Truk Lagoon, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, is one of my favourite places to dive. Truk (or Chu’UK as it’s now called) was once the safe anchorage for the Japanese Imperial Fleet during their march across the Pacific in World War II. Now over 50 Japanese ships lie on the bottom of the lagoon, sunk during Operation Hailstone in 1944. These wrecks bring divers from all over the world, often more than once.
Now there’s some publicity beginning to build around a massive issue confronting Truk Lagoon – the release of potentially tens of thousands of tonnes of oil from the rusting Japanese wrecks. One of the advantages of the Lagoon for the Japanese during the war was its location and its surrounding protective reef with only five easily defendable passes. One of the major disadvantages of the lagoon under the present circumstances is its enclosed and protected environment. The oil will have nowhere to go but will completely destroy the lagoon and its environment.
In 2006 the US conservationist Michael Barrett followed a large oil slick on the surface back to the Hoyo Maru. The Hoyo is one of three oil tankers lying at the bottom of the lagoon that could potentially contain millions of litres of oil. The Hoyo herself was LKW Plane built to carry two million litres of oil in her bunkers. But while oil tankers are the major concern, other ships are also slowly spilling their oil.
The issue of leaking oil from war wrecks in Micronesia was highlighted when the oil tanker USS Mississinewa began leaking. The tanker was sunk in 1944 by a Japanese suicide submarine close in to the island of Yap and when a typhoon went through the area in 2001, she began leaking oil at a rate of over 1100 litres a day. The leak continued on and off for eighteen months before the environmental conditions deteriorated to the extent that Micronesia declared a state of emergency and banned fishing – a mighty big step when you consider the locals depend on the sea for both income and food.
The US navy was sent in and patched the leak but they were back the following year to patch another one. Finally in 2003 after another leak was discovered, it was decided it would be best if they just removed the remaining oil. They used a process called ‘hot tapping’ where submersible hoses are attached to the fuel tanks and the oil is pumped to a surface barge. The whole process cost over 5 million US dollars and while some of the 7.5 million litres of recovered oil was refined and sold, the money from the sale only repaid a small fraction of the total cost. And therein lies part of the problem.
I hope we can find an answer before it’s too late. Ian McLeod, an Australian corrosion expert conducted a survey of the wrecks in 2002 and made a prediction that the wrecks could potentially start breaking up in 10 to 15 years time. Throw in a typhoon or some localised dynamite fishing into the mix and it could happen anytime.
The tiny state of Chu’UK depends entirely on its lagoon for survival. There’s high unemployment and the divers that come every year really don’t bring in substantial dollars. I don’t think anyone who has dived at Truk will dispute there is leaking oil. I know that I’ve tasted it in my mouth and seen small oil slicks when diving on the Japanese submarine tender the Rio De Janeiro Maru.
I value my trip to the wrecks of Truk Lagoon as one of the highlights of my diving career. I learnt a lot, saw the human cost of war for the first time and dived on some of the most amazing shipwrecks I’ve ever seen.