By the time I agreed to go diving with Stephen Ballinger, I had already gotten into the routine of diving in Palau. Like thousands of other divers from across the world, I had been drawn to Palau by the small Pacific island-nation’s spectacular marine environment and the unparalleled beauty of the Rock Islands. In just two weeks diving there, I’d been dazzled by the country’s large shark population, spectacular underwater caverns, drop-offs, pristine coral reefs, and a myriad of tropical fish and invertebrate species.
But the dive with Ballinger was going to be different. I wasn’t aiming to glimpse a rare marine animal or soak up dramatic underwater landscapes. In fact, the more I thought about my usual dives, the more I began to question the wisdom of this one.
I had signed up to dive with a team of highly trained specialists as they recovered explosive ordnance left over from World War II. We were to explore a small, bomb-laden shipwreck located inside Malakal Harbor, just a short distance from Koror, the most populated Palauan island.
World War II Battleground
On Sept. 10, 1944, the idyllic tranquility of these central Pacific Islands was abruptly shattered by the sound of naval gunfire. Palau suddenly found itself at the center of an all-consuming conflict fought between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan for strategic military control of the Pacific Ocean. That morning, a fleet of American warships shelled the 5-square-mile Palauan island of Peleliu in preparation for the landing of the U.S. Marines. For the next 79 days, this tiny island would be the scene of the some most brutal fighting that occurred in the entire Pacific War, as the Marines struggled through tropical heat and rugged limestone terrain to slowly oust the dug-in Japanese defenders, who had occupied Palau since World War I. By the end of November, thousands of American and Japanese soldiers had been killed or wounded fighting over the otherwise unremarkable, rocky island of Peleliu.
As the years passed, so did the memory of the conflict and the animosity that spawned it. Life in Palau went on. In 1994, Palau became an independent nation with a population of 20,000 and a strong economy supported by a thriving ecotourism sector. Since becoming independent, the Palauan people have proven to be adept and innovative stewards of their environment, setting a global standard for marine conservation.
Preserving Palau’s Habitats
Palau—comprised of hundreds of individual islands and rock islets—is surrounded by an interconnected network of coral reefs that have been aggregated together into several large, protected Marine Parks and “no take zones.” Access to some of Palau’s most sensitive habitats is entirely off-limits to the general public. The crowning achievement of Palau’s environmental conservation effort came in 2009. That’s when Palau banned fishing for all sharks and rays within its waters, creating the world’s first Shark Sanctuary, and protecting an expanse of ocean roughly the size of France. To the 100,000 tourists that visit Palau each year, the idea of a great war being fought amidst these tranquil islands seems almost ludicrous, if it’s thought about at all.
Yet, despite the tremendous success that has followed the country’s steadfast commitment to preserving its natural treasures, Palau still faces an ugly legacy of war. While the number of people who fought in and survived the conflict has dwindled over the years, the unexploded bombs, artillery shells, grenades, mortars, depth charges and mines still remain. These leftovers of battle—known as ordnance, or Explosive Remnants of War (ERWs)—litter the islands of Peleliu and Anguar, and can be found among many of the island’s shipwrecks that are now popular diving destinations. Recognizing this potential danger, the Palauan government contacted Steve Ballinger for help. A veteran of the British military, where he served as an explosive ordnance disposal expert, Ballinger continues his dangerous line of work as the Operations Director of Cleared Ground Demining, a British charity he founded that specializes in demining and removal of ERWs. He has been working in Palau since 2009.
Demining the Helmet Wreck
One of Cleared Ground’s ongoing projects is the “Helmet Wreck,” an unidentified Japanese freighter that sank with a cargo of aircraft engines, crates of anti-aircraft ammunition, 87 depth charges and helmets (thus, the name). The ship has been listed as a high-priority operation due to the quantity of ERWs onboard and its location inside a populated harbor. This is the wreck I observed and photographed, alongside AtlasOmega Publisher Calvin Tang. On the dive, we were following Morgan Matsuoka, a local Palauan who has been trained by Cleared Ground for underwater recovery operations.
Matsuoka focused on the anti-aircraft munitions during the dive, leaving the depth charges for another day. The recovery of depth charges involves a much more complicated procedure. Ballinger explained to me that these particular depth charges use picric acid as their primary explosive, and in a rather nonchalant manner he noted that the bombs’ outer casings have been gradually destabilized by being underwater for nearly 70 years. Although the majority of the depth charges had not been primed, reducing the risk of explosion, the picric acid is now leaking out of the bombs. Upon contact with seawater, it forms picramic acid, a toxic compound that attacks the body’s mucous membranes, liver, kidneys and central nervous system.
As we began our descent to the toxic, explosive-laden ship, the stern began to appear out of the gloom. For a moment it was difficult to tell that the coral-encrusted hulk was indeed a shipwreck. Yet as we moved along, our target came clearly into focus—a large deck gun lying sideways across the stern. Matsuoka motioned to a small crate just next the gun, holding the unmistakable shapes of a dozen explosive projectiles. Sitting right next to the projectiles was a crate of detonators, covered in coral. The Cleared Ground team removed these items carefully and deliberately, placing them inside of a large crate that was later sent to the surface with a giant inflatable lift-bag. Later, in order to preserve the historic integrity of the Helmet Wreck, several of these shells will be returned to their original locations, after the explosive materials have been safely removed.
After observing the team handle the munitions, I decided to go off and explore the rest of the wreck with Calvin. At first glance there was nothing to indicate that this slowly rusting ship was such an environmental time bomb, as it teemed with fish and coral. When I looked into the aft cargo hold, however, I noticed the depth charges sitting in a large pile at the bottom. To the untrained eye, these depth charges would appear to be little more than large oil drums, but the presence of detonators revealed their deadly nature. While I swam past the pile of explosive war relics, I couldn’t help but notice that the same coral that had thoroughly encrusted the rest of the shipwreck was mostly absent in the area surrounding the depth charges. Instead, a sickly, greenish-yellow cloud hung about the hold like a poisonous fog. I decided against spending too much time nearby and went off to explore the rest of the ship.
After the dive I had another chance to sit down with Ballinger, now with a greater appreciation for Cleared Ground. Steve’s previous projects involved cleanup of explosives in more recent conflict zones, such as Jordan and Guinea-Bissau. Palau, however, presented a different set of challenges. “There is an awareness issue,” he explained. “People say things like, ‘oh, this has been around and hasn’t blown up for 70 years, so it’s not dangerous.’ In fact, the opposite is true. As the years go by, the explosives become increasingly unstable, posing both a risk for explosion, and also an environmental and human health risk.”
Further complicating Ballinger’s mission, many of the ERWs are located in populated areas and in sensitive habitats, precluding the possibility of in situ detonations. Everything has to be transported to a specially designated range for detonation or defusing.
Yet, despite the challenges, Ballinger spoke with constant enthusiasm and pride about the work Cleared Ground had accomplished since arriving in Palau, and especially about his locally trained staff, to whom he hopes to eventually turn the project over entirely. Another particular area of pride is the educational program that Steve and crew have set up in Palau, to inform people about possibly dangerous items and how to report them.
Ballinger remains optimistic that within a few years, Cleared Ground will be able to remove the majority of the ordnance on the island of Peleliu. His small group of dedicated, determined professionals won’t be deterred in helping to erase the damaging effects of a war they had no part in.
About the author: Harris Moore is a professional Dive Guide and Scuba Instructor working for Sam’s Tours Palau. He studied History as well as Marine Affairs and Policy at the University of Miami. During his time in Florida he also ran the university Dive Club. He is currently living in Palau and traveling around the world to interesting places such as India, on a indefinite walkabout.