02/11/2009, Blue Lagoon Resort
We spent the day on the Internet today. Still trying to get the blog updated. The service here is not super fast but not bad. The connection drops from time to time though and this makes it hard to upload photos or to download large files. Things are a little better at the resort than on the boat but not much.
We were on Eric's boat for dinner a while back and he put on April Wine, Nature of the Beast. I hadn't heard that album since high school. What a great record. I had it on vinyl, but like so much of my music from the 70s it disappeared somewhere between UCSB and Los Angeles.
It is nice to live in the modern world (even when you're in a place like Chuuk), I went onto Amazon and boom, $7.95 and a few downloads later... I now have the April Wine album. I have had to download some of the tracks several times because if you lose the connection during a download you end up with a drop out or pop in the track (this is astonishing to me because a first year CS student could write a downloader that would guarantee the blocks downloaded matched those on the server).
The problem with Amazon is that their "you might also like..." algorithm is too good. As I finished with April Wine, it asked me why I haven't replaced that Montrose album I haven't heard in so long, or what about Ted Nugent Weekend Warriors? Sammy Hagar Standing Hampton? Van Halen Fair Warning? If the download connection worked better I'd be in big trouble.
As it turned out the big trouble came when I checked my MasterCard statement. I discovered $6,000 in charges at AutoZone, Kmart, and 7/11in the US over 2 days. This is our first big credit card theft, so we'll see how Citi deals with it. We have been pretty careful with our info but after three years of buying almost everything online, I guess we were due. The funny part is that Citi shuts us off every time they see a charge outside of the US (which is where we always are) and they let these obviously fraudulent charges go rampant for two days in the US with no worries.
Guam is getting some nasty frontal conditions right now and seas are predicted to run up to 13 feet this weekend. We are looking at Monday as our departure day so we'll see how things develop.
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02/10/2009, Truk Lagoon
We dove with the Truk Stop dive shop today. Our last two dive days were with Blue Lagoon and we like to try all of the shops when we visit a place if we can. The Truk Stop dive outfit is run by a friendly New Zealander named Kelvin and our boat driver was Newie a Chuukese from Dublon. Both are very experienced divers who know all of the wrecks in the lagoon. Kelvin was most recently in the Philippines and Newie used to work on the Aggressor live aboard before they moved to Sulawesi.
Eric from Whistler was diving today and so was Hideko. We did our first dive on the Nippo and our second dive on the Heian. Both were great. I think the Heian is a wreck you could spend more than one dive on easily.
The Truk Stop guys gave us a lot more in the way of a dive briefing that the Blue Lagoon folks. I think I would also have to give them the nod for general safety and respect for the wrecks.
You don't see as many eating size fish in the lagoon as you might expect. The human population has certainly put pressure on the lagoon. Some locals fish with explosives. This is illegal but both dive shops told us that it still goes on. In fact some of the locals loot the mines in the wrecks and use them to make fishing bombs. Of course this entails handing highly unstable, 60 year old munitions. As you might expect, the odd diver fails to return from time to time.
The shallower wrecks are getting pretty corroded and picked over these days. The Cousteau boys did a survey in 1969 and hauled off a few tons of goodies (now in a warehouse in France somewhere). Many of the locals have a bell or two hanging in their shop. That said, Chuuk is still the most awesome wreck dive destination I have been to or could possible imagine.
One needs to be very careful when penetrating this vessels today. More and more structural elements are weakened over time and you hear tales of collapses much more frequently. A regime of total buoyancy control and touching nothing should be self evident but seems rarely adhered to.
There are also some nasty chemicals still lying in wait in some of the wrecks. It is highly advisable to use a gentle frog kick, rather than a flutter, to ensure the silt stays on the bottom. Some smoky looking stuff was stirred up in front of me on the Heian and I didn't think anything of it. After swimming by, the back of my leg began to burn. I'm not sure what it was and it did no damage beyond giving me a little rash but it is the kind of thing you'd like to avoid.
We had a nice day out on the water and hope to get in at least one more set of dives before we take off. The guys dropped us off at our boat and after a quick rinse we headed to the Blue Lagoon for a nice lunch/dinner.
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02/09/2009, Chuuk Lagoon
We took a tour of Weno, the island capital of Chuuk State today. It was an eye opener. The trip was arranged by the Truk Stop Hotel in town, and a driver came to pick us up at the Blue Lagoon at 9AM for our three hour excursion.
The van was pretty beat up. I can live with beat up, but I mean really beat up. No air conditioning, which is ok, we're sailors, but the windows didn't open much and fumes wafted through the interior regularly. Not the clean island air you hope for when exploring an out of the way place. We had lots of room though and it got us down the road.
