2:30am flight out of Palau. Why does Continental Micronesia schedule all their flights in the middle of the night?
Russell, our hotel manager friend, agrees to take us to the airport at midnight, then sleeps through his alarm. On the drive, the only thing that keeps him awake is the potholes.
“Oh man, these roads. They’re like a Chips Ahoy cookie. I keep running into all the chocolate chips!”
We land in Guam and collapse at the connecting gate in a pile of interlocking arms and legs. Other passengers eye us like a performance art piece on display.
Melissa tries to fall asleep on the next flight, but can’t find a place to rest her head. She finally drifts off with her lifeless melon dangling from my hand by the pony tail. It rocks back and forth as the plane hits the runway on Chuuk. I alternate hands trying to keep her aloft and asleep for as long as I can. There is not a peep out of her until it’s time to deplane.
At the start of this trip, a pea under the mattress would’ve had her tossing and turning.
I visited Chuuk almost exactly three years ago and wrote extensively about it here, here, and here, so I won’t go through all that again. What’s different this time is I have an underwater camera housing, which allows me to do this.
Oh, also, I brought my girlfriend.
On my last visit I stayed at a place called the RS Plaza, which wasn’t so much a “Plaza” as a “burned-out concrete hellhole,” but let’s not split hairs. In my absence, the place has gone downhill.
The woman at the front desk barely knew how to respond to my room request – a reminder that the Chuukese aren’t so much into the whole customer service thing.
The four-story RS Plaza has the only elevator in all of Micronesia. It doesn’t work. Marching up the stairs, we couldn’t help but notice the hordes of guests roaming the halls.
…"guests," once again, isn’t really the right word. For lack of tourists, the RS Plaza has opened up to, well, whoever. It’s a concrete village. Every room is full.
We crashed in our beds. When we woke up five hours later, there was no electricity and no water. The toilet wouldn’t flush. It was getting dark. Melissa gave me a look. I relented.
I called up the Blue Lagoon Resort. It’s pretty much the only functioning place to stay on the island. I tried to avoid it because it’s owned by the wife of the former governor. They hoarded US funds for years and left their constituency uneducated, miserable, and desperate. Blue Lagoon is a parasite that has sucked the island dry.
…but the landscaping is fantastic.
Once inside the gated, patrolled borders of Blue Lagoon, the dire problems surrounding it fade away. You’re amongst affluent, middle-aged Americans who came here to dive and aren’t particularly interested in the hows and the whys.
There is a very distinct type who comes to Chuuk. It’s a guy, just past 40, bit of a paunch, maybe some heart problems, loves gadgets, bad hair, something to prove, money to burn.
One day, I will become this guy.
I should probably run through why people come to dive here. Real quick: Operation Hailstorm, US bombing raid, 1944, sank about 60 utility ships in the Japanese fleet and crippled their efforts in the Pacific. Largest air-to-sea bombardment in history. Left 45,000 Japanese soldiers stranded on the island with no food. Not a good situation for them, worse for the unarmed Chuukese. Shit rolls downhill.
Bad things happened here. Details are sketchy.
As for the wrecks, they’re protected from current by a surrounding reef that acts as a breakwater. The depth and visibility are ideal for diving, and what’s down there is like nothing else on this planet. Best wreck diving anywhere.
The next day we went out for our first dive. We were assigned a divemaster, Estos, and a boat driver, Ludwig.
Estos navigated to the wreck the same way my divemaster did last time, and it still astonishes me. They go by site, using the islands on the horizon for reference.
Joining us on the dive was a guy named John. A little background on John: grew up in Queens, retired from firefighting with a back injury, 67, but the chain-smoking and booze makes him look 87. He hadn’t dived in 30 years and he was wearing nothing but his underpants.
I figured on about a 10% chance he was going to make it back to the surface alive. Estos did the same calculations and came to the same conclusion.
Anyway, down we went into the Shinkoku Maru.
Most of these images have been photoshopped to enhance the colors and minimize the blue murkiness. In defense of the tampering, the colors that I enhance are generally what’s there anyway, but the water cuts out the full spectrum. So essentially I’m just putting them back in. The effect is similar to what you’d get by shining a light on everything.
