Mike Gerken's
UW Photography &

Diving Blog

View some of Mike's latest photographic and video works and read about the stories behind the images. 

 

April 17, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 4

April 17, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
A Few Words First
     After I had placed my great white shark encounter, with Olympus Dive Center in July of 2001, in my list of top ten dives, I realized that I had already written about this experience in the Dive Blog Report Dated June 20, 2011. I thought about simply deleting it from the list and writing about something else, but it was without a doubt one of my top ten dive experiences. Here is the story, but with some new information.
 
 
No. 4
Great White Shark Encounter of North Carolina
 

     Shark diving today is a very popular dive activity around the world. I have talked about this numerous times in previous blogs. Anyone with enough coin and proper dive skills can sign up for near guaranteed shark encounter with almost any of the major species of sharks, including the ever feared and grossly misunderstood Carharodon carcharias or the great white shark. Dive operators in Cape Town, South Africa, Guadalupe, Mexico, South Australia and the Farallon Islands right here in the USA, specialize in unique encounters with great whites. Surf the net enough and you will see hundreds of images of divers huddled in steel cages pointing very expensive camera rigs through the bars at these curious, but ferocious looking predators. Search more and you will most certainly come across stories and images of others who swim freely outside of the cages with them!
 
     Most often, but not always the case, these encounters are generated by chumming the waters with blood to attract the sharks to the dive site. Otherwise, great whites or sharks in general can be hard to come by.  I personally do not have an issue with this practice since it creates an industry around the protection of sharks rather than their destruction. Seeing a great white shark under these staged circumstances is an awesome experience that I will not take away from anyone who has done it, but when a 15 foot great white shark unexpectedly crosses your path in a part of the ocean where they are rarely seen is, in my opinion, far more exciting.
Front page of the Carteret County News-Times, August 1, 2001.
     On July 21, 2001, when I slid off the swim deck of the Midnight Express in to the ocean 22 miles from the North Carolina coast, I was just looking to do a bit of free diving and spearfishing during our surface interval from the days diving. A 15 foot Great White Shark  casually swimming in front of me was the last thing I anticipated seeing.  At first, I thought it to be a very large sand tiger shark, but that theory was negated after about a half a second when I saw the conical snout, the large black eyes and the equal size of the upper and lower tail fin. There is no mistaking a great white shark when you see one. In those days, I had no interest in underwater photography (crazy I know) and exited the water right away in the name of self-preservation. (This dive is not just in my top ten, but also in my log book as my shortest dive.)
 
     Great white sharks are not unheard of off the Carolina Coast, but they are in fact very rare and not usually seen this far south. Some of the local fishermen can tell you about a story or two of when someone landed a great white shark in the past, but these stories are rare in the telling.
 
 
One of the passengers on board had shark diving
paraphernalia for sale on the web within 24 hours of the
 shark sighting off Cape Lookout, NC.
Enlarge image for closer view.
     The divers on board who were enjoying swapping stories from their first dive asked me why I was back so soon from spear fishing. I told them I saw a great white and of course they didn't believe me until they saw it with there own two eyes a large identifying dorsal fin slicing through the water. As soon as that occurred one could almost here the ominous theme song from the movie, Jaws in the background. Da dum...da dum etc.
 
    The excitement on board was high, but not as much for the two guys finishing up there safety stop on the hang lines under the boat. (Please read the rest of this tale in the June 20, 2011 Blog.)
    
     What I did not mention in previous blogs about this encounter was, swimming along side this 15 foot behemoth great white, was a 4 foot new born trying to keep up with it's Mom. (And no, it was not a remora if that is what you are thinking.) Scientists tell me that sharks do not practice any maternal behavior after birth, but this shark was merely swimming along side its mother and that was all. No other behavior was noticed or claimed in that regard. 
 
    To add more interest to this story, nearly one year prior, another dive boat had spotted a large female great white and a small new born swimming along side it only 5 miles from this very location! Could it be that great whites come to this area with warmer water east of Lookout Shoals, NC to birth before heading back out to cooler northern waters? I would like to think so, but I do not have any scientific data to back this up. It is just an opinion. Do I hear grant money jingling out there for a budding shark researcher? I think so.
 
     Today, knowing what I know about great whites and the unlikelihood of them attacking me, I would with out question stay in the water to photograph and film such an encounter, if it should occur again. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I turned tail and scurried up that latter a second time. Opportunities to film such rare events do not come often and risks sometimes must be taken in order to get, 'the shot'.
 
Photo Tip of the Week
Wreck Photography Rule No. Two
 
     Mike's wreck photography Rule No. One is simply, "do not always follow Mike's rules". I can't, in good faith, leave you with that as the only tip of the week, so I'm starting on Rule No. Two; Shooting subject matter that is quickly and easily identifiable.
 
