Not many people know where Micronesia is. Even fewer will ever grace its shores. Even fewer will understand the historical significance of these islands. The history and significance of Truk Lagoon and the sixty-odd wrecks that lie in the depths of the lagoon, do not appear in many history books. Thousands of lives were lost during World War II. Their service and sacrifices may soon be forgotten.

I graduated from UWA with a double degree in Commerce and Engineering. My education sparked a curiosity in life, for so many things to be understood and even more to be discovered. As a young person I was never interested in history – the “dowdy past” and looked towards the future to find my way. As I grow older, I have learned it is equally as important to look back and understand how we got to today.

Recently I became acquainted with Dr Ian MacLeod, his work on shipwreck conservation and the Maritime Archaeological Association of Western Australia (MAAWA). As a scuba diver, I was mostly interested in the marine environment. I gained an interest in shipwrecks from MAAWA and from interviewing Dr MacLeod for a documentary I was producing on his work. His passion for shipwrecks is contagious and as he told his stories, I became more and more immersed.

Dr Ian MacLeod applies electrochemistry to conserve historic artefacts. Amongst his portfolio is the study of shipwreck corrosion and the development and application of in-situ conservation methods. The wrecks of Truk Lagoon played a significant role in the development of his corrosion model. The lagoon is a collection of both steel and aluminium wrecks, all sunk at roughly the same time and in a variety of locations and water depths.

The Japanese occupied the group of Chuuk islands in 1914 and established it as the southern-most base for Japanese operations against Allied forces during World War II in 1939. At the height of the conflict, over 44,000 Japanese men were stationed on the islands. Operation Hailstone was an air and surface attack by the United States Navy between 17 and 18 February 1944. The Japanese had some pre-warning and had evacuated the majority of its warships. The attack however, crippled the base with the sinking of around 40 auxiliary and cargo ships, 250 planes and a submarine. Almost 5,000 lives were lost in these two days.

Over 70 years from that fateful day and after 48 hours of travel from Perth, I do my first back roll into the waters of Truk Lagoon. My excitement builds as I slowly sink deeper towards the first wreck. Time appeared to stand still and I am mesmerised as the majestic bow of the Fujikawa Maru slowly materialises before by eyes. We drift around the wreck for the next hour and linger to pay our respects at the underwater memorial built for Kimiuo Aisek, who had survived Operation Hailstone at the age of 17.

My two weeks in Chuuk passed in a blur. We surveyed and collected corrosion data from a dozen wrecks, shot video on land and underwater for a documentary, interviewed the Chuuk residents and send daily reports to Dr MacLeod. We also located oil in one of the wrecks and arranged permission to retrieve a sample for testing in Australia with the Chuuk government.

The threat of pollution to the marine environment caused by the release of hydrocarbons from shipwrecks is a real. It is also a global concern. All steel corrodes in seawater over time and it is inevitable that collapse of steel plate will occur. The wrecks that present the most risk are the World War II wrecks in tropical and sub-tropical zones, located near coastlines and shallow water depths. Given the age and environment of these wrecks, collapse of the steel plates has started to occur. This threat is the main driver behind Dr MacLeod’s research.

Attempting to physically remove the oil is cost-prohibitive with current technology and equally risky to the environment. Dr MacLeod has two ideas. First, is to apply in-situ conservation methods to stop the corrosion process and delay the potential release of hydrocarbons. Second, is to cultivate a bacterium that is able to consume the hydrocarbons and apply this in-situ. The sample we obtained from the wreck showed this may be possible.

We aim to return to Truk Lagoon to assist in the conservation of these historic shipwrecks. This work will add to protecting the environment, preserving the history and legacy of the shipwrecks, and continue to support the Chuuk economy through dive tourism.

 

Allison Selman

Glass Bottom Films (www.glassbottomfilms.com.au)