The Ghosts of Oahu Shipwrecks New and Old
Glance out the left-side window on final approach to Honolulu International Airport, and chances are good that you will spot Pearl Harbor - one of the most famous and hallowed spots in the Hawaiian islands - with the USS Missouri Museum ship and the snow-white span of the USS Arizona Memorial.
It is a sight sufficient to fire the imagination of any historian, and all wreck divers are, to some degree or other, historians.
During the early morning attack of Dec. 7, 1941, a number of American and Japanese ships and aircraft sank, and virtually all of them are either protected from visitation or - like the Japanese midget submarine discovered just a few years ago and now considered the first vessel sunk by the United States Navy during World War II - far too deep to be reached by recreational divers. Yet, despite this relative dearth of "natural" wrecks, Oahu - Hawaii's most populous island - is nonetheless notable to divers for the broad range of wreck diving it offers. And at least one of those wrecks is historic and relates to the Pacific War.
THE SEA TIGER, YO-257 AND SAN PEDRO
Some, on the other hand, do not relate to the Pacific War - yet they still fascinate. Three, in fact, were sunk as tourist attractions.
The Sea Tiger, the YO-257 and the San Pedro were all placed on the bottom near Waikiki to provide focal points for submarine tours. All three were immediately adopted by their environments.
The 168-foot Sea Tiger sits, for instance, on a 130-foot bottom, where this former Hawaiian fishing vessel has become a hulking, blue-gray neighborhood for eagle rays and home to a variety of reef species, from myopic moray eels to delicate nudibranchs. One highlight to look for is the gigantic honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtle, which have taken up residence on the wreck.
Upright and still very much intact, this is one of the best wrecks in Hawaii for penetration by trained divers, but the emphasis here has to be on "trained." The Sea Tiger is both large enough and deep enough that untrained divers can easily become disoriented and lost. But for Open Water divers, even an underwater promenade around the outside of the wreck will provide enough to see for several dives.
Down longer than the Sea Tiger and more thickly covered in underwater growth, the YO-257 is home to a number of turtles, as well as the usual staggering variety of Hawaiian fish. The stern section of this former Navy yard oiler offers a fairly spacious swim-through that is draped in coral - the ocean slowly and gracefully embracing the man-made. This wreck was prepped for divers, with holes cut into its hull for access and egress. Shallower than the Sea Tiger, the YO-257 rests at just 95 feet, and if you conserve air, you'll probably have more than enough left to venture over and have a look at a neighbor - the San Pedro, which was added as an additional attraction (and an additional artificial reef) in 1996.
Although partially collapsed by typhoons that have scoured it over the last decade or so, the San Pedro remains a picturesque home for turtles and whitetip reef sharks. It's a popular end-of-dive sojourn for photographers with room left on their digital media.
Remember as you dive these wrecks that a submarine drive-by (or would that be a "dive-by?") is a possibility on all three. The company that placed the Sea Tiger no longer uses it as a tour subject, so for the moment at least, divers have it to themselves. That's not the case on YO-257 or San Pedro, which are still toured regularly by Atlantis Submarines - and it may not be the case in the future for Sea Tiger. An encounter with a sub provides something extra, exciting and unusual to see, but it's also something to be aware of. Listen for approaching propellers, ascend and cross open water carefully, and keep a considerable and safe distance from the sub, as you would from any watercraft under way.
LANDING CRAFT AND BARGES
While considerably smaller than their submarine-company-placed cousins, the LCU (Landing Craft Utility) East and LCU West dive sites, as well as the two wreck sites known as the Baby Barge and the New Barge, all virtually guarantee an encounter with whitetip reef sharks, usually found resting under an overhang or on the bottom.
The reef surrounding the smaller Baby Barge (on the bottom longer than the New Barge) is known as one of the best spots around Oahu to look for frogfish and their wispier cousins, leaf scorpionfish. The Baby Barge is also the shallowest of the four wreck sites, with 70 feet being the typical bottom logged here, although an adjacent cavern is about 15 feet deeper. The other three all run in the 90- to 97-foot range.
