Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Michael Aw
ACROSS THE VAST EXPANSE OF THE WESTERN Pacific Ocean, 2148 islands lie scattered across 4,849,000 sq km (1,872,200 sq miles) of big blue sea. Together, they total just 1153 sq km (445 sq miles) of land. Lying east of the Philippines, Micronesia broadly comprises the islands of the Republic of Palau, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae), the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands and across to the Marshall Islands far southwest of Hawaii.
The islands of Micronesia are small, but tremendously varied. The largest is Guam at 541 sq km (209 sq miles), followed by Balbeldoap of Palau at 396 sq km (153 sq miles) and Pohnpei at 334 sq km (129 sq miles).
Geologically, Micronesia is as diverse and varied as its megafazzo cultures, traditions and history. Guam and Palau are both exposed peaks of an undersea ridge rising from the Mariana Trench, the deepest oceanic trench in the world. Kosrae, Pohnpei and Weno (Chuuk) are volcanic islands and Yap is an uplifted section of the Asian continental shelf that just happened to float into the region. Because most of the islands are far from each other, they are like oases in the saltwater desert, refuges for planktonic larvae to settle and procreate. These are also ‘motels’ or pit stops for pelagic animals like oceanic sharks, orcas and whales on Pacific crossing.
The geological formation in the region also presents wide-ranging diving possibilities - from blue holes, cave systems above ground and underwater, uplifted marine lakes, rocks, islands and abyssal walls to the lost city of Nan Madol, an archeological site on a coral reef left by the mysterious culture of Pohnpei. World War II did not leave the region unscathed. Control of the Pacific theatre was essential to winning the war and the islands of Micronesia were the stages for the logistical bases of American and Japanese occupation. Most of the battles were naval, thus remnants of war, wrecks of ships and planes are found on and around nearly every island. Notably, an American offensive on 17 February 1944, called Operation Hailstorm, resulted in hundreds of Japanese wrecks in the vast lagoon of Truk (or Chuuk, to be politically correct). From a tourism perspective, the horrific time of war has at least left the island with a treasure trove for divers. Micronesia’s underwater heritage, with its plethora of lush tropical islands, offers a lifetime of exploration.
Chuuk is legendary for the quality of its wreck diving - it has even been called ‘the standard by which all wreck diving is measured.’ This mari time graveyard is a legacy of Operation Hailstorm, a US aerial assault and one of the most devastating in maritime warfare. On 17-18 February 1944, day and night, aircraft from nine carriers unleashed wave after wave of bombs and torpedoes. The Japanese lost 260 planes, nearly 60 vessels and thousands of troops, compared to the US loss of a mere 26 aircraft. The 180,000 tonnes of Japanese ships that were sunk in just two days set a grim world record.
Over the next five-and-a-half decades, the warm tropical water and the richness of the Indo-Pacific and tidal currents combined to transform these hulks of war into an artificial reef acclaimed as the best in the world. The Ghost Fleet of Truk has come alive, vibrant and active once more, but serving a different cause. The variety of wrecks within the sport-diving range is impressive: submarines, Japanese Zeros, Betty bombers, destroyers and submarine tenders to supply ships. Like good wine, they improve with age. Guns now wear garlands of sponges, tunicates and hydroids, exploding with kaleidoscopic soft corals. The war tanks on the deck of San Francisco Maru at 55m (180ft) blossom with white flower corals (Clavulariidae).
The Top Seven Wrecks
The Fujikawa Maru 1, a freighter, is the ambassador of the wrecks in Chuuk. She has lush coral growth on crossbeams, derricks, and a mast that looms toward the sky. In the cargo holds there are remnants of spare parts for fighter planes. The bow and stern guns are still in place.
Fujikawa Maru was sunk during Operation Hailstorm in 1944
Depth: 9m (30ft) to stack, 18m (60ft) to deck and 34m (1121ft) to bottom. Length: 133m (436ft).
