May 16, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 2 "Manta Heaven"

Photo of the Week
A Manta Ray
(Photo taken in the Maldives 12/2008 ©Mike Gerken.)
A Few Words First
     My Top Ten Dives of all time is nearly finished and pretty soon I will have dive reports from our 2012 dive excursions to the wrecks of North Carolina. The season here is well underway.

     This week, I am recalling an amazing dive experience on the wreck of the Caribsea right here in the good ole USA. The experience was profound enough that will be very tough to dislodge this dive from my No. 2 spot. Before reading understand that I do not condone the touching of marine life when not necessary. This dive took place ten years ago before my understanding of the potential harm that touching marine organisms can cause. Please scroll down and read more.

     In case you haven't heard I am now offering for sale on my web site a line of Evolution Underwater Imaging t-shirts and hats bearing the company logo. They are made of high quality materials and will add some style to your wardrobe. Divers style that is.
     On the publishing front, I just received word that Brittians largest dive publication, Diver Magazine has agreed to publish my story, Wreck Denizens of North Carolina. Based on the title I suppose you get an idea on what this story will be about. I will have more details on what issue it is to appear in very soon.

Happy Diving!


"Manta Heaven" - Caribsea, North Carolina

"Unfortunately, this story took place before I became interested in underwater photographery. I do not have any photos or video to share with you of this encounter. 
I hope the story and your imagination are enough to satisfy."

     In 2002, I was the first mate on board the dive vessel, the Midnight Express out of Olympus Dive Center, North Carolina. The very same boat I'm presently captain of. After diving and traveling in many locations around the world in the past 15 years, the dive story I am about to tell is one of many that explains why I keep coming back to North Carolina to live, dive and work.

    The charter on this summer day in 2002 was nothing out of the ordinary. The group we had on board from New Jersey was just thoroughly entertained by their dive on the Atlas tanker. The Atlas is one of those 'go-to' wreck sites when folks want to see sharks up close and personal. After the passengers completed their first dive we decided to head over to another wreck.

   We picked up anchor and went to the wreck of the Caribsea, a WWII casualty ship that was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1942 about five miles from our present location. It was my turn to tie us in to the wreck upon arrival.

    Captain Robert hovered the boat over the wreck and told me to jump. Wearing a full face mask equipped with surface communication, I followed his orders and leapt over the side with anchor in hand. A few minutes later I had us secured to the wreck and reported we had about 30-40 of visibility on the bottom, but a little clearer in mid water. Robert said he would call me back in a few minutes to find out if I had seen any sand tiger sharks. Diving with these sharks was the main reason why we came here.

    I began swimming around the wreck and saw the usual suspects wandering around the bow section. Robert then called me back on the com where I began to tell him about the shark sightings. I said something like, "We have about a dozen or so sharks a slight ways out holy !@#$% a manta ray just swam up behind me. " Wow" replied Robert, "I will tell the others". As he went back to deliver the news and brief everyone on the dive I began swimming about the wreck with this inquisitive manta ray. The ray would swim out of view only to return moments later and swim right up into my face checking me out. Needless to say I was elated at this.

     As I rounded the bow and started swimming towards the boilers of the wreck, mid way down, there were yet two more Manta's that came out of the bluish green water. Robert then calls me back and asks if the Manta was still there where I told him there were now two more. 

     If I wasn't so focused on what was happening before me I may have imagined the melee of divers up on deck struggling to get in the water to get a glimpse of one of the oceans most popular and beloved creatures. I'm sure they were tripping over themselves.

     It soon became apparent that these three mantas weren't going anywhere, for the show was just beginning. All one had to do was hover in the water and watch them perform there graceful ballet act. Each of would do barrel rolls, twists and spins in what seemed like a joyful event. Mantas commonly do rolls and flips with their mouths open in order to scoop up the tiny crustaceans that are a part of their diet, but none of them were feeding. I'd like to think that this act was a playful one and these rays wanted to interact.

     Some would swoop down at me coming within arms reach where I could reach out and gently touch them on the belly just as they would peel off like a dive bomber. Before any of you get upset because I touched the manta please note that this was the year 2002; a time before touching marine life was so greatly frowned upon. Besides the Manta was enjoying the heck out of this cat and mouse game.