Estos kept John on a short leash.
John just kind of hung there like a slab of beef. Occasionally he’d paw his arms a little. I was tempted to check for a pulse.
This message was spelled out in bullets.
And up to the surface.
Melissa wasn’t particularly enthused about visiting Chuuk or trying out wreck diving. I’d failed in my attempts to explain how potent the experience is. Once we’d done it, she understood. “I just had no idea,” she said. “There was no way I could’ve known.”
It felt good to hear her say that.
Estos benched John for the second dive. Apparently he’d urinated in his shorts upon coming back to the boat. I hesitate to share that detail, for fear he might read it. Also, it’s just not a very nice thing to mention. The moral of the story is to know your limits…and if you’ve gotta piss yourself, make sure no one’s looking.
Wreck number two was the Sankasan Maru. Artifacts from inside the ship have been piled up on deck.
Estos swam into the blackness of the ship’s hold. One at a time, we followed.
We entered an operating room.
Not a lot of light to take pictures with. That’s an operating table. The pile in the bottom right is human bones. They’re easier to see in this shot.
Since my flash is built into the camera, it reflects all the dust particles and makes for a terrible shot every time. The fancy underwater rigs all have enormous lamps suspended way off to the side. This changes the angle the light is reflecting at and eliminates the problem. In any case, I pretty much had to get by on the minimal natural light.
Back outside and toward the aft end.
Here’s me taking my flippers off to attempt a dance.
Dancing underwater is difficult and complicated. There’s a lot to think about for both the dancer and the photographer, and communication is obviously diminished. When you’re focusing on other things, you can use your air up quickly. This happened to Melissa. After only one clip, she was down 1000 psi – about a third of a tank.
We had to surface quickly. In pretty much all dives, a safety stop is required where you stay for 3 minutes, 15 feet from the surface. Midway through our stop, Melissa was down to less than 300 psi. Not noticing the extra tank hanging off the boat nearby, I decided we needed to go up immediately.
This was a dangerous mistake. It increases the chance of decompression sickness. We should’ve stayed down and used the spare tank. My bad.
Melissa seemed okay about the whole thing, but after dinner became worried she’d gotten the bends. Eventually she realized it wasn’t the bends that was upsetting her. She’d had a delayed reaction to the whole experience and was suddenly very spooked.
We’d gone into what is essentially a tomb. The sailors died violently. Some drowned, some were blown to bits, others literally melted into the walls. I’m reluctant in my spiritual beliefs, but I won’t deny there’s an energy down there and it sticks with you.
It’s like entering a haunted house…a hundred feet underwater…with sharks.
Melissa was awake most of the night struggling with the whole thing. By dawn she’d decided she couldn’t go down again. There wasn’t much I could say.
So for day two it was just me and Estos. I’d requested the Fujikawa Maru, which I dove on my last visit three years ago, and hardly a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about it.
Estos grabbed me at breakfast and asked, “you like penetration?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“You want penetrate Fujikawa M aru?”
“Okay. We bring flashlights.”
The Fujikawa is incredibly dense with coral. Barely any original surface is exposed on the exterior. Coral just loves growing on wrecks. It’s prime real estate.
Shark off the starboard bow.
The ladder on the ground gives a good reference for scale. It’s a gray reef, maybe 8 feet from nose to tail.
This shot also gives you an idea of what would be here if there weren’t any wrecks — lots of sand. So there’s an environmental upside to the whole thing.
The forward cannon.
And down we went, through the beams and into the hold.
The Fujikawa Maru is where Iron Maiden gets all its album covers.
Estos led me through a dark passage and into another storage room, where several Zero fighters were kept. One is still in very good condition.
Those are binoculars in front of the cockpit.
Back into the hallway and up a floor.
Swimming through the very narrow tunnel, I saw what appeared to be a man standing at the far end. Scared blind, dumb, and shitless, for some reason I snapped a picture.
It wasn’t anything, but…holy crap.
This is the ship’s head . Didn’t know the Japanese had urinals way back then. I guess they’re not such a recent invention.
An eerily lit stairway leads up through the center of the ship to the bridge. It’s the clearest reminder that you’re in a man-made interior space that was never intended to be entered in this way. Gliding through the doorway and up the steps: hard to describe.
