Brian and I shine our lights into her open cargo hold. Ever so slowly we swim inside. With our beams pointed in any direction, all we see is darkness; the space is too large to pierce. We enter the unknown. There is no reference point, nothing to provide context or foundation. On most dives, the surface and the bottom remain in view and provide an illusion of control. I can tolerate the void between two known edges. But now the world is going black. We are descending into a claustrophobic container full of fear.
We are in Truk Lagoon, Micronesia, the finest wreck diving location in the world. I’ve flown to Hawaii, then eight hours further West to Guam, then another four hours South to Truk, to rendezvous with Brian Harley, longtime friend and co-adventurer. This was the site of a massive raid on Japanese supply ships in February of 1944. Allied planes sank roughly 40 Japanese freighters. Most of these ships sit in about 100 feet of water, highly accessible for recreational divers.
Today, we are diving the wreck of The Heian Maru, a World War II Japanese submarine tender, lying on her side in about 90 feet of water. Her resting-place is roughly 1500 miles south of Tokyo. In surprisingly good shape, The Heian Maru is largely intact and looks much like she did in 1944. Draped in an eerie rusty coating, there is not much marine growth obscuring her form.
Most resort diving is relatively safe. Truk is different; this is the only dive destination I’ve visited where people talk about divers dying in recent history, as in, “did you hear about the couple last week?" Repetitive dives to deep wrecks increase the risk of getting the bends, which is one of the many things that can kill a diver here in Truk. At depth, nitrogen in the air we breathe becomes dangerous when it saturates the bloodstream. We use underwater dive computers to calculate how much we absorb on each dive, and how much time between dives is needed to breathe out that same nitrogen on the surface. The computers tell us how many dives we can pack into a day, since we hope to maximize our time on the wrecks during our brief visit. It’s not an exact science. Every person interacts with nitrogen differently.
On my 10,000-mile voyage to Truk, I had plenty of time to think about the relationship between risk and adventure. How real was the possibility that I might die on this trip? Each time I changed planes on my journey, my mind tried its best to shut down my adventurous spirit and the childlike explorer who brings that spirit to life. My spirit won, and got me to the dive boat with a bag full of dive gear.
We slowly continue across the open space, within the giant 1000-ton ship. We float through what was once the top cargo hold, home to supplies for countless Japanese submarines. I scan the now empty area for large fish that might be filling the void. All I see is blackness. Is there something lurking beyond the fringes of my beam of light?
I’ve been diving on wrecks before. In the Florida Keys, I dove down to examine a sunken drug running freighter scuttled by the government to create a marine park. In the Virgin Islands, I perused a sunken rumrunner. In Bonaire, I explored a ship that broke up when it ran aground. In each case, I could easily imagine that the crew got off the boat before it sank. So wreck diving was never about the crew; instead my attention was focused on the rusting hulk that was left behind.
Not in Truk. Sailors died on these ships. It used to be common for divers to see skeletons and bones. Several years ago, a Japanese organization completed a massive clean up effort to remove all the remains and return them to Japan for proper burial. I was afraid we would find someone they had missed. Despite this fear, we shined our lights in each dark space, searching for Pacific man eating sea creatures, human remains and war artifacts, in that order.
Ninety feet beneath the surface, we arrive at the second cargo hold, two layers beneath the top deck. Brian and I pause at the jagged opening made by an American bomb. We look into each other’s frightened eyes, searching for some hint of encouragement or terror, some signal to proceed or retreat.
We are about to go deeper into a wreck than we have ever been before. Wreck diving gets progressively more dangerous as you go deeper into a ship. Should equipment fail, a speedy trip to the surface is unlikely. You’d have to first find your way out of the ship before you can ascend. You can also get lost and run out of air before you find your exit hole. Today, Brian and I are staying particularly close. Should there be a problem, we will share whatever equipment still works, perhaps buddy breathing off the same tank of air while we make our way out. That’s the theory anyway, as long as neither one of us panics.
Simultaneously, we shrug our shoulders and proceed. People died in this space, violently. Floating now with their spirits, our fears seem pretty small. We scan this new deck for any cargo or marine life. Nothing, just the boundless black of a cargo hold the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
Although we know other divers have been here before, there is no evidence that anyone has penetrated this ship since it sank. The only other diver in the water now is our divemaster, a local, who happens to be very casual about safety, or extremely confident in our ability. Presently, he’s off on his own somewhere, well out of sight.