     Within a few minutes the divers began showing up on the scene to partake in this gala event. Unfortunately for me, it was time to head up and tend to activities from the surface. I would have to leave the divers in the care of the manta rays.

     After I returned to the boat, I filled Captain Robert in on the events taking place down below while he got his gear set up to go for a dive once everyone had safely returned. After about 45 minutes or so the ecstatic divers returned one by one and clambered up the ladders with grins stretching from ear to ear. Each and everyone of them had a continuous encounter with all three of the manta rays for the duration of the dive.

    It was now Roberts turn to head down for a dive and no one had to convince him to go. Judging by his long absence from the boat I suspected the rays had stuck around and he was having the time of his life down there.

     Eventually he did return, but then suddenly the unthinkable happened. One of the mantas accidentally became entangled in one of the hang lines strung up underneath the boat that divers use as aids in ascent and descent to the wreck. The manta was panicking and wildly thrashing about. In a flash, Robert was back over the side with a knife in hand and swam down to the hapless manta struggling to free itself. Within a few moments and a swipe of the knife, the manta was once again free.

    We all figured the frightened fish would swim off in to the blue away from us humans, but this was not the case. As I jumped in to unhook us from the wreck in order for us to head home, all three of the mantas were still there and dancing about even more joyously than before launching backflips and barrel roles over and over again. 

    I unhooked the Midnight from the wreck and radioed up to Robert that I might be a while down here. He understood. Any other day we would have been in a rush to return home, but not on this one. I was alone on the Caribsea with three beautiful manta rays all around me. The boat and passengers would have to wait. 

    Now, here is where it got interesting. One of the mantas in particular took a special liking to me. This ray would swim in close proximity performing its aquatic dance. After a while I couldn't resist and swam up over it's back and held on gently to the manta with only a few fingers and took a ride. My eye was a mere 12 inches away from the sentient eye of this majestic creature. Not wanting to stress the manta out I would let go after a few seconds and to my dismay it did a flip and a spin and immediately came right back swimming directly at me, stopping less than two feet away from my face before it stared at me and waited.

    I once again gently climbed back on the mantas back and away it went. I assisted the manta and kicked my fins as well so it would not have to pull my full weight. This manta ray was clearly enjoying this interaction. 

     This routine went on for another 30 minutes. Every time I would let go, the manta would return, stop dead in front of me and allow me get back on board and continue the ride. At one point the ray laid down in the sand near motionless while I hovered over it. I gently touched it once or twice while it twitched its massive fins as though it were in a dream state. I swear it seemed as though it were ticklish. While all this was going on the other two manta's could be seen in the backdrop doing there barrel rolls and back flips like back up dancers. The image was surreal.

     Eventually, I took my last ride and hovered in mid-water and watched all three of the mantas continue to flit about the wreck while the one kept circling me as if it wanted to keep playing. After about 30 minutes I felt the need to surface and head for home. As I made my way up the manta ray followed me nearly to the surface before I had to sadly say goodbye. It was time for me to leave it's realm so I could return to mine. I wished this wasn't so.

     Interactions like these in the natural world with untrained, unfed and unconditioned wild life are extremely rare occurrences. For a manta ray to knowingly and purposely allow such close interaction with a human, for what appeared to be an act of pure playfulness, was an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my days.

     As years went on I became more educated as to the possible harm that I could have inadvertently caused to this manta ray by touching it. Most fish species have a thin coating of slime that covers and protects there skin from parasites and infection. By touching the ray I could have removed some of this valuable slime thus exposing it to possible harm. 

     Knowing now what I didn't know then; I would not repeat this act again. I would content myself on merely taking pictures of these beautiful creatures regardless of how much the manta begs me to play. I encourage any of you reading this to follow suit and feel privileged just to watch if you should ever have a manta ray encounter.

-Mike Gerken

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May 7, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 3

Photo of the Week
A composite image of the Japanese destroyer, the Fumitsuki.
Sunk in 1944 in Truk Lagoon, this WWII era warship is a rare find filled with history.
This image was created by splicing together 33 hi-resolution RAW files.
The finished size at 100 percent is more than 12 feet in length.

(Scroll down for Top Ten Story and Photo Tip of the Week)
A Few Words First
     If you haven't already heard the news, sadly, this is to be my last season with Olympus Dive Center. I have recently been offered and have accepted a job in the Micronesian island nation of Palau starting in September of this year. If you would like to know more about this please see this link to my most recent newsletter. 

