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January 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Wreck Diving for Beginners

should a teenager with four dives really be visiting Chuuk?

from the January, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

What do you think about a novice diver taking his equally novice offspring diving deep inside the confines of wrecks?

Penetrating the sunken wrecks at Chuuk (also known as Truk) Lagoon can be a dark, claustrophobic experience, with narrow entrance points in many cases, and plenty of things to get snagged up with. So, it was with some alarm that I read an article by Jim Shepard in Hemispheres, United Airlines' in-flight magazine, kindly sent to us by Undercurrent subscriber Mark Kimmey (Manhattan, NY).

There were initial clues in the first paragraph that revealed Shepard is not an experienced diver -- although he describes himself as "scuba obsessed," the reference to his "oxygen tank" is always a dead giveaway. But it's not the author's lack of experience that concerns me. It's the fact that he describes taking his children, 20-year-old Emmett and 15-yearold Lucy, inside these wrecks. He stressed to their Chuuk dive guide, Tryvin, that they were novices and that prior to their visit, they had made only four dives to 40 feet. When he told his certifying instructor in Florida that their next stop was Chuuk, he was met with jaw-dropped disbelief.

That reaction is one anyone who has experienced getting lost inside a confined space while diving will appreciate -- and probably emulate. Despite diving it many times, I'll never forget the time I lost my way inside the wartime wreck of the SS Umbria, a passenger and freight vessel scuttled by its Italian crew and lying on its side on Wingate Reef outside Port Sudan. I began to feel an awful panic building as I struggled to find my way from its dark recesses, meeting unforgiving bulkhead after unforgiving bulkhead, before I finally managed to reacquaint myself with an exit route. I still bear the psychological scars.

That wreck is not unlike many of those Japanese fleet auxiliaries sunk by American bombers during World War II in Chuuk Lagoon, another famous wreck location I've been lucky enough to visit more than once. The number of intact wrecks invites penetration by divers, and there's much to see: engine rooms with tools still hanging on their racks; engine valves neatly laid out on benches where they were being serviced just as the ship was hit; the engines and generators themselves, oil-level sight-glasses still intact; huge torpedoes stored and awaiting transfer to submarines; submarine snorkels and periscopes lying along ship companionways; a huge lathe lying at a crazy angle; the skull of a seaman unfortunate to have been caught by a blast; the occasional clock stopped at the time of its demise; trucks, Zero planes, and of course, the little compressor in a side compartment of the Fujikawa Maru's engine room that is often dubbed "R2D2" and has provided so many iconic images.

Chuuk is a wreck diver's paradise, but forever remembering my unfortunate experience on the SS Umbria, I was always careful to brief my small and slender Chuukese guide before I penetrated the bowels of a wreck with him. I explicitly told him not to lead me anywhere a bigger man carrying twin tanks and a large camera rig would find it difficult to squeeze through in the darkness. Despite its popularity, Chuuk wreck diving is not diving to be taken lightly. There are old divers and bold divers but few old, bold divers.

Prior to actually getting into the water at Chuuk, Shepard writes that his two children "do what they can to manage their anxieties while wrestling into their BCs." His other son, Aidan, wisely cited claustrophobia as an excuse and ducked out of the experience.

Shepard was not a stranger to the dangers lurking underwater. He reflects in the article how, during a brief underwater experience as a 13-year-old, his air supply had failed without warning and he'd come as close as ever to killing himself . . . yet he still wanted to wreck dive and "more importantly, to take his children wreck diving"?

He tells how they squeezed inside both the Rio de Janeiro Maru and the Shinkoku Maru, "working their way down to the infirmary deep in the stern, where we find an operating table still featuring a haunted little spill of arm bones." On the Yamagiri Maru, their guide, Tryvin, leads them through a small opening. "Imagine a gap just wider than your shoulders and not much higher that an ottoman. When a daughter disappears into the darkness of a tiny metal hole at 80 feet of water, a parent really should follow. Emmett then squeezes in after me."

In each case, Shepard states that he has to memorize where the obstacles and openings are before Tryvin turns a corner and disappears in the darkness. And so it goes on: An exciting description of diving the wrecks of Chuuk Lagoon. At least he doesn't mention the tanks on the San Francisco Maru -- the Japanese staff car in its hold is close to 200 feet deep. They even do one last night dive back on the Shinkoku Maru: "One slightly lunatic addition on our next-to-last day."

He writes, "One moment from that dive stays with me: Emmett discovering through a raised forward of the bridge a wonderful eerie glimpse of a narrow and encrusted metal staircase hatch leading down, down, down, through three and then four decks, deep into a blackness even our headlightbright dive lights can't penetrate."

Shepard reflects that they wished they'd brought more flashlights. "Imagine a slow-motion and labyrinthine steeplechase in the dark with all sorts of shattered and disintegrating metal structures across your path at random angles, and ceilings a foot or so above your head, and you get the idea. I follow Lucy's fins down yet another pinched and murky passageway ... but the good news is that this is an intelligently managed risk ..."

Shepard's a good writer and it's a wonderfully written piece, but what do you make of a novice diver taking his novice diver offspring on such dives? What risks did they seem oblivious to? The young people were lucky to experience the pinnacle of wreck diving so early in their diving careers, but were they also lucky in some other way? Would you have taken your 15-year-old daughter or son on such an adventure?

When sending us this story, Mark Kimmey wrote, "I was a little appalled by the idea of taking novice divers into wrecks without training and gear, especially those wrecks that may be starting to collapse. Shepard doesn't mention wreck reels, but he does comment that he wished they had brought more lights. Seriously, what kind of diver enters a wreck without lights?"

We'd like to hear what you think. Write to with your observations.

-- John Bantin

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