Getting ‘Wrecked’ in Micronesia

Truk Lagoon's undersea world is a Mecca for “wreckies.”

Micronesia has more wrecks on land alone than most places have in total. Then under the sea it gets even better. There are ships, planes, trucks and tanks covered in coral and surrounded by swirling masses of fish. Starting in Majuro Lagoon and stretching west to the Mariana Islands and Palau to the south, history is a fact of undersea life.

Truk Lagoon is the true worldwide Mecca for “wreckies.” Here, the lagoon floor is littered with coral-covered, artifact-laden shipwrecks. A guy named Kimiuo Aisek found most of these during weeks of painstaking searches years ago. Thanks to him, we get to see some amazing history. 

One ship, the Nippo Maru, is the Holy Grail of wrecks to me. A tank, field artillery guns and a truck sit on the deck. The holds are full of all kinds of war mementos such as gas masks, ammo and sake bottles. The bridge is full of glassy fish, and the ship's wheel is adorned in coral. 

The aft section gets a nice current that brings in eagle rays and gray reef sharks, and the masts and cargo booms are covered in corals around which schooling barracuda like to swim. It's a little deep, but it really doesn't get much better than this. During a week in Truk, I like to come back to this wreck two or three times. It's a classic.    

The Fujikawa Maru may be the most accessible artifact-laden war wreck in the world. A combination of coral reef beauty and maritime WWII history, it displays both of its assets in grand fashion. 

I made my way down the mooring line and made a slow descent into the forward hold. Intact Japanese zero fighter plane bodies, propeller blades, aerial bombs, bullets and lots more sat tucked away in the depths of the hold. 

At 90 feet down inside a shipwreck, it's a bit dark and eerie. My flashlight searched for war remnants while I tried to keep my wits. At this depth, narcosis can become a factor, and I didn't want to be swimming around feeling silly inside an old war wreck.

I then swam back to the stern. I passed cargo booms covered in glorious soft corals and sea anemones. The stern gun was also well encrusted in corals while sapphire chromis flitted about.

I looked up and the barracuda school moved in to see what I was up to. The toothy fish moved by in formation as then headed off into the blue. I saw the same up front at the anchor chain as a huge school of bigeye jacks is always circling in the sand and around the coral-encrusted anchor chain.

In Truk Lagoon in central Micronesia, there is a vast array of more than 50 sunken World War II ships resting in the western Pacific waters. It is considered a wreck diving Mecca due to the high number of ships both accessible and intact. 

The beauty of the coral adorning them makes them attractive even to those who don't especially like wreck diving. Each has varying depths, locations and historical and natural attractions. They have been submerged and transformed into "shipreefs.”

Truk's sea life is diverse with more than 500 species of hard and soft corals and every sea creature imaginable. There are more than 700 different kinds of fish in and around the lagoon. 

This graveyard of Japanese ships was sunk by United States Naval air attacks in February and April of 1944. The resulting coral growth on the vessels over six decades has resulted in a collection of artificial reefs that may be the most beautiful in the world.

A diver does not have to be a history buff to appreciate these ships, but chances are he or she will become one after seeing the ships. They are individual war museums and also self-contained reefs. Both aspects of the wrecks can easily be appreciated.

The Outer Islands

When visiting Chuuk, most tourists stay on the main island of Weno. It has the airport, the hotels and the diving operations. Some folks go directly out to live aboard ships and do nothing but dive all week. Weno has great natural beauty with high hills covered in palms and breadfruit trees, sandy beaches and thick mangroves. 

People are friendly; there are plenty of nice stores and a handful of good hotels. There are a few good restaurants and lots of old war remnants everywhere. Car rentals are available or dive shops can help arrange for a truck and a guide. 

Flowers are found growing in almost every yard. The fragrant ylang-ylang is used for mwarmwars, a traditional head ornament. Wild orchids and other wild flowers grow on the high islands.

