar at the back of the boat to stop them from hitting the props. It has been cracked since we got and today it finally broke off so our dive guide Eric has to go down and get it. When he gets back to the boat he tells us there are two Jap zeros below the boat, can you just believe that. Well actually after talking to the captain, he told us that the Japanese officers were forcing their pilots in to their planes during the attacks at bayonet point as they were getting shot down so quickly. But as we were flying today we couldn’t go down and have a look at them.
Anyway we left Truk for Guam and then Palau, which is a definite step up in terms of infrastructure. The hotel is basic but grand and clean. We went to a couple of bars but they were limited with their choice of drinks. The first one that we went into we asked for seven Bud but they only had five and in the next one when we did order seven bud we had exhausted all their bottled beer, they only had cans. God help us!
Picked up at the hotel at 7.45 and we got breakfast down at the dive centre which is where we are going to get it every day. We got on our boat and headed out through these jungle covered rock islands, which are limestone out-crops with massive dense green foliage growing out the top of them. After a an hour or so boat ride we came to a dive site called the German channel, so named because the Germans made a channel in the seabed for a short cut between routes. The portents looked promising when we arrived four dolphins barrelling out of the water like airborne torpedoes accompanied us.
We dropped down on to a reef that was just teeming with fish life, fish as big as ourselves, small fish with the most electrifying colours, turtles, grouper, napoleon wrasse, sharks, whatever, you name it, it was there! It was just like diving in an aquarium; towards the end of the dive we just hooked in our reef hooks and just hung in the current and watched it all go by. Fan-bloody-tastic! After lunch on the boat and a decent surface interval we go on our second dive. Not an awful lot happening on this one, pretty boring actually until the most beautiful event took place. Big manta rays came in to feed on the incoming current.
The current comes up from the deep bringing plankton with it upon which the mantas feed. The were doing the most slow graceful backward rolls, five or six of them, gliding towards you when they would slowly start to pull up exposing the underside of their bodies and then with their mouths wide open funnelling the plankton into their stomachs they would arch over their backs to complete the loop. For the rest of the dive we had a Remora fish swimming in amongst us looking for a host. While they traditionally attach themselves on to sharks, with messrs. Leary, Murphy and Prendergast to choose from it probably decided to settle on something safer, A great days diving by all accounts. When we got into shore we met up with Dermot Keane, a chap from Ireland who runs the dive centre. That night we went out for a Thai meal that came to €27.00 each, with wine and beer.
Up at 8.00 this morning and down to the dive centre for breakfast, which was cooked and waiting for us. They take your order the day before and what time you’re going to be picked up at, so no waiting around. The first dive of the day did not live up to yesterdays at all. We just swam along a reef seeing nothing but small fish. Now they were of course beautiful and decorated with really strong vibrant colours but how many people are going to ask you when you go home did you see any nicely coloured small fish? It’s going to be sharks and big stuff. The dive guide wasn’t impressed, he was heard to be saying ‘300 different species of fish, what does the guy want?’
The second dive however was a huge improvement. We swam along a reef wall until we came to a cut in it that has been made by the currents over the years. There we came upon a bait ball, which is a huge shoal of fish being herded by about five sharks keeping the fish contained in one tight sphere until one of them would be ready to dart into the middle of it to grab what they could. Positioned underneath this bait ball was a monster of a grouper fish, it was the size of three people stacked one on top of the other. The dive guide Jim said the grouper had obviously spotted what was going on and was waiting to see if any scraps fell down to him when the sharks started their attacks. We moved further down the reef until the current started to pick up a bit, so we hooked in to it and watched the sharks patrolling up and down. As we went down to where the boat was going to pick us up we came across what can only be called a garden of lettuce coral teeming with fish life. As one of the boys said it was like diving in an aquarium.
That night we went to the Indian restaurant that was top class, except we ordered too much food. It was on a swivel centrepiece where you could just revolve the inner part of the table to get what you wanted. Sheamus however out did us all by ordering the tandoori mixed grill for two people. He didn’t finish it but he made a fair attempt at getting there. After we went to a bar near the hotel called Kraimers where the barman downloaded Christy Moore, the Pogues and others so we said we’d go back there tonight.
We had a good night last night steaks all round; I had raw yellow fin tuna for a starter called sashimi. Wouldn’t be a massive fan! We went to the island Peleliu where the Americans fought A very big battle during the war. We were warned that the dive in the morning could be quite tricky as the current can be very strong particularly as it passes over the reef it can create a very strong down pull causing you to be dragged down. The depth sounder on the boat couldn’t find the seabed as it is only calibrated to 1,000 meters. Deep!
The dive passed off without incident. The only problem was because of the warning that we had been given we focused in on the dive 110 %. If he moved three inches to the right, we moved three inches to the right. If he scratched his arse, we scratched our arse, with the result that we kind have missed out on the vista laid out before us. Also we had to keep swimming out into blue water so as not to get caught in the down welling.
That ended our Pacific Odyssey.
See Also: SubSea Spring 2009 : Diving the Ghost Fleet of Chuuk Lagoon