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  Truk Lagoon, a must do for anyone.

pink soft coral
Soft coral hangs everywhere.

In early March 2003, I met up with friends for 10 days of diving in Truk Lagoon. This was my first trip there, and I went mostly because my friends wanted to go. While Truk shows up on several lists as one of the top photo sites in the world, I preferred reefs far more than wrecks.

I've returned with a much changed view. If you're a far travelling diver, Truk Lagoon is a must do, no matter what your preference. The wrecks of Truk Lagoon proved to be the world's ultimate in artifical reefs.


Wreck divers will never look at their home wrecks in quite the same way again, and as artificial reefs, the wrecks are as good as real reefs in many other places in the world.

Although better known by its European name of Truk, this vast atoll is now known as Chuuk, renamed along native traditions when the Federated States of Micronesia was formed in 1979. Chuuk is one of the four states of FSM. The islands have also been renamed, with resulting confusion on many maps and brochures. The main island is listed as both Moen (it's former name) and Weno, it's new one.

The atoll itself is enormous over 200 islands scattered across 800 square miles of lagoon. It's nearly 48 miles across, and is surrounded by barrier reef with only a few access gaps to the open ocean. 74 ships and a few planes went down in Operation Hailstorm in February 1944, with two dozen being commonly dived today. This report covers the 13 sites we dove during this trip.

Wrecks we dove in Truk Lagoon

Getting there.

Eventually you'll wind up on a Continental Airlines flight to the airport on Weno (Moen) from either Guam or Honolulu. Flights are not daily, so if your flight doesn't go when scheduled, you may encounter multiple day delays in recovering.

I took my normal route, leaving Orlando 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday the 11th, flying Continental to Houston, then to Guam via Honolulu. 22 hours later, with the sun never having set, I was standing on the Guam sidewalk, my watch showing it was 3 in the morning and my eyes seeing it was late afternoon. I spent two nights in Guam, and caught the Friday a.m. flight to Truk, slightly over an hour down the road.

Truk is 9 time zones removed from the east coast of the US, (+15 hours with the date change, EST), which inverts day and night. The overnighting in Guam went a way toward getting acclimatized to the time change.

In country

The international airport is located on the north end of the big central island, now renamed Weno. Being their own country means that everyone entering does the immigration thing, data card and all, and then customs. It's perfunctory at best, and soon you're out on the bustling street looking for the shuttle.

The Truk weather is characterized by a 9 month rainy season, and a 3 month really rainy season. I'd arrived at the time with the least rain (December-March), but still we had a short, tropical rain nearly every day. It usually just cooled things off, but at times was downright chilly.


rooms at blue lagoon
Rooms at the Blue Lagoon.

We shuttled to the south end of the island to the Blue Lagoon Resort, a pricey operation with comfortable air conditioned rooms but little else that worked. There was no hot water in the shower any of the three days I was there, in either of the two rooms. Despite it being the high season, few were there and the bar, resturant, and gift shop were open only a few hours a day. However, it's where all three live aboards pick up passengers, it has a dive operation, and most of all, it's the only real choice of a place to stay. We were there to dive, not watch TV.

The Boat

The boat portion of the trip was from Sunday afternoon, March 15 to Sunday morning, March 22th. The group of 16 had chartered the Truk Aggressor II live aboard for a week.

The Aggressor's shuttle dingy took us from the Blue Lagoon dock to the ship, where we settled into the cabins, set up our dive gear. It has 7 double cabins, each with bathroom and shower, and one quad cabin, for a total of 18 berths. Cabins were a bit cramped, and storage space was minimal.

Truk Aggressor II
Truk Aggressor

The individual air conditioning in each room worked well, and spacious dining and lounge facilities made for easy living. The captain, Niall Lawlor, an Irishman raised in London, is easily the best captain on any of the 10 live aboards I've done. The boat was well run, we were well briefed, and he went out of his way to make sure we enjoyed our trip. All food and beverages are included in the price, and they do a a gourmet job with the meals. Despite 4-5 dives a day, with the food and constantly available snacks onboard I always seem to gain a few pounds on these trips.

