Famously known as the wreck diving capital of the world, Truk Lagoon (Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia) is on many underwater photographer’s bucket list. And for good reason: over fifty Japanese WWII ships and airplanes rest at the bottom of this warm, tropical lagoon and the ocean has turned them into shipreefs covered in life and buzzing with fish, sharks, and rays. Where else can one see an antique WWII-era Japanese lantern next to bright pink soft coral? This mix of historical WWII relics and the fantastic marine life of Micronesia combine to make a diving and photography destination that will make just about anyone happy.
One of the goals of underwater photography is to tell a story through images and those from Truk can tell many. Divers can document Japanese ship life in the 1940s by photographing galleys, dishes, and machinery used during that time. Images can show the devastation of war, reveal antiques of another time and show how the ocean has transformed these weapons and massive metal ships of destruction into homes for anemonefish, hermit crabs, and gobies.
Photographing an Underwater Museum
On February 17-18, 1944, the Americans launched an air and surface attack on the Japanese base of Truk Lagoon. Ships by the dozen, fully stocked with ammunitions, supplies, and crew belongings, sank to the bottom of the lagoon and were mostly ignored until the 1980s when divers started exploring them. Even 75 years later, due to salvaging being illegal, these wrecks are still mostly intact and contain vast amounts of relics. Warm waters, little or no current and mostly recreational depths make this location a wreck photographer’s dream destination. Diving these wrecks is like swimming through (and photographing) an underwater museum.
Warm waters, little or no current and mostly recreational depths make this location a wreck photographer’s dream destination.
There are plenty of wrecks to shoot and each one has its own special features and photo-worthy subjects. Here are a few favorites:
- Nippo Maru – This wreck has one of the best wheelhouses in the lagoon. Divers can swim from a level below into the back section and shoot the steering station and telegraph with blue ambient light coming in the windows behind. There is also a Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tank on the deck and often gas masks.
- Shinkoku Maru – The Shinkoku has more anemones than one can count. Large in size and many different colors these make for great subjects with parts of the wreck in the background. This ship usually has many schools of fish, the occasional reef shark, and plenty of artifacts including an operating table.
- Hoki Maru – The Hoki has a cargo hold of construction equipment including a tractor, bulldozer, steamroller and trucks. It’s popular to put off-camera lighting around this equipment (or inside the trucks). This wreck also has stunning marine life on the outside with sharks, eagle rays, and schools of fish.
- Heian Maru – This ship was a submarine tender and has spare periscopes stored in a companionway. The ship is on its side so what would have been the windows now open towards the surface allowing photos of the periscopes and light coming in from above. There are also beer and sake bottles, a medical kit, and an engine room with lots of gauges, a thermometer with mercury is intact and more.
- Rio de Janeiro Maru – Famous for “the bottle room,” a cargo hold packed with wooded boxes of beer bottles, this ship was formerly a luxury cruise liner and has plenty to shoot and gigantic propellers that need a diver to show how large they are.
- Fujikawa Maru – One of the iconic wrecks of Truk, this ship has R2D2, a charismatic air compressor that looks robotic. Also on this wreck is a cargo hold of Zero and Claude airplane parts, lots of marine life, and other artefacts.
- Betty Bomber – Truk has several airplanes and the Betty Bomber is popular because it is mostly intact, divers can swim through it and there are often schools of glass fish inside making for a unique fish photo from inside a Japanese airplane. The engines are about 500ft away and covered in coral, making them fun to photograph as well.
- San Francisco Maru – This ship is one of the deeper wrecks with the top deck being at 165ft. Divers will find three light tanks on the deck, all with gun barrels intact. Two sit on top of one another on the starboard side and one sits on the port side. The front cargo hold is filled with hemispherical land mines which divers can shoot upwards from inside the hold to capture the land mines and blue water above.
So You Think You Don’t Like Wrecks
You might like wrecks but don’t know it yet. Or specifically, you might like the wrecks of Truk and not know it yet. I can only speak from experience on this one, as I didn’t think I liked wreck diving until I dived Truk and now I can’t get enough, mostly, because it’s so much more than just wrecks.
Yes, the wrecks are a big part of it. But those wrecks are absolutely covered in some of Micronesia’s best reef life. The wrecks have basically become giant homes for corals, sponges, and fish. In other parts of the world we sink ships as artificial reefs with the hope marine life will flourish and give a home to marine organisms. This happened unexpectedly in Truk 75 years ago.
At first glance, descending on to the hull of wrecks like the Rio de Janeiro or Heian Maru do not even look like ships, but instead appear to be a 500ft field of hard corals. Schools of parrotfish munch their way through the coral and it’s not until you descent further off the side of the wreck, which appears almost like a mini-wall dive (which is the deck) that you make out the masts jetting sideways and winches and it becomes more of the shape of a ship. But even the masts have huge soft corals and anemones draping over them. Moorish idols and juvenile emperor angelfish swim about; just the same as if you were on a tropical reef…it just happens to be on a ship.
There’s plenty of macro life for anyone who can take their eyes off the expansive ships. Juvenile fish, gobies, and blennies are common the hulls and those who look find nudibranchs, sexy shrimp, anemone shrimp, porcelain crabs, and other critters. Many of the artifacts can be shot with macro to show detail like logos on dishes, markings on ship equipment, etc.
One of the difficulties shooting in Truk is that so many people photograph it (and so many good photographers photograph it) that it can be difficult to create something new.
One of the difficulties shooting in Truk is that so many people photograph it (and so many good photographers photograph it) that it can be difficult to create something new. To take a creative image and to tell your own photographic story can be challenging because there are only so angles one can shoot a tank from. This is also why some of the most spectacular images come out of Truk. Shooters stretch their creativity to new levels using off camera lighting, adding in divers, and trying new techniques.
Truk also presents some challenges as a diver. Some of the wrecks (or parts of them) are below recreational scuba diving depths. Some dives may require advanced training and extra gear. Other wrecks have fantastic photo opportunities inside in overhead environments and tight spaces. Do not attempt to take images in places beyond your personal comfort level, training or without proper gear. There are plenty of shooting opportunities within recreational levels and that’s also where most of the marine life is.
The wrecks of Truk are well known and there are many books that have information like deck plans, highlights, objects and places of interest. Do your homework and plan your images in advance, especially if they will require off camera lighting, divers, etc. Plan to make multiple dives on larger wrecks or those where you’re planning difficult shots. The reputable dive operators and dive guides in Chuuk are a wealth of knowledge, talk to your guides about what you hope to shoot and often they can take you to a spot you may not be able to find on your own.
- Shoot with ambient light – visibility is not always perfect in this nutrient-rich environment. Turn off strobes and increase ISO to get wide-angle shots of large portions of the ships. Converting to black and white can sometimes save an underexposed image and can give it a historical or spooky feeling.
- Focus lights – bring them and bring back-ups. Even if you plan to stay on the outside of the wrecks the structures have many shadowy areas and a focus light can help the camera focus better, faster, and on the correct subject.
- Divers – to really show the scale of these massive ships add a diver for perspective.
- Macro – There is lots of small stuff to shoot if you look hard enough. Night dives can be a great time to shoot macro or if you get tired of wide-angle and want to mix it up a little.
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