This year’s trip to the Farnes Islands didn’t get off to the greatest start. The forecast earlier in the week was for winds of up to 55mph and after the captain cancelled our first day of diving things weren’t looking good. Was this to be yet another trip cancelled in 2011 due to high winds? Thankfully by Saturday the wind had dropped and the West side of the islands provided near perfect diving conditions. What followed was three days of the best diving many of us have done in the UK. Diving in the Farnes Islands is all about the seals and this year they were at their most curious and playful. Every dive they’d follow us around biting at our fins. The more curious amongst them would sniff our drysuits, bite are masks and allow us to stroke them. Often once one had deemed we were safe to play with we’d have three or four more seals doing the same. There was also a large array smaller life, crabs, lobusts, shrimp; not that most of us noticed, we were too busy enjoying the seals. Those of you with a taste for adult entertainment will soon have the opportunity to watch Alex’s video of his intimate and passionate encounter with a very special lady seal he befriended on the last day.
Although it started all far more adventurous: some of you may be aware of the troubles of almost all participants booked on the trip: one moving to land of dreams, another getting married, the rest of us getting the week of the trip wrong and at the end the heroic effort of Steve getting hold of the skipper and saving the trip. Well in the end – good news: on Friday morning Steve rang at my door and off we go to the north and beyond – with weather forecast for Orkney to be “severe gale force winds” – the tail of the hurricane Katia hitting UK. The foggy weather in Highlands and over-active police officers did not added to the mood – so my feeling was: “what the …. I’m doing here”. But the diving was great – with all aspects of UK dream dives – the weather changing, the visibility ranging from “good vis” where underwater photo would be almost possible to a day-time “night dive”; but despite forecasts we dived every day, dived all the light cruisers, the battle ship Kronprinz Wilhelm, F2, Barge, …, with animal sightings (well not just sightings unlucky for some of the edible species) ranging from scallops, crabs, lobsters through scorpion fish, lings, conger-eels up to seals; only the Block ships with promised “Caribbean visibility” remained banned due to the wind conditions.
Well—————where do I start.
Firstly……. A little background on Truk….Chuuk.
Truk was a major Japanese logistical base as well as the operating “home” base for the Imperial Japanese Navy’s s Combined Fleet. Some have described it as the Japanese equivalent of the US Navy’s combined fleet at PearlHarbour. The atoll was the only major Japanese airbase within range of the Marshall Islands and was a significant source of support for Japanese garrisons located on islands and atolls throughout the central and south Pacific during WW2. The base was the key logistical and operational hub supporting Japan’s perimeter defences in the central and south Pacific.
Fearing that the base was becoming too vulnerable, the Japanese had relocated the aircraft carriers, battleships, and heavy cruisers of the combined fleet to Palau a week earlier. However, numerous smaller warships and merchant ships remained in and around the anchorage and several hundred aircraft were stationed at the atoll’s airfields.
On February 17th 1944, the American Navy launched an air and sea attack on the islands of Truk and the ships and installations of those islands. It was called “Operation Hailstone”, sometimes mistakenly called Operation Hailstorm!
Japanese Ammunition ship Aikoku Maru blowing up; the air crew which dropped the bomb were missing and believed to have been caught in the explosion February 17, 1944The U.S. attack involved a combination of air strikes, surface ship actions, and submarine attacks over two days and appeared to take the Japanese completely by surprise. Several daylight, along with nighttime, air strikes employed fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo aircraft in attacks on Japanese airfields, aircraft, shore installations, and ships in and around the Truk anchorage. A force of U.S. surface ships and submarines guarded possible exit routes from the island’s anchorage to attack any Japanese ships that tried to escape from the air strikes.
In total the attack sank three Japanese light cruisers(Agano, Katori andNaka, four destroyers Oite, Fumizuki Maikaze, andTachikaze), three auxiliary cruisers Akagi Maru, Aikaiou Maru Kiyosumi Maru), two submarine tenders (Heian Maru Rio de Janeiro Maru), three other smaller warships (including submarine chasers Ch-24 and Shonan Maru 15), aircraft transport Fujikawa Maru, and 32 merchant ships. Some of the ships were destroyed in the anchorage and some in the area surrounding Truk lagoon. Many of the merchant ships were loaded with reinforcements and supplies for Japanese garrisons in the central Pacific area. Very few of the troops aboard the sunken ships survived and little of their cargoes were recovered.
