Blue Corner, Ulong Channel, Jellyfish Lake, Chandelier Cave; these are some of the dive sites of Palau that have achieved an almost mythical reputation among travelling divers. A tiny collection of islands within the Carolina chain in Micronesia, Palau probably remains unheard of by anyone else, along with all the other tiny specks that dot that big blue area of the world atlas we call the Pacific Ocean. Palau, however, has its special place in modern history.
I went to Palau to dive, but not to dive its reef walls and channels. Every diver has probably heard about the famous World War 2 action by US forces that left a fleet of Japanese cargo ships and auxiliaries at the bottom of Truk (Chuuk) Lagoon, but few know that similar military action, in what is now the Republic of Palau, left more than 40 enemy vessels sunk in its own lagoons.
The fall of Japans first line of defence in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Marshalls and the Marianas allowed the Allies to move on to strongholds in Japans second defensive line. The capture of the Palau Islands became a stepping stone in General Douglas MacArthurs plan to invade the Philippines. While it is still debated whether capturing Palau was necessary to protect MacArthurs flank, the battle for the Palau island of Peleliu was one of the hardest-fought of the Pacific war.
Japan had not invaded Palau as part of its expansionist plans in the Pacific. It had controlled the islands since the Germans pulled out in 1918, so had had time to build an underground fortress of caves and tunnels in Peleliu beneath its solitary but visible airstrip. The other islands of Palau hid seaplane bases and the infrastructure to support a modern naval fleet.
On the last two days of March 1944, an attack by US carrier aircraft on these facilities, a prelude to a full-scale invasion later in the summer, caught many Japanese vessels exposed in the natural harbour of Palaus lagoon areas. The Americans called this devastating attack Operation Desecrate One.
Sixty years later to the day, I joined a group of Japanese divers to participate in the fourth Wrexpedition, organised by local dive operator Fish Ã”n Fins. We planned to dive some of the vessels submerged among the picturesque rock islands.
Our excited anticipation was tempered only by sadness that this expedition was to have been led by world-record deep diver John Bennett, who had sadly lost his life during a dive in Korea the previous week.
Someone remarkably still very much alive is Tomimatsu Ishikawa, at 86 probably the only living survivor from the sinking of the Japanese fleet oiler Iro. He was chief engineer and had spent most of his adult life aboard until that fateful day.
His 15 men were killed outright by a bomb that hit the engine-room and he spent several hours in the lagoon with a handful of others before being rescued by a patrol craft.
It was interesting to see this old-fashioned Japanese man alongside a new generation of Japanese who seem to have removed any knowledge of what went on during the war years from their collective psyche. The young people with whom I was diving saw the events of March 1944 as some sort of unforeseen disaster that was simply a tragedy for the innocent young soldiers of their country, but Ishikawa saw it differently.
When asked if he had any regrets about those times, the old chief engineer retorted that he wished the Japanese defences had been stronger. He appeared somewhat less than contrite.
He certainly displayed massive strength of character. Despite looking extremely uncomfortable under water, he managed to perform a sake (rice wine) ceremony on the submerged aft deck of his old ship in memory of fellow-seamen who never made it.
I waited on the anchorline to get a clear picture of the old warrior as he ascended, and was amused to see him being dragged unwillingly away by the young Japanese girl dive-guide, just as he was in sight of the surface.
This was for a last touch of the Iros coral-encrusted mast, something that obviously meant more to her than to him.
Back in 1944, when the skies first turned black with US Helldivers and Dauntless dive-bombers, the captains of the Japanese vessels cut and ran from their anchorages, attempting to take shelter by keeping close to the steep elevations of the rock islands - but to no avail. Almost all were blasted to extinction. Ex-president of the USA George Bush piloted one of those aircraft, and when Palaus President Remengesau recently visited the States he presented George W Bush with an engraved plaque, along with contemporary photographs and modern underwater pictures of what was left of the vessel.
Imagine the chaos and confusion of Operation Desecrate One: ships steaming in all directions, the boom of anti-aircraft fire, the smoke, the huge detonations of bombs finding their targets, the crash of rocks that resulted from those that did not.