     I still have the 2012 dive season left in North Carolina and I am very excited to get things going. In fact, I just finished running my first three charters of the season on the Midnight Express and so far so good. On Friday May 4th we got things off with a bang by venturing offshore to the WE Hutton aka Papoose where we had a modest 30' of visibility with water temps in the low 70's. This is surprisingly warm for early May. We followed up with our second dive on the mainstay wreck site, the U-352 where conditions were about the same.

     Word must be getting out in the world about how good the diving in North Carolina is since we had an international crowd on board the 'Midnight' over the weekend. If I'm not mistaken we had divers from Denmark, Finland, Canada, Chile and even that far out country of New Joisey. I believe there was also a no-show from Peru. I for one think it is fantastic that Olympus is attracting divers from outside our borders. Bring all your friends please and if I guessed your country of origin incorrectly please accept my apologies. 
     On Saturday we dived twice the wreck of the USCG Cutter Spar. This was my first trip out to the Spar since hurricane Irene in August of 2011. The ship has moved several hundred feet and rolled nearly on to her side.  The visibility was a handsome 40 feet or better (depending on who you speak to) with water temps in the mid 70's. There was a fair amount of surface current and some choppy seas to help sharpen the divers skills on board but most all had a great experience on one of North Carolina's favorite wreck sites. There were stingrays, sand tiger sharks and plenty of small fish about.

     Sunday brought strong winds out of the north so we stayed close to the beach and dived the USS Indra and the wreck of the Suloide in 60' of water. With visibility around 15 feet divers were able to salvage this day and go diving rather than sit at the dock. To me, any diving is better than no diving and besides most on board were very pleased with their dives and some managed to spot a large and rare sand bar shark. Way to go! 

     In this weeks Dive Blog Report the countdown of my Top Ten Dives of all time continues. Coming in at No. 3 is the wreck of the Japanese destroyer, Fumitsuki. This WWII warship is a rare find in the world and can be seen mostly intact in the waters of Truk Lagoon. This is not about any one dive experience, but about the wreck site as a whole. She is my favorite dive in Truk Lagoon. Read on and find out why

     (Some weeks ago I already published a story on the Fumitsuki on, so I thought I would merely repost to my blog report. If you have already read it then you may want to scroll down to the bottom for my Photo Tip of the Week section.)

Happy Diving!

-Mike Gerken

No. 3: 
The Fumitzuki  of Truk Lagoon (Video)

The Fumitsuki Destroyer:

A Fight for Survival

Text & Photos by
Mike Gerken
©All rights reserved.

The bow of the Fumitsuki as seen in 2007.
            The initial time I set eyes on the wreck of the Fumitsuki, I knew she was remarkable. Sitting erect in 120 feet of seawater on the sandy bed of Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, this World War II Japanese destroyer was a physical archive of history standing before me. Canons with boxes of shells nearby, anti-aircraft guns, torpedo launchers, depth charges and personal effects from within the wreck, are only a few of the interesting items to be seen. 

         Rarely will you find anywhere in the world a Japanese war ship that is as fully intact and loaded with artifacts such as the Fumitsuki.  In 2003, I dived the wreck during my first week of employment on board the liveaboard dive vessel, the Truk Aggressor II; I immediately  knew this wreck was going to be my personal favorite. For the next six years working in Truk, I would log nearly two hundred dives on the Fumitsuki and discover a new and interesting facet about her each and every time.

            The Fumitsuki was one of twelve Mutsuki class destroyers built in 1926 during an era when the Japanese were evolving in to a world military power. With an overall length of 320 feet, a top speed of 33 knots and armed with six 24” torpedo tubes (3 fore and 3 aft), this class of destroyer was a formidable weapon. In addition, the Fumitsuki was armed with 4 - 4.7” 50 caliper canons, 10-25mm anti-aircraft guns, minesweeping equipment and depth charge capabilities. Whereas Japanese battleships were given names of mountains or provinces, destroyers were named after meteorological events such as the Fuyutsuki, (Winter Moon), the Tachikaze (Earth Severing Wind) or the Fumitsuki (Month of the Rice Flower) whose literal translation is the month of July.

