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. 


June 13, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 1 - Where It Began

June 13, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

A Few Words First

      For those of you who have been following my blog series, Mike's Top 10 Dives, I have finally gotten around to finishing it up in this issue with my no. 1 most memorable dive. Some of you may have been thinking, it must be an exotic dive on one of the wrecks of Truk Lagoon or a deep dive on the SS President Coolidge or a encounter with a ferocious shark in North Carolina. The reality is the dive that takes the no. 1 position for me is muchmore modest than that.
     This dive takes me back to where it all started; my open water check out dive off the beaches of Riverhead, New York in the Long Island Sound. I did not know at the time what diving and the ocean would mean to me in the future. I only knew that I loved diving. At the age of 13 that was all that mattered. Life was simpler back then and I didn't analyze the experience; I just reveled in it. 
     Enjoy this piece and thank you again for following.
Happy Diving!
-Mike Gerken
"Open Water Check Out Dive" - Northville, Long Island, NY
Here I am posing for a shot after completing
my check out dives for my
open water certification. July, 1981.

     My parents, grandparents and their parents before them have been vacationing on the eastern shores of Long Island, known as the North Fork, since the 1920's. Back then, the region was dominated by sprawling farm communities specializing in growing potato's. The owners of these farms had built beach bungalows along the north shore adjacent to their farm land in a hamlet called, Northville. They would use these modest homes for their own personal use in the summer months and as rentals for those who would venture out to the country from New York City to escape the oppressive heat. My great grandparents were such people. Swimming, fishing, boating and sun bathing on the beach were all favorite past times for the entire extended family.

     My grandparents eventually purchased one of the beach houses in Northville and introduced this life style to my father and in turn introduced it to my mother and myself as well as my siblings. My most memorable times growing up were those spent at the Gerken beach house where, like my ancestors before me, I would explore the waters of the Long Island Sound. From sun up till sun down I could be mostly found in the water, afloat on top of the water or at the waters edge engaged in some activity such as fishing, boating, swimming, snorkeling, water skiing and much later on, SCUBA diving.
     At the age of thirteen, my parents decided to enroll me in a scuba course at the 7- Z's dive center in Riverhead, NY. Since I had been an avid free diver and snorkeler since before I could remember, Mom and Dad believed that dive training would be the next logical step for their son, the 'water rat'. I was a very lucky child to have parents that encouraged me to try new things and to keep me stimulated and active. I might not have appreciated this at the time, but as an adult I certainly reflect back on this with gratitude.

Setting up my gear for the big dive off the beach in Northville
with my instructor. July 1981.

     After arriving at the 7-Z's I remember the excitement of seeing the dive equipment hanging on the walls. Mind you, this dive shop was not like the flash operations you see today with the numerous selections of gear displayed on the custom made displays. Nearly everything was black and you had a choice of two masks and two styles of fins. Pink wetsuits were definitely not an option. 

     My folks enrolled me in the course and handed me the text book and set up the schedule. I was to come two nights per week for the next three weeks to do the training.

     I remember having a grand time with the in water training skills in the on site pool. Back then we were required to do skills that have been long banned from training schools. One such skill was a breath hold circuit under water. Wearing only a weight belt, mask and fins we would swim from one scuba unit to another along the bottom of the pool. At each station we would take a breath or two and then swim to the next station to repeat the process. This would go on for a few revolutions until we all mastered it. Another notorious skill was called the 'ditch & don'. Standing at the foot of the pool at the deep end we would toss all of our gear in to the pool in a pile 10 feet beneath us. Wearing nothing but our swim shorts we would jump in, free swim to the bottom and start donning the gear. First the regulator in the mouth, then the weight belt, then the dive tank and backpack, then the mask and fins and then the buoyancy compensation device (BCD). Once all was secure we would do a controlled ascent to the surface. If a dive school was to perform such a drill today their lawyers would flip out. At some point years later, 'ditch and don' was gone for liability reasons I'm sure.
Setting up the equipment as my father
takes a few snapshots.

     Mastering the in water skills had proven to be much easier than the classroom training. Most of the material was easy enough, but the physics and dive tables proved to be trying on me and required a little extra attention. My dive instructors were very nice guys who were patient and knowledgeable. They helped me through it all and got me to pass my written exam. All that was left now was the open water check out dives; the moment of truth.

     For reasons I cannot recall, I was unable to attend the check out dives with my class mates and had to set up a private session with one of my instructors whose name was Carl. Carl drove out to my family beach house and conducted my training dives right in front of my home. As luck would have it, the water was calm for many days creating clear water with visibility at least 15 feet or more (this is pretty good for the LI Sound). 
     We splayed out blankets on the rocks and sand and began to set our gear up. The regulators and pressure gauge in those days did not have an alternate air source, but they did have power inflators for the BC's. A depth gauge was also not required and dive computers were in their infancy if available even at all.
Instructor Carl and I wading into the water to start our training dives.

