Chuuk, Micronesia Heian Maru

The second dive was great. Mackenzie took me down to the Heian Maru. It was a submarine tender ship that sank on February 17, 1944, the same day as all the others. It was about 60 ships in total. Bad day for the Japanese navy.

When I jumped in the water and looked down, I couldn’t see the ship anywhere. Just a flat ocean floor with lots of sand and corals. As I dropped down I realized I wasn’t looking at the ocean floor. The Heian Maru is one of the biggest wrecks in the lagoon at over 500 feet. It sunk on its port side, so I was looking at the slightly curved, almost horizontal side of the hull. We swam along that until we reached one of the propellers. It was big. Each fin was about twice as long as me. And the rudder was bigger than a lot of sailboats.

I wish I’d had a camera. But whenever I say that, I’m always glad I didn’t, cause it meant I got a chance to actually look around.

The sheer size of the ship was a lot to take in. It doesn’t seem like much in a port, but down there when it’s tilted on its side, you think about what it must have been like to see such a monstrosity collapsing and hitting the bottom. Large objects moving rapidly and out of control. Seems silly, but I thought of the twin towers.

We swam through the length of the ship in a long corridor. There was a periscope tube, and at the base of it was the viewfinder with those nifty little handlebars that flip down. A little bit further, Mackenzie pointed out a couple torpedoes. I wonder if they’re still live. The Chuukese go down to these wrecks and steal explosives to use in fishing. It’s resulted in more than a few missing limbs, I’m told, so clearly some of the stuff is still potent.

We came back out on the stern and I still had plenty of air left. We wandered around on the hull surface for a while looking at coral, then Mackenzie grabbed a stick and started poking it in a coral hole. I had no idea what he was doing, but I kept watching for about a minute as he jammed it in there and twirled it around. Finally, a huge black cloud of smoke spurted out and surrounded us. I saw a little purple thing dart past and Mackenzie grabbed it. It was an octopus. He had it caged between his hands. It made a break for it a couple times by squirting its ink and shooting like a rocket, but he kept catching it. Eventually it settled down and unfurled its tentacles around his arm. He passed it over and I let it do the same to me. When we were done, we put it back in its hole to let it recover from the trauma.

They say octopi change color to communicate their moods. I guess purple is octopese for "Stop poking me with that stick!"

That was pretty damn great. An octopus was one of the last things on my list of sea creatures I want to see. All that’s left is a whale shark. I’d like to see a giant squid, but that’d make me one of the first people in the world to view a living one. And I wouldn’t mind diving with a humpback whale, but I think that’s kind of illegal, and anyway I’ve seen them from boats.

While we were decompressing between dives, Mackenzie took me to a Japanese Zero fighter that crashed during Operation Hailstorm. It landed upside down at a fairly shallow depth of around 30 feet. I dove down a couple times to grab onto the wing and peek in at the cockpit, but as I was doing so I realized there still might be remains in there and got a little spooked.

Diving to 30 feet isn’t all that hard with fins. And it’s kind of a thrill looking up at the surface all that distance away and realizing you need to breathe in a few seconds.

Maybe thrill isn’t the right word.

I looked ridiculous, by the way. I knew I had to shave my scruffy facial hair, cause it was making my mask leak, but when the truck came to pick me up in the morning, I wasn’t ready. All I had time to do was shave above my lip, so I looked Amish for the rest of the day.

Mullets. There are a lot of mullets on Chuuk, and it got me wondering: what’s the intention with those things? We all know how mullets actually look, but how do the owners think they look? What’s the model there? What’s the goal? Are there mulleted guys who are making it work for them and that’s what these guys are trying to emulate?

I met a group of very serious, very burly divers from Liverpool. They were world travellers spending a full month diving on Chuuk, then another month on Yap. They’d been absolutely everywhere. I asked them what they do back in England.

"We rob banks. Hit a big one, then disappear for a while."

Later on one of the guys told me he rented out student accomodation, but from their Lock, Stock demeanor, I was kind of leaning toward the first story. If it’s true, that’s a pretty cool lifestyle, aint it? Very close to my career plan when I was 12.

When I got back to the hotel, Tom the Baptist was waiting for me. He wanted to take me around the island some more — and also save me from an eternity in hell.

We went up to the navy center on the top of the hill. I don’t know why it’s there, but apparently what they do is repair roads and generally fix stuff that’s broken. It’s a US navy base. I don’t get it at all. They also had a doctor on duty, and I asked him to take a quick look at a rash that’s been spreading on my arm. I think I got it from something while kayaking on Palau (still gotta get to that). He gave me a tube of hydrocortisone cream. Boom. Pow. That was it. No insurance, no paperwork, no money. All he needed was my name and my age.

I wish it were that simple back on the mainland.

Tom the Baptist took me to see a Japanese communications center, which is now a Catholic high school, and he showed me the Christian radio station that he and his wife, Rose, co-operate with another missionary couple. Rose seemed nice. I wanted to ask her about the whole subservient-to-the-husband thing, but better judgment prevailed.

Tom is an Independent Baptist. I mentioned the Southern Baptists, and he said they’re what Independent Baptists would call "liberal."

