Our divemaster stands with his feet planted wide on the bow of our 25-foot dive boat as if he’s miming confidence, signaling right and then left with a flat palm as he scans for the dive buoy a few feet underwater that marks the location of the Sankisan Maru, a 367-foot, 4,776-ton Japanese freighter sitting in 80 feet of blue Pacific directly below us in Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia, one of the most famous and demanding wreck dive sites in the world. Tryvin Aisek, part of a family of divemasters carrying on the work of his grandfather Kimiuo, who pioneered the exploration of the site, signals his assistant to cut the motors and then dives in to tether us to that underwater buoy. Back on board, he walks us through our dive plan with calm clarity while I watch my 20-year-old son, Emmett, and 15-year-old daughter, Lucy, do what they can to manage their anxiety while wrestling themselves into their BCs (buoyancy compensators, the harnesses that hold our tanks and regulators) and trying to remember their pre-dive equipment checks. I’ve stressed to Tryvin that we’re novices, and I want to take his lack of concern as a reason for confidence, but out here near the middle of this 50-mile-wide lagoon, the thought of all that tangled metal down below makes that notion harder and harder to sustain.
The divemaster who certified Lucy and me in Florida asked amiably, once we completed the course, where I thought we might take our next dive, and when I informed him, his mouth dropped open. Diving in Chuuk Lagoon at our stage of accomplishment is a little like having completed a basic self-defense class and then signing up for a mission with the Navy SEALs. After our arrival in Micronesia, on the dive shop’s schedule sheet we were asked our names, where we’d been certified, our total number of dives, and their greatest depths. A group of eight going out ahead of us had all listed 1,500-plus dives, to depths of 120 to 200 feet. The three of us each wrote, when it came to those last two columns, four dives and 40 feet.
On February 17, 1944, American carrier-based dive bombers and torpedo planes annihilated much of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 4th Fleet, at anchorage here, in what was then called Truk Lagoon, which was so heavily fortified and central as a base of operations that it was considered by Allied forces to be the Gibraltar of the Pacific. The attack sank 12 warships and 32 merchant ships and destroyed 275 aircraft, transforming the lagoon into the biggest graveyard of ships in the world.
The lagoon is so remote—it’s 3,500 miles from Hawaii, and the nearest major landmass, New Guinea, is 1,200 miles to the southwest—it stayed off everyone’s radar until it appeared on The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau in 1971. That episode, entitled “Lagoon of Lost Ships,” put it on pretty much every serious diver’s bucket list, including mine.
I’d dreamed of wreck diving since I started scuba diving back in the early Pleistocene, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a 13-year-old who borrowed his friends’ tanks and regulators. Long Island Sound often had the visibility of iced coffee, and we all had spear guns, as well. How much trouble could four 13-year-olds get into with scuba gear and spear guns in murky water? One kid, pursuing an eel, put his spear through one of my fins. Another hit his best friend in the chest, but at the limit of his spear’s range, so that the kid who’d been hit turned out to have only a red welt over his sternum once we’d peeled off his wet suit. Then we conceived of the idea—actually, I think I conceived of the idea—of having one person don everyone’s weight belts to galumph around on the bottom making slow-motion leaps like Neil Armstrong on the moon. Everyone recognized it as the innovative idea that it was, so I bandoliered on everyone’s belts, fixed the regulator in my mouth, and in 25 feet of water went over the side of the little sailboat we used as a dive boat.
I landed on the bottom in a little cloud of murk, and while my regulator made its Darth Vader sounds, I could see my friends on the surface, so buoyant in their wet suits without weights that they couldn’t sink more than a few feet to see all the fun I was having. But a detail about diving equipment in the early ’70s might make clearer the idiocy of what we were doing. In those days you could pay extra for what was called a J-valve: a valve that held five minutes of your oxygen capacity in reserve, in order to let you know on shallow dives that it was time to get to the surface. Your tank stopped providing air, abruptly, and you pulled a metal rod running out of the regulator and down the cylinder of the tank behind you to release the extra air. But it was possible then to buy tanks without J-valves. Which was, of course, the kind of tank that I had on at that point.
You see where this is going. When my air shut off with no warning, my friends had no way to get down to me, and I shed my own weight belt but still had three others to deal with. Where were those release buckles? My hands scrabbled all over my chest. I released one, but it was still pinned to my body by the others. I finally saved myself by peeling my wet suit off in desperation, like a banana, and I took in water before I fully made the surface. It was certainly the closest I’d come—that I was aware of—to killing myself.
And I still want to wreck dive? And more importantly: to take my children wreck diving? But we all think there’s something irreducibly amazing about scuba diving, and there’s something to be said for doing it right, and for my doing that parental thing of not only fostering independence and a little bit of fearlessness when it comes to trying things, but also encouraging responsibility and prudence: the kinds of things I never mastered at their age.
Emmett and Lucy love the idea. My oldest son, Aidan, on the other hand, finds scuba diving claustrophobic, so he and my wife, Karen, have come along as snorkelers. We’re staying at the Blue Lagoon Resort on Weno, one of Micronesia’s islands, at the end of a little road so potholed that on the drive in from the airport we lurched from side to side so dramatically it looked as if we were rocking together in a singalong. The resort has a no-frills vibe, like the kind of place that might host a Boy Scouts Jamboree, but the view off our balcony through the coconut palms to the other islands is like a scaled-down Tahiti or Fiji: steep green hillsides plunging into improbably blue water, the whole vista breath-catchingly beautiful even when it isn’t sunrise or sunset.
