UTD Chuuk Lagoon Project Trip Report
By Andrew Georgitsis - Download the PDF to read offline
Chuuk Lagoon has always been known as the Mecca for wreck divers. For those that don't know, it is a group of islands surrounded by a barrier reef, making it a lagoon. The Japanese based the Pacific Fleet there. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America came in in Operation Hailstorm and devastated the islands and many of the Japanese navy ships the lagoon harbored. Ever since I can remember I have wanted to visit Chuuk, however have never had the opportunity. I have not been able to go for many reasons, including tough logistics and lack of availability of Helium.
Our UTD Korea instructors, in conjunction with the Korean South Pacific Ocean Research Institute, put together a proposal to work with the government of Federated States of Micronesia. They wanted to develop an ongoing project that included documenting some of the major wrecks through detailed photography and videography. This of course is no small task. This trip was an exploratory study of the feasibility of the project. I was invited as the Project Leader. To that end, I could not turn down the opportunity to both visit Chuuk and work together with our UTD Instructors to develop a long term diving and exploration relationship with FSM and KSORI.
The trip began after a massive amount of planning and preparation, especially by the UTD Korean Instructors. Ahead of time a container of gases, sofnolime and other diving equipment had to be shipped. After all, we will be using MX Rebreathers to dive the deeper wrecks, the Z-System side-mount system to penetrate the shallower ones, x-scooters to move around, canon d50 and nikon d700 to photograph, panasonic and Sony HD video cameras to film, and the new UTD Vision X video lighting to illuminate the subjects. That container arrived nearly a month before I arrived. UTD Instructor Russel Park and fellow diver Hicks flew into Chuuk several days early to get the container unloaded and prepared for our arrival.
When I complain about packing and carrying my 4 * 70lbs bags on the plane, it is really nothing compared to what Russel and Hicks had to do in preparation. To add to the complication, I was departing Las Vegas for Chuuk, or TKK as the airlines know it. The morning of my departure came and better half, Monique, was kind enough to get up at 4 am to have me at the airport and checked in for my almost 40 hour journey across the Pacific. First I flew to San Francisco, on to Japan, down to Guam, and then finally into Chuuk (TKK).
After a very bumpy and long drive out to the Research Station and the 40+ hours of travel, I now had to kick it into high gear and co-ordinate the setup of all the equipment for the following week of diving.
Setting up the MX Rebreathers was a cinch. I had brought our stainless frames and rebreather manifolds, so it was a matter of deciding on the size of backgas/diluent tanks needed, spinning off the valves, attaching our manifold and valves, and then attaching them to the rebreather frames. Easy as pie. Time to fill back gas/diluent tanks. Max depths for the project while using MX were going to be 200'/60m. So for backgas/diluent 18/45 and for bailout decompression bottle we were going to need 70'/21m and O2 bottles. Dives were expected to have bottom times of 60+ mins, with the appropriate deco schedules based on a 2:1 ratio.
Configuring the local Aluminum cylinders for the Z-side-mount system was even easier. We simply attached our travel side-mount harness to the bottom stages and the O2 bottle for decompression. This is where our approach to standardization and compatibility really shines. The regulators systems we use for MX rebreather bailout bottles are the same regulator systems we use for the Z-Side-Mount System - a first stage, QC6, OPV. This makes it really easy to conduct a first dive of the day, exploring the deeper wrecks using the MX mccr Rebreather, and then a or 3rd using Z-side-mount system diving for penetration. Because of the consistency and compatibility of equipment, and because the skill set to manage the system is consistent, switching systems is easy.
Day 1 of project.
This was a shake down day. Dives were to be conducted on the Fujikawa Maru. This is a gorgeous wreck that sank in 1944 during Operation Hailstorm. The wreck sits upright in 140'/39m of water. My first impression of our Captain is that he knows his oats. Navigating out through the mangroves and coral reef structure is no small task. Simply finding the wreck using his knowledge of land marks is amazing. I am starting to feel comfortable that this guy will be there when we get home :). Always an important thing. Ever since the greek captain abandoned us during a dive on the HMS Britannic in 1999 project, I have been nervous about these supposed "Captains" who cut and run at the slightest rough seas.
