Truk Lagoon Report
Ultimate Shipwreck Diving in Chuuk, Micronesia
by Ken Knezick, Island Dreams Travel
It had been 20 years since I last visited Truk Lagoon, and I arrived wondering how much had changed in the interim. From the impressive scale of the potholes, for sure they'd not paved the road between the airport and Blue Lagoon Resort since my last visit. Of course Blue Lagoon used to be called the Truk Continental Hotel, and the residents changed the name of their state from Truk to Chuuk. But the ocean here is still shimmering in infinite shades of blue...and the remains of an immense WWII naval battle still lie just beneath the surface, swathed in a boundless array of marine life...and history written in fire and blood.
In the fast moving 21st Century, memory is increasingly short. When I revisited The Solomon Islands last year, I found that most friends I spoke with had never heard of the place, much less the historic WWII Battle of Guanalcanal. Now the same, I see, is true for Operation Hailstone, a major turning point in the tide of the Second World War. Truk Lagoon was the site of our "reverse Pearl Harbor," when a U.S. aircraft carrier fleet surprised and consequently devastated a major portion of the Japanese merchant fleet in their protected anchorage. If it is true that those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it, then it may well be that we have a rocky future ahead. Hopefully, this Truk Lagoon report will help just a bit to add to your knowledge and understanding of this remarkable history.
GETTING THERE -- Experienced dive travelers soon learn that the finest diving is usually found in the most remote places. Getting here proved the point, with 33-hours of continuous travel from takeoff in Houston to baggage claim in Truk. Fortunately, that did include a brief but refreshing overnight in Honolulu airport hotel. There are a variety of possible flight itineraries, but for old-time's sake, I chose the island-hopping route, traveling via Honolulu, Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and finally Chuuk (Truk). With history in mind, this island-hopping was also the strategy of the U.S. Marines as they battled their way towards Japan. In light of their astounding hardships and privations, my long journey was a cake-walk.
KIMIOU AISEK -- The battle of Truk Lagoon took place in February of 1944. As repeated waves of carrier-based U.S. torpedo bombers came in low over the sea, struggling to reach their targets through murderous waves of Japanese of anti-aircraft fire, a 17-year-old Trukese man sat on a hillside with a ringside seat to history in the making. This young man was Kimiou Aisek. After the war Kimiou became a scuba diver, and from his vivid memories of the battle, later went on to discover many of the wrecks, and to establish the Truk Lagoon sport diving industry. I am indeed fortunate to be able to say that I once dived with Kimiou, and was able to bring him to the USA to speak at Houston's SEASPACE Dive Exposition. A witness to history, Kimiou passed away in 2001. But his legend, and the knowledge of the shipwrecks he developed, lives on.
LAND-BASED or LIVEABOARD OPTIONS -- Today, divers may experience Truk Lagoon via either land-based or liveaboard diving. The land-based option can be exercised via Blue Lagoon Resort and its in-house Blue Lagoon Dive Shop. Both are now owned and operated by Kimou's son, Gradvin Aisek. The lodging is simple, but perfectly located, and the dive shop's knowledge of Truk's wrecks is superb. While twice previously I've brought land-based groups to dive Truk Lagoon, the balance of this report will now focus on the liveaboard option and specifically the M/V Odyssey, our base of operations for this trip.
ODYSSEY ADVENTURES -- The Odyssey has wonderfully spacious guest cabins, each with a large private bathroom. Temperature control is handled perfectly, with a thermostat in every cabin. No need for a sweat suit to combat Mr. Freeze. The top deck houses a very comfortable main salon with picture windows all around, as well as a spacious exterior deck with comfortable lounge chairs and your choice of sun or shade. The dive deck is nicely organized. Tanks are filled in place, so no need to remove your BCD or change tanks. Crew is extremely capable, attentive, and accommodating. The food was very good; healthy, plentiful, and yummy, all with very pleasant service on all fronts. Generally, the cruising is within the Lagoon, in calm waters, with short trips between the wreck sites. This liveaboard experience was nothing short of excellent.