Diving from the Truk Aggressor is directly off the boat. The diver's BC and regulator are rigged to a tank on a seat on the big dive deck, with extra gear stored beneath the seat. Don the gear, head a few steps to the stern, put on fins, and jump in. Cameras are handed down to the diver in the water. Nothing could be easier. When the dive is over, return to the same seat. The tank is filled between dives, with either air or nitrox as required by the diver. Am ample camera table serves to retool between dives.

The Diving

The wrecks of Truk lie in the east central portion of the lagoon, south of the island of Weno and interspersed among the 4 smaller islands further south. All are in the lagoon, where a million years of jungle runoff and a fine silty sand make visibility a function of tide and surge. Much of either and it will white or green out. We averaged around 40 foot visibility most dives, but a few dropped to half that. The same jungle debris produces a strong backscatter component that photographers must contend with.

Dives from landside were from pangas, usually single dive trips departing at 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., returning to the dock after the dive. It's possible to do a two dive trip, but in 3 days trying we only succeeded once. They seem to want to go out and back each dive. Dives off the Aggressor were scheduled for 7:30 and 10:30 a.m., and 1:30, 4:30, and 7:30 p.m. Meals were sandwiched around the dives.

Immediately noticeable was that the water was very warm (82F+), the fish were the asian pacific variety, and every square inch of the any sunny piece of wreck above 70 feet had something growing on it. Hard coral, soft coral, sponges, razor clams and anemones were everywhere, fighting each other for anchoring space.

I divide the wrecks into two categories: Those with many war artifacts in place, like disassembled zero fighters, china, bullets, bulldozers, tanks, gas masks, saki bottles, etc, and those with a hyperbundance of marine critters, particularly soft corals and anemones. Then there are the super sites that had a lot of both. One wreck has over 58 of those giant anemones, the counter having lost track near the end of the dive. Even us dedicated reef huggers found every dive to be full of things to see.

I dove about as hard as I've ever done on a trip, ranging from 70 minutes on the top of the Heian, chasing octopus and jawfish, to 28 minutes + 9 minutes of deco on the Hoki Maru. Twelve minutes at 140' on air will get you on the swing set for a bit. I swam end to end on several of the 500' wrecks. We did 5 dives a day (including a night dive) during the week, over 25 hours underwater in 8 days. Ears were totally waterlogged, muscles tired, brain fried. But like I said, it was as good as it gets. Missing a dive would have been a real loss.

 Kiyozumi Maru
blue soft coral
Soft coral hangs everywhere.

The Kiyozumi lies on her port side, in 105' of water, but there's not much to see on the sandy bottom. The entire starboard side, at a depth of about 50 feet, is completely covered with heavy growth, mostly lump corals. Look among the lump corals for lots of banded pipefish, a new species for me. Trees of soft coral cover the starboard deck rail, and dangle under the masts, which extend horizontally with the ship on it's side. Farther astern is a single propeller so big and so covered with growth that you're not immediately aware of what it is.


Nearby are many large colorful anemones and their attendant anemome fish and cleaner shrimp. The hold of the Kiyozumi has two bicyles hanging on a wall, but I had to have them pointed out to me or I'd have missed them, despite looking. We did two dives on the Kiyozumi Maru, at 7:30 and 10:30 a.m. on Monday, March 17.

 Kansho Maru.

Kansho, Kensho, Kinsho. I've found all three spellings in the references, so will go with the Aggressor briefing. She sits upright in 130' of water, in usually milky visibility. A large well decorated deck gun occupies the forward area, and makes for a good wide angle subject. The bridge is easily penetrated and has a easy to find radio set. Others visited the engine room and report very large wrenches laying around the area. We did three dives on the Kansho Maru, at 1:30, 4:30, and our first Truk night dive at 7:30 p.m. on Monday the 17th. .