     When shooting shipwrecks a shot will be more compelling to the viewer if he or she can determine exactly what it is they are looking at quickly if not instantly. Quite often, wrecks are in such bad condition that one must search hard to find some recognizable structure. Wether you are using the wreck as a backdrop for subject matter ie sharks or as the primary subject following this rule will most certainly improve the likability of your image.
 
What is this above? In reality it is a very interesting artifact, but that doesn't matter if you can't tell what it is. It is an anti-aircraft gun on the wreck of the Fumitzuki destroyer in Truk Lagoon.
 
     What is this above? Now we are getting somewhere. As a stand alone subject, this sink and mirror makes for a very interesting photo since there is no doubt as too what you are looking at.
 
The wreck of the Proteous off the Carolina coast is a great place to shoot sand tiger sharks but for one thing....the wreck is a low lying debris field with little structure. However, this steering quadrant on the stern is geometric and vertically dramatic and added to the overall appearance of this shot. It was very intentional to shoot these sand tigers composed this way.
 
Next time you are on a wreck, scope out the areas of the site that are the most distinguishable and plan your composition around those spots. Sometimes one needs to be very creative depending on how interesting the wreck is. 
 
Good luck!
 
Mike Gerken

 


April 4, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 5

April 04, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

No. 5
"Pinnacles" - Ponta D' Ouro Mozambique, Africa
     A few short years after I abandoned the grind of my office job in New York City, I was in the need for some adventure. I just finished up working as a mate on a dive vessel in Hatteras, North Carolina in 1999 and was in the market for a new job as well. Scanning the internet one day I came across this dive job posting: 
"Dive resort manager wanted for remote African dive camp in Mozambique."
     "Perfect", I thought to myself. "Where is Mozambique?" "What is a dive camp?" What better place to run off to than a country I had little idea where it was. I did know it was in Africa, but I didn't know where. After doing some more research, I discovered that Mozambique was located on the south east coast bordering South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania with coast line twice as long as California on the Indian Ocean. I wanted to experience life outside the United States and living and working in Mozambique might be just what I was looking for. 
Ponta D' Orou or Point of Gold, Mozambique, Africa. 2000©
     I spoke to the dive operation manager of the dive company, Blu International, over the phone, who was based out of Johannesburg, South Africa. We both decided the job would be perfect for me. He indicated I would be sleeping in a tent and getting paid 2000 South African Rand per month to manage the dive camp on the very southern tip of Mozambique in the small town of Ponta D'Ouro; a popular dive vacation destination for South Africans. That didn't sound so bad. Even though 2000R was equivalent to a mere 333USD, we worked out the details and it was a deal. This job wasn't about the money, but the adventure.
 
Poles and reeds were the primary materials used in
most of the structures in Ponta. 
     After an arduous flight and cross country drive for ten hours (a story that needs to be told another time), I arrived in the small town of Ponta D' Ouro. To call it a town could be considered an over statement. Most of the buildings were gutted, falling down and riddled with bullet holes left over from a harrowing civil war that only ended a few years prior. (This too, is a story for another time).
 
 
     Most of the newer structures were made with reeds and framed out by tree poles. There were a handful of proper private homes in the area, but they were mostly owned by foreigners from SA and Portugal, the European country that colonized Mozambique prior to 1975 before it reached independence. 
 
My home for six months...a leaky tent.
    After getting settled in to my humble abode (a leaky tent), I wandered down to the beach to get a glimpse of the Indian Ocean for the first time and to see how the diving was conducted. As I walked down the beach, all I could see for miles was vacant waterfront property over looking the blue sub-tropical waters.  Ponta D, Ouro, when translated from Portuguese to English means, 'point of gold'. It was 'golden' indeed. 
 
 
      It was towards the point, where the town got it's name from, that I discovered where the dive operators set up and launched the dive boats. From a distance, I could see a semi-rigid inflatable rib weaving through the surf and heading in to the beach at full speed. I wondered when the skipper was going to slow down, but it became quickly apparent that he had no intention. With dive passengers holding on to straps and seated on the pontoons, the skipper drove the rib 20 feet right up on to the dry beach at full speed. The twin 150 HP outboard engines roared as the free spinning props popped up out of the water. I had never seen anything like. 
 
20 foot inflatable rib driving full speed up on to the sandy beach
of Ponta D' Orou. 
     For the next 6 months Ponta D, Ouro was to be my home. I managed the dive operation and coordinated all my customers needs from accommodation to diving. It was a challenging job due to the remote nature of the camps. Everything had to be shipped in from near by South Africa; fuel, food and of course the tourists.
 
The dive camp in Ponta D 'Orou in 2000.
    I experienced some amazing diving over the next 6 months on the reefs of the Indian Ocean. However, the dive that stands out to be the most memorable was called, "Pinnacles".  About 4 miles off the beach was a couple of sea mounts that shot up from the sea bed that attracted a myriad of marine life. Schools of giant trevally and big eye jacks were common site as were zambezi and hammerhead sharks.
 