     Carl and I then proceeded to help each other in to our gear and wade out in to the flat calm water. After a short surface swim Carl, looked at me and flashed the ok sign with his thumb and forefinger. Once I ok'ed him in return he then pointed his thumb down indicating it was time to descend. Once we got down to the bottom about 15 feet down I noticed all the same things I had seen many times before while breath hold diving; crabs, small fish, seaweed and rocks etc. This time though I did not have to he surface for air. I now had more time to explore. 

    Carl then proceeded to run me through the skills required for my certification. Out of air drills, buoyancy and mask clearing skills being but a few of them. He was very thorough and at the end of each training session we would swim off and simply have some fun. We came across a large set of rocks at one point and spotted an enormous black fish or Tautog swimming in and out of the crags. I only stood tall at about 5 foot and change in those days so I can't say for sure how big 'enormous' really was. All I can say is it was exciting. We also saw a few crabs and schools of smaller fish as well.


Exiting the water with Carl after my first SCUBA dive.
Needless to say I was pretty excited. 

     Once the first dive was complete we exited the water where Carl said, "that was a big blackfish wasn't it!" I agreed enthusiastically and by my reaction many would have thought I just saw a great white shark. In those days it did not take much to excite me.  Carl and I then changed out our tanks and repeated the process over again with a new set of skills this time. 

     The second dive was every bit as good as the first but it all came a little easier. My father all the while stood on the beach taking photos and made a point to stay out of the way and let Carl do his job. 

     Once we completed my final dive, Carl simply said, "congratulations you did a great job". I'm not sure what I said in return but I know I probably had a grin that stretched from ear to ear and then some. My Dad at this point intervened in the whole process and offered Carl a cold beer back at the house. To this day the tradition of a diver drinking a cold beer after a dive lives on strong. As an adult today, I can vouch for this. After a cold one or two and some small talk, Carl excused himself, got in his van and drove away. I never saw him again after that, but the memory of the day lives on strong. 


My PADI Junior Open Water certification card.
And yes....I had hair then.


   That week my Mom took me to the grocery store and sat me in the photo booth to get my mug shot taken for my PADI Junior Open Water certification card. A card I carried around religiously in my wallet for years and which I still possess to this day. As a young boy, I cannot stress how exciting it was to participate in scuba diving and become a member of the club. I for sure felt like the coolest kid on the block.

    Ironically, I recall making only one or two dives on scuba after my certification until the age of 24. Factors such as finding a buddy, allocating the time and of course finding the funds all came in to play and kept me away from SCUBA. I did however continue to enjoy the water and went freediving and spearfishing regularly during the summer months.
Instructor Carl after successfully training a
13 year old kid how to scuba dive.

     Eventually, after completing college and experiencing the rat race of New York City for a few years, I decided it was time to return to the ocean and seek the solitude and peace that it once offered me. 7-Z's had long gone out of business and a new operation sprang up in its place. The Hampton Dive Center, owned and operated by Randy Randazzo, went on to become one of Long Island's best dive operators. I signed up for my Open Water course with Randy in my mid twenties and got back on track. Besides returning to diving for the joy of it, I had a bigger plan to set in motion; a new career in diving. It would take seven years before I would venture out on this new path on a full time basis, but that's a story for another time.

-Mike Gerken
While writing this short story I decided to try to track down my instructor who helped me on my way to become the dive pro that I am today. After a brief search on Facebook and an email sent to Carl, he got back to me indicating I found the right guy. I merely wanted to say thanks and to let him know what diving for me had become and what it meant to me. He wrote back indicating he was pleased to have been a part of the process and to thank me for bringing back good memories of his days as a dive instructor. If your reading this Carl, "Thanks again for introducing me to diving".


June 12, 2012 - Bottom Time

June 12, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
Photo of the Week
Barracuda residing on the wreck of the USCGC Spar. (New)


My home away from home, the Midnight
wheelhouse.  Photo by Annette Papa.

     This past week proved to be a good one for diving at Olympus Dive Center on board the Midnight Express. I ran charters Thursday June 7 thru Sunday June 10 with a reprieve for a few days this week. The conditions offshore have been great and bordering on super with flat calm seas over the weekend with visibility edging up to 60 feet at times; depending on where we were diving. A stiff north wind earlier in the week did manage to drop the water temps down a few degrees from 78-74 degrees but it is warming up again quickly.