A former Navy minesweeper which was later refitted and used in the Bahamas as a cable layer, the globe-trotting MV Mahi ended its floating life as a research vessel for the University of Hawaii and adds a been-everywhere, done-everything mystique to underwater Oahu. Placed on the bottom in 1996, the Mahi was turned completely around and partially collapsed during Typhoon Iwa, so it is no longer recommended to divers as a penetration wreck dive. But even without an accessible interior, the 176-foot wreck remains the most popular dive site on the west side of Oahu. Cruise over and around it, and you will be rewarded with puffers, nudibranchs, octopuses and possibly even a fly-by of spotted eagle rays. Oahu's ubiquitous whitetip reef sharks are usually also in attendance on this site - just another feature that makes the Mahi well worth a visit. Nearby lava tubes offer a fascinating and natural setting for a second dive.
THE 29 DOWN
The newest addition to Oahu's wreck and artificial reef repertoire is the 29 Down, the fuselage of a former Hawaiian Air Transport Service aircraft that was used in the Hawaiian-shot Discovery Channel Kids TV series Flight 29 Down - hence the name. It was placed in the water at the end of September last year and, as the fuselage weighs just 2,000 pounds, broken pieces of concrete pier were used to anchor it in place. The wingless aircraft, a de Havilland Heron, is 50 feet long and sits in just 60 feet of water off the Waianae Coast, so bottom time is never a problem here. Corals, morays, octopuses and even a frogfish have already adopted the airplane as part of their environment.
The fuselage sits on a sandy bottom with a sand slope leading out to the ocean and a reef a short distance away, toward shore. The bottom between the 29 Down and the reef has been seeded with "Z-blocks" - Z-shaped concrete blocks that rest on feet and provide plenty of nooks, crannies, voids and overhangs to shelter juvenile reef fish and provide a place for corals to take hold.
The wings to 29 Down have also been secured and plans are afoot to place them on the site at a future date. So, between the Z-blocks and the wreck building, this site is certain to grow in more ways than one as time goes on.
Speaking of aircraft, one genuine World War II relic on the Oahu bottom is the largely intact wreck of a Navy F4U Chance Vought Corsair fighter/bomber (the same sort of airplane flown in the old Black Sheep Squadron TV series). It's easy to imagine the old one-man war bird as a shot-down defender against the Pearl Harbor attack, but the truth is a bit more mundane. Two years after the attack, the plane's pilot ran out of fuel on approach and ditched into the sea. He escaped; in fact, local divemasters say that he is still alive and living on Molokai. But the World War II airplane, like most lost to the sea in the Pacific War, was never raised from the deep. Instead, it has become a microcosmic environment for sea life, and a must-dive for wreck divers wishing to dive World War II relics.
A photo op near the cockpit is one of the highlights of a Corsair dive. But be aware that a variety of sea creatures, including a fairly large moray, have adopted the old airplane as a home in the more than six decades since its final flight. It's just one more reminder that, while these Oahu wrecks once belonged to us, they are now, and for all eternity, the property of the living sea.
Waikiki Diving Center (waikikidiving.com) has been a full-service dive center since 1979 and is minutes from most Waikiki hotels, and all dive tours include a complimentary shuttle to and from the hotel. Waikiki Diving Center's dive boat is rated for 16 divers, but carries 10 maximum. Dive Oahu (diveoahu.com) uses a 38-foot Custom Cat, rated for 28 passengers as its primary dive boat, and does a wreck and a reef dive in the morning and two shallow reef dives in the afternoon. The shop has 18 years of experience diving Oahu. Non-diving friends and family can accompany divers for a nominal fee. Outrigger Reef on the Beach (outriggerreef.com), only steps from the exciting new Waikiki Beach Walk, recently completed the first phase of a $120 million top-to-bottom transformation, with new Ocean Tower guest rooms on the beachfront. Distinctive and refined, Outrigger Reef on the Beach's services include two restaurants and the Serenity Spa. For more information, contact the Oahu Visitors Bureau (visit-oahu.com) and the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau (gohawaii.com).
Feet-Dry History, Warships Still Afloat
Want to visit a World War II-era vessel that you won't have to don scuba gear to explore? The Pearl Harbor area offers two - the USS Missouri Memorial and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park. For the USS Missouri, your best bet is the Chief's Guided Tour, a 60-minute walk led by a knowledgeable staff member - for one thing, it guarantees you won't get lost on this virtual floating city. It's a little harder to get lost on the Bowfin, but you'll want to take advantage of the audio guide that the park provides. It helps give you a perspective of this seasoned vessel, which made nine successful wartime tours and was known as the "Pearl Harbor Avenger." Both ships are within walking distance of the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center.