    (Unfortunately, my trip to Mozambique was before I became a keen underwater photographer, so I have no underwater video or photos to share with you.)
 
     The dive to Pinnacles that was the most memorable for me was done with a group of divers visiting from England. They had travelled a long way and were eager for top notch diving.  Sad to say their trip so far was riddled with problems. The tents that they were using leaked terribly and it seemed to rain nearly every night they were there.
 
The broken down vehicle left to me to help run the
dive operation. It never did run. 
     In an effort to make their stay more enjoyable, I promised I would take them to Pinnacles every day, since it was renown for being the best dive site, but it happens to be the furthest one from the beach and trips out there are sporadic at best due to the cost of fuel required to get there. At this stage, preventing a dozen angry Brits from assaulting me was more important than a few dollars of petrol.
 
     The boat we used was about 21 feet in length with a rack running down the center line of the boat to hold tanks and BC's. Launching from the beach in Ponta D' Ouro is a team event requiring everyone to participate. 4 x 4's would tow the boat down to the water line where muscle power would finish the job. Paying divers would line up along the side and help push the boat down the beach and in to the surf. The skipper would say, "one, two, three", and on three everyone would push. Once the boat was in the water all of us would hold on to stabilize it. On a calm day this was easily done, but when 3-4 foot waves rolled in holding on to that boat was a challenge even with 12 divers.
 
     The captain would enter the boat from the transom and head to the helm that was mounted almost up on the bow. He would lower the engine, start them up and then tell everyone to get in. Sometimes he would have to engage the props while divers were still hanging on with feet dragging in the water in order to prevent the boat from getting thrown back on to the beach again. This was a 'hairy' experience when it happened and not just for the poor person being dragged around.
 
An enormous GT or giant trevally, much like those seen at Pinnacles
on display by locals and the man who caught it who is in the bottom front.
    When the skipper gave the ok, everyone would pull themselves in to the rib over the pontoons. Some with weaker upper body strength would have to be pulled in by their britches. Once all on board the skipper throttled up and headed out to seas weaving in and out of the breakers. On many occasions these boats were known to flip over when captains would poorly judge when a swell was about to crest. Fortunately, I did not see this while in Mozambique, but I had heard many stories. 
 
    The trip across the open ocean was most often a bouncy one. These high speed boats were driven hard by there skippers sometimes with little consideration for passenger comfort, but then again this was Africa. Toughing it out with little complaint was a way of life there.
 
    Once at the dive sight, the skipper would triangulate positions on land to determine if he was on the right spot or not. The use of electronics was not the norm here and frowned upon by the veterans who prided themselves on being able to drop divers without there use. When everyone was kitted up and ready to go we all did a backward roll entry in to the warm Mozambique water and headed straight for the bottom 110 feet down.
 
    This dive was pretty simple. Start deep, drift through the water and look for marine life. After the first few minutes while cruising along the bottom we all spotted what looked like a very large zambezi shark, otherwise known as bull shark. This 8-10 footer swam around us a bit and then swam off. At first I didn't think much about it, but it bugged me as to the species of this shark. It didn't figure. It wasn't until after the dive later on that we all concluded it was a small great white shark that casually swam past us. Very cool.
 
     After a few minutes we left the bottom and began our very slow ascent to the surface  and spent the rest of our dive drifting with the current.  It didn't take long before someone was waving there hands and pointing out in to the blue water. There they were. A school of about 20 hammerhead sharks about 30-40 feet out from us. They would swim around in small circles together for a few moments and then disappear only to emerge again a few moments later. It was an awesome sight. 
 
    While this was going on some of the largest giant trevally I have ever seen would cruise up to us for a close inspection. Then off in the distance I could see yet another shark species on the fringe of our vision. As it drew closer in I could see that it was a zambezi. This shark would keep his distance and travel along with us for the duration of the dive.
 
    The show kept getting better. After only another minute a dozen beautiful devil rays in formation appeared below us. Devil rays are much like their relatives, the manta ray, but much smaller in size and are known to swim together in large groups. There we were drifting along in the wide open Indian Ocean with a dozen hammerhead sharks ahead of us, a zambezi lurking around behind us and these stunning devil rays cruising beneath us. It was breathtaking.
 
     This dive continued on for another 30 minutes until most of us started to run out of air. No one wanted it to end and popped there heads up only when the last breath had been drawn. One by one the divers scurried over the pontoons and back on to the boat. Just before it was my turn to hop in, I took one last look out in to the blue and saw, for a brief moment, a 6 foot marlin swim by. I just shook my head and knew this dive was going down in my log book as one of my all time greatest. Twelve years and several thousand dives later, my Mozambican drift dive is still in my top ten.