Speaking of roads, the roads on Weno are so absolutely damaged that after a heavy few days of rain, such as we've had, the pot holes turn into lakes. There are no side walks and there are places you literally could not get through on foot without wading. The one road that runs along the west side of Weno is self regulating at speeds of 15mph or less.
After quite a long while we reached the Truk Stop Hotel. This is more of a motel really. It is the nicest place in town, the Blue Lagoon being the nicest place on the island. There is nowhere else that I know of to stay other than the live aboard dive boats (which might be the best choice if you're a diver).
After checking in at the Truk Stop we set off on our tour. There were three stops and not a lot of liner notes to go with them. We first stopped at the Japanese memorial to the honored dead from WWII. This memorial was nice but not in a great location. In fact, on Weno, there are not many nice locations.
Our next stop was ad hoc. As we were driving along the coastal (only) road to the road that goes up to the cave with the big Japanese gun in it we noticed a terrible sight. You get used to trash all over the place here in Chuuk. On the sides of the street, piled up in the bushes, there's garbage everywhere. There are also wrecks in the shallows of fishing boats, old freighters, skiffs and all other manner of craft. You'd need to be really careful in shallow water here.
There are also wrecks on land. There are perhaps as many cars sitting on rims or just rolled into the bush here as there are operating. Many of those operating should be rolled into the bush.
The thing that really blew all of us away was a sight we came upon in a little quaint bay with a community along the edge and a few little fishing skiffs out in the shallows. The fore shore of the area and the waterline and the first 10 feet of bay was totally buried in trash. Garbage of all sorts, but particularly floating plastic and other very persistent debris. It was only a progressive escalation from the other miscellaneous dumps we had run across but it was still perhaps the worst example of pollution I have personally borne witness to.
On the way up to the cave with the Japanese gun in it we had to stop at a shop to pick up the son of the land owner, whom we paid $5 a person. The fee is a little excessive to start but if you don't pick up the kid, the hoodlums up at the cave will charge you even more. Our driver wouldn't leave the van because we had bags in it and he didn't want them to get stolen. If you are getting a poor impression of Chuuk from my description, I must sadly confirm your assessment.
The gun was awesome and what it represented alone was worth the visit. The ghosts of an era long gone play about such things. The cave was hewn out of solid rock and you can only imagine the toil in the tropical heat necessary to create such a thing.
Our third and final stop was the Xavier High School. The school is interesting in itself, but it bears the historical significance of being one of the Japanese radio posts during WWII. Chuuk was Japan's primary forward naval facility during WWII and thousands of troops were stationed in the islands here. There was a sea plane base, many airstrips, repair facilities and lots of protected anchorage space. The orders to attack Pearl Harbor even came through Chuuk.
From the roof of the Japanese administrative building, come Catholic High School, one can see some wonderful vistas out over the lagoon and her little islands. The school itself is an important resource in the islands. There are not many high schools and I have met few people who went beyond 8th grade. Of the several hundred tested to enter 9th grade at Xavier, only 40-50 are admitted. The school charges $1,100 per year for live in students but this is far from enough to pay for the expenses. The balance is made up with charity.
If there's one thing I think the people of Chuuk need, it is more education and more schools. If the US stopped sending its $50 million per year to support the country I'm not sure what would happen. Perhaps we should, then all the cars, outboards and plastic imports would go away over time and people would go back to sustainable leaf huts and fishing. If not, someone really needs to get in here and do an assessment of how the cash is being spent because there is no rule of law, terrible pollution, atrocious public works and no schools to speak of. It seems with $50 million a year there should be quite a bit more infrastructure. Corruption is rumored to be rampant and I can see no other excuse for the conditions given the top level funding.
Hideko met a Japanese guy who was working at the school as a teacher. He is part of the Japanese equivalent of the Peace Corp. We have run across many of these noble souls in the Pacific. We had a great talk with him and he showed us some amazing wreck maps that kids from the school had made using scuba gear.
Our tour almost halted at the school as our van would no longer go in reverse and we were parked such that going forward would plow us into a school bus. Finally some kids helped us move the van back enough that we could forward our way out. It was for naught though because after a short stop at the telecom office to top up on internet cards, forward went out too. We had though to visit a fourth sight, the Japanese light house from WWII but the tour ended abruptly.
We flagged down a guy with the SDA in a big truck who was kind enough to give us a ride back to the Truk Stop. We had a nice lunch at the Truck Stop's Hard Wreck café and talked over our eclectic day.