Golden Zoanthids
Golden zoanthids open at night
 Unkai Maru
pink soft coral
Ubiquitous damselfish in every niche.

The Unkai is a 300' wreck, small by Truk standards, sitting upright in 135' of water. Most of this dive will be spent below 100 feet, so it'll go by quickly. We came upon a free swimming nudibranch on the bow, then ducked into the hold for a glimpse of a big stack of boots. Be sure to visit the red lumpy sponge on the stern rail which has come to look like a big valentine. If you stay down on the deck (100') going aft, you can return to the bow at 50' level, paying a visit to the tops of the mastheads. They are covered with sponges and finger coral. We did 1 dive on the Unkai, at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Fujikawa Maru.

The Fujikawa Maru is one of two "super" wrecks in the lagoon, having both a lot of decoration and many wartime artifacts. Much of the deck is shallower than 50' and at one time it's masts stood out of the water, before they fell over. This makes for extremely good natural decoration. It's 6 open holds are full of cargo, including a completely dissassembled zero fighter, so it's a treasure trove of war artifacts. We did 4 consecutive dives on the Fuji, including a night dive, and each time saw new things. Many think this is the best wreck of the lagoon.

zero cockpit
A dissassembeled Zero in hold 6.
commerative plaques
Alfred photographs the memorial plaques.

Also of interest is a guided tour of the engine room, several levels below deck. Compressors, lights, a telephone booth, and an enormous engine are stops along the way. Besides natural decoration and war artifacts, there are two memorial plaques on the deck midships. One commemorates the 50th anniversary of Operation Hailstone, and dedicates the wrecks as heritage for the people of Truk Lagoon. The other commerates the life of Kimiuo Aisek, the native Chuukese who founded the first dive shop in Truk and led to diving as we know it on the wrecks of Truk.

 Nippo Maru.

The Nippo Maru is deep, over 150' to the sand, which makes for not much growth. Filter feeders like it above 50 feet, and with lots of sunlight. Basically the shallower the better. However, at about 130', there are big artifacts, including a two man tank, the most photographed telegraph/rudder wheel combination of the week in the bridgehouse, and 4 field artillery pieces on the aft deck, sunk before they could be unloaded onshore. We did two dives on the Nippo on Wednesday morning, and due to their depth, took a longer than usual surface interval.

two man tank
A two man tank on the deck.
 Yamiguri Maru
star pufferfish
A Star Pufferfish wobbles by.

The Yamiguri Maru lies on her port side, in 110' of water. Enter the hull through the torpedo hole that sunk it and exit laterally through the holds and you'll be treated to a view of "steel kelp". The wooden flooring of the holds is long gone, leaving only the steel beams. Each of these has become decorated with growth, giving the entire area the look of a kelp forest. In the forward hull are stacks of shells for the 14" guns of the fleet battleships. The entire starboard hull is a forest of lump coral, and the biggest anemones of the trip were on the kingposts. We did 2 dives on the Yamiguri, including Wednesday night.

 Fumizuki.

The destroyer Fumizuki was the only non cargo (Maru) ship of the week. It lies well west of the Shinkoku and is not shown on the above map. A sleek boat, she could do 35 knots. The stark view of the V shaped bow, the deck gun, and the sharp propellers built for speed all make for good natural light wide angle photos, as does the bridge and wheelhouse area. You'll reach 135' and only get one dive on this one, so don't dally too long in any one place, or you'll not see it all. Note the high speed propellers astern, strikingly different shapes than the freighters.

destroyer Fumizuki
The stark V of the destroyer bow.
 Shinkoku Maru
closing anemone
The anenomes close briefly at 4:30 p.m.

