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.
I didn’t have the greatest start in my SCUBA diving journey. I suffered severely from mask panic, claustrophobia and anxiety, so much that I didn’t continue diving after I earned my PADI Open Water diver in 2012. It took me a whole two years to build up the courage to get back in the water, and even then, if you had told the 2014 me that I would be travelling to undertake my Open Water SCUBA Instructor five years later… I most likely would have laughed at you so hard I would have given myself a stitch! Seriously. But indeed, that was what I did!
A lot of thought went in to with whom, and where I was going to do my instructor course. It’s a big decision, a lot on money, and I am slightly OCD when it comes to organising travel related things. I knew I had a couple of requirements. I had never undertaken a recreational dive course with a female instructor, so naturally, I wanted a female course director. And secondly, I was going to be spending a few weeks where ever I was going, so it had to be warm. After narrowing down my global search with these two requirements, I found Gili IDC, operating out of Trawangan Dive Center, Gili T (see my previous blog post about the land side of life on the island).
Boy, am I glad that is who I chose. I was recently asked to write a review for Holly, and Gili IDC, and to be honest, I struggled to encapsulate how fantastic an educational experience it had been. So with a few more words available to me, I will give it a go now.
My journey to do my instructor course started in late 2017. I had the most insane amount of email conversations with Holly in the 18 months leading up to me doing my course. She was always responsive, and if it took her longer than 24 hours to reply she was profusely apologetic (after I got the scheduling, it dawned on me that Holly teaches 10 IDC a year, and she was replying to me in her lunch break or after she left work = commitment). Through the course of our communications, I knew I had made the right choice. No question was too stupid, and every question was answered. I got the feeling, even without ever meeting her, that she would be just as attentive to my education. I was starting to get the picture this woman was a role model I wanted to follow closely in the footsteps of.
What is an IDC you may be asking me. IDC is the PADI Instructor Development Course. This consists of 12 days, minimum, of a mix of class work, group work and of course, diving! Gili IDC however, has a 4 day prep work class, where Holly walks the students through all the academic and theory side of diving (physiology, physics, decompression theory, and equipment maintenance). This is great for every one, regardless of how recently they have completed their dive master certification. There were also plenty of pool sessions to hone your skills to the high standard Holly expected, and due to the way the dive center was set up, if you wanted more practice, you could jump in one of the two pools at any time of the day to practice.
The training reef, Hans Reef, was well set up for us to practice our instructional skills. However, one of the biggest things I was not expecting, was to train in current. We get current occasionally in Tasmania, but our training sites are generally pretty calm, with a little bit of surge occasionally. Consequently, the first time we went to the training site, I spent at least 10 minutes trying to tell my buddy the current had changed direction, without knowing the hand signal for it. There were a lot of confused faces, as I tried writing current in the sand, and making up ridiculous hand signals. That hand signal will stay with me forever.
It wasn’t all hard work though! I was able to get for a couple of fun dives during the course. I also did a few speciality instructor courses after my Instructor Exam. The deep instructor speciality was my favorite. Our first dive was at Simon’s Reef and it was stunning. There was a little bit of damage from the 2018 earthquakes, in particular this massive section of beautiful and ancient coral and broken and slid down the bank. However, the fish life and coral appeared reasonably healthy. The most amazing thing about this dive was our safety stop. We were diving as part of a large boat load of experienced divers (mainly dive masters and instructors going on a fun dive). Despite all having our own dive plan, and not seeing the rest of the boat for the whole dive, we all managed to come together for the safety stop. There were about 18 divers hanging motionlessly, in 30 meters of visibility, when all of a sudden, someone started pointing manically behind me. I dared to turn around, and casually swimming approximately 2-3 meters above all of us was a magnificent whale shark. I was crying within 5 seconds, and everyone else had a look of ecstasy on their faces. Back on the boat, we continued our disbelief and I think the high carried on for the rest of my break in Indonesia.
