Dec 6, 2011 - The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon
The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon
The making of a Documentary
(See Video link at bottom)
Sometime in 1993, when I was barely a certified diver, I clearly remember standing in Penn Station, NYC waiting for my commuter train to head home from my office job to Brooklyn and reading a story in a dive magazine on Truk Lagoon. 'Truk' is known today as the State of Chuuk within the Federated States of Micronesia. The story went on to say how 'Truk' is an island atoll located in the Pacific Ocean about 400 miles north of the equator in the heart of Micronesia and that there is a barrier reef that stretches nearly 140 miles around the islands within.
Due to it's strategic location and ideal anchorage it was developed into a major Japanese naval and military base in the 1930's. In 1944, with the war was going poorly for the Japanese, the US forces conducted an aerial assault on 'Truk', codenamed "Operation Hailstone", sinking nearly fifty ships, most of which were at anchor. The article went on to discuss how these wrecks, ever since the 1970's, had become a 'Mecca' for wreck diving enthusiasts from all over the world. With warm clear water, lush marine life and steep history the wrecks were irresistible to enthusiastic divers willing to travel to the extremes of the Pacific to see them.
One of the photos displayed in the magazine article showed a dive master briefing a group of divers using a marker board and a schematic of one of the many wreck sites in the Lagoon. This person worked on a 'Liveaboard' dive vessel, which is a boat that is usually around 100-130' feet long that has luxury accommodations for around 12-20 divers for what are usually week long excursions.
Divers could pay good money and live in the lap of luxury eating top notch food while having access to world class diving, some of which that is not readily available to land based resorts. This style of diving, for some, is the only way to dive and I could see why based on the story I was reading. Other photos highlighted in the article showed the interesting artifacts, such as Japanese Zero's, mounds of bullets and even human skeletal remains. I thought to myself, while paging the magazine with awe, "I want to work in Truk Lagoon and be a captain of a luxury liveaboard dive boat". It was that simple. Reaching that pinnacle at that early stage of my dive career was a dream job for sure, but certainly not unattainable if I put my mind to it.
Flash forward ten years later after leaving the city life behind and working in numerous dive jobs in a myriad of tasks from instructor to dive mate and retail sales. Some of the locations I worked in were New York City, Africa and North Carolina, to name just a few. I received a phone call from a friend of mine who was working on a liveaboard boat in Kona Hawaii, the Kona Aggressor. (She was another one of the many dive vessels managed by the Aggressor Fleet, a franchise of dive boats operating all over the world.) He told me that they were interested in hiring me to work on one of their other vessels, the Truk Aggressor II. "Holy Cow", I thought to myself, I was getting a shot at living and working in my dream destination. For the last ten years I have been diving shipwrecks from New York to North Carolina and beyond. Wrecks had become my fascination and it mostly started with the discovery of that magazine article.
After waiting several months for my work visa to go through I found myself on a plane trekking 7,500 miles in 36 hours to Chuuk, Micronesia to start my job. After arriving and settling in, it was a matter of acclimating to my new environment and getting use to living in a 4'x6' foot room on board the TAII. The first days for me are rather vague to me today but, I do remember clearly my first dive when I blown away by the sheer magnitude of soft corals and other marine growth. The Shinkoku Maru was breathtaking to behold, not to mention extremely interesting from a historical approach. Deck guns covered with coral growth, medicine bottles littered within the super structure, an intact massive engine room with a maze of corridors to explore... It was all very thrilling and overwhelming in a good way.
The Shinkoku, like most of the wrecks in 'Truk', was a merchant ship and not a military naval vessel. With the exception of a few destroyers and gun boats, most of the naval ships had departed the Lagoon in a retreat westwards from the encroaching allied forces. The merchant ships, also known as Maru's, were left to fend for themselves while they offloaded supplies to the island. The Japanese ships were sunk one after the other like sitting ducks in the attack with little loss of US Planes and men. The Shinkoku was only the first of more than a dozen wreck sites that we would cover this week and I was already awestruck. We dived the Fujikawa Maru, the Hoki Maru, the Kensho Maru and my personal favorite the Japanese destroyer, the Fumitzuki. Each dive became more interesting than the last and I became hooked!
As my time in Truk rolled on for me, I began to immerse myself in the history by reading books and publications and soaking up the knowledge like a sponge. It was during this time I discovered underwater photography and videography when I was told that I was the new 'photo pro' on board the TAII. I barely knew how to shoot on dry land never mind underwater. They gave me a box of expired 36MM film for free and said, "go to town". I grabbed a Nikonos V film camera with a strobe and away I went. It was baptism by fire.
One can learn to do anything efficiently when you do it day in and day out and not to mention when your livelihood depends on it. In no time at all, I was taking quality images for the guests and no sooner after that I was upgrading to the digital era and shooting video as well. Looking back on it, the discovery of underwater photo and video opened up new windows for me in the world of SCUBA diving. The ocean and everything in it never looked the same to me again. I'm not sure if I would have stayed on the path of a dive pro if it weren't for this profound realization.
In July 2008, after living and working in Truk for five out of the last six years, (I took a leave of absence for one year in 2006) I decided to depart Truk Lagoon at the top of my game. A year earlier, I had finally obtained a captains job in on another liveaboard, the Truk Odyssey, which was a 135' luxury boat that is the top dive operator in Truk Lagoon today. It was an honor to have had the opportunity to captain her and fulfill a fourteen year long goal. I departed Chuuk with more than one hundred hours of underwater footage of the wrecks collected over the last four years as well as a vast collection of archival still images and rare film footage of the attacks on Truk in 1944 and 1945. With this material and a strong knowledge of the history of the region I set out to produce my second documentary film titled, The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon. (My first film was titled The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge. More on this project another time.)