Now our part of the story……
If there were two ultimate wreck “Mecca’s” in the world, one would surely be Scapa Flow in the Orkney’s and the other one would have to be Truk Lagoon in Micronesia — or Chuuk, as it is officially know nowadays. Well having done Scapa four times now, it was now time for me to think of visiting the second. Luckily for me, that opportunity came through my acquaintances with my friends from Luton SAC, who I had previously dived Scapa Flow and the Shetland Islands with, both trips having been taken on the dive boat “Valkyrie, which I have to admit, is one of the best liveaboards I have every dived off in the U.K.
In mid 2010, I put out an email to our club PSAC, asking whether there was any interest from anyone, to join me on a trip to Truk. Unfortunately, I only had one reply, and that was, “I may be interested”.
Well, I needed more than that, if I were to see this trip come off. So I got in contact with Peter McKeon from Luton branch, to ask him about any info he had on Truk. I knew that Pete have already been to Truk six times, and that he had his own website all about Truk.! When I said that I wanted to go there, he said to me, that he was doing another trip in 2011, and would I like to join him and his club?
“Of course”, was my reply!!!!
When I told Brian Long of my plans, he said to me in his uncluttered and unambiguous manner, “put me down, if they have a spare place!” I got back to Pete, who said that Brian would be most welcome, if only so that I would have some sad sole to share a room with (something to do with my snoring) bloody cheek!
Anyway, there was now two of us from PSAC on this trip, the same duo who had done Sipidan the year before (eat your hearts out!). We met up with the Luton boy’s and girls on the morning of 27th August, after my good wife Mary had kindly dropped us off at Heathrow airport.
Getting to Truk wasn’t easy, it involved three flights, with stop-overs in Korea and Guam, but eventually we got there after 36 hours. To say that Truk is basic is an understatement. The check in office was like a portaloo, and the drive along the “roads”, to the Blue Lagoon Resort, was more like a drive across the Somme during the First World War! The Blue Lagoon itself is a bit like an oasis in the middle of a battlefield, with its manicured lawns and very comfortable chalets, with breath taking views over the bay.
We were greeted by Pete McKeon and the forward party, with a very welcoming cold beer. With the exhausting journey behind us, the very next morning, we got down to the serious stuff of diving.
The group was made up of a mixture of twin set and re-breather divers, with most people having experience in the 30 to 50 metre diving range, but with the odd exception. The dive centre was well equipped and the dive boats were small twin engined speed boats, similar to Maldivian Dhonis with a shade to protect you from the sun. The diving day started typically, with the dive staff humping your twin sets on to the dive boat, something that felt very alien to Brian and myself…..just not use to being molly coddled like the yanks I suppose! The dive sets just sat on a flat part of the boat, with no ties of any kind to keep them steady. The reason for this soon became apparent……….there was no swell, the seas were always flat calm, so it’s a great diving destination, for those poor souls who suffer from sea sickness!
Our first dive on to the wreck of the Shinkoku Maru, was truly something of an epiphany, with gin clear water (31 degrees), on to a totally intact wreck! It was breathtakingly beautiful, festooned in soft corals and fish life. We went inside the wreck, and was given a fantastic tour of the interior by our dive guide, who was strangely named “McKenzie” Among other things, we were shown the operating theatre, washing and living quarters and even some human remains, which I believe were either shin or forearm bones. As we left the inside of the wreck, I was immediately greeted with a sight of something brilliance, a shark and three eagle rays were heading straight for me……..”wow”….but no camera!……bollocks! I’m not going to bore you with every dive we did, (I’ll do that some other time) but just to say that if you haven’t been there, it was hard to take it all in.
The next ten days saw us dive a total of 20 or so wrecks, only repeating a previously dived wreck once! We even dived a Japanese bomber aircraft, which if we had done it in English waters, you would have given your eye teeth for, but “there”…….it was just an o.k. dive! These were just some of the items we saw on our dives……… Tanks, Bombs, Japanese Zero aircraft, Torpedoes, Telegraphs, Field guns, Machine guns, ammunition, Periscopes, Saki bottles, China & Kitchen items, Bicycle’s, lanterns, medicine materials, gas masks, engine rooms, radio equipment, bathrooms, operating theatres, toilets…..and so much more!
My final dive was Shark Island; it was a small island no bigger that the penalty box on a football pitch. Our guides chummed the waters, and within minutes, we were surrounded by dozens of Grey and Black tip reef sharks…loads of photos. At the end of the dive, and when we were on board the boat, the guides through the rest of the chum in to the water……..FRENZY! I got some photo’s from the boat, as I put my camera over the side and my camera got bumped a few times……what an end to a brilliant trip…….you must go there!
All can say is, diving another wreck will never be the same….. Now for that long journey home.