The Japanese Shipwrecks of Truk Lagoon

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People go scuba diving for many reasons. Some divers are interested in the natural beauty of coral reefs, and the animals that call this environment home. Wreck divers are interested in man-made objects that have ended up underwater by disaster. Ships and airplanes sink because of bad maintenance, fire, weather, collisions and war. Once sunk, the wreck becomes a time capsule. When diving to explore wrecks, the experience is enhanced if you know its history. When swimming through one of these underwater museums, one can't help but imagine what happened during the sinking. If your objective is to create images, knowing the wrecks history will help.


Before you begin, take a look at Larry's recent lecture at the B&H Event Space.

Causalities of war are especially interesting. Ships and plane wrecks caused by war are much more than hunks of rusting metal. They are a testament to the human beings that lost their lives. Shipwrecks also attract marine life, creating their own ecosystem. Once the scene of death and destruction, they now promote growth and life. Between the man-made structures, artifacts and marine life, shipwrecks are great locations for photography and video.

One does not have to travel far to dive wrecks. The waters surrounding New York and New Jersey contain so many shipwrecks, that divers call this area Wreck Valley. Traveling to locations where historic battles took place is an adventure. The island of Chuuk is one of these locations. The island used to be known as Truk, and the surrounding body of water is still known as Truk Lagoon. The island is part of the Federated States of Micronesia, located near Guam. The flight from New York takes over twenty hours, but is well worth the effort.

Before World War II, Japan built numerous bases throughout the Pacific Islands chains. Truk Lagoon was one of the biggest of these, and had been transformed into a huge naval support and supply center. During World War II, a significant portion of the Japanese fleet was based there, with its administrative center nearby. Truk was the base for Japanese operations against Allied forces in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Due to its heavy fortifications, both natural and man-made, the base was known as "the Gibraltar of the Pacific."

    

On February 16, 1944, “Operation Hailstone” commenced when American carrier planes descended on Truk and attacked the vessels anchored in the Lagoon. Japan, knowing that an attack was imminent, relocated most of the warships, but many of the supply ships remained. During two days of air strikes, American aircraft sank over 10 warships and 31 supply ships. Japanese merchant vessels have the word Maru in their name. This distinguishes them from warships, and translates as "circle."

Today these ships and airplanes sit in water 30 to 240 feet deep. In April 2011, technical dive-instructor/trainer Joe Radomski put together an expedition to dive, videotape and photograph the Japanese wrecks of Truk Lagoon. Our base of operation was the liveaboard dive boat SS Thorfinn. Starting life as a Norwegian ice-class Antarctic whaler in 1954, this 170-foot steamship has a history all its own. In 1977, it was converted to a charter ship in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Thorfinn’s captain and owner, Lance Higgs, has been running dive charters in Chuuk for many years.

      

Many of the divers on this expedition used closed-circuit rebreathers. Instead of exhaling one's gas, as in normal scuba, rebreathers scrub out the carbon dioxide and add oxygen to the gas mix that the body uses. This way the gas can be rebreathed, allowing one to do long dives and reduce ones decompression obligation.

The team would also be exploring the interiors of many of these shipwrecks. Diving in any overhead environment adds risk, but the almost-unlimited gas supply when using rebreathers adds an extra margin of safety. When taking part in advanced dives, it is important to be comfortable with the diving procedures before adding a camera. Imaging adds task-loading to the dive, and no image is worth your life.

          

When creating images of shipwrecks, you must use the widest lens possible. It is important to get close to your subject. For most of the photographs, you should use two strobes to light up as large an area as possible. It is impossible to light a whole ship, so concentrate on the details. Photographing a deck gun, cage lamp or other artifact could visually tell a story. Using your dive partner as a prop will add scale and a human element to the image. Turning off the strobes and letting the image go blue could also be effective when shooting wrecks.

When taking photographs inside a wreck, a focus light is a useful accessory. The Bigblue FF-3x5W AFO LED light turns off momentarily when the strobes fire. This way, it avoids a hotspot in the image. The Bigblue FF-3x5W AFO is bright enough to use as a primary light, but don’t forget to have two backup lights.

            

A shipwreck image should tell a story. Underwater photographers need to use every technique in their bag of tricks to be effective. In the following photos, I want the viewer to experience the beauty of the destination, but still remember the drama that happened so long ago.

              

              

                

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Larry Cohen is a past president of the NYC Sea Gypsies, and a founding member of The New York Underwater Photographic Society. He also crews on the New Jersey dive boat, the John Jack. When not underwater, Larry spends way too much time at a desk at B&H Photo. During that time, he can answer your underwater-camera questions in Live Chat, or you can email him at uw[at]bhphoto[dot]com. See his other work at www.liquidimagesuw.com

He also had an article recently published in Xray mag.

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Larry:

Love the Chuuk photos - wondering if I can get there soon! 

Hi Larry,

Love the photos and commentary. Took my first check out dive in Lake Superior and then went up to Isle Royale and dove some wrecks. Back then, without a uni-suit, dry suit, one had to pee in their wet suit to keep warm. TMI.

Anyway, went on to work for a dive shop in Key West. Dove back in the days of Mel Fisher discovering the Atocha and walking into the dive shop with his treasures...on the way to the bank. great memories.

Haven't dove in years and I think the Truk Lagoon would be an amazing way to get back into it. Can you email me more information or a way to download this site?

Thanks, Cheryl

Larry responds:

Hi Cheryl,

I am glad my article has inspired you to get back in the water. I have done some diving in Lake Ontario but have not visited Lake Superior. It is on my list but I want my drysuit!

On my last trip to Truk Lagoon we used the Liveaboard vessel the Thorfinn: www.thorfinn.net The boat is large and comfortable but not very fancy. The owner Captain Lance has been sailing these waters for years. All the diving in Truk Lagoon is done in a small area. So you really do not need to be on a liveaboard. The Thorfinn only moves two times during a week of diving. There are two small skiffs that depart from the main boat to the different wrecks. You do usually get four dives a day while you would only get two from a land base operation.

Getting there is also an adventure. This time my flights went from NY to Tokyo, then to Guam were we stayed overnight. The next day the flight from Guam to Truk seemed short. When I was there before I went NY to Honolulu to Guam to Truk.  This was just as painful but once you are in the water it is worth it.

If you do not want to stay on a boat Blue Lagoon Resort is also a good operation. I dove with them 15 years ago and was impressed with their dive guides. www.bluelagoondiveresort.com/indexresort-1.html

If you have questions on underwater photography you could ask for me in chat or email me at uw@bhphoto.com. Please put Attn: Larry C in the subject line. For more underwater imaging information and to see more of my work you could watch my presentation on getting started in underwater photography: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n769dxhZcr0

Larry Cohen
B&H Photo Video and Pro Audio