The mess hall had fish swimming around above the dishes and plates. I used the flash so they wouldn’t be blurry.
The floor of this room is covered in sake bottles. They’re still full. I wonder if sake keeps like wine. Now that’d be a decadent beverage to share over dinner. The kind of thing a Bond villain would drink.
Swimming outside again, I felt like pulling my reg off and taking a nice big breath of fresh air.
…nope. Can’t do that.
This might be the largest anemone I’ve ever seen. Beautiful.
And that was it for the Fujikawa. We went back to Blue Lagoon for lunch, where I found Melissa reading comics with her feet dangling in the ocean.
Our afternoon dive was the Heian Maru, which I’d had in mind from the beginning as the spot to do the dancing clip. It’s the largest ship in the lagoon; 510 feet, with two giant propellers in back.
Feeling guilty that she wouldn’t be there to hold the camera, Melissa grabbed her gear and hopped on the boat. When we got to the site and started getting ready, Estos gave his briefing and her face sank instantly. The panic hit her again. She couldn’t go.
…Here’s a video that does a pretty good job of showing how goddam creepy wreck diving can be.
It’s not like strapping in for a roller coaster. Nothing is artificial or designed. You’re in a real place seeing real things and real things can happen.
The Heain Maru hit the ground with its port side facing up. It’s absolutely vast, and teeming with life.
As Estos and I swam past, this phone actually started ringing.
I answered, but the guy kept talking in Japanese and I couldn’t understand him, so I hung up.
There’s an accessible corridor that runs most of the length of the ship.
This is a window of the main bridge.
And this is looking into the bridge. It doesn’t seem like it, but the camera is pointed straight down here. That’s a trench.
This is a torpedo. There are a great deal of live munitions still in the ships. When people first started diving the lagoon in the seventies, they would, on occasion, detonate.
And here’s the massive propeller.
I gave Estos a quick lesson in using the camera before we went down, and we shot a couple clips.
Afterwards, we went to a much shallower wreck so Estos could take John on a dive. Melissa and I snorkeled while John was lugged around.
I’m a big fan of swimming through the bubbles of other divers.
Some ferocious-looking coral.
And that was that.
We went back to the hotel and spent the rest of the day and the following morning loafing around before our afternoon flight.
But something was eating away at me. I didn’t get the clip I wanted. The visibility was bad and the current was moving too fast and it just didn’t work out. You couldn’t see the propeller. If it looked like anything, it was maybe a big piece of coral.
This place means a lot to me, and it was driving me increasingly nuts that I wasn’t going to be able to share with people that stuff like this exists. Sure, there’s this blog and everything, but the dancing video is going to (hopefully) reach way more people than this ever will, and I want them to know.
I want them to know.
I called the airline and found out there was a flight leaving the next day.
I found Estos and asked where he was going for the afternoon dive. "We go to your wreck again. The Heian."
I checked with the hotel and they were fine with us staying another night.
I talked ot Melissa and she was pissed. Chuuk had not been the most rewarding experience for her. She’s a tough chick and she doesn’t like finding out that there are things that scare her. She was looking forward to putting the whole thing behind her and I was asking her to sit in it for another day.
Plus there’s really not a lot to do on Chuuk above the waterline.
She agreed to stay another day. I went down again and got the shot I wanted. It’s still a little murky, but I got it.
With our bonus day on Chuuk, the day we were going to spend in Hawaii, we decided to borrow one of the hotel’s free kayaks and go looking for a fighter plane wreck on the other side of the island.
Big mistake. You get what you don’t pay for.
About an hour out, I suddenly realized I was up to my waist in water. The boat was sinking. We were stranded out by the airstrip, which is surrounded on all sides by slippery, jagged rocks. We had to put our snorkel gear on and tow the boat to a safe spot so we could bring it ashore and drain the water.
That, mixed with a dash of PMS, made for an unpleasant afternoon.
But we survived.
Another 2am flight. Another 4 hour, middle-of-the-night layover in Guam. And here we are in Hawaii. Tomorrow we go home.
It’s nice here. It’s pretty and it’s easy. It feels like America.