The Shinkoku Maru 2 (Nation of God), a tanker, is undoubtedly the signature wreck of the lagoon, with a lush, sensuous and generous hull decorated with multicoloured soft corals from end to end. There is an operating table, a kitchen and human remains. The bow guns are the most impressive among her peers. End sections are overwhelmed with long whip corals, millions of glass and cardinal fish. Do not miss this wreck.
Depth: 12m (40ft) to bow gun and top of bridge, 38m (125ft) to propeller.
Sankisan Maru 3, a freighter, has the most beautiful foremast. It is completely encrusted with stony corals and droopy soft corals, sponges. It swarms with blennies, hawkfish and enigmatic blue wrasses. The front section is remarkably well preserved, but the section from bridge to stern was completely blown away on the first day of the raid. An ideal wreck for the second or third dive of the day.
Depth: 3m (10ft) to crosstree of foremast, 15m (50ft) to deck and 24m (79ft) to bottom of bow.
Fumitzuki 4, a destroyer, is a true warship and in her heyday she attained an impressive 37-knot cruising speed. Armaments of guns and torpedo launchers are still in place. It is an interesting wreck in fairly good condition. Marine growth on the davits is prolific. On one gun platform there is a display of gas masks, crockery and bullets.
Depth: 38m (125ft) to bottom, 30m (100ft) to superstructure. Length: 103m (338ft).
The stern of the Yamagiri Maru 5, a freighter, is decorated with purple Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals and millions of glassfish swarm between the blades of her propeller. Lying on her port side, the view to the sky from beneath this wreck is almost surreal. The 220m (722ft) wreck was an ammunition ship for Japan’s super battlesship Musahi and the biggest shells used in the Pacific war, 46cm (18in), are found on this wreck. There are steamrollers in hold number 5.
Depth: 15m (50ft) to starboard beam, 34m (112ft) to bottom. Length: 133m (436ft).
Nippo Maru 6, a freighter, is one of the most fascinating wrecks in the lagoon for those interested to see an array of military artifacts and armaments. Three guns and tanks sit on the main deck, all pointing at the sky. There are also plenty of guns, trucks, radio equipment, hemispherical beach mines, acid bottles and shells to amuse the inquisitive. The density of jellyfish around the wreck is fascinating. The vessel rests upright with a considerable list to port. Sunk within the first hour of the invasion, this wreck sits in deeper water and is for experienced divers only.
Depth: 24m (79ft) to bridge, 35m (115ft) to deck and 38m (125ft) to hold. Length: 107m (351ft).
San Francisco Maru 7, a freighter, is one of the most photographed wrecks in the lagoon for three reasons: it is deep, the water is clear, and the three tanks on the deck against the bridge are hauntingly photogenic. The forward hold is full of mines and there are half-tracked vehicles in the cargo area. The forward mast has interesting coverage and can be used for ascent to maximize photographic productivity underwater.
Depth: 45m (145ft) to deck, 52m (171ft) to stern and 58m (190ft) to forward hold. Length: 118m (387ft).
Situated closest to the core of biodiversity, the Indo-Australasian archipelago, the splendour of Palau is mostly beneath the waves. The coral reef has over 1,500 species of fish and an equally astounding coral diversity. Reef flats plummet quickly to depths beyond 2000m (6562ft). Blue holes, huge caverns and immense growths of sessile life are easily accessible in clear water with a visibility that averages 40m (130ft). Vast numbers of sharks, mantas, Eagle Rays, turtles, dolphins and migratory pela gics convene at the crossroads of the world’s three major ocean currents.
Land-locked marine lakes, linked to the sea through narrow channels, are breeding grounds for sharks, jellyfish, crocodiles and rare critters. Uplifted marine lakes, home to millions of non-stinging jellyfish, are a short, easy uphill hike through a tropical rainforest. Submerged multichamber caves, hauntingly beautiful, are also easily accessible.
