A Different Side of Micronesia
Guam Tropical Dive Station
By Al Hornsby
After the seven hour flight from Hawaii, the sight of Guam jutting up from the horizon, its green jungled cliffs rising dramatically from the Pacific's smooth blue, makes it easy to imagine how 16th century Spanish sailors must have felt. After months at sea, the island's tropical splendor meant fresh food, water and a break from the toil of guiding a galleon across a huge expanse of ocean.
Discovered by Magellan in his circumnavigation of the globe, Guam became an important stopping point for ships working the Orient, seeking spices from the Malay peninsula, silk from China and silver from the Philippines. As happened all too frequently in those days, however, when ships entered these scarcely chartered waters, refuges such as Guam could become ominous. With encroaching typhoons, the calm Pacific could become a rolling, angry sea and splendid coral reefs became jagged maelstroms of churning foam and crashing breakers.
Such was the case one dark, dangerous night. The galleon Nuestra Senora Zeragosa del Pilar was on her way to the Spanish garrison in Manila, Philippines. As salt spray swirled through the air and the ocean roared around them, her crew struggled to move the huge ship past the rugged island that lay in their path. As they were passing Guam's southern tip, just when it seemed they were safe, the Nuestra ran upon the low reef extending several miles seaward from the present day town of Merizo.
In the crushing surf, the ship's bottom was ripped out and her treasures spilled into the dark waters. As the massive vessel broke apart and slid beneath the water, the cries of her crew were borne away on the shrieking wind and she disappeared.
In 1989, an Australian diver named John Bent came to Guam, determined to uncover the fate of the lost Nuestra. His archival research indicated her resting place must be here, off Guam's southern end, ironically near one of Guam's most popular watersport areas.
The reef runs several miles out to enclose a large lagoon, with tiny Cocos Island at its outer edge. The lagoon is lush, with stands of corals, white sand and clouds of tropical fish. It is a playground for snorkelers. Outside the reef, the crystal clear waters are home to schooling chub, packs of huge Bumphead Wrasse and cruising pelagics.
There, encrusted with 300 years of coral growth, John found the Nuestra. The difficult extraction of her treasures and archaeological wonders continues today.
Along the way, however, a funny thing happened to John and his wife, Paula. They fell in love with Guam. With its rich green jungles, soaring cliffs and long, glare-white beaches, it is a tropical island hideaway. Even more enchanting was what they found beneath the surface of the ocean. Blessed with clean, clear waters;the visibility often reaches 200 feet and more;Guam's wall, wreck and reef diving is varied and exciting, in true Micronesia style.
Deciding to make their stay permanent, the Bents opened Guam Tropical Dive Station, which has become one of the largest, most active dive centers in the Western Pacific. With an extensive line of gear, full technical diving services, complete repair facilities and local dive charters, the Station has become a headquarters for visiting and local divers alike. For those seeking diver training from entry level through instructor and technical specialities, the operation, a PADI Five Star Instructor Development Center, has 20 instructors on staff, teaching in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
And, if you have ever entertained the romantic thoughts of diving on a Spanish treasure galleon, the Station's most unique course;a PADI Specialty in Marine Archaeology;could be just what you are looking for. Students actually dive the Nuestra with the excavation crew, participating in the retrieval and preparation of artifacts. Classes are held the first two weeks of April and the last two weeks of July.
For divers on the way to Palau, Yap or Truk, Guam is the required stopover point. According to Paula, 'A lot of our customers are on their way to the other destinations. They've found, however, that a couple of days' diving with us gives them a chance to get over their jet lag and do their first great Micronesian diving. Also, since we have full repair services, we can get any equipment problems taken care of before they get off into more remote areas.
'What we really find, though,' chuckles Paula, 'is Guam's diving is beautiful.'
Dive Station's two, fully Coast Guard approved boats;41 and 28 foot flattops;are comfortable and their twin engines can get divers to the reefs quickly, with most sites within 15 to 20 minutes. The dives are varied; here are a few of the crew's favorites:
Western Shoals made everyone's list. It is inside the calm waters of Apra Harbor, just minutes from Dive Station's dock. Staghorn Corals covers the top of the reef, and plate corals make up the sides, descending past 60 feet. The reef is home to Soldierfish, lionfish, Trumpetfish and numerous tangs and Moorish Idols. A careful examination of coral crevices will reveal several species of cowries that are common here, including Tiger, Reticulated and Map. Especially interesting are large Carpet Anemones containing several types of clownfish, including Skunk and Two-stripe.
The Crevice is considered one of Guam's most exciting dives. On a sloping, hard coral bottom at the base of the Cliff at Orote Point, a sharp slice creates a steep walled canyon. Along the edge are small soft corals and large gorgonian fans. Ultra-clear water provides exciting photographic opportunities, with the red-orange of gorgonian fans, the deep blue of the ocean, brilliant, sparkling sunbursts and schools of darkly silhouetted snappers providing contrasting elements. The Crevice is a deep dive, beginning at 80 feet and dropping from there.
For wreck enthusiasts, Guam's twin wrecks are among diving's most unique. Two wrecks, the SMS Cormoran, scuttled in WW I, and the Tokai Maru, sunk by torpedoes in WW II, lie side by side in the quiet waters of Apra Harbor. The Cormoran, originally a Russian mail ship built in 1909, features intricate interior ornamentation.
The Tokai, a WW II Japanese freighter more than 500 feet long, has been overgrown by corals and sponges, creating a reef oasis. Great clouds of fish hover over the wreck and octopus, eels and shells can be found in dark recesses.
On your trip to Micronesia, take advantage of your Guam stopover by letting Guam Tropical Dive Station show you a different side of the Micronesia dive experience. You'll be so glad you did!
For more information, call the Guam Tropical Dive Station at 671-477-2774, fax 671-477-2775 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.