Decompression
Decompression Truk-style. Sharks may come by to stop you getting bored.



BEING CIRCLED BY SHARKS is no fun when you still have 90 minutes of decompression left. To take my mind off the situation, I could at least reflect on the wreck dive I had just done, perhaps one of the most spectacular of my life.
I had been exploring the San Francisco Maru, known as the Million Dollar Wreck in the most famous lagoon of them all - Truk.
For 20 years I had dreamt of diving this legendary location, and it had turned out to be all I expected and more! Perhaps the sharks were inquisitive about the fact that we trespassers on their territory were a little quieter than the normal visitors.
We had travelled to Truk, in the centre of the Micronesian islands of Chuuk, armed with APD Evolution closed-circuit rebreathers and crates of the latest hi-def video and stills camera technology. Our intention was to explore, film and photograph the deeper, less dived wrecks of Truk.

HALF AN HOUR PASSED, and the sharks were replaced by American divers. Each had a single cylinder and wore shorts and T-shirt - water temperature was 29C. They plummeted down the line.
Like us, they had come to dive the San Francisco Maru, which is regarded as one of the best wrecks in Truk. Their liveaboard was now shading us from the rays of sunlight above.
Within a few minutes their outlines emerged from the blue water below, as they began their no-stop ascent to the surface. One brave contender had doubled his bottom time, accumulating a number of minutes of decompression.
We were still watching as even he soon left the water. Their boat moved away, leaving us alone to finish our deco in tranquillity.
My friends and I had spent exactly an hour on the wreck below, a healthy bottom time that had allowed us to explore almost the entire wreck, inside and out. Bringing our little rebreathers had allowed us to expand bottom times on the deeper wrecks significantly. We had figured out that by recycling our breathing gas, we would see in a week what it would take an open-circuit diver five weeks of diving in the lagoon to see.
For the extra hundred bucks excess luggage we copped for dragging our rigs along, Id say that was value for money!
While we had got around the entire San Francisco Maru in one dive, it holds so much cargo and interesting artefacts that it was not possible to explore it all on that one circuit. This wreck was hot as hell, and we would be back the next week, but for now we could analyse the two hours of perfect high-definition footage and more than 1000 RAW stills we had taken between us.

CHUUK LIES IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN, 1300 miles south-east of Japan and 1000 miles north of Papua New Guinea. Once an important island stronghold, its natural harbour of Truk Lagoon was a vital airbase and headquarters for the Japanese Navys combined fleet.
The attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii was co-ordinated from here, and following amphibious assaults on the principal Marshall Islands, it became a major roadblock for the US Pacific Fleet in its advance towards the Japanese Empire. In a series of raids on 17-18 February 1944 known as Operation Hailstone, US forces wiped out the entire Japanese auxiliary fleet stationed at Truk, sending it to the bottom of the lagoon.
Today, more than 60 incredibly well-preserved wrecks lie, mainly upright, in the lagoon, including many of the Japanese aircraft that tried to defend the fleet. The sheer number of wrecks attracts divers to this remote location in their thousands - this is one of the most desirable dive destinations in the world.
Although many of the wrecks lie in shallow water, several came to rest upright in 60m or more, and it was on these that our attention was focused.