Afterword
So much could be said about the country of Mozambique and its people, but their story is one that requires respect and in-depth attention to tell. The country was emerging from a harrowing civil war when I arrived in 1999. What I saw was both inspiring and heart breaking. The people of Mozambique have come a long way, but with a long road still ahead.
 
 

Mar 22, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 6

March 22, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
Photo of the Week
Divers enjoying a manta ray show.
Maldives 2008©
 
Just a Few Words First
      My top Top 10 Dives of all time countdown continues in this weeks blog. At number 6, I have chosen a specific dive from one of my trips to the Micronesian island nation of Palau in 2003. The dive was German Channel. Famed photographer, Doug Sloss has helped out this week and contributed some of his wonderful images to the blog. Thanks Doug! Scroll down and find out why this dive stands out.
     Beneath the Sea Dive Expo in New Jersey is days away and I have a busy weekend ahead of me with presentations and a workshop. Visit my the events section on my Facebook page, Evolution Underwater Imaging (by Mike Gerken) for a complete schedule.
     Olympus Dive Center has been reporting unbelievable dive conditions already this year. Last week they had 62 degree water temps and 50 foot of visibility on the inshore wrecks in 60 feet of water. That is impressive indeed. Pretty soon, the vessel I captain out of Olympus, the Midnight Express will be running and I will have first hand accounts of the conditions and excitement from North Carolina. Stay tuned!
 
     Shooting black and white images is the Photo Tip of the Week. Scroll down to the bottom and learn when you should shoot in black and white and the effects you will obtain by doing so. 
 
Happy diving!
 
-Mike Gerken
 
No. 6
German Channel - Palau
     I would be remiss if I did not select at least one dive, out of many, from my excursions to Palau. The one dive that stands out above the rest was my dive on German Channel.
 
Green sea turtle of Palau.
(Photo courtesy of Doug Sloss©)
     In 2003, I had been vacationing from Truk Lagoon on board the liveaboard dive vessel, Palau Aggressor that was, at the time, captained by my close friend, Ryan Tennant. Unfortunately, this dive trip was before I began shooting underwater photography so I do not have any of my own photos to share. However, my friend Doug Sloss, who was also working on the boat alongside his future wife, Lorenza Sloss was kind enough to donate some of his amazing images for this blog issue. Thanks a million Doug!
 
     I should point out first, my dive on German Channel wasn't actually on SCUBA. At the time, I was an avid free-diver or breath hold diver and I decided that I would opt for my long fins, mask and snorkel over a cumbersome dive tank. Since the max depth was only around 60-80 feet, making short trips to the bottom on a single breath of air was possible. Lucky for me though, some of the best action on this dive was near the surface anyway.
 
     Many who enjoy the sport of free-diving will tell you that the feeling of being underwater without the use of modern technology is liberating and peaceful. It is also beneficial to getting closer to marine life that otherwise would be skittish around scuba divers and their noisy open circuit regulators.
 
     German Channel was a man made channel and is the only one in Palau that funnels incoming and outgoing tides from the inner lagoon. It is probable that this flushing action of the lagoon and the stiff currents that are prevalent here is the cause for the plethora of marine life such as manta rays, sharks, turtles and numerous tropical fish species.
  
Captain Ryan Tennant at the helm of the Palau Aggressor.
Palau 2003.
     Before our group was to set out from the mother ship on board the skiff, we were thoroughly briefed on the dive by Captain Ryan. He indicated that our main objective was to see manta rays at the feeding station inside the channel and under no circumstances were we to touch the manta's.
 
     My plan was to simply snorkel on the surface while watching the divers below and to make as many short breath hold dives to the bottom as I could. I have little recollection of where we were during this dive, since I was merely content on following the group. During the first half of the dive we were inundated with large schools of scad, jacks, grunts, groupers, a sea turtle or two and a handful of sharks circling about the perimeter inspecting the action.  
 
Ringling Brothers© can't hold a candle to the show
these manta rays put on a German Channel.
Palau, Micronesia.
(Photo courtesy of Doug Sloss©)
     It was very late in the afternoon and by this time of the day the water within German Channel becomes thick with plankton and algae. It was this nutrient rich water that brought so many fish in to such a small area. We watched the fish open and close their mouths filtering the tiny morsels through their gills continuously.  It was quite a spectacle.
 
     After maybe 20 or 30 minutes I could see Ryan point excitedly ahead of him deep below me as I lay on the surface resting. I strained my eyes to make out what he was pointing to. Off in the distance I could make out a large black and white winged shape creature dodging in and out of the hazy water. Manta Rays! It had to be. 
 
     I closed my eyes for a few seconds, took a few long deep breaths and dipped below the water. With long steady fin kicks I began my descent down to get a closer look. As I made it past the forty foot mark I could now clearly make out a manta ray about 30 feet away from me.  Getting excited while breath hold diving is a major no-no. Any adrenaline released in to the body merely uses up the precious supply of oxygen within your lungs. I had to keep my cool while observing these stunning, graceful and beautiful creatures.
 