I like to visit Nevo Cave. It is located near the government offices up a hill past the hospital. A short hike up a hill and a walk through a cave entrance brings the hiker through the mountain to an overlook of all of downtown and Weno Harbor. A huge gun still sits in the cave and, while I was there, two girls sat on it and giggled and watched the day go by.

Out of town is the Weno lighthouse. Its care is a rather nebulous thing. Sometimes it is cleared out and easy to reach and at times it gets overgrown. It sits at the end of a winding road through lush jungle and sandy shorelines.

The trail up is on the kidney-busting old Japanese road and at times provides some steep views down the side of the mountain. I hung on for dear life as we bounced up to the old structure. I hiked up the many steps and saw the walls today are still pocked with bullet holes. The beacon is gone, sitting below in the jungle.

Land tours on the islands of Tonoas and Param should be part of a Truk visit. Tonoas (also called Dublon) has towering breadfruit trees which give it a real tropical atmosphere. 

This island is heavily populated and has electricity and a few cars. It is a good place to get a glimpse of Trukese island life. A three-hour pick-up truck tour for tourists is available. This can also be done on foot by the hearty. Bring lots to drink.

Dolphins and tiny islands

One beautiful little island with a place to stay is Jeep Island. It is a favorite of Japanese visitors. This island is part of the Blue Lagoon operation and is normally used by adventurous people who use the island as a base to snorkel, dive and have a special nature experience.

There are coral gardens around this tiny island of a bit more than a dozen coconut trees. One can dive or snorkel. Blacktip sharks like the shallows here and can be seen constantly.

The summer months also bring in schools of bottlenose dolphins to the waters near Jeep Island. They may come to chase food or to mate, but Jeep visitors have had some fantastic snorkeling experiences with the bottlenose pods that come around.

This is a very rustic experience with a couple of small, communal bungalows or you can just sleep under the stars. A Chuukese couple prepares meals of fresh fish. No phones. No Internet. It is a real getaway and a beautiful isle.

Another good one is Pisimwe Island and is a must stop after a dive in the North Pass. It is really just a sand spit, surrounded by big stands of staghorn coral. It has 16 coconut trees and white, sandy beaches. It is a haven for all kinds of birds including cranes, boobies, terns and Pacific white birds. 

Watch your step, as some lay their eggs on top of the gravelly sand on the beach. They will probably buzz you when they feel you get too close. Get a picture of yourself on this Robinson Crusoe isle.

For some excitement closer to Weno, there's Shark Island. It is visited often by the Truk Stop folks. Shark Island is an amazing spot where reef sharks come in succession to clean and preen.

The shipwrecks of Truk Lagoon are still amazing to see even after 68 years of submersion. Considering their time in saltwater and the elements, for the most part, the wrecks are still in incredible shape. 

In the same vein, get a little pioneer spirit and have a look at the islands, reefs and passes. In Truk, seven decades of man-made history and centuries of natural history await the diver. Truk is a must-see Micronesian dive destination.

ESSENTIAL INFO

Chuuk is one of the four states in the Federated States of Micronesia. The others are Kosrae, Yap and Pohnpei, the capital. Known as Truk to divers, it officially changed its name to the local language word of Chuuk when it became a state.

Currency: U.S. Dollar
Visas: Visas are not required for tourist visits up to 30 days.
Health risks: Typhoid
Electricity: 110/120V, 60Hz
Climate: The Federated States of Micronesia has a tropical oceanic climate consistently warm and humid with some of the most uniform year-round temperatures in the world.
Getting There: United Airlines flies into Chuuk six times weekly. The main gateways into the Federated States of Micronesia are Honolulu, Manila, Guam and Tokyo (flights arrive from the U.S., Australia and Japan/Asia).
Tax: There is a US$20 Departure Tax that must be paid in cash when leaving Chuuk.

TOUR OPERATORS

Blue Lagoon Resort & Dive Center: www.bluelagoondiveresort.com 
Truk Stop Hotel: www.trukstophotel.com