THE 5831-TON San Francisco Maru lies on the north-east side of the lagoon and east of Dublon Island, on a clean white sand seabed around 65m deep.
Immediately forward of the superstructure are three armed Mitsubishi tanks stowed as deck cargo, and alongside them flatbed lorries, with more of these in No 2 cargo hold.
Just about every hold is stacked with live ammunition, ranging from cases of shells, torpedoes, depth charges and mines to crates of rifle bullets. Its an awesome sight.
Exposed beams and catwalks make up the structure between decks, and you see more and more as you drop deeper into the wreck.
There is just so much to see in Truk, especially what was originally stowed on or beneath the decks of these ships - Howitzers, trucks, lorries, bulldozers, tanks and even complete aircraft.
As well as tanks, several torpedo bodies can be seen lying on the port stern deck of the San Francisco Maru, but the real treat, as on other wrecks here, is its intact engine-room.
The bridge superstructure above has began to collapse, but you can swim through the galley entrance to the interior walkway and make your way to the engine-room below.
Richly coloured by red rust, the machinery that once operated this vessel is displayed in all its glory.
On the starboard lower side is a huge electrical switchboard, where the switch names can still be read, albeit in Japanese. Steam gauges in their original panel arrangement can also be read and its in places like this that the Evolution comes into its own.
As you navigate the lower areas of the room, rust knocked from gantry walkways above impairs visibility, so the absence of expelled gas could be a life-saver.
Many Truk wrecks have their bow and stern guns still attached, and the San Francisco Marus gun on the bow points over the port side of the wreck. Its covering of multi-coloured sponges and filmy hydroids turn guns such as this into iconic images.
At 117m long, Truk dive guides refer to this wreck as a serious dive on which extreme depths can be encountered! They go on to state that the site is an excellent candidate for experienced divers during deep weeks when doubles can be used - or, for us, yellow CCRs.
We were also interested in the Japanese Kamikaze-Class destroyer Oite. Despite receiving orders to head for Saipan, its captain had already taken his vessel through Truks North Pass, where Operation Hailstone was well advanced, when it came under heavy fire from US fighters. The first wave of attacks took out the command post, commander and bridge.
The second wave, in the shape of five Avengers, hit the Oite with a torpedo, blowing her in two and sinking her at once. Only 20 of the 589 crew survived.
The wreck of the Oite lies way out to the north of the lagoon, and with no major island close by, little sediment has built up on this wreck, providing an excellent photographic opportunity.
It lies in two main pieces in around 68m, with the stern section upright
and the bow facing the other way and completely inverted. Looking across the seabed to port from the stern, you can just make out the bow in the distance.
The concentration of marine life here includes lots of resident oceanic whitetip sharks. Many of our group agreed that the Oite was one of their most memorable Truk dives.

THE GUYS AT Blue Lagoon Resort discovered the site, but only rarely do they venture out there because of the depth. When they do, its amazing how they find it. There are no apparent transits, and no modern technology aboard the small boats.
The Oite is a poignant reminder of what happened at Truk Lagoon, and human remains can be seen around the wreck. On the stern section, a rack is neatly stacked with depth charges ready for deployment, and close by a twin-barrel machine-gun stands clear, as well as the main battery gun, which points forward.
The extended stern deckhouse, which separates these two guns, has doors either side. You can peer inside to see the accommodation area.
Near here, my diving partner Gabrielle Paparo from Italy discovered the ships bell in a storeroom.
In other locations around the world this would have been a major trophy for any wreck diver, but Truk is of course an underwater museum, and such artefacts are left in place.
There is no sign of the Oites bridge, which was blown to smithereens when the torpedo struck. At the bow, the open break allows divers to venture within and examine the interesting upturned interior of the hull, where much machinery can be seen.
Read a detailed guide of the layout of such wrecks before dropping onto them.
The Aikoku Maru lies near the San Francisco Maru in the deep shipping lanes east of Dublon. Scuba-divers often dive the wreck, but only the very top, which is some 45m deep.
Blown in half, this 10,000-ton passenger freighter must be seen to be believed. Its a wonder that a single aerial attack could have destroyed such a large section of the wreck.
Its as if someone has taken a knife, cut cleanly down through the centre and taken the bow away!
The Aikoku Maru lies upright on a fairly even keel on a clean white seabed in around 70m. Finning along covered promenade decks at 50m, the scale of the vessel reminded me of the ocean liner Britannic in Greece. Everything just seemed so big!
Venturing inside one of the many doors off the deck revealed interesting accommodation areas, many with bright white porcelain sanitary fixings. Lying close to land, this wreck is prone to silting, and there are thick layers inside.
Many men died when this vessel sank, and although most of the human remains were recovered by the Japanese many years ago, familiar-looking sets of bones often appear out of the silt. One of our team, venturing deep inside the wreck, saw the skeletons of Japanese soldiers, their gas masks still attached.
On the exterior of the wreck marine growth has taken its toll, with richly coloured anemones covering portholes and the prominent stern gun, which points out over the port side.
Other features include anti-aircraft guns on the boat deck, and resident sharks that park themselves comfortably on the exposed decks.