            In 1941, the aging Mutsuki class destroyers were pulled from front line duties. The Fumitsuki was re-equipped with additional depth charges while two of her canons and one torpedo launcher were removed in her conversion to an escort destroyer and troop transport.  The destroyer fleet, totaling no more than 130 ships at any point in the war, had the distinction of being the workhorses of the Japanese Imperial Navy and were incremental in winning numerous historic naval campaigns in the early stages of WWII. The Fumitsuki and the many other escort destroyers, with their high-speed capabilities, played a valuable role in delivering supplies and troops quickly and efficiently to the numerous island nations spread out over a vast area that was the Pacific theatre of battle. She would be damaged in the course of her service three times in 1943, but would return each time to full duty. In January of 1944, the Fumitzuki and one other destroyer, reported being attacked by more than 80 US aircraft; shooting down 10 of them. This victory would be short lived.

            Soon thereafter, the Fumitsuki would be transferred to the Japanese naval stronghold of Truk Lagoon to receive repairs from damage sustained in an attack at Rabaul, New Guinea, a location then under heavy allied assault. It was here, at Truk, in the repair anchorage, that the Fumitsuki would encounter the onslaught of US air power on the morning of February 17, 1944.

            Truk Lagoon was Japan’s largest outlying military facility during the war. It’s 140 miles of barrier reef with deep anchorages within made it ideal as a naval and air facility. As WWII progressed, Japan found themselves in a full retreat and by early 1944, Truk Lagoon became the next likely target for US forces advancing rapidly across the Pacific. The Japanese commanders then deemed Truk unsafe for their naval warships and evacuated the fleet from the lagoon.

A US Dauntless Dive Bomber over Truk Lagoon.
            On February 17, 1944, a carrier based aerial assault, codenamed Operation Hailstone, was carried out by a force of more than 400 carrier based US planes on Truk. For the next 48 hours more then three-dozen merchant ships (also known as Maru’s) would be sent to the bottom of the lagoon and 280 planes destroyed in the air and on the ground. The Fumitsuki would also perish in the attack, but not before putting up a fight. This valiant struggle to survive is far more compelling story than those of the merchant ships who were mostly unable to defend themselves and were sunk while at anchor.

The Fumitsuki in the repair anchorage. 

            The worst thing that can befall a wartime captain is to have his vessel caught at anchor during an air raid. Unable to maneuver, the captain and ship would be a sitting duck at the mercy of the attackers. Commander Nagakura of the Fumitsuki would find himself in this quandary on that early morning of the attacks. Unable to make way, due to repairs being facilitated, the Fumitsuki defended itself to the best of its ability by opening fire upon the assaulting planes with anti-aircraft guns.

            Later in the morning, with the use of only one engine, the Fumitsuki managed to get underway. While under relentless machine gun fire from US planes, the Captain attempted to maneuver his ship in a zigzag pattern into the safety of open water. She managed to avoid direct hits of up to four aerial bombs, but one near miss struck close to her port stern and inflicted enough damage to cause the ship to take on water in the engine room and loose headway.

The Fumitsuki under attack by US planes.
     Salvage attempts were made on the Fumitsuki, but with no success. After struggling for the next 20 hours, she was reported sunk at sun up the next day. The crew fought bravely in the defense of their ship with seven men making the ultimate sacrifice. Unlike most of their merchant mariner comrades that were defenseless, the Fumitsuki crew had the distinguished honor of pushing the limits of their skills and crippled ship and fought until the end.

            It is this piece of history along with my creative imagination that propelled the Fumitsuki into the status of my ‘favorite wreck dive’ in Truk Lagoon. As I swim down the length of the wreck, I see the chaotic scene of planes strafing the deck of the ship while the crew scramble for cover. Aerial bombs are exploding all around with near misses sending plumes of water in to the air before raining down upon ship. I can visualize the crew darting to and fro upon the deck tending to wounded sailors, manning the guns and fighting with tenacity for their very survival. I peer in to the remains of the wheelhouse and envision the captain firing off commands in rapid-fire succession to his officers while trying to maintain his composure.

The Fumitsuki under attack.
            Midway down the wreck, the anti-aircraft gun deck is a beehive of activity with twin 25mm guns blazing away in a deafening rattle while the smoke clears away under the strong breeze gusting over the deck. The scene that is unfolding before me is not thrilling or glorious, but miserable and horrid -- the way war always is.

