The Fujikawa Maru is one of the most dived wrecks in the lagoon. It was also our favorite! So much so, we dived it twice. This impressive ship underwent a drastic upgrade from her pre-war, passenger-cargo role to a full blown armed aircraft transport ship and seaplane tender. She now sits in around 35 meters of water, and is home to incredible schools of fish, and her holds are packed full of fascinating artefacts.
The Rio De Janeiro Maru was a 137 meter passenger-cargo liner, built in Japan before WWII. She was a work horse of the pre-war world, carrying emigrants from Japan, to South Africa, Brazil and on to the West Coast of America, before returning home, on many voyages. However, during the war, she became a submarine tender, and then a cargo transport vessel. She arrived in Chuuk six days before Operation Hailstone, full of munitions, and desperately needed supplies. She languished in a slow death, after being hit by several 1,000 pound bombs in the first strikes of the day. It apparently wasn’t until about 3 am the following morning that she finally sank to her current resting ground.
Bottles in crates on the wall, no wait, spin around, it is actually the floor, or is it the ceiling, it’s easy to get confused in the gloom. Large letters sitting proud in the lopsided bow, spelling the old name, in both Kanji and Roman lettering, amid the sediment and fish. Swim through in to the large cavernous storage decks, taking a peak in to the last moments of the ship, frozen in time. The static prop, once propelling the tons of steel and men through the water to destinations unknown, now sitting, coated in pristine and colorful coral and fish.
Maximum depth to the seafloor is 35 meters, but her port side sits in a nice shallow 10-17 meters. The holds took us to about 28 meters, but there is so much to look at on her hull, one can spend ages ascending slowly.
Chuuk lagoon, which we soon discovered was pronounced more like the small, domesticated fowl (Australian pronunciation), and less like the large automobile, has been on my “Must Dive” list for a very long time now. The worlds greatest aggregation of World War Two wrecks, siting in dive-able, recreational depths and thirty degree water. Why wouldn’t it be?
There is something in the lagoon for every one. Personally, I love seeing how the ecosystem copes and recovers after such an apocalyptic event. There were still wrecks that releasing toxic chemicals and oils in to the water 5 years ago (75 years after the cataclysm). For the hard core wreck divers, there are still parts of ships that haven’t been explored, that are starting to be accessible as the superstructure begins to rust out. And for everyone in between, there are planes that are in snorkelling depth, and so many massive schools of fish your breath will be taken away.
This place is full of fascinating history, and I could bore you with the whole story, but there are 100 page + books to read if you want to know more (try, “Dive Truk Lagoon” by Rob MacDonald). Needless to say, due to the beautiful natural structures provided by the 100,000 year old volcano, that in its death created the barrier reef, there were five safely navigable passes to enter the lagoon! What a defendable position. The lagoon itself is large enough, that anchorages chosen by the Japanese naval fleet (1939-1944) were safe from bombardment from outside the lagoon.
The Japanese used their incredibly powerful geographical location to wreck havoc on that region of Asia for a few months. Unaware of how large the operation in Truk had become, the Americans flew some reconnaissance missions over the lagoon, early February of 1944. This prompted the larger, more valuable imperial Japanese Navy warships to leave the lagoon, however, there were still tens of vessels, hundreds of planes and thousands of men in the Lagoon. Operation Hailstone began on the 17th of February, 1944, and was insanely efficient at destroying the Japanese Naval base, destroying over 50 ships and 250 planes, and the loss of countless lives.
Which left us adventurous divers, an incredible diving play ground. There are ships so big, that when you drop on to them, it felt we weren’t diving on a wreck, more on a reef. It wasn’t until 20 meters and deeper that you started to get the feel for the beast that lay there. Twisted metal, crusted with green algae and soft corals, opening up holes in to the side of the once magnificent ship. Letting us peer in to the lives of those soldiers. The penetrations were beautiful, little glass fish flitting about, in schools with ballet like precision. Huge guns lying on the smashed metal, some still pointing to the sky, ready to fire at a moments notice. Inside the holds are dark, very dark, but the beams of divers torches as silver threads in midnight satin, pierce the gloom to see artefacts of china, sake bottles, or Navy mens shoes.
Soft corals, look dull from a far, but shine your torch on their delicate bodies, and the reds, blues, purples and greens are breath taking. Planes in the hold of a sunken ship, captivate me, the brain struggles to process, planes, in a ship, under the ocean. Big fish surrounding the ancient metal, still standing proud despite the holes in its side. Sunbeams piercing the depths of the ship, sparkling streams on schools of small fish, hiding in history.
Chuuk doesn’t really have a tourist industry, other than the 5,000 divers a year. Minimal tourism has its pros and cons, no hawkers, pristine beaces, typically idyllic tropical paradise. There is no “pick-it-up” culture here though, and the beaches on the main areas do have plastic waste left on them. Palm trees all the way to the beach where you can stroll carefree, staring in to the sunset. Afternoon beer disrupted by a typically tropical rain storm. Perfect surface visibility to the horizon, drops down to 100 meters. The wind chop picking up and the rain pouring down. The Chuukese peak hour slowing to accommodate the reduced visibility. GPS are non-existant here, it is all in everyone’s heads, local landmarks, and natural navigation are the go.
There is so much to say about these wrecks, and so many photos to share with you. Stay tuned for a photo album, and a little on each of the wrecks we dived in the coming weeks!
A few things I learnt about this amazing place;
1. Bring a powerboard, there are a few powerpoints in the rooms, but if you have cameras, strobes, torches, laptops and phones to charge, you’ll use them all.