We gear up to shake down the MX rebreathers, bailout deco bottles, scooters, and video systems, and finally enter the water with this massive amount of gear. Immediately I notice my camera housing starting to flood. I disconnect my E/O from my vision video lights heads and send the camera back up to the boat deck. The support team decides it is a no go on the camera and they will deal with it later. I get my backup Vision Led Head out of my pocket, attach it to the E/O and off we go. Gotta love the interchangeable and compatible vision lighting system.
The wreck is simply massive and just amazing to see. We scooter the general perimeter getting a feel of the layout, see the bow, the stern, the prop, and the rear anti-aircraft guns. I stop to pose for pictures at the various important spots :). As I work my way down the decks and around the ship, I can't help thinking about how amazing it is to finally be here...my Mecca. After 60 mins bottom time, sadly we must return to deco. No worries, we will get to do this again. Hopefully the next time we can penetrate. Total gas used: back gas/diluent 100psi/7b (5 cft / 154l) O2 700psi/50bar (9cft/300l). Got to love a fully closed Rebreather.
The second dive that day, we go to Shark point to do a shake down of the Z-side-mount system. It’s really nice to have a nice light load, especially when you can put all of the cylinders and equipment on the tag line, jump in with the Z-System on, attach your cylinders, grab your scooter, and off you go. Really sweet. I am always amazed at how incredibly free you feel in a Z-system. Side-mount diving really offers some amazing ease of movement, incredibly stable in any position or attitude, especially after the morning MX dive with twin al80's on. We get to play, swim and enjoy a wide variety of sharks, including black tips, white tips, and grey reef sharks. What a treat. One hour at 100'/30 passes in a flash when you are having fun...then back to deco. I tell you this one hour BT limit I placed on the team sucks. I might have to change that later.... :).
Day 2 of project
Time to start the collage photography of the deck of the Fujikawa Maru and videotape some penetration dives into the engine room. Russel and Atom are assigned the task of carefully photographing each square meter of the deck in a systematic approach. This is when the BT time limit becomes so important because you can get so carried away in your mission that you lose track of time. Of course while they are on the MX Rebreathers, gas or deco is not really the issue. The logistics, team support and so on are of more importance. Paying attention to a restricted Bottom Time is very important. Jason Park and I will penetrate the various holds and areas of the wreck, with the engine room in mind. This time the camera is sorted out and not leaking, so finally we are going to get some footage of the inside of the Fujikawa. We unfortunately can only publish a little bit of footage, as the majority will go to the FSM and be used as archive footage. I was able to make a 10 min video from this dive. Anyways, glad to finally be going inside and filming. We first penetrate the forward hold, examining the wreckage and fuselages of the airplanes, then work our way back to the engine room. This is an old wreck with loads of silt. The MX rebreathers are a good choice of tool, due to the lack of bubbles. Therefore the roof does not come down on us. Open circuit would certainly disturb the roof and the rusticles would fall, silting out the engine room. Their size and profile is definitely larger than Z-side-mount system so we are slightly more restricted in what we can penetrate. The inside of the ship is large enough to accommodate what we want to do, especially in the areas that we will be working. The engine room is an impressive area with the 6 cylinder pistons clearly visible. The remnants of a japanese gas mask are found on-top of one. As we approach the end of the bottom time, the memory card on the camera runs out. I put away the video system, unplug the vision video lighting system, plug in my spare primary vision LED head that I stow in my right pocket, and away we go. Now I have a primary LED light for the remainder of the dive and exit. As we exit this area, we retrieve the scooters and back to deco. What an exhilarating dive.