Several species of sharks are common site at German
Channel including these Black Tips. Palau, Micronesia.
 
     After maybe 90 seconds it was time to head back up to the surface for another breath of air. With long dolphin kicks it took only a moment or two before my head broke the surface. Once again, trying not to become excited, I rested and took long deep slow breaths. After three cycles of breathing I took one last deep breath and slid back down to where the manta was. As I got closer, I could now make out three mantas performing barrel rolls with their mouths agape feeding on the tiny crustaceans. 
 
     I have seen Manta Rays before, but it makes no difference. Every time you see them, it is a thrill like few other encounters in the ocean. After a another minute, I had to head back to the surface once again through the numerous streams of bubbles venting from the excited divers below. 
 
    Once back to the surface, I now had a birds eye view of all the action going on below me and to add more icing to this already sugary desert, more manta's arrived for their afternoon feed and were now closer to the surface where the lion share of the plankton were accumulated.  I lay there on the surface, relaxing and enjoying the show happening all around me.  It was like having front row seats right behind first base at Yankee stadium. 


     Pretty soon the manta rays were coming within only a few feet of me performing front rolls, back flips, barrel rolls and many other moves that would make any ballerina envious. It was an awe inspiring event to witness.  The other divers seeing what was going on above them slowly made their way to the shallows to partake in the manta show.
 


What's not to love about manta rays.
Palau, Micronesia.
(Photo courtesy of Doug Sloss©)
     It was about this point where one of the manta rays swam on a direct course right for me! While holding my breath at about 15 feet, all I could do was hope this enormous fish would veer off. The manta swam up, stopped and stared right at me only two feet away! A moment later, he turned off and bumped right in to me. I then looked at Ryan and shrugged my shoulders in a show of protest. "It was not my fault", said my facial expression and body language. "I did not break the rule. The Manta touched me!", I protested like a spoiled child.  I'm not sure if this argument would have held up in court, but I only received a single sneer from the captain and that was all. Nothing more came of it. 
 
     After a few more minutes the 5 or 6 manta rays that had performed their ballet act, now disappeared off in to the fading light in the bluish green water. The divers began to ascend to the surface and await the skiff to pick them up. I floated there feeling very satisfied and watched the setting sun.  The rays reflected an intense menagerie of red and orange light off the surface. This surreal sunset was a most fitting way to end what was, for myself, a top diving experience. I didn't know how the other divers felt, but I think I had a pretty good idea based on the beamy smiles emanating from below their masks.


Doug's wife, Lorenza Sloss is an accomplished photographer, dive instructor,
mother, business woman and the best underwater model I have ever seen.
Photo taken at Jelly Fish Lake, Palau, Micronesia.
(Photo courtesy of Doug Sloss©)
About Doug & Lorenza Sloss
Step by step post processing tips
for Lightroom 3. Also available for
Adobe Photoshop.
     Underwater photographers Doug and Lorenza Sloss have taught hundreds of people how to dive and shoot photography. Their passion for teaching translated into the creation of a successful series of DVD tutorials that help underwater and topside shooters of all levels to effectively and professionally post-process their images.
     Doug’s photography and writing has appeared in Sport Diver, Scuba Diving, Scuba Diver Australasia, Islands, Asia Diver and many other magazines and books worldwide. He is also a Field Editor and regular columnist for Asia’s Scuba Diver Australasia magazine.     In his spare time, Doug teaches seminars and photo workshops, both above and below the waterline.

     If you want to perfect your digital editing skills for your underwater shots, look no further, their DVDs are what you need. And if you want to venture into HDR photography, stay tuned for their next DVD release!


Afterword
In many regions of the world, manta rays are being hunted at alarming numbers and in many cases for the use of there gill rakers only! It is falsely claimed that they are useful as herbal remedies in asian medicine, but there is no basis for this. Click here to learn more about this abuse of ocean resources and to learn how you can help stop it.


The fishing of manta rays is unsustainable. Help stop the slaughter!
(Photo courtesy of Shark Savers Manta Ray of Hope Project.)
 
 
 
 
 
 

Feb 25, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 7

February 25, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
 
Photo of the Week
A three man Japanese battle tank on the foredeck of the
San Francisco Maru.

Chuuk, Micronesia. Copyright 2007.
 
