Truk Lagoon, Micronesia
Oct 16, 2005
|We were drawn to the Chuuk Islands of Micronesia by the same diversion other occasional visitors are - the best wreck diving in the world. These islands are extraordinarily remote. An hour flight south of Guam in the middle of the South Pacific, they are hardly on the map. And that's what makes them special.
For those of you who have never heard of Micronesia, you may have heard of Palau - one of the recent settings for the reality TV show "Survivor." Palau is one of the four states of Micronesia. The others are Chuuk, Yap and Pohnpei. Chuuk, better known to non-natives as Truk, is a protected atoll, or an undersea volcanic formation, of tiny islands. Its explosive history has more than one meaning. Controlled by Japan leading into World War II, it became a strategic position for the Japanese navy. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an American reconnaissance mission happened to discover almost the entire Japanese Pacific fleet sitting idle in Truk Lagoon. The Japanese spied the reconnaissance plane and immediately evacuated its most important battleships from the lagoon, but before they could move the rest of their huge fleet, the Americans attacked. What ensued on February 17, 1944 was a terrible air and sea battle - five times more powerful than that of Pearl Harbor -- in which the Americans dominated, shooting down Japanese aircraft and sinking the entire remaining Japanese fleet. What remains today is a shallow lagoon floor scattered with World War II wreckage, including battleships, supply ships, submarines and aircraft -- a divers' haven.
Only one flight runs into Chuuk three days a week from Guam. After descending over waters splotched with different shades of turquoise and coming to a screeching halt on the short runway, we stepped off the Boeing 737 into the typical wall of heat and humidity one would expect from a tropical island. What we didn't expect was that we would be some of the only tourists on the island. Two small hotels is all they boast, both centered entirely around diving. And the only restaurants are in the hotels. Isolated is an understatement. We were amused when, although the hotel's menu offered an assortment of salads, we were told up front, "Sorry, we don't have salad right now." That meant ANY salads. After drilling down, we understood that the island was clear out of lettuce and wouldn't be getting any shipped in for a few weeks. Similarly, tomatoes were non-existent, the vegetables were all frozen, and the only fruits available were the locally grown bananas, watermelons, pineapples and coconuts. It didn't dawn on us to complain -- the food they did manage to serve was remarkably good - and besides, we didn't come here to DINE, we came here to DIVE!
Chris and I packed in four straight days of diving, while the kids tagged along on the boat to snorkel (sometimes above us while we were diving), explore tiny palm-lined islands during our surface intervals and witness the shark feeding frenzy after our shark dive. Together with three Australian guys and another American couple, we explored the shipwrecks of the Rio de Janeiro Maru, the Hoyo Maru, the Shinkoko Maru and the Fujikawa Maru, plus the airplane wrecks of the Betty Bomber and the Emily Flying Boat. What captured us both was the eeriness of the wrecks, even considering the magnificent coral formations and abundant marine life which now adorn them. Our divemaster was also a history buff, giving us detailed accounts of each craft's demise as part of our dive briefings. So our dives were brought to life and our imaginations ran wild. These photos and their captions describe the wreck diving best.
As if that wasn't thrilling enough, we were told one morning that the dive boat would be going to Shark Island that day, a tiny sandy spit toward the outside of the atoll inhabited by about five coconut palms and surrounded by nice reefs and many sharks. It was presented as one of the "must-dives" of Truk. I wasn't too sure about it, but Chris didn't hesitate, the Aussie guys cheered me on, and I certainly wasn't going to be shown up by Sandy, the other American gal and the only other female in our group, who announced confidently that she would do the dive! As one of the Aussies rolled off the boat and popped up instantly to say, "They're here!", I took a deep breath and decided if my mom had done it, so could I. The minute I plunged into the warm water I spotted the first small black-tip sharks swimming casually below me, and as I descended into their world, a sense of surprising calmness came over me. Our group of divers made its way right to the sharks' "cleaning station." This is an area, usually directly over a coral head, where the sharks come to have their jaws, teeth and gills cleaned by small cleaner-wrasse fish. The sharks actually get into an almost vertical position and hover quite awkwardly over the coral head while the cleaner-wrasses do their job. It is apparently a very rare shark behavior to witness, and that's what makes this dive spot known around the world.