DIVER'S ELEVATOR! -- New to the Odyssey is something I'd not previously experienced. In addition to an excellently-designed aluminum ladder, a single place elevator platform has recently been added to the Odyssey's swim platform. After the safety deco stop, move to the platform, hold the handles, and the deck mate will flip a switch and lift a diver up to the swim platform in a matter of seconds.
IMMENSE DIVING FREEDOM -- Superb dive briefings were offered on arrival at each new site, with a video preview on the wreck, followed by a live briefing with excellent map plan of the ship defining the highlights with their locations and depths, as well as level of penetration required. After that, "the pool is open," with expert divemasters standing by to lead guided tours. Alternately, divers may plan and make their own dives as they wish. Simply be back on board by the stated time. What a breath of fresh air for capable divers to be treated as adults.
AWESOME GAS SUPPLY -- In addition to the typical aluminum 80's, Odyssey offers the option of 120 cubic foot steel tanks, which they pump to 3200 psi hot. This is an awesome supply of gas, which really helps sport divers to safely maximize their time on these wrecks. Just remember to adjust your weight belt accordingly, as in the weight of these tanks is about six pounds more negative than an aluminum 80. For Nitrox divers, the standard gas mix provided aboard Odyssey is 30%, which works perfectly for the depth of most of the wrecks. Rebreather and other technical divers are also accommodated.
ULTIMATE WRECK DIVING -- Of the dozens of diveable shipwrecks in Truk Lagoon, each has its own character and unique highlights. While some wrecks, such as Shinkoku Maru, are literally draped with immense soft corals and hundreds of huge anemones, other wrecks, those laying in deeper water, or perhaps in areas of lesser water movement, remain relatively unadorned. On these, the focus is on the artifacts and weaponry to be explored, and in fact they are easier to discern and decipher. It is a common misunderstanding that all Truk Lagoon diving is deep. Fact is, there are some wrecks you can snorkel on. On most of the wrecks we visited this trip, maximum depth was in the 80-foot range, with some decks, rails, and wheel houses at a comfortable 50-60 feet. Masts coming near the surface are great places for your safety deco stops.
TYPICAL DIVE DAY -- On our first day aboard M/V Odyssey in Truk Lagoon, I enjoyed five scuba dives on two different Japanese shipwrecks. The towering masts and king posts were swathed in hard and soft corals, awash in color, and swarming with many thousands of small fishes. In the bombed-out wheelhouse a human skull, dark red with encrusting coral, and a cargo hold full of live 14-inch artillery shells, scattered about like pick-up-sticks. Diving down at the stern of one huge wreck, I aimed my camera up through the huge three-bladed, coral-encrusted propeller to the shimmering surface above. After a yummy dinner, finished things out with a very enjoyable night dive. Wow, what a great day of diving. All told I logged 24 dives on a seven-night trip. The day we did the deep dive on San Francisco Maru, for safety's sake only two dives per permitted. Here you may see my complete Truk Lagoon Dive Log.
EASY DIVING for SKILLED DIVERS -- Truk can actually be relatively easy diving, but it does require good basic sport diver skills, especially buoyancy control, air consumption, and scrupulous attention to details of depth, time, and no decompression limits. On the Odyssey, up to five dives are offered per day. When the boat is moored over a shipwreck, and "the pool is open," divers may enter the water on their own schedule. They can dive on their own, or follow one of the highly experienced guides, experts on these wrecks. To make the most of this diving, it is critical that you be Nitrox certified.
MARINE LIFE -- In addition to a profusion of hard corals, soft corals and huge anemones, the Truk Lagoon shipwrecks are home to a diverse and abundant array of marine life. Our dives included sightings of sharks, grouper, Napoleon wrasse, snapper, various jacks, Moorish idols, blue chromis, butterfly fish, angel fish, octopus, and the occasional sea turtle, including a turtle down inside one wreck. Many of the wrecks are wreathed in countless swarms of glassy sweepers and other baitfishes. To the practiced eye, many signs point to this being a healthy marine environment. It was notable to see healthy reef indicator species such as lush halimeda algae and even stands of staghorn coral lining the rails of some wrecks.
