“Mmmm-hmm-umm”. Chuukese dive guide Ken slinks down a grated stairwell and into the shadows of the engine room, singing to himself. My buddy and I follow the melody between machinery encrusted with silt, and curl around the cobweb of pipes and handwheels. Ken flashes his light and points it towards a darkened corner. In the orange glow of torchlight the ghosts of the shipwreck Kensho Maru suddenly come to life, 73 years after she sank. Lined up meticulously on a bulkhead is a row of spanners, spare valves, springs and bolts, and my brain snapped and crackled with images of the past. I see a conscientious engineer walking the gangway, wading in humidity, happy his domain is shipshape.
Shipwrecks hold a powerful fascination for most divers and the Japanese ghost fleet of Truk offers an unparalleled chance to explore the long-lost secrets of wartime in the raw, unfiltered by historians and guidebooks. Under tropical blue waters is a forgotten world of artefacts, preserved at the very moment a nation’s hopes were sunk by an American airborne raid in the spring of 1944. A pristine medical kit still in its case, the crates of sake bottles, the gas masks, the spare submarine periscopes and torpedoes are still lying there untouched more than seven decades after they vanished.
Ken turns and moves through the shadows cast by our torches. His singing hangs in the water as we pass what was once the engine control panel. The polished metal is gone. Rust smudges the outside, but the maker’s stamp is still visible: ‘Tama Dockyard, Ito Japan, Diesel Engine No 164 1938’. White-faced pressure gauges hooked up to a compressor blink in the light like the eyes of a cartoon robot. Engine rooms hadn’t been on my bucket list when I first arrived. But that’s the power of Truk: it feeds your explorers’ spirit like nowhere else on the planet, whether you are a single tank recreational diver or a twinset techie.
As we ascend back up the staircase, light filters through the skylight windows high above and colours the cylinder heads a supernatural blue. Breathing deeply, we snake through the superstructure. Light from the portholes highlight the brick-floored kitchen with its giant oven, the bathroom, and the bridge where the telegraph still stands. Gently finning through an open window, we emerge out over the deck and head for the shotline.
Ascending, I think about what people had told me about this place before I left. Don’t miss the tanks on the San Fransisco Maru. Check out the trucks in Hold C of the Hoki Maru. Marvel at the bow of the Fujikawa Maru towering over the seabed. Lose yourself in the cavernous holds of the Rio de Janeiro. They were certainly the show-stoppers, but as the sea shrouds the Kensho Maru once more, I realise it’s the small discoveries that will stay with me forever.