WE TRAVELLED OUT to the wrecks on small but fast banana boats, never with more than six divers per boat.
Any more than that would, we felt, risk increasing the chance of disturbing the visibility.
After diving a deep wreck in the morning, we would return to one of the shallow wrecks in the afternoon, spending 5-6 hours a day in the water. The technical divers aboard each boat would always be eager to explore the next wreck on their ever-growing list.
If a liveaboard had spent the night chugging to a wreck site (albeit a shallow one) we would just zoom off to another one, and usually arrived in under 10 minutes. Thats the advantage of land-based diving with fast boats!
Also on our list was the Katsuragisan Maru, another wreck far enough off the beaten track and deep enough not to figure in the guide-books.
She struck a mine on entering the North-east Channel and sank to 70m, all 2472 tons plus her valuable cargo of trucks and government stores.
The wreck lies upright on an even keel with much of that cargo still in place. No 1 hold is filled with trucks stowed tightly together. Little appears in No 2, but No 3 contains rolls of steel mesh matting.
A further six trucks are stored in No 4 hold, and you can venture into compartments under the aft section of the boat deck, where smaller cargo and supplies were stored.

WE FOUND THE BRIDGE and midships section disappointingly chaotic. It was here that fire broke out and swept through the wooden superstructure, soon after the ship struck a mine.
Again, visibility way out on the edge of the lagoon was awesome. Away from the main body of Truk wrecks, the Katsuragisan Maru was circled by an abundance of whitetip sharks, not to mention divers off-gassing after their 70m dive.
Mixed-gas diving with rebreathers in Truk Lagoon is still very much in its infancy. Our trip was organised by Pete Mesley, who is based in New Zealand. He takes care of all permits and provides Sofnolime, gas and cylinders for CCR divers who book on his specialist deep weeks to Truk.
Pete brings with him gas analysers, sonar equipment for finding new wrecks and everything else for which divers would get stung in terms of excess baggage. He has also established special arrangements for diving the deep wrecks in the Lagoon with Gradvin Aisek of the Blue Lagoon dive shop and resort.
Ten days of diving up to six hours a day in Truk Lagoon was plenty. This was the best diving I had done since the day
I walked into a dive school 20 years ago. Watch out for more soon in DIVER when I look at Truks shallow wrecks!

A
A diver examines an Isuzu Type-94 truck stowed in the holds of the San Francisco Maru
Gabriele
Gabriele Paparo inspects the main battery gun on the destroyer Oite
shell
shell cases on the San Francisco Maru.
Intact
Intact electrical switchboard deep in the San Francisco Marus engine-room
AA
AA guns on the Oite
mechanical
mechanical gear in the engine-room
the
the bell still below water 64 years on
marine
marine growth on Aikoku Maru
wash-basins
wash-basins deep inside that wreck.
Human
Human remains on the deep wreck Iconic.
Mitsubishi
Mitsubishi aircraft engine stored on the San Francisco Maru.
A
A diver looks at a Japanese HA-Go tank on the deck of the San Francisco Maru.
Time
Time out for divers at the Blue Lagoon Resort bar.
Leigh
Leigh Bishop
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly from the UK to Manila in the Philippines, connect to Guam and get a Continental Air Micronesia flight from there.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Blue Lagoon Dive Resort, www.bluelagoondiveresort.com; Pete Mesley, www.petemesley.com
MONEY: US dollar, credit cards.
LANGUAGE: English widely spoken.
WHEN TO GO: Any time. Truk is just outside the typhoon belt. The wetter season runs from July to October.
PRICES: Blue Lagoon Dive Resort offers a standard package of six nights room-only accommodation and 10 guided dives for US $873 per head, two sharing. Flights start from around £1260.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visit-fsm.org/chuuk