When it came time to produce the documentary I became continually sidetracked by my other responsibilities in life. After all, I was a one man production team. The task at hand to fulfill the vision I had for this film was overwhelming. With absolutely no budget to work with, no promise of the film making it to broadcast and hours of underwater video footage to sift through, I continued to struggle to put this film together for the next three years. I had to do all the research, write the script, edit the footage and even record my own narration, since David Attenborough was not available at that time. The hardest part I guess was sinking my teeth in to the project, but like a domino effect, once I did, it was all down hill. For nearly three months, in the winter of 2010, I worked exhaustively for 12-16 hour days on the video. This documentary was a labor of love and not something I thought would reap great financial rewards, but I had a mission to get this thing done and in a timely fashion so I could go back to more lucrative endeavors. Little by little the documentary finally started to take shape.
Finally, in early January of 2011, I had the finished draft ready for viewing in DVD format. The feature film was a whopping two hours long highlighting 17 wreck sites and focusing on much of the history of Truk Lagoon from pre-WWII until the repatriation of the islands by Americans after the War ended. With the discovery of rare archival film footage at the National Archives, I was able to bring new light of the history of Truk on to screen. In addition, I included a bonus material disk containing an interview with legendary Chuukese dive guide, Kimeo Aisek who was a witness to the attacks in 1944 and 1945. (Please visit the video link below to view excerpts from the film.)
Once the project was completed, I soon discovered that the hardest task was yet to come, which was the promotion and marketing of the film. How does a dive boat captain and photographer with no business experience undertake such a task? Since I did not have broadcast stations beating down my door, I would use social networking sites such as Facebook, You Tube and Twitter as well as, conducting presentations to dive clubs, dive shows and dive shops around the country. Recently, the State of Chuuk adopted this film as there main promotional video and utilize it to attract tourism to their wreck diving haven. Copies of the DVD are also sold on board my old ship, the Odyssey. What better way to get the word out on this film than through the divers who travelled around the globe and shelled out big dollars to dive on these wrecks? Over time, I can only hope that this video, produced on a shoestring budget with heaps of passion, will become the definitive documentary on the wrecks of Truk Lagoon.
Video Link Here!
Click above and see excerpts from the video
and to purchase the DVD.
Truk Lagoon Photo Gallery
The 'Mighty' Titan Tug
Just when I thought there would be no more dive charters in 2011 on board the vessel I skipper, the Midnight Express out of Olympus Dive Center, I receive a call from dive shop manager, Nema Triplet last Saturday saying, "Mike we got a problem. We need to run a charter on the 'Midnight' tomorrow. Can you do it?". "Absolutely", I said without hesitation. I had been pretty busy at my desk these past few months, but I was already starting to get antsy and needed to get out. The charter was to be a small one with eight passengers on board, but Olympus doesn't like turning away avid divers who travelled from as far away as New York to go diving so, weather permitting, we were going and that is all there was too it. I had not been diving since November 20th when we dived a double header on the USS Schurz and spotted dozens of Sand Tigers congregating on the wreck, so I was anxious to get back out. (See Blog Report).
The night before the charter, the winds were blowing rather strong at 20+ knots out of the north, but the forecast was calling for it to lay down to a mere 5-10 the next day. When I arrived at the dock the next morning the winds had calmed down some, but not fast enough; it was still rough offshore. It was decided early on that we would be spending the day on the inshore wrecks diving the Titan Tug and the USS Indra. No one seemed to mind at all where we would diving as long as they could get wet and blow some bubbles.
On the way out the inlet, I over heard the briefing by Captain Tony Elliot of the Thomas S. The Thomas S is a six passenger dive boat that inter-charters with Olympus. Tony was telling the divers about the history of the Titan before she became one of the lesser known wrecks out of Morehead City. At less than 100' feet in length, the Titan was utilized in the construction of the Panama Canal and had survived a land slide during the digging and much later survived Hurricane Andrew that ran the ship aground 1/2 mile inshore! Apparently, they had to dig a canal to float the tug back out to sea. Eventually, she was sunk as part of the reef program of NC and sits in 60' of water. My perception of the Titan was she was just another small old tug boat rusting away on the seabed with little significance. You would think I would know better to have drawn conclusions such as these. Now that I had learned the interesting history of this ship the dive, suddenly looked more appealing than it did before. The wreck hadn't changed, but my attitude towards it had. It just goes to show you that the historical element of wreck diving is an important one to some wreck divers.
The dive on the Titan went very well. The visibility was around 20' and water temps on the bottom were in the low sixties. The wind out of the north diminished as the day progressed but was never an issue for us so close to the beach. The seas were calm all day while reports of 5-6 footers loomed offshore. Most of the divers were sporting dry suits while there were a few heartier soles who were wearing wet suits. The wetsuit divers stayed warm enough during the dive but seemed rather chilled after they returned to the boat and had to doff there suits. By cranking the cabin heater up to high I managed to restore some of the core body temps on these guys. I heard stories of numerous Groupers on the wreck as well as a plentitude of Flounder seen blending in to the sandy bottom.
The second dive on the Indra went just as well as the first with no hitches. Conditions were the same as the first dive and all seemed to be grateful to be out diving so late in the 2011 season. The short ride home to the dock was pleasant and uneventful. The cool winter air temps have not hit with full force yet making it possible for t-shirt wearing. Once we returned all I could think of was, when would my next trip be? Diving North Carolina has no season and going year round is more than possible. All we need is the commitment from those who will dive in 60 degree water with a smile on their face and who believe any day under the water beats a day in the office. Olympus is definitely running dive trips this December with some scheduled this weekend. Give them a call, take your chances and sign up for a dive.
Please visit Mike's web site
to peruse his portfolio of underwater photography, view his video excerpts from his documentary films and purchase fine art prints from his online gallery.
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