     Although I did not get to dive for a few days due to obligations on board the boat, I did get in on Thursday and Sunday and finally got to see the wreck of the USCGC Spar in her new resting place since Hurricane Irene jostled her around last August. The Spar is still very much the awesome wreck dive she has always been, although now with a 45 degree list to her port side. Sand tiger sharks, although seen with regularity, have been few in numbers on the Spar. The W.E. Hutton aka Papoose on the other hand has had far more shark encounters so far this year not to mention a plethora of all the usual suspects. That wreck has always and continues to impress divers. As far as I can ascertain, most divers visiting with us have been enjoying themselves immensely including a more international crowd that I have beens seeing on board. This week the Midnight was host to some divers from England, Portugal, Mexico and Germany. Word has been getting out abroad at what we have to offer for diving and this could not please us more.

Editor & Chief of Wreck Diving Magazine,
Joe Porter hemmed in by Olympus Dive Center's
Robert Purifoy and Nema Triplett.

     Also, Joe Porter, the Editor & Chief of the renown Wreck Diving Magazine came up to Olympus for a quick getaway dive on Saturday before returning to his busy schedule at home. Word has it he had some great dives. It was nice to see him out enjoying the perfect weather conditions and we look forward to his return with his lovely wife Heidi in the near future.

     On the photo side of things, the addition of the Nikon D800 to my arsenal has been an exciting one thus far. Due to a very busy schedule I did not have the chance to do as much shooting with it yet. The housing for this camera will not be ready for a few more weeks so I am relegated to snapping some top side shots in the meanwhile. So far what I have seen has blown me away by the quality of the images this camera takes. The dynamic range of the images is impressive compared to my D200 and D300 cameras. No longer do I lose as much detail in the shadows when I expose to the highlights and vice versa. The sharpness and resolution is hard to top at 7360p x 4912p; a whopping 36 Mega Pixels!
A test shot of the Midnight Express
with the full frame Nikon D800
and a 16mm Fisheye lens.

      That is a lot of MP's for the average photographer, but you can never have too many I say, especially with the price tag this camera comes with. The body of the Nikon D800 runs $3,000 but when you consider that only 5-8 years ago a camera with this large a sensor ran as high as $25,000 or more. There is a lot of performance in the D800 for the price. Due to these large files this camera is not recommended for action/sports photography since the frames per second is hampered to a mere 4 per second at full frame. That speed suits my needs for underwater applications. So far I am pleased as punch with this unit, but I have a lot more experimentation to go. I will keep you all posted.

     Lastly, I will have my final Blog Report on my Top Ten Dives within a day or two. Stay tuned.
Happy diving!
-Mike Gerken

Photo Gallery
Some territorial barracudas on the Spar
made for great subject matter.
Taken with Nikon D300; 16mm fisheye lens.
Taken with Nikon D300; 16mm fisheye lens.
'Midnight' mate, Brian Moore making a
grand entry off the pulpit.
Taken with Nikon D800; 12-24DX lens.

Crew hanging out on the bow on a
beautiful flat calm day.
Taken with Nikon D800; 12-24DX lens.
Annette Papa and Anna Yeager of Olympus,
tag teamed a bunch of lionfish this weekend.
Those fish didn't stand a chance.
Taken with Nikon D800; 12-24DX lens.

Flat calm day + great vis makes for some happy divers.
Taken with Nikon D800; 12-24DX lens.



June 4, 2012 - Dive Drought Over

June 04, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Photo of the Week
A sand tiger shark in the wreck of the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose. (New)
©Mike Gerken

      The dive season here in North Carolina with Olympus Dive Center has been underway for well over a month, but until this past week I have personally not been able to get in the water since Dec 2011! This was in part due to bad weather as well as a bad attitude. This past week changed all that. The weather improved as did my attitude and I am now able to deliver new photos and a condition report after making three dives this week.
     The conditions offshore have been stellar. Just take a look at the Photo of the Week up top that was taken only 24 hours ago and you will see what I mean. We did lose one day of diving on Wednesday due to a storm that flew threw here, but I will not dwell on that downer. We did dive on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday off the Midnight Express. Let me give you the run down.
The stern of the WWI gunship, the USS Schurz. (New)

      We had some great divers visit with us this week, all of which I do not have the space to mention in this blog report. Two men of note that I would like to mention are Matt White and Tyler Anderson who are part of the Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba, also known as, SUDS. I wrote a piece on SUDS last year that you can read about at this link. This will give you some background as to the amazing work this organization is involved in.