Translation for Australians: Southern Baptists are a hard-hardline group of conservative Christians who are notorious for their strong belief that a woman’s place is in the home and that the man should run the household. By calling them liberal (which to Americans is the opposite of conservative), he’s saying that his views are more extreme than theirs.

Everybody clear?

Tom the Baptist wanted to take me back to his place to show me a video about what a load of malarkey evolution is. Part of me was extremely interested, but it gives me a headache not being able to swear for long periods of time, so I declined. We discussed creationism a little more — I’d been struggling all afternoon not to bring it up, but he finally did. He expressed his view that there is no more evidence of evolution than there is of creationism, and that Baptists view the theory of evolution as a religion in itself.

Umm, I know the term "religion" is loosely defined, but can’t we all agree that it’s in the realm of science? I suppose he was making the statement as a way of dismissing evolution, which is kind of funny if you think about it.

Honestly, some things about evolution trouble me. Flying fish, for example. Explain it to me all you want, I just don’t get how that happens. But just like Tom the Baptist looks around and knows in his heart that dinosaur fossils were buried underground by sneaky-old God to test our faith, I look around and am pretty sure the grand canyon has been there for more than 6000 years.

Dan, I got another one for ya. Name all the animals that have reverted backwards from sea to land to air in the course of their — let’s call it evolution.

So we’ve got flightless birds like the ostrich, penguin, emu, and cassowary. Then there’s whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles. Bats don’t count, cause they moved from land to air. Flying fish don’t count, but I think they deserve special mention.

I’ m jumping out of chronology here. I saw a flying fish on Yap as I was coming back from a dive. It leapt from the ocean and shot past the boat, landing about 100 yards from where it emerged. The thing had wings. It didn’t just hop out and fall back in. They call it a flying fish because it really flies. It’s not gliding. F-L-Y-I-N-G.

God was playing Mr. Potatohead that day. He just stuck a pair of wings on there to see what it would do. That’s one of the craziest animals I ever saw.

Chuuk is pronounced Chook, by the way. For about 90 years it was called Truk, cause the Germans couldn’t make the ch sound. The natives switched it back in the late ’80s, but to keep things confusing, they still call the lagoon around the island Truk Lagoon.

Chuuk is not a safe place. I’d heard talk when I was on Yap. At first it seemed like it might not be true. The people are often very friendly and polite. But there’s a lot of drinking at night, and I’m told the men get belligerent and throw rocks.

There are cars everywhere. I don’t think the people are actually going anywhere, cause there’s only one road and it’s maybe three miles long. I think they’re just out cruising.

There’s really no standard for which side of the car the steering wheel is on in Micronesia. They get cars from wherever the can, so sometimes it’s left, sometimes it’s right. They tend to all drive on the right side of the road, though.

I’ve found that catching cabs is completely different in every place I visit. In Chuuk it’s very interesting. You can’t call a real cab. They don’t exist. But every second car has a handwritten sign on it that says "Taxi." What that means is they’re willing to take in one of the 10 or so tourists on the island and drive them from one end of the road to the other for a fee of $0.50. I try to avoid it, which is easier now that Tom the Baptist is stalking me, but on the first day I got caught in the rain and had to bite the bullet and do it. It’s unnerving hopping into the backseat of a car full of hostile-looking teenagers listening to Tupac. I asked several people before doing it, and they assured me it was safe.

Tom the Baptist told me a story about a guy in his village who was murdered recently. He was shot three times in plain view by a local politician. Because the politician had status, no one did anything about it and he’s still walking around free. That’s just how things work here. If anything’s going to be done, it has to be by the victim’s family, and it’s not going to have any resemblance to due process.

I feel really bad for the Chuukese. They’ve retained very little of their own culture compared to the Yapese, and they’ve been royally screwed by their government.

Interesting tidbit: per person, the Federated States of Micronesia is the second largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world after Israel. All told, it gets over $100 million a year, which breaks down to about $700 per person.

On Yap, they bought 24 brand new iMacs, hooked them up with a satellite connection, and made them available to the public for free. On Chuuk, the governor’s wife turned a corner of the island into a luxury resort.

I agree with Tom the Baptist’s views on globalization. They were doing great before we came. All the food they’d ever need was growing on trees and hopping out of the water. The weather was perfect, except for the occasional typhoon. There really wasn’t all that much to worry about.

The Spanish showed up and did their missionary thing. The Germans showed up and did their plantation thing. The Japanese showed up and did their slave labor thing. The Americans came and we told them they were liberated, but we also brought along beer, medicine, and Spam. They wanted that stuff. We told them they’d have to work for it. They said they had no money, so we helped them make jobs and start working. They didn’t like working, but they really wanted the beer.

And now here we are. They can’t really go back to wooden canoes and grass skirts, cause the Spam tastes good and is easy to prepare, and Eminem has a new album out. So where do they go? They have to go forward. They’re going to become more and more like the west, their native culture will either fade away completely or become a theme park attraction, and their best and brightest will flee to civilization. Or it could go the other way and become a third world hellhole, which seems closer to the direction things are headed in.

But gee whiz, the diving is superb.