UNDERWATER HISTORY MUSEUM -- Truk Lagoon is a history museum, with the exhibits arrayed, somewhat chaotically, beneath 100-feet of seawater. Japan's Admiral Yamamoto feared that the attack on Pearl Harbor would awaken a sleeping giant. Certainly stoic warriors engaged on both sides, but in addition to front line fighters, the tide of the war was turned by mathematicians (code breakers), electrical engineers (radar), and eventually nuclear physicists (the atomic bomb). In addition, the USA's superior industrial capabilities and access to raw materials were crucial to winning the war. On these Truk shipwrecks we saw diminutive battle tanks, poorly-armored aircraft, empty fuel barrels, and even signs of Japan's desperate attempt to recycle the brass from their artillery shells. In the later days of the war, much precious cargo space was taken up with shipments of beer and sake, a placating gesture to the Japanese grunts fighting an increasingly desperate war.
SHARK DIVE -- Need a little something more to get your blood moving? As part of our Truk Lagoon adventure, the folks on the Odyssey took us outside the lagoon for a very well-organized shark feed. We were met by a profusion of Grey Reef Sharks, along with hungry snapper and jacks, all vying for the bait. You will be glad to know that they were all very polite dinner guests, though they did disappear as soon as the food was gone.
DEEP DIVE on the SAN FRANCISCO MARU -- The crowning treat of Island Dreams' Truk Lagoon adventure was a dive on the San Francisco Maru, a 385-foot long Japanese passenger cargo ship sitting upright in 210 feet of water. Main elements of this dive include Japanese battle tanks sitting on deck at 170 feet and a bow gun covered in sponge, soft corals and fish. At 185-feet plus, the forward cargo holds, were packed with trucks and all manner of munitions from hemispherical ship mines to 1,000-pound aerial bombs. The immense forward mast, topping out at 100 feet and absolutely swarming marine life, was our first deco stop. A bit below most sport divers' range, the Odyssey liveaboard made this dive safety accessible to us. Steel 120 cubic foot tanks filled with a custom gas mix of Nitrox 24% was perfect for the depth, and took a bit of the edge off the nitrogen narcosis. Still, with just 14 minutes of bottom time, and a nice nitrogen buzz, it was a fun challenge to accomplish these photographs.
CAPT. MIKE GERKEN -- We were especially fortunate to have Captain Mike Gerken at the helm of the M/V Odyssey. With ten years experience in Truk, and a top notch crew, he runs an efficient and effective cruise, tailoring the wreck dive sites to the interests and abilities of each group of guests. Morevoer, he is an exceedingly accomplished underwater photographer and videographer, able to supply helpful hints all along the way. In 2011, Captain Gerken published a masterwork of a documentary film, "The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon." It is rich with historic images and movie film of the actual battle, superbly complemented with Mike's own excellent photos and videos of Truk Lagoon. Learn more about the DVD here, including a link to purchase it: The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon.
THE BOTTOM LINE -- No, Truk Lagoon is not for everyone. It requires good diving skills, plus desire and understanding. History buffs will find Truk Lagoon to be a truly remarkable experience. Wreck and Tech Divers will be in their own special heaven. Sport divers interested in extending their reach and abilities will find themselves immersed in a delightful combination of ship wrecks and bountiful marine life. I hope you have found this report of interest, and that humanity will not have to repeat this fiery history. As always, the adventure experts of Island Dreams Travel are geared up and ready to assist you. -- Ken Knezick, Island Dreams
Pricing for the tour described in this report may be found here: Truk Lagoon aboard M/V Odyssey
Read Ken Knezick's: Truk Lagoon Dive Log
Join an Island Dreams: Conducted Group Tour