Chuuk Island, also known as Truk Island is a relative spec of a Micronesian island that played a big role in World War II. The Japanese captured the island shortly after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and it served as a major Japanese Naval base through most of the war.
A Treasure Trove of Sunken Vessels
In 1944, Chuuk became the Japanese Pearl Harbor when it was struck by a surprise U.S. air attack. Although most of the Japanese warships were then at sea, the attack took out three airfields, several heavily fortified facilities, dozens of planes, and more than 70 ships. Since most of the warships were at sea, the majority of those sunk were cargo ships and submarine tenders. This said, several planes and a handful few destroyers and submarines were destroyed.
The wrecks are strewn across the coral-lined Truk Lagoon, making Chuuk one of the world’s premier dive spots and the absolute number one spot for wreck diving. The great majority of these wrecks, and virtually all of the most dramatic, are in 100 or more feet of water.
Since we no longer scuba dive, we sought out the ships and planes that are only a few feet from the surface. The keel of the WW I-era Prinz Eugen, a 600-foot-long battleship actually extends out of the water. And then there are the remains of a more recent vintage commercial fishing boat that was beached on a coral reef and left to rust out just outside the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop’s harbor.
Unfortunately, our underwater camera decided to die just before we reached the Chuuk. So much for visually recording the fruits of our two days in the water. But we can still talk about them and add pictures from the internet when we found them.
Chuuk Island Graveyard Under the Sea
Our snorkel and surface exploration consisted of four Japanese ships and one fighter plane:
- Patrol Boat 34. The guns of this destroyer-class ship that initially stuck out of the water were removed. It lies upright with the deck about 25 to 30 feet beneath the surface and the bow reaching up to about 10 feet from the surface. We could clearly see the structure of the entire ship and the wide variety of coral that encrusted it. Overall, however, it was one of the best wrecks we saw.
- Fujikawa Maru. The huge, 435-foot freighter was deep enough (about 60 feet to its main deck) that our primary view was of the ship’s outline and the colorful coral that encrusted its depth. A few parts of the upright ship were close enough to the surface that we could make them out clearly including what was left of the superstructure supports of the bridge, the mast, and the two large guns, one fore and one aft, that it used for protection.
- Kosei Maru. The most dramatic and visible of our wrecks was another large freighter which laid on its side in about 30 feet of water. The port side of the ship was perhaps six to eight feet from the surface. It was clearly seen snorkeling from the surface. But Tom did a free dive to closely explore the propeller, the rudder, and parts of the bridge as well as to peer into the hold through portholes and gashes. Like the other ships, it was encrusted in coral. A large, brilliant yellow head at part of the stern was closed to the surface as well as pieces of bright white plate coral that looked like porcelain. The experience was further enriched by a groups of “dinner-size” (about 1.5-2.5 lb) fish and thousands of small blue fish that we believe were tanks.
- Hoyo Maru. The 8,700-ton oil tanker was broken in two and capsized in shallow water, with parts of the stern eight or ten feet from the surface. Since it was upside down and was almost entirely covered with coral, it was impossible to make out any details of the ship. The multi-colored coral and the anemone which lived atop it, however, were beautiful. Just as impressive were what appeared to be a couple of huge “clouds” of fish. We found ourselves engulfed in a sea of tens of thousands of tiny (about 1-1.5-inch) silver fish with blue stripes along their sides. They parted into two streams as they went around us, only to rejoin as they passed. This was as interesting an experience as the life that was growing upon the rusting hull.
- Japanese Zero Fighter Plane. The plane was shot down in what turned out to be a futile attempt to protect the Japanese ships. It was angled head-first into the sea floor. While the cockpit was crushed, we could see parts of the propeller, most of the fuselage much of the starboard wing and tail sections. Much of the port wing and tail was so covered in coral to be almost indistinguishable. Right next to the zero was a multi-colored coral wall that reached within four or five feet of the water’s surface. The wall’s fish, bulb and feather anemone, and sea cucumber (a black and yellow color that we had never before seen) was of almost as much interest as the plane.
Chuuk Island Coral and Fish Snorkel Trips
While the wrecks were themselves encrusted with beautiful coral and in some cases, attracted thousands of fish, we also had time to focus exclusively on coral, anemone, and fish without the “distraction” of WW II relics. These consisted of three snorkeling excursions:
- Blue Lagoon, Our first coral excursion was a nice, easy sandy entry and exit off the beach from our hotel, the Blue Lagoon Resort. We passed patches of seagrass and seaweed before reaching a good amount of hard coral and delicate anemones. The hard color was primarily brain, with a fair share of staghorn. Roughly three-quarters of what we saw was some shade of yellow—ranging from very bright and vivid, to much more subdued colors. We also saw some small but nice stands of blue staghorn, some green and small pieces of pinkish-white staghorn. We particularly enjoyed the anemone. No graceful fans, waving in the current, but quite a bit of beige and light yellow finger-like bulb anemone. Most interesting of all, we saw a few (fewer than ten) slender and fragile groups of beautiful, white feather-like anemones that had emerged about six inches from their polyps and were waving gently in the current. Then, as we ruffled the water around them, they instantly snapped back into the protection of the hard coral, where they remained, at least for the time we spent above them.
- Jeep Island. Our wreck cruise also included a lunch and snorkeling spot at the tiny, sand and palm tree-covered atoll of Jeep Island. The area closest to the island is a huge mass of tangled, broken, dead, and bleached, sediment-covered coral with a wide range of beautiful tropical fish (including beautiful yellow with black highlighted long-nosed butterflyfish, black, blue and yellow-striped emperor angelfish and ubiquitous turquoise, blue and reddish parrotfish. Intermixed with this dead coral, and further out to the outer edges of the reef, the coral was healthier. It had large stands of brain, plate, elkhorn, and staghorn—not to speak of many types of anemone—that spanned the color spectrum from pink to orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and most shades in between. Red was the only color missing.
- Fononu Island. On our final Truk Lagoon snorkeling site, we scrambled over yards of dead coral, both on the beach and in the water before reaching a depth at which we could even pretend to snorkel by pulling ourselves along the whitened stumps and shards strewn on the lagoon bottom. We finally reached snorkeling depth and continued out over the steep ledge, but still found only a seascape of dead coral. As with our previous day’s Jeep Island snorkel, tropical fish seemed to love this dead and sediment-covered coral. We saw significant species and numbers of angelfish, butterflyfish, triggerfish, surgeonfish parrotfish, and many others patrolling the reef. Even a small black-tip reef shark was assessing feeding prospects in these shallows. The deeper water was home to much larger angel, butterfly, and triggerfish that we had seen in the shallows plus a few significantly larger pelagic fish. We also saw a few very large (more than a foot in diameter) blue stars and a few sea cucumbers.
Although most of the coral was dead and bleached, about one-third of the area we covered had scattered, but amazingly colored splashes of coral, including some brilliant white elk and staghorn coral. More interesting was another large section where we wove among dozens of mushroom-shaped heads, each of which contained many colors. Then, about twenty feet beneath us, a large, all-green garden of cactus-shaped forms were so densely packed that they appeared to be one, huge, multi-headed plant. A couple of lovely parts of what would have otherwise been a boring snorkel trip.
But not all WWII relics are under water. Check out our blog on relics above the ground on Chuuk Island, Micronesia