There were about 25 sharks there that day, including lots of sleek black-tips and a few gray reef sharks, which were bigger. For the most part they just swam by repeatedly, keeping a bit of distance, but sometimes they approached the divers head-on, causing adrenaline to pump furiously until they veered off at the last second. Actually, I felt very little fear. Clearly they weren't interested in us as part of their food chain. Instead, I was awed by the magnificent creatures and so excited to be witnessing them in their natural environment, that I was bummed out when we had to come up. I was so enthralled that I paid less attention to my dive gauges than I should have, and was stunned to realize we had been down for 75 minutes and I was low on air! Luckily we had a guide who signaled us to go up, and it had been an easy, shallow dive (average 40 feet) so decompression was not an issue.
After we were all safely back on the boat, our driver pulled out the big fish heads he had brought to put on a show. Instantly after the first scraps of bloody fish were tossed into the water, the sharks swarmed and began their feeding frenzy. The kids were absolutely mesmerized. Wow, these thrashing, eating machines were the same docile creatures we had just swam with down below!
Beyond the undersea world, one of our best ideas was to allow one of the Chuukese guys who worked at the hotel to drive us and our newfound diving friends, Sandy and Richard, around the island one afternoon. What awaited us was a rugged, impromptu adventure through the rainforest complete with cultural discovery and history. It started with a cumbersome, bumpy drive along some of the island's 13 total miles of roads, which are in such horrible disrepair that the cars average about 5 mph. This rivaled Africa - and in more ways than one. We found the civilization here to exist in some of the same third-world conditions we found in Africa and Southeast Asia: houses made of scrap materials like plywood and corrugated metal, sparse electricity, outhouses, garbage strewn everywhere, chickens and pigs wandering freely about, and children without toys or modern inventions, yet playing gleefully in the forests and at the seaside.
What astounded us most was Chuuk's lack of infrastructure. Although the Federated States of Micronesia is a "freely associated" nation with the USA and gets tremendous financial support from us (it is now a strategic military position for us), apparently there is 100% corruption in Chuuk in particular. Who knows where the money goes. It certainly doesn't go to road repair, garbage disposal, plumbing, electricity, schools, etc. As I already mentioned, piles of garbage and refuse and rusting, abandoned vehicles are visible everywhere. Electricity is rationed and goes off every evening around 7 p.m. Luckily our hotel had a generator. And we were told explicitly not to drink the water out of the taps due to its high microbe content.
Getting back to our island excursion, our first stop was the private Xavier High School, perched on a hill overlooking the sea. This is no ordinary high school - it is known as the "strongest" high school in the world. Literally. Prior to becoming a school, it was the heavily bunkered radio command center for the Japanese fleet stationed in Truk Lagoon. The concrete walls are three feet thick and the window shutters are made of thick steel. The Americans dropped a bomb directly onto the top of the building during the attack on Truk Lagoon, and while the bomb did penetrate the roof, it stopped at that and did not destroy the command center. The huge hole in the exterior roof was repaired, but the damage is still visible from inside the building, 61 years later. See photos.
Next, it was on to the island's old lighthouse, which had also served as a Japanese fortress during the war. All went well until it started to downpour as our van began to ascend the hill. Soon the muddy flows of water caused us to slide off the road. All four of us adults wound up outside in the torrential tropical rain, pushing the vehicle out of the ditch. Once successfully back on the road, our driver suggested we leave the van there and walk the rest of the way. Why not?! We were slathered with mud already, and the weather was so hot that the rain was inviting. The jungle was thick with tropical vegetation, the trails were slippery, and it became an amusing adventure as almost all of us wound up sliding around on our back sides at least once!
Remnants of war were visible on our hike - huge guns, bunkers and then at last the lighthouse, pock-marked from top to bottom with bullet holes.
During our jungle trek we encountered a few friendly island people - most of whom smiled and gave us the peace sign, especially the children. What happened here in 1944 is so part of their history - yet so totally unrelated to their own heritage - that they are raised even today to understand the true value of independence and peace. The Chuukese people were mere pawns during WWII - a primitive people stuck between two world powers as innocent victims on their own turf. It was all quite moving.
We returned to the hotel covered with mud, drenched clothes, sweat and scratches from the dense jungle foliage...but also with a much bigger understanding. This, combined with our undersea explorations of Truk Lagoon, was one of the experiences you wouldn't trade for the world on a world adventure like ours.