            When I penetrate in to the tight confines of the living quarters under the foredeck, I see the tiny fold down racks where the sailors slept. I think to myself, “what was it like trying to sleep so far forward in a destroyer in rough seas?” The pitching and yawing of the vessel would toss you around violently unless strapped in to your bunk. I spoke to an American Navy veteran some years ago who served on a destroyer after WWII. He said when crews from other branches of the navy returned to port they went out on the town to celebrate while destroyer crews went to sleep. Life on board at sea was just too exhausting to think about doing anything else when first back on land.

A sailors rack in the bow.
            Within the wreck there are numerous historical artifacts to be found. The state of Chuuk, as Truk Lagoon is known today, has declared the wrecks a national treasure making it illegal to remove anything from them. Since they cannot be taken, honest divers, conveniently display artifacts they have discovered at strategic points around the wrecks for others to enjoy. Although many artifacts have been stolen over the years, the wrecks still hold many treasures within.

         During my many explorations of the Fumitsuki, I have found medical kits fully stocked with bottles and supplies, instruction manuals still legible, lamps with intact bulbs that once illuminated the living spaces, numerous types of bottles, shoes, ammunition, electric fans and even human remains. It is a sobering reminder for me as to what took place here when I come across the bones of another. I think that this individual may have died more from the reckless leadership of generals and politicians and less from a bullet or bomb from a US plane.

A desk and intact light bulb.
        Diving the Fumitsuki is not exclusively about bombs, bullets and mayhem. When I snap out of my imaginary state I find myself surrounded by the reality of what this wreck has become today. She is blanketed with an array of marine life such as sea fans, soft corals, black corals and magnificent sea anemones. Many fish species such as the noble napoleon wrasse, the peculiar looking guitar shark and schools of marauding emperor fish are seen with regularity.
A Clark's Anemone Fish.


     This wreck, for me, is full of these contrasting images. One minute I’m contemplating the brutality of war while the next, I’m absorbed in a fanciful moment with a beautiful pink anemone fish darting in and out of the lush tentacles of its host. It is surreal down there with limitless entertainment mixed in with moments of reflection. The Fumitsuki is indeed an interesting shipwreck, but the stories of this wreck and others like her are not always apparent. With a little research and a keen imagination anyone can find the fascinating history lurking within their remains.

A video excerpt from the documentary film,

The Wrecks of Truk Lagoon - DVD
Order Your Copy Today!

Several years ago, time had taken its toll on the Fumitsuki. The bow section of the wreck was reported to have collapsed opening up the forward section. Much of what is described here and the photos posted are inaccurate to how the ship appears today. The author has yet to see the wreck in this altered state.

Archival images:
All archival images and film courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Referenced Works:
The WWII Wrecks of the Truk Lagoon; authored by Dan Bailey; copyrighted 2000.

Japanese Destroyer Captain; authored by Captain Tameichi Hara; copyrighted 1961.

Photo Tip of the Week
Backing Up Your Images

        When I used to work on liveaboards in Truk Lagoon every so often someone would come up to me with a large frown on there face holding a camera with water dripping off of it. In the digital age there is little than can be done to save a camera that has been immersed in water. I would ask them, "Do you have insurance?". Sometimes they would answer yes, but that didn't seem to matter. What they were most upset about was all of their photos from the entire week were on the storage card inside the now wet camera and completely lost. I then would ask, "Did you back up your files?" Inevitably, many would shake their head and frown even more. Not only did they not back up their photos but they never even downloaded them off the camera in the first place. 

       At the end of a dive or at the least, at the end of a dive day, one should always download their images on to an external source such as a laptop. Once that is complete back them up on to another hard drive. Then you can format your storage card and get ready for another photo shoot. You should never use a storage card as a long term place to store your images. They are not reliable enough and every time you take your camera in the water you run the inherent risk of flooding and thus destroying the storage card as well.

       Your files should exist in two separate places at any given time always! I take it a step further and keep another hard drive in a separate home and update it every so often. There are also internet services out there where you can upload and store unlimited data on external sites for a small yearly fee and access them easily enough when you are logged in to the net. Whatever you decide to do be sure to back your images up and then back them up again. You will be grateful you did so if a catastrophe should occur.

Good luck!