Monday, June 24, 2013

Diving in North Kwajalein - Part 1

We have been up at the north end of Kwaj for about 10 days now. The first couple of days, the wind was blowing so hard, it was not possible to go out into the atoll and dive the wrecks.

We did manage to sneak in a dive in on the Japanese Zero the first afternoon we arrived. It is in about 60 feet, just off the entrance channel to the Roi Base area. It was close enough that we went by dinghies when the wind eased off to 15-17 knots for a few hours. We took pictures, but unfortunately, we do not have internet here, so we can't share them.

For you armchair divers and future Marshalls divers, the best place to start following along with us (and get waypoints) is at the Kwajalein Scuba Club website. They have done a really good job of listing information about all the known wrecks within Kwajalein Atoll. Sometimes they also cross link to Dave Fortin's excellent website, which has a wreck page for each known wreck. Unfortunately, Dave Fortin was based at the south end of the atoll, so his info on the Roi area wrecks is a little thin, but he does have pictures of some of them.

Even though Roi-Namur is a restricted military base, part of the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Range, we were told we could go right up into the anchorage area (200 feet from the beach on the base). When the wind is blowing out of the ENE (the normal direction), this anchorage is scenic and reasonably protected. Nice sand bottom in about 20 feet. The closer you tuck in to the generators, the more protected you are. There was already one cruising boat here, plus a Roi-based boat on a mooring, but we still managed to get 3 more 40+ boats up in the anchorage. But Opus, the first boat, definitely had the best spot. If the wind picks up, or shifts further south than about 080 degrees, you end up with a nasty chop in the anchorage.

We were anchored right off this beautiful beach lined with palm trees, but could not go ashore. However, we found that we COULD go ashore on what's known as the Yokahama Pier--the pier about quarter mile east--where the ferry and the small boats come and go from. What's more, we found that there, we could use the washing machines, shop at the little store (Tue-Thur-Sat), get water in jugs, buy ice, and sometimes buy diesel/gasoline. This is all in a gated compound at the base of the pier. It is there for the use of the Marshallese that live on "3rd Island" (proper name Ennubirr). Our anchorage spot: 09-20.17N / 167-20.35E

With the wind forecast to blow 18-20 knots for a couple of days, there was no reason to stay in the Roi-Namur base anchorage (and several reasons to leave). So our little group (Westward II, Challenger, and Soggy Paws) moved down to the island known locally as 6th Island. It's proper name is Edgigen, but since no one is sure how to pronounce it properly, everyone just calls it 6th Island.

We are not sure why this is the most popular local anchorage, other than it is 4 miles from the base and the giant radar there, well protected from ENE to ESE, is uninhabited, and has a nice sandy beach, which we CAN go ashore on. There are several islands between the base and 6th island which look also reasonably protected.

3rd Island, where the Marshalese workers live, like Ebeye, is densely populated with Marshalese. The ferry from Roi-Namur runs back and forth daily between the base and 3rd Island, bringing workers to the base. And bringing their wives/girlfriends, etc (free) to the little compound to do the laundry, shop, and hang out.

We hung out at 6th Island for a few days, waiting for the wind to die down. We dove a few of the bommies that are very close--and marked with white "isolated danger" bouys. These coral mounds typically come up from the bottom of the lagoon (90-120 feet deep) to where they are usually visible from the surface (and Google Earth). Some are as shallow as 5 feet at the top, others come up to 25 feet. The bommies close in to the eastern edge of the atoll make good foul-weather dive spots, especially on a rising tide, when the clear water outside the atoll is pouring in. However, the coral growth varies--some better than others--and the fish life is minimal. In 3 or 4 dives, we only saw one or two sharks and almost no big fish. We did see a number of turtles, however.

We did a little beachcombing on 6th Island. Dave and I walked in the shallows around the north end of the island, and found some WWII-era debris. We couldn't identify the one large metal object--maybe something from a landing craft from the assault on Kwajalein in Feb 1944, but we did find the heavy bronze end cap from a 5" shell, and some bullets and other bits of debris. Stephen on Westward II said he found similar stuff around the south end of the island. Anyone interested in a short summary of the Battle of Kwajalein should check Wikipedia.

We also had a nice evening ashore on 6th Island, having a barbecue on the beach (and burning our paper trash).

Finally the wind started easing off so we could dive the airplane wrecks that are mostly located on the inner western edge of the atoll, a few miles south of Roi-Namur. Looking at Google Earth, we spied a narrow sand ledge close to the first wrecks we wanted to dive. These turned out to be a decent anchorage in mild conditions, only 2.5 miles from Roi Namur and 3 miles from 6th Island. So for a few days, we did a daily "commute" to the dive area in our sailboats. Our anchor spot was at 09-21.088N / 167-26.409E, dropping the anchor in about 30-45 feet, in sand, on an upslope, and hanging back in about 15 feet sand, with the reef only 100 yards behind us. Challenger and Westward II anchored about 50 yards either side of us. With winds LESS than 15 knots, this is OK as a day anchorage only. If the wind gets up higher, it's quite unnerving being there, backed up to the reef. And at least one day, we waved off from anchoring there when the winds ended up a couple knots higher than the forecast. Needless to say, we all backed down hard and snorkeled our anchors before we left to go diving in the dinghies.

As we went to drop our anchor, Dave said "we can't drop here, there's a coral head". So we edge a boat-length right and dropped. When I went out to snorkel our anchor, I discovered the "coral head" was actually 2 airplanes, side-by-side facing up the sand bank in about 25-35 feet of water. These were not on any waypoint list we had, and were there first of 3 or 4 "new" airplane wrecks we discovered. These would make very good hookah-depth dives or novice diver dives--assuming the don't get covered up periodically by sand.

Only one of the airplane wrecks in the Roi area (the Zero), that we know of, are actual WWII downed planes. Most of those in the "airplane graveyard" are ones discarded by U.S. forces, after the end of the war. After capturing Kwajalein in January 1944, the U.S. set up an airfield and a maintenance facility on Roi-Namur. We could tell the 2 planes we found were discarded planes, as they had an airplane prop sitting in the cockpit, rather than out front where it belongs.

This is getting long... and it's time to go diving again (a nice sunny day)... I'm going to send this off and continue with our diving in Part 2.

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