Beneath the bright azure surface of Truk Lagoon, the divers slowly descend into the deepening blue. After 50 feet or so, they arrive on the coral-encrusted deck of the Sankisan Maru, a 4,700-ton Japanese ship sunk in a massive US air attack in 1944, in what historians call Japan's Pearl Harbor.
At the bow, the freighter is eerily intact. Fish swim around the swivel gun, and rusting trucks are still on deck. A thick chain hanging from the bow runs along the sandy bottom to where the anchor lies. The hold is filled with tens of thousands of rounds of small-arms ammunition - heaped like snow drifts beneath a thin layer of ocean sediment.
Sankisan is but one of the 40 ships - and dozens of aircraft - that comprise the Japanese "ghost fleet" of Truk Lagoon, one of the premier diving sites in the world. These haunting, cargo-laden wrecks attract thousands of high-spending visitors every year and are virtually the only reason tourists come to Chuuk, an impoverished, and often violent corner of the Western Pacific nation of Micronesia.
But for all their historic and economic significance, the wrecks are being destroyed, bit-by-bit, by human activity.
Visiting divers steal smaller objects and tamper or disrupt larger ones, hastening their deterioration. Meanwhile, desperate locals raid the wrecks for heavy explosives which they use in makeshift bombs; these are later dropped on reefs or the wrecks themselves to kill resident fish, a destructive and illegal practice known as "dynamite fishing."
Yacht anchors, diver activity, and dynamite explosions damage or weaken the sunken ships. Nature does the rest, corroding metal and occasionally battering the ships with powerful typhoons.
"I just fell in love with the wrecks," says Clark Graham, an American who came to Chuuk in 1966 and started one of the lagoon's first dive shops a few years later, and until recently taught marine archeology at a local high school. "Now I don't like to dive anymore."
Each time he'd return to a wreck, more objects would be missing - porcelain serving platters, brass lanterns, ship's wheels, weapons, and ammunition. The intact bridge of the destroyed Fumizuki was completely destroyed when a large ship dropped its anchor on it.
Dynamite fishing has triggered the collapse of the mast, bulkheads, and smokestack of the Fujikawa Maru, one of the most visited wrecks. The Sankisan's bridge and masts have also collapsed after yacht collisions, diver activity, and a typhoon.
"It was like having a friend who was once a serious boxing contender, but now is losing all his fights," Graham says. "It just gets too painful to go out and watch him getting hurt in the ring."
Believed the most complete collection of unsalvaged World War II ships in the world, the "ghost fleet" sunk with massive loss of life in a US air attack in February 1944. Chuuk had been under Japanese control since 1914, and during the war its massive lagoon became the home of the combined fleet and the staging ground for military operations in the Pacific.
Japanese commanders knew an attack was imminent, and dozens of warships fled Chuuk days before it came. But inadequate port facilities and fuel supplies delayed the departure of the support fleet, which was laden with tanks, vehicles, artillery, ammunition and other critical supplies.
After the war, Chuuk remained under US control as part of its massive trust territory of Pacific islands. The Federated States of Micronesia didn't become independent until 1986, and is still eligible for many US programs as part of its independence agreement.
Efforts to extend US park protection to Chuuk and other wartime battlefields failed due to a lack of US interest (see story, left).
Today the wrecks are protected by law, but enforcement is almost non-existent. "Our [guides] end up being the only enforcement," says dive-shop manager Gradvin Aisek, whose father pioneered wreck diving here.
Chuuk's local government has failed to respond to this and other pressing problems. While the wrecks, public schools, and local hospital deteriorate, Chuuk officials buy supporters new speedboats and other perks paid for by millions in annual US development funds. Without jobs or education, many loot or dynamite wrecks for a living.
"We can stop the tourists, but there's nothing we can do about dynamite fishers," Mr. Aisek says. "With one bomb you can make $2,000 to $3,000, so there's a huge incentive."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society