SUDS diver Tyler Anderson being drilled by

dive instructor, Bubba Flores. (New)

SUDS diver, Matt White emerging from
within the wreck of the W.E. Hutton
aka Papoose. (New)

     Matt and Tyler were here to do some dive training with Olympus instructors Bubba Flores and Danny Facciola and also to simply have some fun diving. I had the privilege to tag along with the four of them on a dive on the W.E. Hutton, aka Papoose and snap a few pics of them engaged in training. I'd have to say that this was inspirational watching these guys dive. They looked like pros down there. 

     After the dive was over, the training continued for Matt as he finished his surface skills towards his Rescue Diver certification. Bubba with the help of Olympus instructor Annette Papa simulated various distressed diver scenarios where Matt seemed to master all the skills and finish his course. It was impressive to watch. (See Photo Gallery below)
     SUDS weren't the only divers in town this week that I wanted to mention. The New York City dive club Sea Gypsies were here for most of the week to dive headed up by Mats Stahlkrantz and Renata Rojas. It is always a pleasure to have my NY kinfolk come down to dive with me at Olympus and this year went very well for them all. Well at least that is what they told me. They managed to dive the mainstay wrecks, the Papoose, U-352, Spar, and the Aeolus and have great dive conditions to boot. The optimal diving was a plus considering a tropical storm had barreled its way through here just last week with 35 knot winds and 10 foot seas.
2012 Sea Gypsies North Carolina
dive group. 

     All of the dives the Gypsies did yielded anywhere from 40 feet of visibility up to 80+ foot with 78 degrees on the bottom. Sand tiger sharks on the Spar are sporadic, but there was a population on the nearby wreck of the Aeolus and plenty to be seen on the Papoose. Many divers even reported seeing NST's (Non-Sand Tigers) on a few of the dives which leads me to think that the dusky sharks may be back this year. I'll keep you posted on that.

    As for myself, I managed to get in some diving this week on the Papoose and on the USS Schurz. The long diveless winter became a distant memory as I looked at my LCD at 120' after snapping some 'keeper' images. The feeling of finally getting back in the water and doing what I love the most was a relief. 
    For those of you contemplating coming diving, well now is the time to do it. The warm blue water is pushing in strong and there is loads of marine life out there to see. I for one am excited and optimistic for this 2012 season. 
A North Carolina lionfish.
    On a different note, I will be posting my final Dive Blog Report on my Top Ten Dives of all time within a few days. My last Blog was on my 2nd all time best dive with Manta Rays right here in North Carolina. My number 1 dive is the last to come and some of you may be surprised to read what it is.
Happy Diving!
-Mike Gerken
Photo Gallery
Carcharias taurus or the sand tiger shark.

I never tire of these amazing sharks.

Matt and Danny inside the Papoose right before
I temporarily blinded them with my strobes.

Tyler Anderson exploring the beautiful
W.E. Hutton aka Papoose. 


More drills for Tyler with Bubba.


Tyler receiving orders from Bubba. 


Matt White taking a tour of the Papoose.


Tyler and Bubba making an ascent.


Matt White looking like a pro.


SUDS secretary and Olympus instructor
& captain, Danny Facciola looking over Matt.


Tyler and Bubba taking a break.


The SUDS gang hangin' out.


Tyler performing surface rescue skills with Bubba and Annette. 


Perfect ring toss by Tyler.


Bubba getting a tow.




I'm diggin' those pink 'Chuck's' Renata!


Annette Papa looks to be having a good time.


A days catch. Yum yum.


May 16, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 2 "Manta Heaven"

May 16, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Photo of the Week
A Manta Ray
(Photo taken in the Maldives 12/2008 ©Mike Gerken.)

A Few Words First
    My Top Ten Dives of all time is nearly finished and pretty soon I will have dive reports from our 2012 dive excursions to the wrecks of North Carolina. The season here is well underway.

     This week, I am recalling an amazing dive experience on the wreck of the Caribsea right here in the good ole USA. The experience was profound enough that will be very tough to dislodge this dive from my No. 2 spot. Before reading understand that I do not condone the touching of marine life whennot necessary. This dive took place ten years ago before my understanding of the potential harm that touching marine organisms can cause. Please scroll down and read more.
     In case you haven't heard I am now offering for sale on my web site a line of Evolution Underwater Imaging t-shirts and hats bearing the company logo. They are made of high quality materials and will add some style to your wardrobe. Divers style that is.
Evolution Underwater Imaging

     On the publishing front, I just received word that Brittians largest dive publication, Diver Magazine has agreed to publish my story, Wreck Denizens of North Carolina. Based on the title I suppose you get an idea on what this story will be about. I will have more details on what issue it is to appear in very soon.

Happy Diving!

