I promised myself that if I ever got to Wake Island I would do just about anything to dive there. Not only is it a diverse and robust marine environment, but much of Wake’s history is tied to that obstinate coral reef, especially on the south side. The encircling reef comes closest to shore off Wilkes and Wake, making it the only viable option in 1941 for the close approach of ships – both friend and foe.
On December 1, 2011, our two small dive boats left the sheltered marina and headed seaward through the Wilkes channel that my grandfather had blasted and widened seventy years before. Each boat carried about six divers, including a couple of air force generals. (Everybody gets ready the same way: one fin at a time.) One look over the side of the boat and I instantly remembered my grandfather’s first letter from Wake in January 1941: the sea is the wonderful part; one can see clearly sixty feet below. Then as now, the water was about 80 degrees with unlimited viz. The lack of soil and natural fresh water on the coral atoll ensures the clarity of seawater.
Our first dive was just off the east end of Wilkes. I had not been diving in three years and I needed a little time and help to get buoyancy right, but descended to the wonderland and felt at home at once. Coral heads and benches provided a variegated backdrop for the reef’s many residents. I recognized a few right away, like the brilliantly colored parrotfish, but my attention was drawn to a couple of huge chains and anchors that rested on the floor. What was their story? What ships had dropped them? The reef was too shallow to anchor; off the reef was too deep. Before the war most ships had to unload cargo and passengers onto barges out in the heaving sea and tugs brought them into the channel to the waterfront.
We swam out to the edge of the reef at about eighty feet and peered over into the deep blue. I thought of the description Burrows Captain Ross Dierdorff made of Wake Island in 1941: a “gigantic toadstool on a slender stem.” That stem reaches twelve thousand feet to the ocean floor. While I wasn’t exactly oblivious to the fish on this dive, my mind was on other things and didn’t give the fish their due. Some of the fellows talked about the shark they saw. Next time I will pay better attention.
After a break we made our second dive on the wreck of the J. C. Stoner off the south shore of Wake Island. The Stoner grounded on the south reef during high winds in September 1967, spilling its cargo of oil and fuel and killing many inshore reef fish. Recovery and cleanup operations were hampered by Typhoon Sarah; eventually much of the oil was skimmed, recovered, and burned on shore. However, the tanker could not be saved. It rests at about forty feet where it was scuttled. The Stoner is a great dive site now, a benign host to colorful marine life and a silent reminder of the vulnerability of a pristine environment.
I have only been diving about ten years and every dive is unique, but diving Wake Island was a most profound experience for me. I look forward to going again and seeing that shark.