Charts Less Traveled

By Casey Mahaney and Astrid Witte

The sight of Satawal Atoll brought instant visions of the 18th century South Pacific. The stunning, wide sandy beach, now golden in the low light of the setting sun, was studded with village houses, their high-peaked, thatched roofs protruding through a dense, coconut palm forest. As our vessel, the S.S. Thorfinn, approached the island, a profusion of islanders swarmed the beach, all of them dressed in traditional lava-lavas neatly slung around their waists. There was an air of excitement sweeping the island as a number of handsome young men jumped into their outrigger canoes and paddled out to greet us, a scene that could have been taken straight from Captain James Cook's diary.

With only a couple of short stops, we had steamed from Truk Lagoon for 300 miles through some of the least explored waters on earth in order to reach a series of remote atolls that are home to the only existing celestial navigators left in the world. Centuries ago, this traditional form of navigation, an ancient art that relies exclusively on the position of the stars and the ability to read the combined effects of wind, waves and currents, was widely spread throughout the Caroline and Marshall Islands. With the introduction of charts and compasses, however, the skills and knowledge that enabled traditional navigators to sail canoes for thousands of miles over open sea-a practice celebrated through the pwoo ceremony-was eventually lost. Only here, on the atolls of Satawal, Lamotrek and Ifalik, are the ancient traditions of celestial navigation and pwoo still passed on from generation to generation.

In the heart of Micronesia between Yap and Truk, the atolls belong politically and geographically to Yap, with Satawal being Yap's easternmost inhabited island. However, linguistic and cultural evidence, such as the tracing of canoe designs, suggests that the atolls were originally settled from the East, possibly from as far away as Western Polynesia.

At Satawal, we gleefully accepted an invitation to attend a traditional dancing party on the island. Eager for entertainment after several days at sea, we boarded the skiffs heading for the island, only to discover that it was we who were the spectacle. Within minutes we found ourselves surrounded by curious children anxious to hold hands, touch our hair or peek through the viewfinders of our cameras. The women showered us with smiles and beautiful flower garlands called mwar mwars that exuded a delightful fragrance, while the men, young and old alike, enthusiastically started up conversations. Interested to find out where we had been, where we were going and, most importantly, where we had seen the most fish, the islanders loosened our tongues by sharing some of their precious tuba, a slightly intoxicating liquor brewed from fermented coconut milk. When the dancing finally began, our hosts were as captivated and amused as us.

Since all 18 adventurers aboard the S.S.Thorfinn were divers, much of our time was devoted to exploring the local reefs, with small groups of us venturing to different areas in separate skiffs. The reefs at Satawal have a great number of Grey Reef, Whitetip and Blacktip Sharks along with large schools of fusiliers and Rainbow Runners, whose silvery scales sparkled in the sunlit, crystal clear waters. Spotted Soapfish, a rare, normally very secretive species, approached us boldly here and clouds of vividly hued Fairy Basslets added brilliant splashes of color to the reef.

While Satawal certainly made for interesting dives, we discovered that some of the best, most dramatic diving was at neighboring, uninhabited West Favu Atoll. When we first entered the water, the lack of fish caught me by surprise. But suddenly, as if on cue, fish appeared from literally everywhere, obviously seeking to satisfy their curiosity about these bubble-blowing, odd-looking creatures they had never encountered before. First, a beefy Silvertip Shark circled us for a couple of minutes, his large pelvic and dorsal fins gracefully slicing through the clear water. A school of snappers then surrounded us, with many of them literally bumping their faces into our masks to get a better look, and several Grey Reef Sharks buzzed us repeatedly. As we drifted along a sheer wall, I spotted a large school of Batfish rapidly approaching us. While the adults only took a quick peek at us before continuing on their route, a group of juveniles appeared captivated enough to accompany us throughout the rest of our dive. On other dives at this marine life-rich atoll, we discovered impressive cavern formations and huge overhangs, their ceilings painted with red sponges or violet lace coral. Turtles and huge groupers were encountered on almost every dive, and Eagle Rays flew by occasionally.

Lamotrek, some 60 miles west of Satawal, was an exceptionally scenic atoll, with a stunning deep-water lagoon directly in front of the island's village. Once occupied by the Japanese during WWII, Lamotrek's jungly beaches are still speckled with the remains of WWII planes.

As the center for the traditional navigation training, a process that takes several years, Lamotrek boasts both a rich cultural and historical background, but for me an exciting Silvertip encounter made the atoll especially memorable. One day while exploring Lamotrek's reefs, Casey descended to photograph some gorgeous sponge formations. I had remained above to model, and I noticed a Silvertip Shark moving in behind him. The sleek predator began to weave tight circles around him, and from my position, I could see that the shark was at least twice his size. From the distance, I continued to watch Casey and the shark, both of whom were obviously intrigued by each other. The shark never became really aggressive, but at the same time did not retreat until Casey finally left for shallower depths. The encounter had us jabbering with excitement for days.

Although the reefs surrounding Ifalik Atoll did not provide the most attractive dives, the island still turned out to be my favorite. On the island, the people welcomed us with sincerity, yet managed to bridle their own curiosity out of consideration and respect. With a ban on all outboard engines passed by the ruling chief, Ifalik still reflects the true South Pacific. Skillfully maneuvering their beautiful sailing canoes over the wind-chopped lagoon, the numerous fishermen created a spectacular photographic image.

The 460-mile sail to our final destination, Yap, prompted us to schedule another dive stop at Sorol. An uninhabited atoll frequently flushed by strong currents, Sorol boasted pristine coral reefs and an astonishing abundance of colorful tropicals, as well as immense schools of jacks, fusiliers and Rainbow Runners. Unfortunately, the atoll offered no safe anchorage, so this endeavor turned out to be as brief as it was awesome.

As with any dive expedition, it was to be expected that not all newfound dive sites would make it on the list of world's best. However, the excitement of exploration and discovery, and the constant anticipation of the unknown combined with the rare opportunity to socialize and intermingle with some of the most enchanting traditional people on earth created magical memories that will never be matched.