8 Blue Corner
Blue Corner is a triangular, flat-topped promontory, which projects some 45-70m (150-230ft) into deep water. Situated off the edge of Ngemelis Island, this world-famous site is the ultimate in adrenaline diving, or sensory overload in local terminology. Swift currents provide rich feeding for soft corals and fans on the outer, deeper point of the promontory and attract schools of pelagics. Abundant in shark action, the site teems, not just with large schools of Moorish Idols, but Napoleon Wrasse, groupers, barracuda, Whitetip Reef Sharks, turtles, moray eels, jacks, mantas and huge Blotched Fantail Rays. Especially when the current is running, the action seems endless and electrifying. The site is a reef flat that starts at about 12m (39ft) over a huge area, jutting out into the sea before dropping quickly to form a wall. Gorgonian Sea Fans and plate corals are prolific.
9 Quadruple Blue Holes
Just beyond Blue Corner, along the same wall, four vertical shafts lead down from a depth of 1.5m (4ft) straight into a series of immense caverns which are open to the sea. Descending down any one of these chimneys is a spiritual experience. As you descend into this cathedral-like chamber, the light diffuses through a spectrum of turquoise blue to sapphire and finally dissolves in darkness below. At high noon, the rays of sunlight pouring through these shafts evoke a religious setting. Though the first exit is at 28m (92ft) most divers are lured to the second at 38m (125ft). The bottom is sandy and Leopard sharks often lurk along the corridor. Ascend along the outer wall and, if the current is swift, it will be a quick drift down to Blue Corner.
Wreck diving in Micronesia offers military artefacts and armaments, including trucks, tanks and radio equipment.
Cuttlefish are commonly found hovering over staghorn corals, which are ideal for hiding their eggs from predators.
10 Chandelier Caves
Accessible to most divers, Chandelier Caves were once air-filled caverns, possibly millions of years ago when the sea level was much lower. The cave system of four interconnecting chambers beneath a rock island are almost directly across from Sam’s Dive Tours. The entrance is about 8m (25ft) below the surface and the short tunnel opens up to a huge chamber with a ceiling of stalactites and clear water, creating an illusion of endless visibility.
In the deeper recesses the chambers are filled with a sparkling field of helictites, delicate calcite crystal mirrored upon the lens of still, clear water. Even with dive lights, the senses are easily tricked, until you break surface to find air-filled chambers dripping with twinkling stone formations. If the spirit moves you, venture to the last chamber where the cave rises sharply to allow you to stand head and shoulders out of the water. If you remove your gear, a narrow passage leads to a completely dry chamber, an enchanting fantasy-land where few have ever been before.
Tourists are attracted to Yap partly for its culture, but mostly for its spectacular diving opportunities, including the experience of meeting eye to eye with giant Manta Rays. Elsewhere, sightings of mantas are less common, let alone the opportunity of swimming with them, but in Yap the first dive operator has discovered a few cleaning stations where mantas can be observed up close every day of the year. Up to four of them sometimes wait in the queue for a turn to have parasites removed from their undersides by small wrasse and butterflyfish. It is a captivating experience to see such majestic and gentle creatures hovering almost motionless while being attended to by their associates on the reef. It is not uncommon to find 12 magnificent animals, each with a wingspan of about 4m (13ft), swooping and turning like a squadron of stealth bombers in flight, silhouetted against the morning sun.
Goofnuw Channel: Valley of the Rays 11, Car Wash 13 & Manta Rock 14
Goofnuw channel is the premier location for mantas. There are three cleaning stations in the channel at depths of 15m (50ft) to 22m (72ft). Merry Go Round 12 is near the end of the channel dominated by a huge outcrop of lettuce corals. Generally the visibility is poor, but the mantas are often seen soaring in endless circles around this lettuce patch. Car wash and Manta Rock are both coral pinnacles that rise to about 10m (33ft) from the surface. Lots of mantas congregate at ebb tide. These rocks provide ideal shelter from tidal current, which may run to about 7km/h (4 knots). Though the mantas are the primary attraction, the staghorn corals on the reef slope are prolific and healthy. Whitetip Reef Sharks, octopuses and turtles are also local denizens. The best time to dive is in the morning.
Solomon Islands. Tropical clouds build up behind Kennedy Island, one-time refuge of John F Kennedy when his patrol boat, PT109, was sliced in two during World War II.
Hide Away Island nestles like a gem on a velvet background of magical sea in various shades of blue.