"Manta Heaven" - Caribsea, North Carolina

"Unfortunately, this story took place before I became interested in underwater photographery. I do not have any photos or video to share with you of this encounter. 
I hope the story and your imagination are enough to satisfy."

     In 2002, I was the first mate on board the dive vessel, the Midnight Express out of Olympus Dive Center, North Carolina. The very same boat I'm presently captain of. After diving and traveling in many locations around the world in the past 15 years, the dive story I am about to tell is one of many that explains why I keep coming back to North Carolina to live, dive and work.

    The charter on this summer day in 2002 was nothing out of the ordinary. The group we had on board from New Jersey was just thoroughly entertained by their dive on the Atlas tanker. The Atlas is one of those 'go-to' wreck sites when folks want to see sharks up close and personal. After the passengers completed their first dive we decided to head over to another wreck.

   We picked up anchor and went to the wreck of the Caribsea, a WWII casualty ship that was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1942 about five miles from our present location. It was my turn to tie us in to the wreck upon arrival.

    Captain Robert hovered the boat over the wreck and told me to jump. Wearing a full face mask equipped with surface communication, I followed his orders and leapt over the side with anchor in hand. A few minutes later I had us secured to the wreck and reported we had about 30-40 of visibility on the bottom, but a little clearer in mid water. Robert said he would call me back in a few minutes to find out if I had seen any sand tiger sharks. Diving with these sharks was the main reason why we came here.

    I began swimming around the wreck and saw the usual suspects wandering around the bow section. Robert then called me back on the com where I began to tell him about the shark sightings. I said something like, "We have about a dozen or so sharks a slight ways out holy !@#$% a manta ray just swam up behind me. " Wow" replied Robert, "I will tell the others". As he went back to deliver the news and brief everyone on the dive I began swimming about the wreck with this inquisitive manta ray. The ray would swim out of view only to return moments later and swim right up into my face checking me out. Needless to say I was elated at this.

     As I rounded the bow and started swimming towards the boilers of the wreck, mid way down, there were yet two more Manta's that came out of the bluish green water. Robert then calls me back and asks if the Manta was still there where I told him there were now two more. 

     If I wasn't so focused on what was happening before me I may have imagined the melee of divers up on deck struggling to get in the water to get a glimpse of one of the oceans most popular and beloved creatures. I'm sure they were tripping over themselves.

     It soon became apparent that these three mantas weren't going anywhere, for the show was just beginning. All one had to do was hover in the water and watch them perform there graceful ballet act. Each of would do barrel rolls, twists and spins in what seemed like a joyful event. Mantas commonly do rolls and flips with their mouths open in order to scoop up the tiny crustaceans that are a part of their diet, but none of them were feeding. I'd like to think that this act was a playful one and these rays wanted to interact.

     Some would swoop down at me coming within arms reach where I could reach out and gently touch them on the belly just as they would peel off like a dive bomber. Before any of you get upset because I touched the manta please note that this was the year 2002; a time before touching marine life was so greatly frowned upon. Besides the Manta was enjoying the heck out of this cat and mouse game.

     Within a few minutes the divers began showing up on the scene to partake in this gala event. Unfortunately for me, it was time to head up and tend to activities from the surface. I would have to leave the divers in the care of the manta rays.

     After I returned to the boat, I filled Captain Robert in on the events taking place down below while he got his gear set up to go for a dive once everyone had safely returned. After about 45 minutes or so the ecstatic divers returned one by one and clambered up the ladders with grins stretching from ear to ear. Each and everyone of them had a continuous encounter with all three of the manta rays for the duration of the dive.

    It was now Roberts turn to head down for a dive and no one had to convince him to go. Judging by his long absence from the boat I suspected the rays had stuck around and he was having the time of his life down there.

     Eventually he did return, but then suddenly the unthinkable happened. One of the mantas accidentally became entangled in one of the hang lines strung up underneath the boat that divers use as aids in ascent and descent to the wreck. The manta was panicking and wildly thrashing about. In a flash, Robert was back over the side with a knife in hand and swam down to the hapless manta struggling to free itself. Within a few moments and a swipe of the knife, the manta was once again free.

    We all figured the frightened fish would swim off in to the blue away from us humans, but this was not the case. As I jumped in to unhook us from the wreck in order for us to head home, all three of the mantas were still there and dancing about even more joyously than before launching backflips and barrel roles over and over again. 

    I unhooked the Midnight from the wreck and radioed up to Robert that I might be a while down here. He understood. Any other day we would have been in a rush to return home, but not on this one. I was alone on the Caribsea with three beautiful manta rays all around me. The boat and passengers would have to wait. 