Up on the surface we find a tropical storm has moved in, dumping buckets of rain. There are high seas and no land in sight. Wow, what a change from our entry. I tell Jason, "Now the captain really gets to earn his keep." After loading all the divers and gear on the boat, he points to the boat in what I hope is home direction. Off we go. How in the hell is he doing this? No compass, no GPS, just his given natural instinct. After a 1.5 hours of a hellish boat ride we finally arrive at the entrance to the coral reef structure outside KSORI...a very narrow path, about 10'/3m across, about 100'/30m long, marked by two sticks, sticking out of the water about 3'/m high. He pushes the boat through the shallow narrow reef like a pro and finally we find dry land....well not dry, but land none the less. Diving operations are stopped at this point. Time to clean the gear and sit out the storm. Total gas used for this dive: back gas/diluent 100psi/7b (5 cft / 154l) O2 700psi/50bar (9cft/300l). Total gas so far is 10cft / 300l of 18/45 and 18 cft / 600l of O2.
Day 3 of Project
After several days of local fun reef diving, and sitting out some major storms, we finally get back to work. We plan the morning dive with the MX Rebreather on the San Francisco Maru. The expected max depth of the dive is 200 ft/60m. Duration will be 1 hour bottom time followed by the appropriate deco needed depending on average depth. Jason and I are paired up in front of the video camera, while Russel and Atom are behind. Russel runs the Sony HD system and vision video lights are mounted on an X-Scooter CUDA. This is his first dive using the vision video lights, and he is instantly amazed by how much light these low profile LED video lights put out. "As much as my 50 watt HID's" he remarks. "...but without the size, bulk and huge video reflectors that act like drag dishes hanging out in the breeze while I am scootering." I smile and say "we have come a long way with lighting technology."
As we drop down, I notice the visibility is this area is really improved over the previous days. Probably 70'/21m +. As the ocean floor comes into visibility, we turn the scooters towards the wreck, following the anchor chain well well below us but insight. Out of the darkness she slowly starts reveal herself. The San Francisco Maru. As a side note, it has always been one of my more favorite moments in life, waiting for the outline of the ship to appear from the darkness. We arrive at the bow and clearly visible and prominent is the anti- aircraft gun. This is an amazing sight. After 5 or so minutes of poking around, we head down the port side of the ship. I lead the way. Following me is Jason, with Russell and Atom taking up the rear. Soon, we arrive at a "miniature" tank. Yes miniature :). These really existed...little mini one man jungle tanks used by the Japanese. I had heard about them and seen pictures, but had never actually been up close and personal with one.
Wow they really are tiny. On top of the tank we find a pair of binoculars and other remnants of the Japanese Navy armed forces. Jason and I set up for the video shots. The idea is to give the viewer a persecutive of just how small these tanks really are. Later, we head over the starboard side and get a view of two more tanks, one stacked on top of another. How cool is that. One of the tanks has the top open and I am able to see inside getting a glimpse of just how small these miniature tanks really are inside. Amazing...some poor soldier actually fit in there. Russell then gives us the “go” sign and we head for the wheel house area finding all kinds of cool artifacts to check out. Then we continue back to the ammunition holds in the stern. Wow, thousands and thousands of bullets, big and small, scattered everywhere. Some still in their original wooded boxes. Time is running short. We will be back tomorrow for stills, so we push on to shoot video of the stern, around the buried prop and rudder. All in all, a fantastic first dive on this ship. We got some excellent video and then back to deco upline at 60 mins bottom with an average depth of 170/ 51m and max of 193'/58m. Now for a long and somewhat uneventful deco. Total gas used for this dive: back gas/diluent 150psi/10b (7.5 cft / 220) & O2 1000psi/70bar (13cft/420l). Total gas so far for the project dives is 17.5cft / 520l of 18/45 and 31 cft / 1020l of O2.