My last couple of days on the island, I chose to do my sidemount speciality. Well, now I am completely obsessed with sidemount diving. The extended bottom time due to more gas, and combined with nitrox, my brain almost imploded. But hands down, the final dive of my sidemount course with my fantastic instructor, Dani, held the tie with the whale shark dive as the best dive of my whole trip. We dropped in to 30 meters on to the Glen Nusa Wreck. There was a lot of current, and Dani signalled to go up on to the bow of the wreck, and carefully hold on to the gunnel. It was breath taking. The current was so strong it almost took the masks off our faces, and regulators out of our mouths. But the sight in front of us, I will never forget. Schooling giant trevalley and batfish hovering effortlessly in the current I was struggling to hold on to the wreck in, and then my favorite, white tip reef sharks right on the edge of the 25 meter visibility, streamline and chilled. We stayed there for ages, and still didn’t feel long enough, but sadly we were beginning to run out of no decompression time, instead of gas.
In short, I learnt so much about instructing, diving and myself. I have come back to Hobart a different person. The IDC is one of the best courses I have done for my self esteem, and my diving career. I love instructing, and helping newer divers discover the beginning of that self confidence in them selves, and I am willing to put almost all of that down to Holly McLeod. Now to continue the adventure.
I love Indonesia. Seriously. I can never quite put my finger on it, but I think it has something to do with the people, the approach to life and the food. Man, I love Indonesian food. Consequently, when I decided it was time to continue my diving adventure, by undertaking my Instructor Development Course, I looked at people and places in Indonesia. During my searching, I found out about the fantastic Holly McLeod, based out of Trawangan Dive Center, Gili Trawangan. So, after about 18 months of emails, a few hours of flights, a humid boat trip, and lugging my 25kg suitcase of dive gear up the beach, I was on the idyllic, Gili Trawangan (Gili T).
There is so much to say about my month on Gili T that I decided to write two blogs about it. So just a heads up, this is all the above water stuff, life, food, cool things to do.. Stay tuned for the diving one soon!
There are a couple of ways to get to Gili T. I chose what I thought at the time, was to be the easier one. Unfortunately (for me), everyone else thought flying in to Denpasar airport during Australian school holidays was also a great thing to do. Consequently, after over two hours in line at the immigration office, I managed to get my gear, and was hoping that my lift was still waiting. As I went through customs, my spiky massage ball set off all sorts of alarm bells and I had to spend the next twenty minutes explaining to customs why I had a small bomb shaped item among copious amounts of camera gear. I was near certain that my driver had fled, finding something better to do than wait in the 30 degree humidity for some stupid white girl. But no, the saint of a man had waited for a full two and a half hours!!
The following day I was collected by a van, to travel to Padang Bai (South east Bali), to get on a boat. If only it were that easy… Of course, I had not quite the amount of cash I needed (further inspiring the image of stupid white girl) for the boat trip. On the back of a scooter, I jumped, to head to an ATM somewhere in the jungle of Bali (ok, not really, but my life flashed before my eyes at least once on the 2 minute trip). Cash in hand, I returned, and guiltily had to buy a plastic water bottle to get the correct change for the driver. Great, now I’m a stupid white girl who cant get the right amount of money, with a single-use plastic water bottle. So much for that $50 life straw bottle, and no waste traveling!! I worked on easing my guilt as I watched the stunning landscape of Indonesia wash past. Out past Lembongan and Bali as the fast boat cruised its way with 750 horse power transporting about 200 tourists to Lombok and the Gili Islands. About an hour and a half later, we were unceremoniously dropped on the white sandy beaches of Gili T. I dragged my heavy duty suitcase through the sand and headed off towards the dive shop.
Gili T is your post-high school, gap-year one stop shop for pretty much anything you want to try your hand at. Getting drunk at 2 am, listening to reggae, snorkelling, turtle selfies, free diving, SCUBA diving, stand-up-paddle boarding, yoga, stand-up-paddle yoga… you name it.. you can pretty much do it, all the while accompanied by the beautiful sincerity and politeness that is Indonesian hospitality. So, as I slowly wandered along the main street of Gili T, I was not so shocked to find the street was lined on one side by the beach and the other by alternating cafés, dive shops, bars and convenience stores (Gili Mart). Little did I know, however, that I had arrived a week before Ramadan, and the mosque would become both my 5am alarm clock and 10pm lullaby (and all round general theme tune).