    Now, here is where it got interesting. One of the mantas in particular took a special liking to me. This ray would swim in close proximity performing its aquatic dance. After a while I couldn't resist and swam up over it's back and held on gently to the manta with only a few fingers and took a ride. My eye was a mere 12 inches away from the sentient eye of this majestic creature. Not wanting to stress the manta out I would let go after a few seconds and to my dismay it did a flip and a spin and immediately came right back swimming directly at me, stopping less than two feet away from my face before it stared at me and waited.

    I once again gently climbed back on the mantas back and away it went. I assisted the manta and kicked my fins as well so it would not have to pull my full weight. This manta ray was clearly enjoying this interaction. 

     This routine went on for another 30 minutes. Every time I would let go, the manta would return, stop dead in front of me and allow me get back on board and continue the ride. At one point the ray laid down in the sand near motionless while I hovered over it. I gently touched it once or twice while it twitched its massive fins as though it were in a dream state. I swear it seemed as though it were ticklish. While all this was going on the other two manta's could be seen in the backdrop doing there barrel rolls and back flips like back up dancers. The image was surreal.

     Eventually, I took my last ride and hovered in mid-water and watched all three of the mantas continue to flit about the wreck while the one kept circling me as if it wanted to keep playing. After about 30 minutes I felt the need to surface and head for home. As I made my way up the manta ray followed me nearly to the surface before I had to sadly say goodbye. It was time for me to leave it's realm so I could return to mine. I wished this wasn't so.

     Interactions like these in the natural world with untrained, unfed and unconditioned wild life are extremely rare occurrences. For a manta ray to knowingly and purposely allow such close interaction with a human, for what appeared to be an act of pure playfulness, was an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my days.

     As years went on I became more educated as to the possible harm that I could have inadvertently caused to this manta ray by touching it. Most fish species have a thin coating of slime that covers and protects there skin from parasites and infection. By touching the ray I could have removed some of this valuable slime thus exposing it to possible harm. 

     Knowing now what I didn't know then; I would not repeat this act again. I would content myself on merely taking pictures of these beautiful creatures regardless of how much the manta begs me to play. I encourage any of you reading this to follow suit and feel privileged just to watch if you should ever have a manta ray encounter.

-Mike Gerken


May 7, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 3

May 07, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Photo of the Week
A composite image of the Japanese destroyer, the Fumitsuki.
Sunk in 1944 in Truk Lagoon, this WWII era warship is a rare find filled with history.
This image was created by splicing together 33 hi-resolution RAW files.
The finished size at 100 percent is more than 12 feet in length.

A Few Words First
     If you haven't already heard the news, sadly, this is to be my last season with Olympus Dive Center. I have recently been offered and have accepted a job in the Micronesian island nation of Palau starting in September of this year. If you would like to know more about this please see this link to my most recent newsletter. 
     I still have the 2012 dive season left in North Carolina and I am very excited to get things going. In fact, I just finished running my first three charters of the season on the Midnight Express and so far so good. On Friday May 4th we got things off with a bang by venturing offshore to the WE Hutton aka Papoose where we had a modest 30' of visibility with water temps in the low 70's. This is surprisingly warm for early May. We followed up with our second dive on the mainstay wreck site, the U-352 where conditions were about the same.
     Word must be getting out in the world about how good the diving in North Carolina is since we had an international crowd on board the 'Midnight' over the weekend. If I'm not mistaken we had divers from Denmark, Finland, Canada, Chile and even that far out country of New Joisey. I believe there was also a no-show from Peru. I for one think it is fantastic that Olympus is attracting divers from outside our borders. Bring all your friends please and if I guessed your country of origin incorrectly please accept my apologies. 
     On Saturday we dived twice the wreck of the USCG Cutter Spar. This was my first trip out to the Spar since hurricane Irene in August of 2011. The ship has moved several hundred feet and rolled nearly on to her side.  The visibility was a handsome 40 feet or better (depending on who you speak to) with water temps in the mid 70's. There was a fair amount of surface current and some choppy seas to help sharpen the divers skills on board but most all had a great experience on one of North Carolina's favorite wreck sites. There were stingrays, sand tiger sharks and plenty of small fish about.
     Sunday brought strong winds out of the north so we stayed close to the beach and dived the USS Indra and the wreck of the Suloide in 60' of water. With visibility around 15 feet divers were able to salvage this day and go diving rather than sit at the dock. To me, any diving is better than no diving and besides most on board were very pleased with their dives and some managed to spot a large and rare sand bar shark. Way to go! 
     In this weeks Dive Blog Report the countdown of my Top Ten Dives of all time continues. Coming in at No. 3 is the wreck of the Japanese destroyer, Fumitsuki. This WWII warship is a rare find in the world and can be seen mostly intact in the waters of Truk Lagoon. This is not about any one dive experience, but about the wreck site as a whole. She is my favorite dive in Truk Lagoon. Read on and find out why

     (Some weeks ago I already published a story on the Fumitsuki on scubaboard.com, so I thought I would merely repost to my blog report. If you have already read it then you may want to scroll down to the bottom for my Photo Tip of the Week section.)
Happy Diving!