Just a Few Words First
     Coming in at my No. 7 Top Dive of all time is the San Francisco Maru in Truk Lagoon, Micronesia.  This wreck is a very important segment to my documentary film, The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon. I will be presenting on this, my second documentary, at Beneath the Sea dive expo in Secaucus, NJ on March 24. I will be expounding on the history of the region and how the video was made as well as showing a few highlight clips. I hope to see you all there.
     Also, for you photo buffs, don't forget to sign up for the Wreck Photography Workshop that I'm conducting at BTS as well. You need not be an expert to attend and you will obtain some great tips on nailing quality underwater images.
     Speaking of Truk....if any of you desire to dive there, Olympus Dive Center is conducting a trip in 2013. Call up the shop for more info and to book your trip today. There is no better group to dive with then these bunch of wreck junkies. This trip fills up quick so get your dollars down.
     A Photo Tip of the Week is included here. Scroll down to learn how to use Negative Space in creating a compelling image. If you like these tips, remember, you can sign up for a photo course as well. 


Happy Diving!


-Mike Gerken
 
No. 7
The Wreck of the San Francisco Maru
 
The San Francisco Maru prior to the war.  Date unknown.
     If you asked ten people who have ever dived Truk Lagoon, "What was your favorite dive there?", I would say at least 8 out of 10 of them would tell you that the San Francisco Maru was it. That is, of course, only if the 'San Fran' was part of their itinerary. Due to the average deep depth of about 160', only those with the skills and the nerve will make the plunge to see this epic piece of World War II history. 
 
     As with my last Blog Report on Shark Pass in Truk Lagoon, I am again making the stipulation that this No. 7 top lifetime dive is actually not a single dive, but a composite of many dives made on this shipwreck. During my 5 years living and working in Truk Lagoon (known today as Chuuk), I had many great experiences exploring, guiding, filming and photographing the San Francisco Maru.
 
     (Before I continue, those of you who are new to my Blog Report, please read "The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon" posting from December 6, 2011 to learn more about Truk Lagoon and why I was there.)
 
The San Francisco Maru at anchor and ablaze
on February 17, 1944.
     The San Francisco Maru was sunk on the morning of February 17th, 1944 during the US air raid codenamed, 'Operation Hailstone'. At the time, the 'San Fran' was at anchor, fully laden with a large quantity of munitions, supplies and weapons. So much so, that it is a wonder the entire ship did not explode when a torpedo, dropped from a US Plane, ripped through the hull on the starboard side. The ship went down to the bottom shortly thereafter in a fiery mess and sits upright today in 200' of water.
 
     Some of you may be wondering at this point, why is a Japanese merchant ship named after a US city. It's simple; during peace time the Japanese traded extensively with the United States and the San Francisco Maru's maiden voyage or its chief port of call was to San Francisco.
 
Beach head mins stacked to the ceiling of cargo hold
No. 1 on the San Francisco Maru.
      The 'San Fran' has become the wreck divers dream come true dive site. The amount of artifacts, weapons and munitions on board is staggering. So much so that the 'San Fran' has earned the nickname, "The Million Dollar Wreck", due to the supposed million dollars worth of cargo on board at the time of her sinking. The cargo holds contain hundreds of semi-spherical beach head mines; where a single one could take out an armored tank. Mixed in with the potpourri of military madness a diver can find whopping 2000lb aerial bombs, hundreds of crates of assorted anti-aircraft ammunition, stacks of depth charges, torpedos, artillery shells and anything else you can think of that could create havoc for the US military forces.
 
The bow gun on the San Francisco Maru.
      More photogenically, the 'San Fran' has a bow gun propped up on the foredeck while there are three Japanese battle tanks sitting on the deck just forward of the remains of the superstructure. (See the top of this blog for photo). These tanks were designed to operate with a three person crew and are tiny in comparison to any other tank designs from WWII. These artifacts are without a doubt the main highlight of the 'San Fran' and obtaining a photo is on every photographers hit list and can be found at a modest 160' deep.
 
Depth charges in the cargo hold.
     One of my favorite moments diving the San Francisco Maru was when Woman Diver Hall of famer, Evelyn Dudas brought her dive group of Diving Duds to Truk on board the Truk Odyssey in 2008. Part of the her entourage was her daughter Suzie Dudas and entrepreneur boyfriend, Rodney Nairne of their company, Submerged Scooters, located in Juniper, Florida.  The diver propulsion vehicles that Rodney and Suzie designed and produce are radical dive 'toys' to say the least. These underwater rocket ships can pull a fully geared diver at speeds of up to 250' per minute. I'm not sure what that is in miles per hour, but you do the math. Simply...it is pretty fast.
Crates of ammunition.
     While the Duds were diving the 'San Fran', I brought my video camera down to gather shots that would be used for my documentary film, The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon.  Suzie and Rodney were diving with a pair of their scooters and I wanted to get some shots of them sprinting around the wreck. This task was easier said than done. Unfortunately for me, I was using the archaic method of finning to propel me around the wreck and the task of trying to keep up with these two and hold the camera steady was a daunting one at that. I must say for a few moments, I was able to keep a respectable pace with them while filming and cruising down the length of the wreck, but it was futile in the end. They left me in there wake.  All I could do was catch up just long enough to shoot a few seconds of footage before they raced off down to the other end of the wreck. Needless to say, I burned through my air supply at 160-170' rather rapidly. Watching these two buzz up and down on the 'San Fran' was enough for me to put a Submerged Scooter at the top of my wish list of dive gear.
 
