Travel

Ghostly Japanese shipwrecks at the bottom of Chuuk Lagoon

by Manami Okazaki

Special To The Japan Times

When most people think of scuba diving, they usually envision colorful coral reefs, turtles and countless schools of fish. At Chuuk Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia, however, the star attraction is not the abundance of life that exists beneath the waves, but rather the “ghost fleet” of Imperial Japanese vessels lying at the bottom of the ocean.

Widely hailed as one of the best wreck sites in the world, Chuuk Lagoon is home to dozens of military ships and aircraft that were sunk or shot out of the sky during “Operation Hailstone” in February 1944.

Called Truk Lagoon until 1990, the body of water is a popular destination for divers, the most intrepid of whom are likely to be aware of the ties the atoll forged with Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century. Located in the Central Pacific, the islands first welcomed Japanese sailors as early as 1875.

Japan was awarded a mandate to govern Micronesia after World War I when the League of Nations stripped possession of the islands from Germany.

A number of Japanese immigrated to the islands and helped to develop infrastructure, as well as the agriculture and the fishing industries. Schools were established and numerous marriages were recorded between the two cultures — a legacy that is evident in the facial features of some of the locals today.

As Japan became increasingly more militarized in the 1920s and ’30s, naval officers recognized the advantages that the sheltered lagoon offered their fleet in the Pacific, turning the atoll into a heavily fortified stronghold.

Naturally, the lagoon became home to a significant portion of the Imperial fleet during World War II, eventually becoming the primary logistical hub from which naval operations were managed.

Once U.S. forces captured most of the Marshall Islands, they used them as a launching pad to attack the lagoon’s defenses on Feb. 17, 1944. The operation lasted two days, with U.S. planes sinking more than 45 ships and destroying 270 aircraft. Thousands of Japanese troops were killed in the attack and, cut off from the mainland, the survivors faced starvation until Japan surrendered in August.

Famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau filmed a documentary about the lagoon and its ghostly remains, turning it into a diving mecca and attracting enthusiasts from all over the world. In 1973, a Micronesian native called Kimiuo Aisek opened the first diving facility in Micronesia at the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop, which still runs expeditions today.

These days, however, most of the diving takes place off one of the three “live-aboard” boats that offer their services: the Siren, the Odyssey and the Thorfinn.

The Thorfinn is a charming 58-meter steamship that was launched in 1952 as a Norwegian whale catcher before ending up in Canada. The vessel was purchased by its current captain, Lance Higgs, in 1974 and was put to work in several commercial ventures before diving became its primary focus in 1984. Liveaboards typically sail from site to site overnight, but the Thorfinn usually stays in one location, making it more like a floating hotel. A small open boat is deployed to cart enthusiasts to each dive spot, most of which are within 10 minutes reach.

Divemaster David Stover, a former banker from the U.S. who has been working as a guide at Chuuk Lagoon for just seven months, says the conditions are generally safe because the unique topography of the atoll creates calm waters. “There is nearly 180 lineal miles (290 km) of sheltering reef around this atoll, and the outer reef passages provide lots of vibrant species and attractions in the currents flowing through them,” Stover says.

He still discovers things that interest him on a dive, even if he has dived the wreck 20 or 30 times.

Higgs is a filmic character with plenty of colorful anecdotes who started his career as a tug skipper. He often leads the pre-dive briefings, which are nothing short of extravagant as he parlays incredible historic accounts of each ship and how it met its demise.

Chuuk Lagoon is quite unlike anything experienced divers will ever encounter. Essentially, it’s one large museum of military memorabilia. The atmosphere below the waves is decidedly eerie, even though — on the surface, at least — it looks just like any other tropical paradise. Descending into the depths, divers are engulfed by a vast blue nothingness until they reach the hulking superstructure of a submerged wreck lying at the bottom of the ocean.

Exploring the fleet, divers will frequently come across reminders of everyday life on board the vessel before the attack: sake bottles, shoes, porcelain plates, cups and medicine bottles.

The wrecks boast plenty of military artefacts as well. Tanks and battery guns still sit on the decks, while Zeke fighter planes and Zeros lie in the holds alongside ordnance such as gas masks and ammunition. The wrecks also feature a few grim reminders of the tragic loss of life that accompanied the vessel’s sinking — human skulls wedged into pipes from the force of the torpedo explosions.

The experience is, at times, terrifying. This could also be aided by what may be mild nitrogen narcosis, which can occur whenever a diver breathes compressed air at depths greater than 100 feet (30 meters) and can produce feelings of anxiety or lightheadedness. Several times during my dive at Chuuk Lagoon, I felt an irrational sense of fear overcome me. I could almost smell the acrid smoke of the bombs and envision the scrambling sailors as their hulking ship disappeared beneath the waves.

At the same time, however, the dives are also incredibly beautiful. Coral covers the hulls, moray eels pop their grotesque heads out of available nooks, and crabs scramble across the deck. Famous wrecks such as the Shinkoku Maru have been transformed into psychedelic gardens by their new inhabitants — and don’t be surpised if the odd eagle ray or shark meanders past.

Last but not least, the ships themselves are breathtaking. These giant feats of engineering are astonishing to see up close and for many divers this is one of the main reasons to go diving at Chuuk Lagoon — it really is a machinery geek’s playground. It’s not just boats, either, but also submarines and planes such as the Betty Bomber.

Stover says most divers find the San Francisco and Shotan wrecks some of the most satisfying. Because of the depth they rest at, however, guides require recreational divers to manage their dive time and air intake to avoid getting the bends, a condition of nitrogen bubbles in the blood that sometimes occurs if divers surface too quickly.

Longer decompression stops are needed when divers surface from deeper dives, which requires more time and air. Some of the wrecks are located so deep in, some instances, the actual dive time at the wreck is a mere 10 minutes.

Higgs says that divers who go to these more challenging wrecks are rewarded with vessels that are more “pristine, with less deterioration and more intact structures than many shallower sites.”

Chuuk Lagoon is a site that reflects either a victory for the U.S. military or a wartime misadventure for the occupying Japanese forces. At the same time, however, it is also a scene of tragedy where thousands lost their lives.

Higgs notes that many young Japanese divers who visit Chuuk Lagoon are “not clearly informed of the great losses or the ignominy of defeat.”

Exploring bodies of water like this can be disturbing at times and yet it can also be a timely reminder of the horrors of war. As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II looms, Chuuk Lagoon offers precisely that.