A Photographer's Exploration of Truk

Author: Nick Blake

The World’s Largest Underwater Museum

Regarded as one of, if not the best, wreck diving locations in the world, Truk or Chuuk Lagoon has long been a destination I have wanted to dive and photograph. 

That opportunity finally came up with the Divequest trip to Truk in May 2014 hosted by renowned Underwater Photographer Shannon Conway.

Truk Lagoon was the scene of “Operation Hailstone” in February 1944 - U.S. Carrier based attacks over two days on what was a major Japanese Logistics centre as well as the operating home base for the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet. Over the two days of attacks, Japan lost over 40 ships in the Lagoon with a combined 220,000 tons and over 250 Japanese aircraft were destroyed.

Photographic Preparation

Ahead of the trip, I took the opportunity to review various underwater images of Truk’s wrecks, as well as filling out my pre-trip questionnaire to highlight any specific photographic opportunities I was looking for. I have always had a fascination with wrecked planes and I soon realised that Truk is a mecca of plane wrecks lying at a variety of depths.

Dive and Photography Gear – My luggage strategy

Knowing that Shannon had dived Truk before, I also enquired regarding cylinders as I had heard of divers opting for twin sets. I was pleased to learn that a twelve litre or fifteen litre cylinder was fine for the diving we would be doing and that certainly proved the case.

With luggage weights at a premium, I thought long and hard about what dive kit I could take. In the end, I opted to take a lightweight BCD, my regulators and a good torch for modeling, electing to hire wetsuit and fins both at Blue Lagoon and on board Odyssey. With hindsight this worked superbly for me and I was happy with the kit I took with me as I really didn’t miss the gear I elected to leave behind to make the luggage weights. I found my camera jacket was superb for getting all my carry-on into the aircraft cabin.

Resort Diving versus Liveaboard Diving in Truk

The journey to Truk from the UK is lengthy, consisting of 4 flights and a total travel time of circa forty hours, routing through Singapore, Manilla, Guam and finally our destination of Truk Lagoon. Arriving at the Blue Lagoon Resort we had two days before we would join the Odyssey Liveaboard, which provided a great opportunity to arrange some dives through Blue Lagoon. 

Our diving from Blue Lagoon focused primarily on the aircraft wrecks, including Betty Bomber, Emily Flying Boat, Zero Fighters, Jill and Judy Attack Bombers. Depths for these aircraft wrecks varied between 2 and 18 metres, providing relatively shallow dives with excellent photographic opportunities. With hindsight, this was time well used because once on board Odyssey, the focus is very much on the ships rather than aircraft. This is due to the relatively small size of the aircraft which would mean a fairly short dive for many divers, yet for the Underwater Photographer the aircraft wrecks are not to be missed and in some cases worthy of more than one dive on each.

The Odyssey

Odyssey is regarded as one of the best liveaboards in Truk and it soon becomes clear why it is held in such high regard. Everything on board this spacious boat runs smoothly and is very well organized. Food on board was excellent, as were the cabins, crew, and of course the diving.

As well as our Underwater Photography group with Shannon, there were also guests on board from America and the Marshall Islands.

The briefings ahead of each dive were very thorough and provided a detailed understanding of the circumstances of how each ship sank, along with the photographic highlights to look out for during each dive. 

Including a night dive, there is opportunity to undertake up to five dives each day, reducing to either two or three on the final day of diving depending on which wreck option you choose. I found the guides were excellent if you wanted a tour around a wreck site. They were also happy to model for images so we often sought a guide out and agreed in advance what sort of image we were looking to create. 

Air or Nitrox?

Diving during the week was for the most part on 29% or 30% Nitrox which was perfect for the diving we were doing, with depths ranging from 10 metres on the stern of the Gosei Maru to 35 metres on the I-169 Submarine. Those opting for the San Fransisco Maru on the last day switched to 24% Nitrox for this wreck, which was the deepest at 50 metres to the deck. While Nitrox is available both on the Odyssey and at the resort, one of our group members dived on air the entire time and still had an amazing experience.

Diverse Subjects for Photography

Whilst I had gone to Truk fully prepared to photograph wrecks, what surprised me was the diversity of subject matter on each wreck site. As well as the wreck itself and the fascinating contents of the Holds, they are festooned in coral which makes for some fantastic photo opportunities. In addition, it is not just about wide angle, with plenty of macro potential on each wreck – in terms of subject selection, opportunities abound.

Across the week I aimed to strike a balance between external wreck shots such as Bow, propellers etc. and content within the Holds. I found the Rio de Janeiro and Gosei Maru good for a props/stern shot and wrecks such as Hoki Maru and Fujikawa Maru have excellent photo opportunities in the holds, including Zero fighters, a delicately balanced bull dozer and perfectly preserved trucks.

I found the range of subjects also tested my skills in use of my strobes and effective lighting of my photographic choices. This was particular apparent in the Holds where I quickly learned the importance of correct strobe positioning for wide angle shots. Even with the strobes well back behind the dome port, stray light was regularly getting into my shots so this was something I worked on across the week and discussed with Shannon during an evening review of my shots – it certainly paid dividends and I was pleased with the improvements in my lighting of shots as the week progressed, realising that for some shots, getting the strobe well behind the dome port meant it being somewhere around my ears!

Having spent a week aboard Odyssey, we returned to Blue Lagoon Resort for a couple of nights before beginning our journey home. It gave us the opportunity to wind our diving down by covering off some photogenic aircraft wrecks in shallow waters – again, opportunities which understandably can’t be covered on the Odyssey itinerary.

Truk is truly a wreck mecca!

Across the trip I completed a total of 31 dives over 10 days of diving, comprising 12 shipwrecks and 6 aircraft wrecks. The photographic opportunities were endless and with Shannon’s help, I felt I improved my photographic skills across the week and was very pleased with the set of images I came away with.

The wrecks of Truk have been sitting on the bottom of the lagoon for almost seventy years and one of the best aspects of diving on them as a photographer is the almost surprising lack of currents which, if present, can hamper your ability to come away with great images. 

Whilst it is a long journey from the UK to reach Truk, without question it is a must do and for good reason. Truk is a destination which features in the book  “50 places to dive before you die”. It certainly is a unique location and one that had been on my bucket list for a while. Through Shannon and DiveQuest, it proved to be a particularly memorable and enjoyable trip.

An Anemone Shrimp decides to rest on its host attached to the Shinkoku Maru.

Abundant corals festoon the hull of the Shinkoku Maru.

Trucks inside the hold of the Hoki Maru are in remarkably intact condition!

A Jill Torpedo Bomber ended its days off the coast of Etten Island, Chuuk.

A diver examines a coral encrusted Davit on the Shinkoku Maru.

A very curious cargo - submarine periscopes stored on the Heian Maru.

The wreck of a Betty Bomber with the Odyssey Liveaboard moored overhead.

Truk isn't just about wrecks, macro opportunities abound, including this Nudibranch on the Shinkoku Maru.

A Zero fighter plane resting in the Hold of the Fujikawa Maru.

A diver investigates the stern and propeller of the Gosei Maru.

The upturned wreck of a Zero fighter plane off the coast of Etten Island.

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