Some vessels were so badly damaged that their wreckage became hard to identify. The Sata, another fleet oiler, was sunk near the Iro and for years there were arguments about which was which. Ishikawa was able make a positive identification.
The 14,000 ton Iro burned for a few days before succumbing to the waters embrace. Contrary to information found in many guide-books, the hull lies perfectly upright in 40m of water and the top of the aft deck is in around 30m.
For some reason, visibility becomes poorer as one moves towards the stern.
The Iros massive towers, once used to crane pipelines and materials across to the vessels she fuelled, still reach to within a few metres of the surface.
The funnel lies horizontally where it fell across the deck. An enormous gun is mounted on a large-radius rotating mounting over the stern.
At more than 450ft long, it is difficult to appreciate this wreck fully in only one dive. The forward section has superstructure still intact and a second gun, with a barrel 4.3m long and 17cm in diameter, is mounted in the prow, pointing uselessly downwards. Both guns are encrusted in coral.
Only a week before Iros sinking, a torpedo from the submarine USS Tunny had hit her in the bow, forward of the bulkheads. She had limped into Palau. That damage, though covered in coral growth, is clear to see.
The Japanese converted many civilian ships for military use. The title Maru is usually attributed to all Japanese war wrecks, but being built specifically as a military vessel, the Iro has no need of such a suffix.
Most of these wrecks lie within the lagoon areas on a seabed of silt and sand. Visibility should not be confused with what can be encountered on the ocean-side reefs and drop-offs of Palau - in the lagoons it can be positively British-like.
A cargo ship, the wreck of the Bicchu Maru, sometimes known as the Gozan Maru, lies at about 45 with its port deck disappearing into a silty mist.
Its almost a theatrical special effect; a ship resting in a cloud of smoke from a dry-ice machine. This is because the bottom here, at around 35m deep and close to Koror, Palaus capital, is of mud. It was atmospheric to see until all the divers from the dive-boat managed to spread the silt upwards.
Most of my fellow-divers were keen gadgeteers. They would dive loaded with more equipment than most of us would consider owning, let alone taking down in one go. In some cases, a single diver would have a closed-circuit rebreather, bail-out cylinders, large video-camera housing and both wide-angle and macro still cameras!
I travelled lighter, diving with a single cylinder of nitrox and a solitary camera, and I was able to head off down to the wreck the moment we arrived at the site. In some cases I was back up after a 45-minute dive before others were in the water.
The 305ft Bicchu Maru lies smothered in black corals, anemones and giant oysters. An old-fashioned island freighter with a vertical bow-line and a cruiser stern, its heavy masts are still in position and reach to within 8m of the surface. This wreck too has a massive gun on its aft deck.
Aircraft were a primary target of the first wave of US attack planes, as the islands were home to an active seaplane base. The remains of a Jake seaplane lies on the seabed in only 15m and made a perfect location for the third dive of the day.
Sitting almost upright on one of its floats, only the severe damage to the front end, where its 14-cylinder, air-cooled radial engine was partially torn away on impact, betrays the violence that saw this aircraft downed.
Jake was an Allied codename for the Aichi E13A-1 Japanese Navy Seaplane. This wreck was discovered only 10 years ago by a local fisherman. The intact propeller probably indicates that it crashed on take-off or landing, or was sunk at its mooring. Its controls are totally encrusted but its radio is still visible. Spotted sweetlips and other tropical fish loiter under its intact wings.
It doesnt take long to dive the Jake but its well worth a visit.
Slightly less spectacular is a Zero fighter wreck otherwise known as the Zeke, a Mitsubishi A6M Navy-type carrier aircraft. It lies inverted in 20m of water and well embedded into the bottom.
Type Zero was the most numerous and probably the most lethal of Japanese flying machines. The young pilot of this one is said to have made it back to the shore, where he hid for several weeks before being rescued and repatriated to Japan.
The 320ft Kibi Maru lies upside-down on the seabed and at first glance looks uninteresting. Its hull is however covered in coral and I met browsing turtles during my initial swim.
I found that I could get under the wreck via the seabed at 35m and up into the empty holds. The vessel was evidently sunk by two air-delivered torpedoes that damaged two holds.