-Mike Gerken

No. 3: 
The Fumitzuki  of Truk Lagoon (Video)


The bow of the Fumitsuki as seen in 2007.
            The initial time I set eyes on the wreck of the Fumitsuki, I knew she was remarkable. Sitting erect in 120 feet of seawater on the sandy bed of Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, this World War II Japanese destroyer was a physical archive of history standing before me. Canons with boxes of shells nearby, anti-aircraft guns, torpedo launchers, depth charges and personal effects from within the wreck, are only a few of the interesting items to be seen. 
         Rarely will you find anywhere in the world a Japanese war ship that is as fully intact and loaded with artifacts such as the Fumitsuki.  In 2003, I dived the wreck during my first week of employment on board the liveaboard dive vessel, the Truk Aggressor II; I immediately  knew this wreck was going to be my personal favorite. For the next six years working in Truk, I would log nearly two hundred dives on the Fumitsuki and discover a new and interesting facet about her each and every time.
            The Fumitsuki was one of twelve Mutsuki class destroyers built in 1926 during an era when the Japanese were evolving in to a world military power. With an overall length of 320 feet, a top speed of 33 knots and armed with six 24” torpedo tubes (3 fore and 3 aft), this class of destroyer was a formidable weapon. In addition, the Fumitsukiwas armed with 4 - 4.7” 50 caliper canons, 10-25mm anti-aircraft guns, minesweeping equipment and depth charge capabilities. Whereas Japanese battleships were given names of mountains or provinces, destroyers were named after meteorological events such as the Fuyutsuki, (Winter Moon), the Tachikaze (Earth Severing Wind) or the Fumitsuki(Month of the Rice Flower) whose literal translation is the month of July.
            In 1941, the aging Mutsuki class destroyers were pulled from front line duties. The Fumitsukiwas re-equipped with additional depth charges while two of her canons and one torpedo launcher were removed in her conversion to an escort destroyer and troop transport.  The destroyer fleet, totaling no more than 130 ships at any point in the war, had the distinction of being the workhorses of the Japanese Imperial Navy and were incremental in winning numerous historic naval campaigns in the early stages of WWII. The Fumitsuki and the many other escort destroyers, with their high-speed capabilities, played a valuable role in delivering supplies and troops quickly and efficiently to the numerous island nations spread out over a vast area that was the Pacific theatre of battle. She would be damaged in the course of her service three times in 1943, but would return each time to full duty. In January of 1944, the Fumitzuki and one other destroyer, reported being attacked by more than 80 US aircraft; shooting down 10 of them. This victory would be short lived.
            Soon thereafter, the Fumitsuki would be transferred to the Japanese naval stronghold of Truk Lagoon to receive repairs from damage sustained in an attack at Rabaul, New Guinea, a location then under heavy allied assault. It was here, at Truk, in the repair anchorage, that the Fumitsuki would encounter the onslaught of US air power on the morning of February 17, 1944.
            Truk Lagoon was Japan’s largest outlying military facility during the war. It’s 140 miles of barrier reef with deep anchorages within made it ideal as a naval and air facility. As WWII progressed, Japan found themselves in a full retreat and by early 1944, Truk Lagoon became the next likely target for US forces advancing rapidly across the Pacific. The Japanese commanders then deemed Truk unsafe for their naval warships and evacuated the fleet from the lagoon.
A US Dauntless Dive Bomber over Truk Lagoon.
            On February 17, 1944, a carrier based aerial assault, codenamed Operation Hailstone, was carried out by a force of more than 400 carrier based US planes on Truk. For the next 48 hours more then three-dozen merchant ships (also known as Maru’s) would be sent to the bottom of the lagoon and 280 planes destroyed in the air and on the ground. The Fumitsuki would also perish in the attack, but not before putting up a fight. This valiant struggle to survive is far more compelling story than those of the merchant ships who were mostly unable to defend themselves and were sunk while at anchor.
The Fumitsuki in the repair anchorage. 
            The worst thing that can befall a wartime captain is to have his vessel caught at anchor during an air raid. Unable to maneuver, the captain and ship would be a sitting duck at the mercy of the attackers. Commander Nagakura of the Fumitsuki would find himself in this quandary on that early morning of the attacks. Unable to make way, due to repairs being facilitated, the Fumitsuki defended itself to the best of its ability by opening fire upon the assaulting planes with anti-aircraft guns.
            Later in the morning, with the use of only one engine, the Fumitsuki managed to get underway. While under relentless machine gun fire from US planes, the Captain attempted to maneuver his ship in a zigzag pattern into the safety of open water. She managed to avoid direct hits of up to four aerial bombs, but one near miss struck close to her port stern and inflicted enough damage to cause the ship to take on water in the engine room and loose headway.
