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  • 2000-11 The other Micronesia

    By Brad Doane

    Staring at the fighter, her wings swept back to save space on some carrier’s busy flight deck, I am one of only a handful of people to have seen this plane since World War II. Now resting nose down on the lagoon floor inside Majuro Atoll, this once proud F6F Hellcat was only discovered a few days earlier. Welcome to the diver’s goldrush of eastern Micronesia.

    Massive hard corals surround Majuro Atoll.
    The baggage claim in Majuro Atoll’s airport was awash with heavily taped ice chests, the packaging of choice for shipping throughout the islands. Close inspection reveals them full of clothing, books, electronics, music, spare parts, food and just about anything and everything under the sun. For the most part, life on an atoll is dependent on the outside world. Unlike the large and fertile volcanic islands of Kosrae and Pohnpei, Majuro is just a sandy spit of land. However, what atolls lack in elevation and vegetation, they make up for in coral formation. By nature, atolls have the oldest, and therefore often the largest, concentrations of coral reefs. Coral reefs mean little fish. Little fish mean bigger fish. Bigger fish mean marlin, tuna, Mahi-mahi, Wahoo and sharks. The Marshalls boast 1,225 islands (only 24 are populated) in 29 atolls (including Kwajalein, the world’s largest) and 870 reefs. Add it all up, and it equals a lifetime of diving. Due to a self-inflicted scheduling snafu, I was left with only two days to dive here. So, I dumped my bags at the hotel and quickly looked up a fellow dive enthusiast named Jerry. An enterprising American expatriate, Jerry runs a small dive operation originally known as Majuro Hardcore. The name suits the cowboy diving attitude out here. The Marshalls are an untouched frontier that has only recently seen the advent of reliable full-time dive operations. Even now, there are only three operations in the two million square kilometers of ocean encompassed by the Marshall Islands. But, years of exploratory diving out of pickup trucks on Majuro has yielded many mind-blowing dive site discoveries. Now with the luxury of specialized dive boats and portable compressors, divers are pushing even farther into uncharted territory.

    It was already too late in the afternoon to dive outside the lagoon, so Jerry promised me a couple of quick surprises on the inside. The Hellcat was the first surprise. The second was a J2F Duck seaplane, a very rare bird indeed. The years of occupation and war left many wrecks sprinkled throughout the Marshall Islands, and many have yet to be discovered.

    The Kepirchi Waterfall, Pohnpei.
    The following morning I dived the pass that connects the deep lagoon with the ocean. Jumping in during a tidal change, we began on the outside and slowly drifted along the massive coral gardens that lined the contours of the atoll. Enormous plate corals, some completely dwarfing us, were layered one upon another like great scales of the fire-breathing giant that this ancient island once was. As the current picked up, so did the action, and the end of the dive was marked by sharks and swirling schools of jacks and barracuda.

    Between dives, a leisurely lunch-time snorkel inside the lagoon revealed the largest single species coral formation I have ever encountered. It was at least seven feet high and 15 feet across! I was awestruck. Unfortunately, time wasn’t on my side. I could make one final dive before off gassing in preparation for my flight to Kosrae.

    Unable to escape, death came swiftly. The masses stood frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car, and it was a miracle that only one from the crowd would die.

    The Beach at Walung Village, Kosrae
    For land crabs on the idyllic island of Kosrae, the full moon pilgrimage from their subterranean dwellings to the reef flats where they spawn can be quite perilous these days. Yet, with the exception of the occasional run-in with modern machinery, life here goes on just as it has for hundreds of years. Kosrae is fairly young compared to the atolls of the Marshalls, which are themselves remnants of ancient islands. The reefs surrounding Kosrae’s towering, verdant peaks are of the fringing variety and drop sharply down the submerged volcano’s flanks into the abyss. Not more than a half-hour after disembarking my flight, I was geared up and gliding along these coral slopes, amazed at the numbers and varieties of fish engulfing the reef. There seemed to be more fascination than fear in their scaly little faces as I approached. It wasn’t surprising, considering the scant few divers they see. In fact, with the exception of my guides, I would be the only diver on the island of Kosrae for the entire three days! Even on a busy day you’d be hard pressed to see another dive boat, let alone another diver. This rare human visitation warranted my inspection by a pack of Gray Reef and Blacktip Reef Sharks before they disappeared into the depths. A turtle, a large Napoleon Wrasse and a motionless school of barracudas highlighted an already spectacular dive. In the following days, I participated in Kosrae’s first ever nitrox dive, and I enjoyed more of the same unhurried underwater bliss. Diving on Kosrae is as laid back as it gets.

    Strapped for time, many traveling divers today are whisked away to live-aboard vessels or resorts soon after landing at their destinations, never venturing out to experience the local culture above water. On Kosrae this would be a mistake (if not impossible, as there are no live-aboards or large resorts). The true charm of Kosrae is found in its people. Delicately balancing a devotion to preserving their culture, while keeping strong their newfound faith in Christianity, the Kosraens have adapted slowly to the sweeping modernization common in the Pacific. An example of this is Tadao Wakuk, “The Last Storyteller.” Tadao, like generations of family members before him, is passing along more than three generations of knowledge and experience about Kosrae’s natural environment and rich culture in an oral history that weaves together folklore and fact.