One of the most visited sites is known as the Helmet Wreck or Depth-Charge Wreck, after part of its cargo. Undocumented in any naval archives, it was probably confiscated by the Japanese somewhere in South-east Asia during the war.
Small, at less than 190ft long, it is thought to have been of less than 1000 tons displacement. The wreck lies tilted against the reef in Malakal Harbour, its bow at 35m.
I listened carefully to the dive-briefing, determined to reach the hold where the helmets were before schooling divers ruined the visibility. I succeeded - in part. I followed the directions but found only a stack of perhaps a dozen soldiers helmets.
Little did I know that most of the helmets had already been carried away as souvenirs by visiting divers since the vessel was discovered by wreck-hunter Dan Bailey back in 1990.
But this remains a dive worth making. The holds are stuffed with tumbled piles of depth-charges, land-mines, mortars, rifles and ammunition. Gas masks stare up out of the confusion, together with electronic equipment, sake bottles and ceramic jars. Three massive radial aero-engines stand forlornly, covered in silt, and brass lanterns wait forever, never to be lit.
I was soon out of film. And then I cursed as I saw the main photo-opportunity. In about 13m sits the stern gun, fallen over and off its massive mounting wheel, and, all around its radius, steel boxes of shells, neatly waiting.
A helmet lay where it had been discarded together with the remains of some gas-masks. I was gutted. But later that day I persuaded my fellow-divers to allow me a short second visit with a reloaded camera. They didnt have to wait long. I descended to the gun-platform, shot 36 frames of film and was back on the dive boat in fewer than 13 minutes!
The largest wreck in Micronesia, the Amatzu MaruÃ¢ was a new Japanese tanker until it was sunk by several 1000lb bombs and left in 40m of water. More than 500ft from bow to stern, it is also Palaus deepest wreck.
After the war, when tankers were in desperately short supply, attempts were made to refloat this one. These bids failed, as did an attempt to cut the wreck up for scrap, after an explosion of trapped vapour killed some of the divers involved. None of the metal salvaged from the Operation Desecrate One wrecks ever made it back to Japan. The entire salvage fleet encountered a typhoon in the South China Sea and was sunk without trace.
The Amatzu Maru sits upright, a divers dream wreck. Long catwalks stretch from the superstructure at the stern to the superstructure close to forward. Huge pipes lie across the decks. Empty davits swing devoid of their lifeboats. Giant oysters and soft corals clutter the railings.
The engine-room lights are left open, as they were on that fateful day in 1944. A few portholes gape open. Winches are almost disguised under their coating of coral.
A crazy ladder leads to nowhere, a solitary oyster grinning from one rung. The huge four-bladed prop remains where it was, but the aft gun is missing.
At the extreme north-west corner of Ngargo Island, near a massive bomb-scar in the rocky cliff, lies a very curious wreck. The Transport T1 was a fast modern warship and a high-speed transport - or she was before the US pilots found her.
Now the wreckage of what was an impressive technical vessel lies twisted and mangled. This was definitely one that was not going to get away.
At the time of the battle for Guadalcanal, the Japanese High Command realised the need for fast supply vessels that could sustain ground troops with war materiel, and that could get in and out of areas of battle speedily, with a designed speed of more than 22 knots.
The T1 was not in Palau at the end of March 1944 but locals talk of a large vessel hidden under netting covered in bushes for several weeks after the air attack. She was spotted by a sharp-eyed reconnaissance pilot before a second air-raid in July.
It is believed that the T1 was hit by only two bombs and sank after her fuel oil ignited. However, during later attempts to salvage the wreck for scrap with explosives, it rolled down the reef slope, leaving it twisted and deformed.
The bow reveals a sleek-formed hull designed for speed, almost like that of a submarine. There were no guard rails, so working on the decks while underway must have been hazardous.
Behind the forward capstan, the wreck becomes an unidentifiable mess but it can be seen that the superstructure had rounded windows rather than portholes. The twin barrels of a 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun are still visible.
Among the brown debris that fills every space, I spotted the running gear of a tracked vehicle, possibly a light tank.