We go on 15 dives in seven days, not counting snorkeling over wrecks during our necessary surface intervals between dives. Before that first dive on the Sankisan Maru, Tryvin lays out our plan of proceeding bow to stern and then into the hold and back. As we empty the air from our BCs and plummet downward, I look over at Lucy and think, We’re going to ease into this, right? The answer to that is no: At 70 feet, Tryvin waves us into a gaping opening in the side of the ship’s hull, and three minutes into the water, we’re full-on wreck diving, confronting 50-caliber machine-gun belts spilled across the ribs of the hold. The next day, in the hold of the Rio de Janeiro Maru, which lies on its side, its hull plunging majestically down to 115 feet, we glide past a surreal array of unbroken sake bottles rising toward the surface in crates that look like shelves, like an alcoholic’s dream library. And then on the Gosei Maru, a torpedo that was part of the manifest hangs diagonally across the tipped hold, opposite a truly spectacular hole where an American torpedo hit the ship, sinking it in less than three minutes. The following day, on the Shinkoku Maru, we work our way into an infirmary deep in the stern, where we find an operating table still featuring a haunted little spill of arm bones.
But things get really sobering later this afternoon, on the Yamagiri Maru. Our dive plan sounds blandly similar to the previous ones: We’ll be starting at the bow, working our way down the hull, exploring the hold, and coming out the other side and back around to where we started. We drop down 80 feet before Tryvin halts at an opening so small—imagine a gap just wider than your shoulders and not much higher than an ottoman—that I assume, Oh, he wants to show us something cool again. Alas, no: He makes the sign for us to follow, and disappears inside. Even through Lucy’s mask I can see her You’ve got to be kidding me expression, but in she goes, a model of 15 years old and I’ve only had, what, six dives up to this point?intrepidness. I follow, because when a daughter disappears into the darkness of a tiny metal hole in 80 feet of water, a parent really should follow. Emmett then squeezes in after me.
Once we’re all inside it’s clear that A) the ship is a vast and potentially lethal tangle of jagged rusty metal; B) its interior is inky black except for the narrow beams of our two flashlights; and C) previous divers this morning have kicked up particulate matter, making visibility even worse. Tryvin floats up a staircase, flippers left down a corridor and then right down another, maneuvering past a twisted catwalk with Lucy right behind him. In each case, I have to memorize where the obstacles and openings are before our guide turns the corner and his light disappears. Meanwhile, I have to keep looking back to make sure that Emmett, who has the other light, is still able to follow. Why haven’t we brought more flashlights? What a good question. Imagine a slow-motion and labyrinthine steeplechase in the dark with all sorts of shattered and disintegrating metal structures across your path at random angles, and ceilings a foot or so above your head, and you get the idea. It occurs to me, as I follow Lucy’s fins down yet another pinched and murky passageway, that I’ve come full circle: This seems every bit as nuts as the lunatic stuff we used to do as kids. But the good news is that this is intelligently managed risk—setting aside the flashlight thing—and my kids have already shown more good sense, and more composure under fire, than I ever did.
I grew up thinking I’d never reach Chuuk Lagoon, and, as a parent, I continually fret that I can’t or don’t do enough for my family, so all of the wonders that follow are bonuses that will remain for me even more indelible: diving with Emmett and Lucy around the 435-foot-long Fujikawa Maru, with its stack and rear mast reaching almost to the surface and a huge bow gun overlaid with sponges and coral that crowd its telescopic gunsight; the childlike pleasures of scuba-ing in a heavy tropical downpour, and that moment when you look up from the placid depths at a surface that’s electric with the energy of all those raindrops hitting at once; the chromatic array of zillions of reef fish milling around the blackfin and great barracuda, the blacktip reef sharks, the sea turtles, the groupers the size of beagles.
And then there’s all the snorkeling, which reunites us with Karen and Aidan, who otherwise can often be spotted way above us, paddling around and keeping track of our progress across all those amazing sights. Together, all of us snorkel over a gunboat lying on its side in 20 feet of water and marvel at an impossibly delicate fan of lavender coral hidden under an overhang of the ship’s bridge; all of us take turns holding our breath and diving to a Zero lying on its back. And all of us circle Fonomu, a micro-island so small that from a distance it looks like SpongeBob’s island. Shaded with palms and sea grapes and protected by a shallowing reef on three sides, it features—aside from the world’s most varied array of hermit crabs—a little hut where you can stay overnight, so naturally we do. No phones, no games, and, maybe most importantly in 2018, no distressing political news, and it turns out that in that respite, besides rhapsodizing about the sunset, we all still love talking with one another, the three siblings especially, and it’s hard to imagine any better gift a place can deliver than that reminder.
And there’s still one slightly lunatic addition to come, on our next-to-last day: a sunset/night dive back to the Shinkoku Maru, with the gathering gloom underwater rendering the ship’s interiors all the more forbidding, and those poor bones on the operating table all the more ghostly. One moment from that dive in particular stays with me: Emmett discovering through a raised hatch forward of the bridge a wonderfully eerie glimpse of a narrow and encrusted metal staircase leading down, down, down, through three and then four decks, deep into a blackness even our headlight-bright dive lights can’t penetrate. The two of us float shoulder to shoulder above that hatch and gawk at the scariness and beauty of the image, before turning away together, each grateful at what the other person has helped him to see.
Jim Shepard is the author of seven novels and five short-story collections, including his latest book, The World to Come. He has won The Story Prize and the Rea Award for the Short Story and been a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.