2000-06 Micronesian Revelation
By Astrid Witte and Casey Mahaney
A veil of clouds first obscured the sunset and then the near-full moon. Lightning bolts and deafening thunder tormented the black sky. Finally, the clouds exploded into bullet-like rain drops that ferociously pounded on the catamaran’s aluminum roof, penetrating the ocean’s surface. Soaking wet and unable to see farther than 20 feet ahead, I seriously started to doubt my
sanity, when Bert, our dive guide, reminded me what fun we were about to have. “You’ll love all the critters in the seagrass beds at night, and once you are down there, you won’t even notice the weather.” Well, he was partly right.
Waters of Abundance
With more than 2,000 islands scattered across the Western Pacific, Micronesia’s possibilities for diving adventures are limitless—from mysterious wrecks and rainbow-hued reefs to fascinating marine life encounters, ancient ancestral traditions and seductive tropical beaches. And, if you time it right, diving in torrential rain, which possesses its own kind of charm. Barely three hours after landing in Palau, I was watching the bizarre patterns the raindrops painted on the surface. The water, however, was perfectly calm and warm, and the night life was mesmerizing. Everything from vivid Harlequin Shrimp and Anemone Hermit Crabs to fluorescent sea urchins and odd-looking nocturnal fish crawled, prowled, swam and crept through the forest of seagrass. I was truly immersed in Micronesia.
The following morning we awakened to apologetic blue skies graced with a few puffy clouds and bright sunshine. The sea was like glass, and after another considerably drier boat ride, we were again sliding into the crystal clear water, this time at Blue Corner. We descended down to the reef flat and swam up-current for a few minutes until the reef abruptly dropped down to form a sheer wall. There, we anchored ourselves with reef hooks and watched in awe as fish of all imaginable shapes, sizes and colors paraded by. Blue Corner is like a marine life convention, with the currents pushing together sharks, Napoleon Wrasses, Bumphead Parrotfish, Barracudas, jacks, trevallies, snappers and hundreds of other species. Later that afternoon, heading back toward Koror, we scheduled another dive, this time at Chandelier Cave.
Dozens of stalagmites and stalactites hung like icicles in the beam of my light, as I swam from one chamber to the next. There were three chambers altogether, all stunning in their own right, but within the first two it was possible to come up and break the surface where more stalactites hung from the cathedral-like limestone ceiling. Perhaps the most exciting part of the dive awaited us after we exited the cave.
The sun, now a crimson fireball, was about to slip behind the horizon, making room for the full moon, which sat in the dusk sky like a ghost—an excellent time to look for the elusive Mandarin Fish. These spectacular members of the dragonet family hide during the daytime and come out to feed at dusk. However, they mate during the full moon cycle, and we watched in voyeuristic amazement as Mandarin Fish couples commenced their extensive courtship ritual.
On our last day in Palau, Bert surprised us with yet another adventure. Somewhere amid the many mushroom shaped Rock Islands was a small, dark tunnel opening, partially concealed by ferns and vines creeping down from the sheer limestone cliff. There wasn’t enough water in the tunnel to swim through, but since the ceiling was only some three feet high, it was also impossible to walk. So we carefully crawled, dragging our gear behind us as the water surged back and forth beneath our hands and knees. And, as always, when I was beginning to doubt the purpose of our quest, I heard Bert’s voice, convincing me that the end result would be well worth the discomfort. Again, he was right. A circular, fully enclosed marine lake awaited us. It was rimmed by sheer, jungle covered limestone walls. We carefully entered the shallow lake and realized that the scuba gear was an unnecessary burden. Shedding BCs and regulators we snorkeled across the lake’s surface and discovered hundreds and hundreds of jellyfish hovering in the warm body of water. Another secret jellyfish lake! Bert wasn’t sure if the jellyfish we encountered were the same as in Palau’s famous Jellyfish Lake, but they were certainly stingless and absolutely stunning as they appeared to dance around us.
The Search for Mantas—Yap
Immediately upon arrival, I liked the quaint and friendly islands of Yap. The tiny capital of Colonia proved to have just the right ingredients to turn a few days stopover into a lot of fun. We arrived in the afternoon and, after checking into our resort, decided to take a stroll to familiarize ourselves with the area. As it turned out, we didn’t get too far. A colorful sign announcing wild blends of tropical cocktails lured us into O’Keefe’s Canteen, erected on the site of the former trading post and bar owned by the Irish-American David Dean O’Keefe. Known as “His Majesty O’Keefe,” the legendary 19th century adventurer was shipwrecked on Yap in 1871, but quickly turned his misfortune around and started a lucrative trading business.