2. The internet is woeful (which is actually a good thing). Arrive accepting you wont be able to watch Netflix, YouTube or listen to Spotify, and definitely minimal uploading to Instagram as you imagine. Barely any Facetime (especially if someone else made a call first), but you can get a message through here and there. I reckon, if you stay at home, when the entire resort head out for their dives, it would be better, but why would you want to?
3. There are credit card facilities, but be sure to take enough American Dollars to pay your departure tax, tip your guide and boat driver, and have a snack on the last day after you have paid your bills.
4. Dive Nitrox, make the most of that bottom time, and for the extra $8AUD per dive, it is totally worth it.
5. Take a refernce book and read up on the wreck before you dive her!
6. Relax, and make the most of the Eat, Sleep, Dive, Repeat lifestyle.
Tasmanian underwater photographer, Shane Breen, joined us for the weekend. Shane spends a lot of time diving the beautiful waters of Tasmania and really appreciated a weekend dedicated to diving Port Arthur.
I have been diving with Shane for a few years now. Shane started diving in Tasmania over thirty years ago, and then took a break. When diving with Shane, you will always find him behind a camera.
Shane had a really great weekend and enjoyed diving with a focus on photography. For him, it was really refreshing to be able to take time over a photo and look up and see your buddy doing the same thing and not swimming off into the distance. Out of the water, Shane found the opportunity to discuss equipment and techniques also beneficial. Thanks Shane for joining us over the weekend!
Find out a bit about one of our Tasmanian Underwater Photography Weekend participants, Andreas Modinger. Andreas travelled to the Tasman Peninsula, all the way from Victoria to join us!
Andreas, you’ve been diving for a while now, what got you in to diving?
I had a friend who was a commercial diver who actually got me interested in diving. Originally it was for crayfish and abalone but it quite quickly developed into just for the love of diving. Recently I just became a PADI Instructor because I now want to teach my kids who also want to see the world I keep showing them photos of.
What is is about underwater photography that you love the most?
The macro world always shows something different than what you see with your eye. This is why I love the closeup view of the aquatic world.
When asked what he liked most about the weekend, Andreas said he enjoyed having a full weekend to practice different types of shooting. He also really loved the relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. I think we can all agree, the second day was fantastic!
Andreas shoots these stunning images with an Olympus TG-5 with Ikelite housing and optically connected Olympus strobe. Check out more of Andreas’ awesome shots on his Instagram page: instagram.com/andreas_diving
Sometimes, planning diving weekends in Tasmania is a good lesson for over-coming adversity. I have wanted to run an underwater photography weekend in Tasmania for the last year now. To me it sounded like a great opportunity to go diving and spend the evenings talking with like minded people about photography. However, as the weekend loomed closer, the predicted forecast got worse and worse. My lovely day dream of photographing sea caves, sea dragons and deep sponge gardens on the East Coast of the Tasman Peninsula, were slowly being eroded! Fortunately, the best thing about the Peninsula, is that there is almost always a place to dive in everything but the worst conditions. Consequently, as I was heading down to the dive lodge on Friday night, in the driving rain and howling winds, I was trying to think of our plan B.
Saturday morning and the divers start to arrive. After a few jokes about the weather, a coffee or three and the suggestion of breakfast, we got our equipment ready, cameras set up, and in to our dry suits (or wet suits for the not so faint hearted). We had made a decision on our dive location. Port Arthur. This south facing, deep water port is a treasure trove of colonial Australian history and surprisingly enough, great dive sites! It is also reasonably protected from the terrifying, 4 meter easterly swell that, at the time, was lashing our usual dive sites.
Even though the conditions were less than favorable, we explored two new shallow dive sites on the eastern shore of the port. The dive at Surveyors Cove gave the divers the opportunity to work on strobe placement. The boulders in between the sand patches were covered in Caulerpa species (a type of green algae that has many different physical forms, but all are captivating) giving the impression of a nicely mown lawn. There were few fish, but lots of abalone, feather stars and sponges to try for nice composition shots!
The second dive for the day was at Denmans Creek. Here, the macro photographers were having a field day. Lots of magnificent biscuit stars (Tosia magnifica), in interesting positions, with their delicate tube feet slowly propelling them along the reef surface. Ascidians crowned the highly colored, rock faces, and big brown kelp species topped off the canopy.
After returning to the lodge and doing the usual wash down, pack up and warm up, we closed the evening with a very Tasmanian barbecue, sitting out side in the frigid, early spring air until we all decided it was too cold and had to head in side.
Day two was much kinder to us. The sun even came out, and the wind had dropped to nothing over night. We still were diving in Port Arthur, however we were able to head to one of the deeper sites, near the heads of the port itself, The Gardens. This site was named so, due to the stunning sponge gardens found around 18-30 meters depth. Despite the sizeable swell still rolling just outside the heads, we managed to get a fantastic 15 meters visibility. The five of us descended through schools of butterfly perch (Caesioperca lepidoptera) and straight in to 25 meters depth, spread out and started shooting. Due to the drastic reduction of light at these depths, various invertebrates such as sponges, feather stars, soft corals and anemones, as well as coraline algae species now dominate the system. And the color show they put on, is absolutely spectacular! I don’t think anyone wanted to return to the boat… but you have to change tank at some point!
Our last dive for the weekend, was a lovely cruisey dive under the Port Arthur Golf Club. This site is a hidden little gem, weedy seadragons (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), friendly draughtboard sharks (Cephaloscyllium laticeps) and lots of cow fish (Aracana aurita)! This was a beautiful way to finish a fantastic weekend. Stay tuned for the next couple of blogs where I introduce all the photographers who joined us for the weekend.