On past wreck dives in the Caribbean, the surface was littered with other dive boats, dumping off schools of divers. I once waited at the entrance to a passageway for three divers from another group to swim through. Nobody waved, as we tried our best to pretend that we were the first to explore this place, even though it was looking more like a theme park than a secret underwater world.
In Truk, we are among just a handful of divers who visit each season. Spread among many wrecks in the lagoon, who knows how long it has been since divers were here? Maybe a new shark has taken up residence since the last visitor passed through. Or perhaps unexploded bombs have shifted. When we anchored our dive boat alone above this wreck, I was very aware of my childhood dream to be the first to discover a secret piece of history.
Once more we come to a hatchway, inviting us deeper into the ship. We don’t even pause to think about proceeding. We are both too excited, this is what we have traveled halfway around the world to see. The little explorer inside me is beaming, and he isn’t thinking about risk or death. My inner adult can take care of that, he’s the one who thinks about being safe and responsible. I’ve wanted to see these wrecks since I was 12. I used to take a particular dog-eared copy of Skin Diver magazine to Sunday school and read it in the back row. I remember its blue cover and the headline, “Those Amazing Wrecks of Truk Lagoon.”
Filled with excitement, we move like marionettes, hanging weightlessly, not quite touching any surface. As we breathe, the sucking sound is deafening, a high-pitched whistle on the inhale, a lower pitched burble as the bubbles carry away the exhale.
We’re using our breath to control our buoyancy now, we dare not kick our fins lest we might stir up the silt and cloud our vision. One final exhale is all we need to drop to the bottom of the ship, three levels down. Convinced that we are about to stumble onto something big, we turn toward the stern and travel horizontally on this level, penetrating deeper into the ship. The light from our entry hole is no longer visible. We’re disconnected from our escape route. The passageway narrows and we glide like ghosts, leaving only exhaled bubbles behind. Floating in the corridor, an occasional gentle flick of the fin is all that is needed to keep us moving through the ship. Here we find the buried treasure.
Our lights reveal torpedoes, which were never delivered to Japanese subs. The torpedoes are roughly 12 feet long, with red noses cones and little propellers on their tails, just waiting to spin. They are stacked in decaying disarray, perhaps jumbled by one of their own kind, when it ripped through this hull and brought the ship down. “Hey Brian,” I think, “what are the odds of one of these babies going off now?” These torpedoes were probably going to be fired at American ships. Maybe two American divers would suffice. We don’t touch.
I pause and turn off my light. Brian follows suit. We play chicken with one another to see how long we can stand total darkness in this space. This is our way of saying that we are both scared to death but still loving this boyish adventure. Comic relief speaks volumes underwater. It doesn’t take long before we are smiling at one another, with lights blazing as we move on.
We turn around and head back to the passageway out of the ship. We welcome the light from above that has made its way down through the hull. The light guides us out to safety, where we float suspended above the ship. We pause to view her massive form. Perhaps not unlike the spirits of this vessel, we’ve traveled through her passageways and now hover above her, slowly ascending to the surface and the light. Was this the experience for her crew 55 years ago when an American bomber descended and launched the fatal torpedo that brought her to the bottom?
The men of this ship were willing to die for their cause. Now I had visited their grave and risked death for my cause too, even though my story seems petty in comparison. I was on the edge of my comfort zone in the name of adventure and exploration. I traveled halfway around the world to meet that edge. We all have an edge somewhere. Too often, we turn down the opportunity to go out and examine it, to get to know ourselves in that space of risk and discomfort, to exercise the explorer that lives inside us all.
On this dive, Brian and I were fundamentally a couple of little boys out exploring in the yard, making up games, looking for treasure, playing like pioneers. There is something to explore in every backyard. Whether it’s the wreck of an old car in the woods or the remains of an old factory off a local walking trail. Self-discovery is no less exciting. Some of my best exploration has happened deep inside myself. Some has come from diving deeper into relationships with friends and lovers. There are plenty of exciting and dark places for each of us to explore, without ever leaving the house.
For me, this adventure occurred in the rusting hull of a submerged wreck halfway around the world. For you, it may happen in a different way. When was the last time you let your little explorer come out to play? As kids, we explore on a daily basis. Then we grow up and stop. That little kid inside needs nurturing to be kept alive. Otherwise, that adventurous spirit rusts away too.
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