Dives in Micronesia show World War II remnants, sea's beauty

Truk Lagoon (now known as Chuuk) is a volcanic atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia. Today it is one of the world's most fascinating destinations for scuba diving.

It offers one of the most concentrated and accessible collections of shipwrecks in the world. The wrecks are relatively close to each other, with a great many at shallow enough depths for recreational scuba diving. Combine that with warm tropical waters, fantastic visibility, brightly colored corals and tropical fish, and you get a scuba diver's dream come true. Divers need to have experience both at wreck diving and deep diving.

During World War II, the Japanese used Truk as a secret naval base. Expecting imminent attack, the Japanese warships fled to Palau, leaving behind armed merchant vessels (known as Marus) to fight off the American attack. Operation Hailstorm occurred on Feb. 17 and 18, 1944, and carrier-based U.S. Navy aircraft sank more than 60 Japanese Marus.

In the 1960s, Jacques Cousteau came to Truk and removed the wrecks' strongboxes along with their gold contents. Today, the wrecks are considered government property, and removing any item is illegal. In the 1980s, a Japanese expedition removed most of the human remains.

Founded by legendary Pacific diver Kimiuo Aisek, Blue Lagoon Resort is the sole land-based dive operation. A Truk native, Aisek was an eyewitness to Operation Hailstone. His memory of the attack allowed him to find the shipwrecks as scuba diving came to Truk.

Our group of 13 stayed on the Truk Odyssey, an unrivaled live-aboard dive boat. The ship offers two divers per room, fantastic food and drink, and a very roomy dive platform. It conveniently moors directly over the dive site, avoiding long swims and bumpy small boat rides.

The wrecks are frozen in time, with stopped clocks, personal items, torpedo holes and tools as they were in 1944. Cargo holds full of munitions, aircraft parts, gas masks, machine guns, trucks and tanks remind how dangerous the world was in 1944.

The Odyssey dive masters were fantastic and led us into the bowels of the wrecks. On my dive buddy's 500th dive, the dive master led us down to the engine room through the smokestack. It was a tight fit, but as we reached the bottom of the wreck, light flooded through the torpedo hole to show the way.

As great as this was, the wrecks are covered in brightly colored corals and fishes, reason enough to make the trip. Neon pink anemones, anemone fish (clownfish all named Nemo), beautiful soft corals of all colors, giant wrasses and a sea turtle put the icing on the cake.

It takes about 35 hours to get there. Continental Airlines services the atoll. Flights go from Chicago to Houston to Guam (via Honolulu), then on to Chuuk. You cross the international dateline (we experienced Easter twice), so the return flight will leave you with some jet lag.

There's not much else to do on the islands. You can tour the remnants of Japanese defensive positions, but there is no tourism other than scuba divers.

After 65 years, the wrecks are starting to deteriorate and entering them may not be possible in a few years.

Although not for the faint-of-heart divers, the wrecks of Truk Lagoon are a holy grail to experienced scuba divers.

Steve Smith is originally from Champaign, a University of Illinois graduate and a former Army officer. He and his sister run the Champaign outdoor specialty store WildCountry. Smith has a separate business inside the store at 2012 N. Prospect Ave., C, called Midwest Diving Specialists, which sells and rents out dive equipment, offers instruction and runs four to six dive trips a year.

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