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02/08/2009, Truk Lagoon
Hideko stayed on the boat today to avoid the imperfect weather and to get some things done around the boat. Eric and I were undeterred by the overcast morning and went out to meet the guys from Blue Lagoon Diving for a second day on the wrecks in the lagoon.
Our primary target for today was the wreck of the San Francisco Maru. The San Francisco Maru is a 385 foot long passenger/freighter build in 1919. She plied the west coast of the Americas until the war and then became a support ship. She was sunk in day two of operation Hailstone in Truk Lagoon. She lies in 200 feet of water and is known as the million dollar wreck, due to the vast collection of goods that lie with her.
It is a technical dive and our plan was to visit the deck only, at 160 feet, for no more than 12 minutes. We would stop at 60 feet for three minutes, 30 feet for ten minutes and 15 feet for as long as air allowed. We were diving with 100s so it was going to be a lot of hanging around in blue water for 12 minutes of bottom time. We were hopping it would be worth it.
It was awesome. The San Francisco is in great shape due to the depth she sits in. She has much less growth than the shallower wrecks. We parachuted in, dropping down as fast as we could manage while staying together as a group. When the deck is at 160 you see nothing for some time, even though the visibility was probably 70 or 80 feet. At first it is just the mooring line (whose float is a good 4 feet underwater so only local knowledge will locate it). Then the towers rising 50 feet off of the deck come into view, deeply encrusted with corals and other creatures. Next the superstructure materializes. Then you check your depth gauge and you are on the deck at 150 feet.
The first hold you come to has piles of unexploded mines and other ordinance in it. Good buoyancy control is a plus here! There are three fully intact Japanese battle tanks on deck which are wondrous to look over. Our short stay uncovered many controls and operational widgets in great shape along with aircraft engines, trucks and other relics.
Normally I would say deco dives are not worth the 45 minutes or more you spend hanging around on the way up. This dive was an exception. If you are comfortable doing decompression dives, this is one you should try.
Our second dive was the Shinkoku Maru. This 500 foot long naval tanker is almost as great as the San Francisco. Lots of stuff to see and some cool swim throughs. We ran across a big manta ray who played with us for a bit as we were swimming along the deck. The hull has lots of growth, in particular some huge anemones. A good sized black tip reef shark came to take a look at us and a school of trevally 100 strong circling one of the ships towers.
As we were surfacing we saw the reef hook anchor go flying by. Looking up I could see that a nasty squall had set in since we descended. Big waves were rolling by and rain pock marks covered the surface. We all stayed down at the safety stop as the boat drifted away. In a bit he fired up the motors and came back up to the underwater buoy and dropped the hook down. It was like being Charlie Tuna in one of those old commercials. One of the shop guys rehooked the anchor on the tower of the wreck. I winced.
The guys from the shop are safe but they are probably a few nicks shy of PADI 5 star. No VHF on the boat (or at the shop), things like that. You will get little in the way of a dive brief and they will be chewing beetle nut and smoking Dorals during the surface interval.
We all climbed aboard in the driving rain and had a really bumpy, wet and even cold, ride home. Never the less it was a fantastic day of diving, perhaps one of the best ever.
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02/07/2009, Truk Lagoon
Hideko joined At and Dia from Angelique to do some shopping in town today. Eric from Whistler and I decided to go out for our first dives on the wrecks of Truk Lagoon. The number one must dive wreck seems to be the Fujikawa Maru when you take a poll. So that was our target.
We dove with Blue Lagoon Divers. The dive shop was started by Kimiuo Aisek, the Chuukese guy who really launched the dive industry here. Kimiuo was 17 when he saw the operation Hailstone sink the majority of Japanese ships in the lagoon. He has passed on now but his son runs the dive operation. The former continental Hotel is now the Blue Lagoon Resort, also owned by the Aisek family.
The boat came around to pick us up with two guys on board. Jersey was our driver and surface support. He took care of setting up our gear and breaking it down. Tonky lead the dives, anchored the boat and did the standard islander bow conning, hand waving bit when we got close to one of the sites.
Many of the dive sites have mooring balls marking them, but the moorings are all 3-4 feet underwater. This ensures the open Yamaha fiberglass boats that whip around here in taxi capacity don't snag the lines and it also ensures that yahoo divers out to go diving without a guide (which is illegal here) can't find the sites easily.
The guys don't moor to the line though in most cases. They instead prefer to drop a grapnel anchor onto the wreck and hook up that way. Unfortunate for the wrecks, and the coral on them.