    Tadao is also our guide on an outrigger canoe tour through the mangrove channels that wrap around the southern portion of the island. An amazing journey filled with the sites and sounds of this truly unique ecosystem is highlighted by our arrival at the secluded seaside village of Walung. Accessible only by boat or on foot, Walung has no roads, stores or electricity, and it is the quintessential island paradise of palm-fringed, white sand beaches. The Kosraen word for beautiful is Kahto, and Kosrae is certainly just that—Kahto.

    Simply put, Pohnpei is awesome. Rising more than 2,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean, its rain forest-shrouded peaks help create their own weather patterns and keep the island one of wettest places on earth. Shaped like the prow of a great ship, the 500-foot sheer, basalt face of Sokehs Rock is one of Micronesia’s most prominent features. Encircling the island is a lagoon, a barrier reef, 25 islets and eight outlying atolls. It would appear on paper to have everything one could dream of, but how’s the diving? I thought you’d never ask.

    A Christmas Tree Worm, Kosrae.
    Our first dive was at a place aptly named Manta Road. A small pass in the barrier reef, it is choked with planktonic goodies for our big winged friends. Before we could even grab the mooring line, the lagoon’s surface broke with the white flash of a feeding Manta Ray’s underbelly. So consumed was it in its barrel-rolling feed, that I was sure it would smack into the boat at any moment. Once in the water, visibility dropped considerably within the clouds of microscopic life. Staring intensely into the milky void, I strained my eyes to catch a glimpse of an incoming Manta. After awhile, I was beginning to see Manta mirages. My brain was trying too hard to see what couldn’t be seen. I took a breather, double checked my camera settings and looked up. One. Two. Three. In the brief seconds it had taken me to glance down at my camera, three majestic Mantas suddenly materialized and were silently soaring past me in a line, mouths agape. Then, as quickly and quietly as they had arrived, they were gone.

    An hour later, we were hovering at the edge of one of the larger passes, and it was almost time for the incoming tide. I was beside myself with anticipation. For those of you who haven’t dived in a pass during a tidal change, I’ve got one word for you—intense. With all that nutrient-rich water being funneled through one relatively small opening, it’s an aquatic smorgasbord, and everyone’s invited. Schooling sharks, barracuda, jacks, tuna, Mantas, fish and more fish—there were no nosebleed seats at this event, the action was happening in front of, behind, above and below us. As the current got stronger the action intensified. Soon the current’s increasing velocity threatened to sweep us away, and we had to surface.

    Micronesia GETTING THERE

    Marshall Islands: Year-round. Slightly drier and cooler January through March. Typhoons are rare, although March, April, October and November can be stormy. Kosrae: Year-round. Dry season between May and October; rainy season between November and April. Pohnpei: Year-round. January and February are the driest months, April and May are the wettest.

    Tropical oceanic, cooled year-round by the northeast trade winds. Average temperature is 80°F.
    The U.S. dollar is used throughout Micronesia.
    Marshall Islands & Kosrae: EST + 17 hours
    Pohnpei: EST + 16 hours
    Marshall Islands Visitors Authority
    011 (692) 625 6482
    Bako Divers
    011 (692) 625 2525
    Marshall Dive Adventures
    011 (692) 625 DIVE
    Marshall Islands Resort
    011 (692) 625 2525
    Robert Reimers Hotel
    011 (692) 625 3250
    Kosrae Visitors Authority
    Kosrae Nautilus Resort
    011 (691) 370 3667
    Kosrae Village Resort
    011 (691) 370 3483
    Pohnpei Visitors Authority
    (691) 320 4823
    Iet Ehu Dive Tours
    011 (691) 320 2958
    Joy Ocean Services
    011 (691) 320 2447
    Joy Ocean Services
    011 (691) 320 2447
    Phoenix Marine Sports Club
    011 (691) 320 5678
    The Village Hotel and Tours
    011 (691) 320 2797
    Phoenix Marine Sports Club
    011 (691) 370 3100

    The following day was spent diving more passes and yielded even bigger and better encounters with the added excitement of surfacing in a full-blown squall. Looking across the open boat, I saw that the local divers had been through this before. Happily bundled up in their raincoats, they were oblivious to this routine weather. Personally, I was still so jazzed from the dive that I remained in my wetsuit and rode it out with a grin from ear to ear. As usual, after about an hour, the skies opened up and the sun’s warm gentle rays bathed Pohnpei once more.

    I came to eastern Micronesia looking for something other than the chaos of the world’s more popular dive destinations. What I found was much more than just uncrowded diving. I left with a greater understanding and respect for these islands, their people and the waters they call home. The Marshall Islands, Kosrae and Pohnpei seem wonderfully stuck in a time warp. Although touched by the modern world, they have not, nor will they, allow themselves to be drawn into the mass industrialization and exploitation found on too many of the world’s islands. Hungry for tourism and the influx of needed capital it will bring, the people here are still not willing to let their beloved islands be sacrificed in the process. If at this point I still need to tell you that this is a place any diver with a dream of unspoiled discovery must go to see, you simply haven’t been paying attention.

    A special thanks to the following for providing transportation, diving and accommodations for this article: Continental Airlines. Majuro: The Marshall Islands Visitors Authority, Robert Reimers Hotel, Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort, Bako Divers, Marshalls Dive Adventures. Kosrae: Kosrae Visitors Authority, Kosrae Village Resort, Kosrae Nautilus Resort, Phoenix Marine Sports Club. Pohnpei: Pohnpei Visitors Authority, Phoenix Marine Sports Club, Skylight Hotel, George and Anita La Mont.