I came across my old diving watch and offered it to my nephew, and when I told him via text I’ve had the watch 120 feet down in the ocean, he texted back, “Tell me more.” So here it is, the story of my first dive on the Tokai Maru, a WWII Japanese freighter sunk in Apra Harbor, Guam.
A lifetime ago, right after high school I was in the Navy and assigned to a stateside ship that soon had its homeport changed to Guam for next two years. That was fine with me because I’d wanted to spend some time in the tropics: at age 15 reading Robin Lee Graham’s Dove had firmly seeded that desire. A few of my shipmate friends and I learned to scuba dive, and we had our choice of coral reefs and WWII wrecks. There was a relatively shallow dive on a Japanese Zero, an American tanker, and deep dives on the German WWI Cormoran and the Japanese WWII Tokai Maru. The Tokai was lying on her side, one rail at 110 feet and the other at 130.
Here’s the thing about deep water: every 30 feet or so is equivalent pressure to the average pressure of the atmosphere we live in, so when you go down 120 feet, you have four times the usual pressure pushing in on you everywhere. You don’t notice it much – it’s not like swimming in molasses – but your body processes are affected. I’m not going to talk about nitrogen absorption and all that, but I will point out that at 120 feet your lungs must hold four times the air as they usually do or they will be crushed. Luckily, four times the quantity doesn’t mean four times the volume: it’s pressurized. This allows a really neat trick. If you have to, absolutely have to, you can swim to the surface, slowly, with just the air in your lungs, exhaling the whole way. If you hold your breath, the air expands and will explode your lungs. You blow bubbles and let them rise just a little faster than you. The longer you’ve been deep the more likely a fast ascent will give you the bends, but once topside with help you have a chance to survive. Good to know, but don’t do it for fun, because it won’t be.
The plan for the dive was simple. It wasn’t all that smart, but it was simple. A friend of ours from the boat club would give us a ride out with an inflatable Zodiac, drop us off, and come back to get us – if his workload permitted. If not, we’d use our BC vests (buoyancy control) to stay on top and slowly kick our way in. This plan was more to my dive partner’s liking than mine, mainly because he was a former Marine and I was a 142 pound, 5’ 10” skinny shit with a 29” waist. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from having an adventure, though.
Back then, before the advent of GPS, to dive the Tokai first you have to get on top of her, which we did by going out on a boat, lining up distant landmarks to triangulate our position, and then going down to look for her. As we allowed ourselves to sink, to spot our target we’d slowly spin round and round. My timing with this on my first Tokai dive was perfect. I must have come within range of sight while my back was turned, because as I slowly spun around, all at once, ta-da, there she was! Well, not actually all at once, because it was an entire ship and the deep water was dark, but her working masts were jutting upwards, covered in 40 years of marine growth, some of it trailing in wispy strings, all of it looking a little spooky in a Flying Dutchman sort of way. It was great fun to come upon her in this way and not by her form just gradually taking shape out of the darkness. Since I was nearly weightless, suspended in endless dark water almost like an astronaut in space, it was easy to feel that the ship had come to me and not I to it.
Diving the wreck was interesting, of course, but not fascinating. There is the historical element, and the easy-to-imagine real drama of the sinking, but for the most part it is just iron decks and bulkheads, passageways and portals, and empty cargo holds. It is, however, much more fun to explore a ship that’s underwater because you, as a diver, easily move in three dimensions like a fish or a bird, and that sensation of free movement is enhanced when you’re in proximity of a large, stationary object. Underwater, you fly, not like a bird, but like Superman. Much, much slower, but ya, like Superman.
We carried battery lights, of course. They were bright enough only to guide the way but not fully illuminate the black interior compartments. Anything could be in there, from frightened fish hiding from sharks to freaky space aliens setting up a base of operations. The fish were few and no big deal, and the space aliens were only a tiny possibility, but the sharks . . . well, although not frequently encountered in the area, sightings were not altogether uncommon. Once, a friend of mine was about to come up over a bulkwark when from the other direction a large shark came over from the other side, near enough to reach out and touch.
I remembered my friend’s episode after realizing that I had been repeatedly clearing my mask not of snot but of blood from my nose. Apparently the four atmospheres of pressure on my sinuses popped a little leak. Natural light is filtered by the deep seawater, so with depth color disappears, but I could see that whatever I was leaking through my nose was dark, and snot is not dark. I motioned to my dive buddy that I was going up, he checked his watch and air guage, motioned a few minutes more, and waved me on my way. He was a more efficient swimmer and breather, so he almost always had more time under than the rest of our usual group. Diving alone is not recommended, but it is done.
I went up and waited awhile at the prescribed depth for decompression. And yes, once you start thinking about sharks hurtling at you from the vague veil of grey and black seawater, it’s hard to stop. I was probably in no real danger, and no, I was not panicking, but hell yes, I was ready to get out of the water. I continued to the surface.
The problem was, once topside, there was no boat. Our boatyard buddy wasn’t there. Well, I wanted out of the water. I spied a boat not too far off, and when I got close to it, discovered it was empty and tied with a long lead to a nav buoy (which is a no-no). Hmm. I climbed in. It probably belonged to another group of divers.
In a few minutes, my friend came up, and he joined me since our pick-up ride was so far a no-show. Eventually the other divers surfaced, and although they were surprised to find us in their boat, they gave us not only a ride in but also a cold beer. That, by the way, is the rule for all adventures: it is never, ever completely what you expect.
Here are some of my topside pics from 1979 and 80; the featured underwater pic up top is from the web.