The ships boiler has lost its outer casing and the masses of steam pipes are left hanging and twisted like skeins of wool. Doors lie tangled and battered. Slabs of plating make sensible interpretation of the view difficult. The aft part of the wreck almost has the style of an over-sized Thames slipper launch! It was designed with a narrow transom, probably only 50cm high, and sloped into the water so that landing craft, tanks and even depth-charges could be launched quickly.
The underside of the hull, now on top, reveals a massive rudder that was positioned well in from the stern.
A propeller shaft tunnel emerges from the hull and runs for some distance toward the aft. This is now encrusted with red sponges and black and soft corals. The propeller, now missing, was obviously the first part to be salvaged.
Rarely dived because it is considered too deep for the average leisure-diver, the Chuyo Maru lies in 40m. Another Japanese cargo vessel that fell victim to Operation Desecrate One, it sits upright on the bottom with its deck at 30m. Nicknamed the Lionfish Wreck, this is an easy vessel to navigate around.
Depth-charges wait ready in launchers at the stern. The engine-room skylights invite a view inside. A stubby 1.86 ton gun mounted nearby was almost standard issue to vessels under 5000 tons and is as encapsulated in coral as the winches and the ships rails.
The stairs to the forecastle are obstructed by hard corals, too. In fact some parts of the wreck are so cluttered with corals and oysters that they have become more reef than ship.
Buoy No 6 Wreck
Not all the wrecks lie in the cloudy lagoons. A converted sub-chaser permanently washed by ocean currents is known only by its dive-boat mooring, Buoy No 6, and this little wreck is covered in spectacularly colourful soft and hard corals.
The Japanese had underestimated the effect of enemy submarines on its merchant shipping, failing to learn the lessons from German submarine action against British merchant shipping both in WW2 and the previous Great War.
But, like Britain, Japan depended on imported raw materials. So as an afterthought, some 200 auxiliary sub-hunters were built by the Japanese after 1941.
At only around 100ft long and 20m deep, the Buoy No 6 Wreck would make for a quick dive if not for the rush of water over it. You can get into its lee side OK but it is the other side of the hull that has all the colourful growth.
You can select spots around its deck that are protected by the superstructure, but to get any photographs you must subject yourself to the will of the water.
Several times I worked hard to get upstream of the current, letting myself glide back and grabbing what shots I could as I went by. In this way I shot the rigging at the prow, presumably formerly used for launching depth-charges and now a mass of pink flowers.
Gorgonia and featherstars burgeoned elsewhere. I noticed that the gun was missing from its mounting. Meanwhile a manta ray passed overhead like a modern stealth bomber.
This is a stunning night dive, but a word of warning: I needed to hook onto the nearby reef at 6m to shed the deco-stops I had incurred, so engrossed had I been in my photographic antics. A deco-stop in midwater would see you surface a long way from the dive-site, so take a buoy or a big surface flag on this dive.
Finally, I dived the Teshio Maru, the wreck you are most likely to dive if you go to sample all Palaus other delights and do only one wreck dive. I have dived it before but this time we were honoured to be accompanied by His Excellency, President Tommy Remengesau, the president of the Republic of Palau.
Yes, he is a diver, and so is his Minister of Justice, Michael Rosenthal, who was my dive buddy on other occasions too. Tova Bornovski, who co-owns Fish Ã”n Fins with husband and fellow-Israeli Navot, was clearly proud to have the President support her with her fourth Wrexpedition.
The Teshio Maru, a Japanese Army cargo ship built between 1942 and 1944, left Palau before the first strike of Operation Desecrate One but was caught and strafed as a target of opportunity by a passing US pilot. She was also bombed, but not directly hit.
However, a bomb exploding in the water stove in her stern and bent the propeller shaft. Crippled, she drifted until she could be beached.
Immediately after the war she was salvaged. Several years later she slipped back off the reef and slid down the reef slope on her starboard side to around 24m, where she now lies.
This wreck too has a standard issue stubby gun at the stern, now so encapsulated in coral that it has taken on a new form. All manner of corals cover the wreck and all manner of reef fish can be encountered on and near it.
Out in clear water, this has become Palaus most regularly photographed war wreck.