Life very quickly settled in to a pleasant and relaxing routine. I spent a lot of time in the classroom working with my colleagues on our PADI Instructor Development Course (stay tuned for the next blog). Outside of class time we would explore the island, pet some cats, avoid being trampled by horse carts, visiting the sunset side for a quiet beer, and when I was truly motivated, getting up in time for sunrise out the front of my dive shop, Trawangan Dive Center.
Food was cheap and easy to find. My breakfast routine generally consisted of a croissant at the bakery, lunch was at a little unassuming warung that I nearly missed the first day (which I never knew the actual name of, everyone just called the owner, Nasi Lady…) The directions were apparently simple, go down the alley, and she is right at the end… unfortunately the alley looked more like a rat hole, with barely enough width for one person to walk. But the food was worth it! By the end of my stay on Gili T, I had two favorite places to eat for dinner, the night market (more specifically, one store at the night market) and a vegan resto called Pituq. I ate a lot of nasi campur, which, in essence, was an Indonesian buffet served with rice. There are plenty of delicious juices and drinks to have, just make sure you’re explicit with your “no straw please” request.
Accommodation was just as easy. I had booked one night in a private bungalow at Beach Box bungalows, two streets back from the dive shop. After I had checked in, my host offered my bungalow to me for 2 million Rupiah (approximately $200 AUD), for the whole month. It was basic, and I only had a fan, but considering the only time I spent there was to sleep, it did its job. But you don’t have to slum it. There are some incredible resorts on Gili T. After our group passed our instructor exam, we held a party at the Kelapa Villas. These incredible villas come with their own pools, and the accommodation is spacious and clean. Well worth a stay if your budget is bigger than mine! If you’re going to the island for diving, most of the bigger dive centers have accommodation and restaurants attached. Just imagine, if you really wanted, you could eat, sleep and dive without ever leaving the dive shop!! (but where is the fun in that??)
I had many people from back home ask me about the plastic pollution situation on Gili T. In short, yes, there is more plastic than somewhere like here in Tasmania. And yes, it can be quite confronting. One of the best things however, when you find it gets you down is there is something you can do about it!!! There are a lot of new initiatives around plastic waste in Indonesia and South East Asia in general! One of the very first ones I discovered was the RefillMyBottle initiative. The was a great salve to my recently dented eco-ego, with that single-use plastic bottle still weighing heavily on my mind. RefillMyBottle is a website and app where business owners can register their businesses that have bottle refill stations, and Gili T has had a fantastic uptake of this by the local businesses. The app tells you if the station is free, or if there is a small cost associated (generally around a 5-10c AUD donation). I didn’t buy a single, single-use plastic bottle again for my whole trip.
If that wasn’t enough for the eco-minded traveller, there was the Gili Eco Trust. Gili Eco Trust runs initiatives above and below the water. But best of all, they run Debris Free Fridays, where like minded people get together and participate in a 45 minute beach clean, and to add to that warm fuzzy feeling of cleaning a stretch of beach, you get a free Bintang to quench your thirst!! The Trust also run volunteer internship programs for budding eco-warriors, to help run the beach cleans, and assist with the multitude of other initiatives they support including building cages to protect turtle nests during their incubation period. Don’t forget, you don’t have to just go to a specific beach clean to pick up rubbish though.. many a Facetime I had back to Australia was spent on the beach collecting lollipop sticks or the like. Gili Eco Trust and most dive shops also sell dive debris bags, small enough for you to pack in to your dive gear, and very easy to fill on a dive! For $7.5 AUD, its a great little investment.
Finally the dive shops! It really depends what you want to do. Almost all dive shops on Gili Trawangan are a part of GIDA (Gili Indah Dive Alliance). GIDA was created almost ten years ago to create a strong, safe and environmentally responsible dive culture on Gili T. There is no price haggling between GIDA dive shops, so if you go to the shop on the island that appears to be cheaper, double check they’re a GIDA member, honestly, it is worth the extra couple of dollars. The alliance have established emergency procedures that all members are involved in. I personally dived out of Trawangan Dive Center (where Gili IDC is based) and had the best time, but as I mentioned, the standard of guiding and instruction is high across all GIDA dive shops, so check out the GIDA website before heading off on your trip to see who their members are, and which shop suits your needs the most. But above all, go to Gili Tfor diving, snorkelling, beach cleaning, and that sneaky vodka joss in jungle at 2 in the morning, you’ll have a great time.