Sipping a couple of margaritas, we gazed not only at the walls decorated with O’Keefe memorabilia, but also at the eclectic medley of customers: a few Yapese, ex-pats and a handful of tourists from the U.S., Australia and Europe. Like ourselves, the international blend of tourists were divers who had come to Yap to see the giant Mantas. Contrary to popular belief, though, the Mantas are not “glued” to the reef, and on our first dive in Mil Channel, it took a little bit of time to find them.
We faithfully followed our guide, checking for Mantas at several of their favorite hangouts. We saw an array of marine life and beautiful reefs that, generally, nobody talks about since the focus is always Mantas. There was a channel, lavishly lined with purple soft corals and hard coral gardens clustered with anemones and clouds of the vibrant Pyjama Cardinal Fish. Here we spotted an octopus peeking out of his crevice, apparently watching us with amusement as we searched the reef looking for the legendary Devil Rays. Minutes later we found ourselves engulfed in a school of Barracudas, just before finally discovering several Mantas at a cleaning station. A large coral bommie was serviced by dozens of wrasses and butterflyfish eager to pick tormenting parasites off the Manta’s winged bodies. We settled down on the rubble-strewn bottom and watched the graceful performance.
Several Mantas were hovering in line until it was their turn at the cleaning station; then, after a few moments, they wheeled away, soaring over our heads. Often they came so close that I could have easily reached out and touched them. The show continued on as long as we were able to stay down. It was one of the most thrilling and memorable moments in my diving career.
Breaking the Rules In Truk
I had gone a little too far and I knew it. Deep inside one of the engine rooms of the Fujukawa Maru, everything around me was pitch-black except the silt particles, that, lit up by my dive light, circled me like falling snowflakes. I redirected the light beam toward my pressure gauge. I had plenty of air, so I decided to patiently wait until the silt had settled.
Hesitantly, I switched my light off and, after my eyes adjusted, I could just barely see the light creeping through the doorways above. Slowly and deliberately, I moved toward the light, careful not to stir up any additional silt, and ascended through one doorway after another.
Sighing with relief, I reflected back to only a few days ago. For the first couple of dives in Truk Lagoon, I found myself overwhelmed by the enormity of the wrecks. As I descended down into the calm waters of the lagoon, I would first see their eerie outlines emerging from the darkness of this submarine graveyard. Then, more details would appear, such as the bow or stern, kingposts and the bridge. While swimming the length of the 300-500 foot long wrecks, I saw a variety of artifacts such as torpedo launchers, guns and even entire tanks as I attempted to survey the entire wreck. So, it wasn’t until the following day that I began to appreciate the beauty of life that had sprung from the sunken fleet, now embracing the resting bodies of the former warships—the exquisite, flower-like coral formations that embellish the entire bow of the Shinkoku Maru and the gigantic soft corals of all imaginable colors draping from the kingpost of the Sankisan Maru. Fluted scallops, encrusting sponges and algae gnarled the life-boat davits of the Fujikawa Maru, and lionfish, damselfish and anemones had taken up residence literally everywhere.
This natural splendor, scattered WWII artifacts and even personal belongings of the Japanese sailors, made for discoveries and photo opportunities that speak to the human tragedy that occurred here more than 50 years ago.
It wasn’t, however, until I began to penetrate the wrecks that I truly discovered the excitement of wreck diving. Following my husband, Casey, and our dive guide, Nick, through the jungle-like algae forest that mystifies the Fujukawa Maru’s passageways, we entered through one of the doorways into the bathroom area, then down another stairway into the engine room. While Casey and Nick ventured off along the catwalks that lead around the engine rooms at various levels, I penetrated even further into the wreck, suddenly captured by the thrill of exploration. I eventually ended up seriously disoriented, realizing I exceeded my boundaries of comfort. While I managed to avoid these deep solo penetrations from now on, I remained intrigued by the allure of the wrecks.
Together, Casey and I explored the hospital rooms in the Shinkoku Maru and the holds of the Yamagiri Maru, containing a cargo of giant artillery shells destined for the 18-inch guns of Japanese battleships. We photographed the trucks, tractors and cars deep down in the holds of the Hoki Maru, blurred by lingering aviation fuel, and discovered thousands of machine gun bullets inside the Sanksan.
The wrecks of Truk Lagoon were fascinating underwater museums, cradling a wealth of WWII artifacts along with remembrances of the unfortunate sailors. Yet they were prolific reefs, that allowed me to appreciate the complete diversity of Micronesian diving.