The Fujikawa is a 433 foot passenger/cargo ship. The Fujikawa has a lot going for it. It is in reasonable depth, with a bottom at 112 feet, the deck at 60 feet, a stack running all the way up to 20 feet and a rear mast near the surface. She has several intact zeros in the hold, deck guns, ammo, spare prop blades and lots of other cargo and artifacts. There are some nice swim throughs and the ship is deeply covered in growth. It is a fantastic dive.
We have picked up some literature on the lagoon from different places. Franko's Chuuk Lagoon Dive Map is a must for anyone diving here. It gives an old school map of the lagoon with pictures and descriptions of all of the ships as new, and on the other side pictures of the wrecks and dive notes. We also picked up a copy of "The Legacy of Truk Lagoon", DVD, which is very interesting and well done. Pricey though still very interesting, and by far the most detailed resource, is the 500 page, "WWII Wrecks of the Truk Lagoon".
Our second dive was on the Kensho Maru (Maru is the suffix applied to any merchant ship in the Japanese fleet). The Kensho had some nice swim throughs and was worth diving but not as spectacular as the Fujikawa.
The rides out from Weno to the wrecks can be long and the lagoon can get very choppy. The dive boat does have a bimini and it rides fairly smooth considering. We were back at the Blue Lagoon dock by 1PM, just in time for lunch. The dock has a nice set of rinse basins and a fresh water shower for the divers. It is a great setup for cruisers looking to conserve fresh water but not wanting stinky dive gear. After cleaning up, Eric and I scarfed down a Blue Lagoon Cheese Burger and a Four X ("XXXX", an Australian beer I am growing fond of). It was a perfect day in Chuuk.
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02/06/2009, Blue Lagoon Resort
If you only have a week you might want to avoid FSM. It took us four days to clear in. We went ashore at the Blue Lagoon today to look around the resort and await immigration with our final paperwork. The resort is the nicest place in Chuuk as far as we can tell. They have about 50 rooms and perhaps 5 were rented. I worry about the viability of the place.
We bought Telecom cards at the front desk (good for pay phone calls, cell top ups and Wifi) and made some calls and got caught up on the internet. When immigration arrived we finally got our passports back, stamped, and received paper copies of our cruising permits. It turns out ours had issued in December but it expired before we got here. Pohnpei took some time to sort this out and issue another permit.
Happy to be "in" the country we relaxed at the Blue Lagoon Resort for the day and enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant.
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We woke up to the sound of Yamaha 40hp two strokes zipping about. The shuttle traffic around here is truly amazing. I can not see how the folks around here pay for all of the gasoline at $4 a gallon. Perhaps it is the $50 million the US tax payers provide to the government annually. Or the other millions in aid that come through other channels. Who knows.
We waited the morning out in the port but found no sign of immigration. At and I had finally had enough. I dingied over to Angelique, who had received some unfortunate damage from the quay overnight, and we headed for the immigration office. It was noon and of course the office was closed.
When two o'clock rolled around and still no one showed up at the office we proceeded to the airport. We were looking for the head of immigration in Chuuk. He arrived at the airport from home about a half hour later. We made our situation clear.
It went something like this: "We have been in your port for three days and have not been cleared in. We filed for permits more than a month ago and received no confirmation or contact, even when requested, over any channel. We tried to bring aid to your outlying atolls (much like the US air drops at Christmas from Guam), but were denied. We are now being held up here. You can give us back our paperwork and we will contact our embassy and leave, or you can clear us in. Please decide and complete your process in the next hour."
He assured us that his office was working to get us in but that Pohnpei was taking more time to approve the paperwork than normal. We returned to the boats to watch the clock. Back at the port Mrs. Mori arrived and she still did not have our permits. She insisted that she be allowed to inspect our stores to see that we still had our aid package aboard. We obliged and then both At and I blew up. We had had enough of the rinky dink games and quite enough of the Pohnpei power play. We were ready to demand our prior clearances, refunds of fees, and to be on our way to Guam.
After a lot of apologies from immigration we were swayed to stay until tomorrow, at which point, we were promised, permits and stamps would be forthcoming. So far this country's government has proven pretty good at wasting people's time, insulting folks who spent thousands of dollars of their own money to assist people in the outer islands, creating the most complex entry program we have ever encountered and charging more money than anyone but the Bahamas. As a side note, we have been warned to anchor no where but in front of the Blue Lagoon because should we anchor anywhere else in the lagoon we are liable to get robbed at knife point unless we have a local aboard (this came from two Chuukese friends we had made at the port).
I'm venting. Sorry.
So off we go to anchor at the Blue Lagoon.
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