The Shinkoku Maru takes the honors for the most decorated ship in the lagoon. If it's a species that grows in the lagoon, you can find it on the Shinkoku. Over 500 feet long, it sits upright in 130' of water, so the kingposts reach up to within 30' of the surface. Every square foot is covered with growth, from razor clams with multicolored encrusting sponge, over 50 anemones of every color, and lacy soft coral hanging below. Crinoids are velcroed to sponge overgrowing coral overgrowing the deck. Don't miss the encrusted telegraphs at both bow and stern.


The Shinkoku is not without artifacts as well. Swim through the passageways to find an operating table, complete with medicine bottles, the officers tiled bathing area, with urinals still mounted to the wall. There is also a radio room complete with radios.

As on all the wrecks, local dive guides have moved some artifacts out onto the deck area from inside. Items from the Shinkoku include saki bottles, a teapot, some of the original china, and a pair of 12 volt automobile batteries.

teacup
A teacup from the officers mess.
 Heian Maru
octopus
Octopus can always be found on the Heian.

At 514', the Heian Maru is the largest ship we dove during the week. She was a combination passenger and cargo carrier, doing duty as a submarine tender when sunk. There are spare periscopes and loads of 20' torpedos scattered like jackstraws in her holds. A tour of the engine room here reveals massive cylinder heads with valve rocker arms located externally to the block. While torpedos are interesting, the Heian will be remembered for the octopii. One my 3 dives here (2 Aggressor, 1 landside) I videoed several, with at least two each dive.

 Shark dive.

For variety, the Aggressor conducts a shark encounter dive near one of the south passes of the barrier reef. Divers deploy in a loose arc around a feeding area, where a bucket of fish offal is opened. A shark will grab a piece of fish, and dash away, with other sharks chasing it, waiting for the fish piece to drop. They may dash in any direction, including toward the divers, making for exciting video. The water is briefly filled with green blood, about 2 dozen sharks ranging in size from 3 to 6 feet, and a malestrom of silt. When matters settle down, a second bucket is emptied, starting the activity again.

shark
Sharks were close at the shark dive.
 Sankisan Maru
lionfish
A lionfish adds color.

Half of the Sankisan Maru sits upright in 80' of water. The other half was blown to smithereens in the attack. Still, there are thousands of machine gun bullets in the remaining holds, both loose and belted, and nearly the same number of medicine ampoles. (Caution, $10,000 fine per artifact you are caught with during the airport inspection). Another highlight of this dive was our discovery of a photogenic lionfish, somewhat rare in the lagoon. We'd seen only one in the other 30 dives. The lionfish was new to the wreck, having not been seen previously.

 Hoki Maru.

The Hoki Maru was deep but worthwhile for the collection of trucks and construction machinery in it's hold. We used air on this dive, to go well below the 130' limit of our regular 32% nitrox. There is a small bulldozer at around 130 feet, then several trucks parked on a lower deck, around 142'. After photographing everything in the area, I noted I still had plenty of air (1500 PSI), had been down nearly 15 minutes, and only had one minute of deco debt. I stayed longer, took more shots, then noticed it was 1 minute at 20 feet. I had 9 more minutes at 10'. Chagrinned, I did my slow ascent to the swingset.

Trucks
Trucks on Truk.
 Betty Bomber
Betty bomber
A mostly intact Betty bomber.

This Betty class medium range bomber lost power while leaving the nearby airstrip and pancaked down to the surface, sinking mostly intact. It is easy to penetrate inside, allowing divers to pose head up out of the top machine gun canopy. The plane doesn't support much growth, as the aluminum skin isn't as good as the steel of the ships for holding marine growth. The twin engines broke off during the crash and came to rest a few hundred feet NE of the main crash site. One sits upright, with it's three bladed propeller intact, a great wide angle opportunity.

Wrecks, or artificial reefs?

I'd written to a couple of friends who didn't much like wrecks and were undecided about making the trip to Truk: "We frequently sinks ships here in Florida to make artificial reefs. Given sunshine, warm water, and a current flowing with nutrients, they will become highly decorated over time." They decided to go, and now agree. The wrecks of Truk Lagoon proved to be the world's ultimate in artifical reefs.