     In the end I did manage to procure enough footage to accompany the documentary. In some ways this was one of the highlight segments of the film due to the popularity of this wreck. You can check the video out below and see for yourself:
 
The skylights leading into the deep recesses of the
engine room in San Francisco Maru.
     Diving the San Francisco Maru requires some deep diver training and is not really for the beginner diver unless you descend for a few minutes with an experienced dive guide to have a quick look around and then head up. Current is rarely if ever and issue, visibility is usually 50-80 feet plus and the water temperature is always in the low eighties. These conditions tend to make a deep dive, such as this, considerably easier, but common sense and caution should always prevail.
 
     If you ever find yourself in Truk Lagoon, be sure to check out this breathtaking example of what a real wreck dive is like. I promise you, the 'Million Dollar Wreck' will not disappear.
 
 

Feb 14, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten : No. 8

February 14, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
 


Photo of the Week
A common gray reef shark or Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos, from 'Shark Pass', Truk Lagoon, FSM. Taken with an Olympus 5050 (5MP) point & shoot camera with a wide angle wetmate lens. © Copyright 2006



Just a Few Words First
     After returning from a fantastic week of skiing in the beautiful mountains of Montana, I have had to motivate myself to remove my head out of the mountain clouds and back in to the world of underwater photography.  Living sea side in high humidity and moderate climate is the polar opposite of living at 8,000 feet of altitude in the snowy cold dry air of the mountains, but enjoyable all the same. The scenery from both is stunning and skiing lifestyle for me is as appealing as diving. One day I hope to be able to share equal time in both regions doing the things I love to do most in life.  Diversity, after all, is "the spice of life". Meanwhile, I wait with anticipation, here in Beaufort, NC for the dive season to begin for me in April. Yes, I will be returning as captain of the 'Midnight Express' with Olympus Dive Center  for the 2012 season.  I look forward to seeing you all here for some world class wreck diving.
 
     In this weeks Blog I continue on with my Top Ten Dives of all time with Truk Lagoon's Shark Pass taking the No. 8 spot. Shark Pass is located on the outer reef and is visited only on special occasions to see up and close the gray reefs, black tips and silver tip sharks that dwell there.
 
Photo Tip of the Week
     Information is a powerful commodity. In this weeks Photo Tip of the Week, find out one way to obtain information that will most certainly improve your photography. It's not rocket science, but I am amazed at how few utilize this resource. Please scroll to the bottom to learn more.  
 
Old but important news:
     If you haven't already, please sign up for my Dive & Photo Newsletter here. I should have a new edition out this week. Within the newsletter you will find stories and current events in diving and marine conservation and updates on what is happening in my part of the dive world.  Here is a copy of the last edition.
 
     Just a reminder to all of you who are planning on attending the Beneath the Sea Dive Expo in New Jersey this March, I will be presenting and conducting a photo workshop titled, Wreck Photography Techniques: Wide Angle to Macro.  I will also be conducting presentations on my documentary film, "The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon" and one on "Wreck Diving with Sand Tiger Sharks of NC". Click here for more details or check out the newsletter above.
 
Happy Diving and Skiing!
 
-Mike
 
Mike's Top Ten Dives
 
No. 8
Shark Pass - Outer Reef, Truk Lagoon
A gray reef shark commonly seen at
Shark Pass in Truk Lagoon.
©Copyright 2007
     Truk Lagoon is considered by many to be the wreck diving capital of the world. Some of you might be asking yourselves right now, "So why did Mike choose a reef dive with sharks in Truk Lagoon as one of his top ten dives of all time?" The answer is easy, "I love sharks" and this dive was way too much fun. Besides, if you stick around and keep reading future blogs you will see several Truk wreck dives that scored higher than this one.


     First off, this No. 8 top dive in actuality is not just a single dive experience, but the sum of all my dive experiences from this dive site. Nearly every one of the dives done there was as exciting as the others. So how do I pick just one? I don't. It's my list so I get to make the rules.


     While working in Truk Lagoon from 2003 until 2008 on board the Truk Aggressor II as a second captain, we took divers to a small reef within the lagoon known for an abundant shark population, named Shark Shoal Maru. Most were eager to take a break from wrecks and get their taste of what reef diving was like in Truk. This was a great dive site, but not as dramatic as the one we did from my next liveaboard job in Truk. Years later, working as captain of the M/V Odyssey, we took divers to an isolated part of the outer reef for their shark experience. This place was nicknamed, Shark Pass. In order to get to it I would have to take a 133' vessel through a narrow and shallow pass through the barrier reef in to the Pacific Ocean and anchor up close to the reef atop a sheer wall that plunged several thousand feet down. When the wind was blowing in the correct direction our stern would hang over the wall 60 feet below, but if it were blowing the wrong direction the stern was precariously close to the reef in only a few feet of water. Needless to say, this dive was strictly weather dependent.