The Fumitsuki under attack by US planes.
     Salvage attempts were made on the Fumitsuki,but with no success. After struggling for the next 20 hours, she was reported sunk at sun up the next day. The crew fought bravely in the defense of their ship with seven men making the ultimate sacrifice. Unlike most of their merchant mariner comrades that were defenseless, the Fumitsuki crew had the distinguished honor of pushing the limits of their skills and crippled ship and fought until the end.
            It is this piece of history along with my creative imagination that propelled the Fumitsuki into the status of my ‘favorite wreck dive’ in Truk Lagoon. As I swim down the length of the wreck, I see the chaotic scene of planes strafing the deck of the ship while the crew scramble for cover. Aerial bombs are exploding all around with near misses sending plumes of water in to the air before raining down upon ship. I can visualize the crew darting to and fro upon the deck tending to wounded sailors, manning the guns and fighting with tenacity for their very survival. I peer in to the remains of the wheelhouse and envision the captain firing off commands in rapid-fire succession to his officers while trying to maintain his composure.
The Fumitsuki under attack.
            Midway down the wreck, the anti-aircraft gun deck is a beehive of activity with twin 25mm guns blazing away in a deafening rattle while the smoke clears away under the strong breeze gusting over the deck. The scene that is unfolding before me is not thrilling or glorious, but miserable and horrid -- the way war always is.
            When I penetrate in to the tight confines of the living quarters under the foredeck, I see the tiny fold down racks where the sailors slept. I think to myself, “what was it like trying to sleep so far forward in a destroyer in rough seas?” The pitching and yawing of the vessel would toss you around violently unless strapped in to your bunk. I spoke to an American Navy veteran some years ago who served on a destroyer after WWII. He said when crews from other branches of the navy returned to port they went out on the town to celebrate while destroyer crews went to sleep. Life on board at sea was just too exhausting to think about doing anything else when first back on land.
A sailors rack in the bow.
            Within the wreck there are numerous historical artifacts to be found. The state of Chuuk, as Truk Lagoon is known today, has declared the wrecks a national treasure making it illegal to remove anything from them. Since they cannot be taken, honest divers, conveniently display artifacts they have discovered at strategic points around the wrecks for others to enjoy. Although many artifacts have been stolen over the years, the wrecks still hold many treasures within.
         During my many explorations of the Fumitsuki, I have found medical kits fully stocked with bottles and supplies, instruction manuals still legible, lamps with intact bulbs that once illuminated the living spaces, numerous types of bottles, shoes, ammunition, electric fans and even human remains. It is a sobering reminder for me as to what took place here when I come across the bones of another. I think that this individual may have died more from the reckless leadership of generals and politicians and less from a bullet or bomb from a US plane.
A desk and intact light bulb.
        Diving the Fumitsuki is not exclusively about bombs, bullets and mayhem. When I snap out of my imaginary state I find myself surrounded by the reality of what this wreck has become today. She is blanketed with an array of marine life such as sea fans, soft corals, black corals and magnificent sea anemones. Many fish species such as the noble napoleon wrasse, the peculiar looking guitar shark and schools of marauding emperor fish are seen with regularity.
A Clark's Anemone Fish.
     This wreck, for me, is full of these contrasting images. One minute I’m contemplating the brutality of war while the next, I’m absorbed in a fanciful moment with a beautiful pink anemone fish darting in and out of the lush tentacles of its host. It is surreal down there with limitless entertainment mixed in with moments of reflection. The Fumitsuki is indeed an interesting shipwreck, but the stories of this wreck and others like her are not always apparent. With a little research and a keen imagination anyone can find the fascinating history lurking within their remains.
A video excerpt from the documentary film,
The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon - DVD
Order Your Copy Today!
Several years ago, time had taken its toll on the Fumitsuki. The bow section of the wreck was reported to have collapsed opening up the forward section. Much of what is described here and the photos posted are inaccurate to how the ship appears today. The author has yet to see the wreck in this altered state.
Archival images:
All archival images and film courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
Referenced Works:
The WWII Wrecks of the Truk Lagoon; authored by Dan Bailey; copyrighted 2000.
Japanese Destroyer Captain; authored by Captain Tameichi Hara; copyrighted 1961.
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