For a lot of Tasmanian divers, there is one event that is always on the calendar, Tasmanian Combined Dive Clubs Weekend (CCW). It is held every year, in the sleepy, East Coast town of Bicheno on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, for the last 15 years.
For me, it always starts the same way, finish work, pack the car faster than light speed, then drive 2.5-3 hours in the dark, along the windy, coastal highway, attempting to avoid the suicidal native wildlife. The car, the company and all the dive gear have managed to make it every year, for the last 5 years, thankfully.
Arriving in Bicheno, and our first stop is the local fish shop down at the boat ramp. Yarns are told, new and old divers alike are greeted and a few rough dive plans mooted for the next morning. We stroll along the road, back to our accommodation, being serenaded by the nesting penguins.
We awake to a beautiful, crisp Bicheno winters morning. The sun is shining, wind is barely a whisper and the sea is calm. A couple of the hard-core interstaters were at the ramp at 6am for a dawn dive, return with tales of 15 meters + visibility! Its going to be a good one.
Being a long weekend, boats, big and small are everywhere! However, it is a big coast, and most fishermen head offshore, and away from the marine reserve, where we prefer to dive. Dolphins playfully join us as we leave the boat ramp, heading towards the marine reserve. We kill the boat motors and the dolphins do laps around the boat, showing off their lithe and skillful manoeuvres.
The 45 minutes in the blue never quite seems to give us enough time to explore the great diversity of dive sites the East coast of Tasmania, and in particular, Bicheno, have to offer. Once we are past 20 meters depth, the kelp beds begin to thin out, making space for the beautiful and complex variety of sponges, sea whips and other incredible invertebrate species. And the colors. I’m eternally in wonder with the colors the deeper sites of Tasmania have to offer. The massive, room sized boulders give the appearance of huge sea monsters, covered in sea whips, long, white and gently swaying with any remnant surge.
Hundreds of pink butterfly perch, move in synchronicity and are more interested than afraid of the two ridiculous, neoprene and steel shapes moving through them. They flit and turn together, collecting little morsels from the water column. In the Governor Island Marine Reserve, the large rock lobsters know they’re safe, and the vibrant, large red and yellow animals stroll across the boulder littered sea floor with very few cares in the world.
Heading back to the surface, we come to the region that is dominated by golden parazooanthids. Weird, tubelike creatures, that end in delicate tentacles. these beautiful colonial animals cover swathes of rock bommies, leading to the aptly named dive site, Golden Bommies. The butterfly perch follow and watch us, still eating in their peculiar little way.
Slightly shallower again, the kelp begins to return, as do swathes of bryozoans (colonial animals that look like plants), yellow sponges, and my all time favorites, sea spiders and nudibranchs. A macro photographers heaven. It’s a good thing our bottom time is considerable longer at this depth, I easily spend 10 minutes harassing one particularly photogenic nudibranch or a group of sea spiders huddling together.
Our time is almost up, but there is one last favorite bit of diving in Bicheno. That 5 minutes between deploying the surface marker buoy (smb) and breaking the surface is not to be ignored. It is the chance to have a candid view in to this underwater playground. The wrasse play hide-and-seek in the surge and kelp, leather jackets, who look like they’ve had a little too much to drink, try to defend their territory from other, faster fish, and the pike school hurriedly through the melee to rush off as one. A rock lobster, surveys his little hidey hole, and shuffles a little further in to the open.
We break the surface, and chill on the surface like the nearby seal, sunning its self. The boat comes and picks us up, and we quite literally sail in to the most stunning, pastel hued sunset. The sky is still highly colored an hour later as we sit on our balcony drinking a quiet beer.
We wash down, pack up, eat cheese, tell a yarn and listen to the evening presentations. The latest research on the invasive urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii), scientific and cave diving talks as well as a stunning video from the Our World Underwater Scholar from 2018. The weekend is finished with Dr Harry (Thai cave rescue, not the vet…) giving an incredible, down to earth talk about his experiences.
The winding road, rain slicked windows, and some tunes carry us gently home. Mother nature smiled on us, this time round, sun, no wind, no rain, and 15-25 meter visibility. Bring on winter diving!!!