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.