 
The smaller black tip sharks were regular participants
in the melee, but rarely won any of the spoils.

©Copyright 2006.
     Before I go any further with this story, it is important to point out that the sharks were fed at this dive site. For any of you readers out there who may have an issue with feeding sharks, hear this first. The sharks were visited on the average of only three days per month and fed a small quantity of fish carcasses or whole fish only. Never at any time did I witness harm to another shark during the feeding. In fact, touching the sharks was strongly discouraged. It is my opinion, that with the decimation of shark populations worldwide due to overfishing and shark finning, local people from low income communities, such as those from Truk Lagoon, must be given an economic incentive to want to protect sharks in their own waters. Show them that a shark alive is worth 100 times that of a shark dead and they will most often protect those sharks with their own lives. This holds true for any other part of the ecosystem as well.  Shark dives such as the one's I used to conduct at Shark Pass were a perfect example. Divers paid good money into the local economy to dive with these sharks and at the same time many divers were educated that sharks are not the demonic creatures the media plays them too be. It is a win win for all involved. The locals have an income, divers have their entertainment and excitement and the sharks get to live and continue to act as important link in the marine ecosystem.  In a perfect world, sharks could be left alone and observed from a distance underwater, but the fact remains that shark feeding is a very large lucrative industry and has proven to help protect shark populations.  With that said let me move on with the dive.


A shark tamer readying for the show.
©Copyright 2006
     Once the Odyssey was tied up to the reef on to a permanent mooring, divers were briefed on the procedures for the dive. All would enter the water about the same time, proceed to the spot on the reef where the feed took place and find a spot to sit on the rocky ledge in a semi-circle with the drop off in the front of them all the while with gray reef, black tip and silver tip sharks circled in close proximity.  In the middle of the 'arena' was a metal cable with one end floated to the surface on a buoy and the opposite end with a clip that passed through a pulley that was fastened to the bottom. Once all were ready, the dive leader would signal to the crew above on the surface that they were ready. The crew would then clip off a frozen skipjack tuna to the top end of the cable while the dive leader below would clip off a lift bag to the opposite end. Once the lift bag was inflated the bag would shoot up and the frozen fish would propel downwards in to the middle of the viewing area. All could now watch the feed from a safe distance.


    What proceeded each and every time the fish entered the water was a perfect demonstration of apex predators at work. Immediately, a shark would latch on to the tuna and start shaking violently back and forth while it's rows of razor sharp teeth sawed through the frozen carcass. Once a piece had broken off another shark would come in swiftly to pick up where his predecessor left off. This often happened in rapid fire sequence with not all of the sharks getting a piece of dinner.  In the mean while, hundreds of smaller fish swarmed about the feed area picking out the small scraps from the water column. Nothing went to waste. Frequently, majestic silver tip sharks would show up to the frenzy. At sometimes ten feet in length these sharks dwarfed even the largest of the gray reef sharks. For reasons I do not understand, these larger sharks tended to circle around the perimeter of the excitement using more caution before approaching the bait. Most often they were not successful at landing a meal, but every once in a while they would succeed putting to shame the bitty gray reef sharks.  Watch the video link below for a prime example of what I am saying.


One of my earliest photos from 2006 at the
Truk Aggressor II dive site,
Shark Shoal Maru. 

     Not only was the shark feed exciting to behold, but it was very interesting and educational as well. After conducting dozens of feeds such as these I never once saw one shark attack or bite another shark, even at the most frenzied of moments. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing a shark attack or eat another healthy species of fish during the feed. Large red snappers, trigger fish and numerous other fish species present, always went unmolested by the sharks. It goes to show you that they are not the indiscriminate hunters that many perceive them to be, but will hunt injured, weak or in these cases, dead fish. They are not only hunters, but the scavengers of the oceans. 


    After repeating the process a second time within 15 minutes the feed would be over and all were left to explore the outer reef and the wall beneath them. I usually returned to the boat to unload my video camera from the housing to capture the excitement of the divers as they returned from the dive. Rarely did a diver return to the boat and not display signs of an adrenaline rush. Wreck diving has it's own form of excitement, but it is most definitely on a different level than being in the middle of three dozen ravenous sharks going ape on a dead fish. These wreck diving aficionados had just found out that Truk Lagoon is certainly much more than just a wreck diving destination.


Afterword:
After leaving Truk Lagoon in 2008, I am not aware if any of the dive operators are offering shark diving on a regular basis. I would recommend contacting the operator directly to inquire first before visiting.

 

 

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