Dive 2 was Z side-mount penetration dive on the Fujikawa Maru. Again, Jason and I would be in front of the camera while Russel films as much as he can and Atom support dives. The idea is of course to penetrate some areas that the camera system probably won't fit. We start by entering into the bow hold. Not a very tight area but certainly a lot of overhanging snag hazards. Then we push on to the forward hold area, taking a second look and capturing more video of the plane wreckages - fuselages and components of the war planes. Then Jason and I remove our tanks and push through a small opening in the firewall between the hold and the engine compartment. Russel and Atom have to remain in the hold, exit, and head towards the stern to meet us later. Jason and I in the mean time examine and push through some tiny areas in the engine room, enjoying the freedom of side-mount and the lack of bulky back mount equipment. We often disconnect our bottom bolt snaps of the tanks and push the tanks through ahead of us. We pass through some major restrictions. This takes a little wiggling but we get through. I can hear Jason giggling as he enjoys the pushing, wiggling and exploring some likely unexplored areas, due to the need for side-mount only. Upon exiting, we find Russel and Atom taking more video of the stern area. 60 mins is up already. How? We head back to deco. Avg. depth. 100'/30 bottom time 60 mins.
Day 4 of Project.
As this was the final day of diving before we pack-up and fly home, the objective was to do a single dive, revisiting the San Francisco Maru. Only this time we needed to shoot stills, both for the "collage" and for some cool stills of the team on the deck. The captain (local fisherman) once again continued to amaze me. Today was just too much. We are cruising at 30 knots or so, the water is like glass, just beautiful. He swerves to the right, looks back and then to the left a little, looks back again, then continues straight for another minute or so. He pulls back the throttle slightly slowing us down to about 15 knots for about 10 secs - ahead of us is ocean, next to us is ocean, behind us is ocean. All of a sudden he pulls the throttle all the way back and allows us to glide to a stop. All of a sudden the deck hand, who is standing on the bow, yells and points his finger. “Got it,” the white submerged marking buoy 20 ft /6m underwater. It is right in front of us off the starboard side. How does he do it?.....I will never know. Just incredible.
We jump back in the water today with the full exploration getup. MX Rebreathers, x-scooter, bailout deco tanks, and so on. After our buddy checks and bubble checks we head down the upline and follow the anchor back out to the ship. Once again, just beautiful to be revisiting her. Jason and I spend the next 60 minutes posing for the canon d50 camera and search and explore all kinds of fun areas. I have included some pictures for your enjoyment. Pictures are truly worth a thousand words, so I will spare you the details. After a somewhat boring deco, we are back on the boat. Russel and I compare gas usage for the project. I used: back gas/diluent 160psi/11b (9 cft / 242l) & O2 1000psi/70bar (13cft/420l). Total for the project is 26.5cft / 762l of 18/45 and 44 cft / 1020l of O2.
Russel made an interesting comment to me. He said that since he switched his Meg eCCR over to the MX mCCR configuration, he uses far less gas than when he was running his Meg in the fully electronic mode. He said that even while he was shooting video and stills, rushing around setting up the shots, the MX was superior at allowing him to do as he needed to get the shot. I have never used a eCCR rebreather so I cannot comment on his statement. What I can say though is that for 4 deep project dives in which we used the MX mCCR Rebreather, an almost 600 mins of diving at depths that average 170'/51m on the bottom plus the deco, we used next to nothing in gas. A total of 26.5 cft / 762l of Trimix. Wow that is impressive. The hardest part is bleeding the mix to pack up and leave. I bled off 2400 psi in my twin al80's/11l tanks. Ouch.
All in all, this was a fantastic exploratory project and a dream come true for me. Although the trip to Chuuk was long and the return even longer, the staff at KSORI were incredibly gracious and I want to thank them for their hospitality. I also want to give special thanks to the UTD Korean instructors for both inviting me and participating in the project. Most of all, I want to thank Jason Park and Russel Park from Divers Republic, for putting on such an incredible start to what we hope is going to be an ongoing project. Let's hope our findings and documentation are satisfactory to FSM and that they will welcome further expeditions, development, and knowledge of this area's heritage.