Variations on Nature’s Theme
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY
BY AL HORNSBY
Guam, for most people, is unexpected. It's a place many may never have heard of until its name shows up on a Micronesia flight itinerary. It's the intermediate stop an a dream dive adventure. The gateway to the famed diving of Palau, Yap and Chuuk. The place to change planes and find restful moments after a transpacific flight.
What is unexpected is its bright sunlight and deep blue ocean. Its pure white beaches and green mountains. Its clear, clear water and reefs alive with darting tropical fish of 100 colors.
What is unexpected, also, is that it is romantic and, given even a day or two, it will mark its own indelible place in memory.
Palau, an hour and a half southwest of Guam, has received its share of superlative labels: one of the Seven Wonders of the Diving World and The Marine Life Capital of the Western Pacific among them. Whatever it is called, the 340 islands that make up the archipelago of Palau constitute one of the truly remarkable--and beautiful--places on the planet. Its rich waters, seemingly full of thousands of species of marine creatures, provide a diving experience unique in its complexity, variation and pure, adrenaline-filled excitement.
If one imagines a complex reef system, hundreds of miles in circumference, surrounding a gigantic lagoon filled with upthrust, jungle-covered islands of myriad shapes and sizes, that's a hint of the impression of Palau. Then add warm, clear water of varying shades of cobalt blue and bright turquoise visited by flocks of birds, such as cockatoos, terns and petrels, and the impression grows. With hot, sun drenched air stirred by a soft trade wind and a cloud-puffed blue sky that turns orange, violet and crimson at sunset in the mix, imagination begins to come close to the astonishing reality.
The diving experience, however, exceeds the realms of imagination. For anyone who has never dived the Indo-Pacific region, the excitement, the numbers of fish and other creatures, and the richness and variation of the reef systems are difficult to anticipate. And Palau, as one of diving's wonders, is truly among the best the Pacific has to offer.
On the reef's outer walls, there are high intensity sites such as Yellow Wall, off the island of Peleliu at the lagoon's southern tip. Just offshore, the wall drops steeply, creating a vertical world edged by clear, deep water. Yellow sponges and cup corals cover the smooth face, creating a fantasy scene of unnaturally bright color over an immense area; a tonal hue startlingly unexpected in the soft greens and blues of the deeper reef. Off the wall, it's a place for encounters of the big kind--turtles, Dog-Tooth Tuna, Gray Reef Sharks and the occasional billfish.
In the large tidal passes that carve through the reefline, there are sites of a different sort, places such as West Passage, where a brisk current speeds divers over miles of spectacular reef and vast congregations of fish. Where there is current, there is nutrient-mixing and life thrives. Huge gorgonian fans of orange and tan grow perpendicular to the water flow and soft corals in red, white and deep purple hang from out-thrust ledges. Blue-stripe and Black Snappers mill about in schools numbering in the thousands. There are frequently Eagle Rays and Mantas, seen as they glide by without apparent effort, oblivious to the strength of the fast moving tidal stream.
In the lagoon's interior, marine lakes lie hidden inside high rock islands, reachable by hikes over steep crests or through narrow, concealed tunnels at the waterline. Life that prefers quiet, secluded places abounds; lobsters, large Tiger Cowries and the occasional Banded Coral Snake. In one major lake, aptly named Jellyfish Lake, several million non-stinging jellyfish pulsate through the green-tinged water, providing an exquisite interaction.
For many divers, because the diving is so astounding, it takes a second trip to Palau for the chance to see the other half of its wonders, those found above the water. There are hikes to WWII wreckage or waterfalls, kayak trips through secret passages and bone littered burial caverns from the ancient past--the list goes on and on and on.
Between Guam and Palau, the small island group of Yap juts up from the rolling Pacific. Its green swathed hills, surrounded by a fringing reef and mile after mile of mangrove lined bays, in many ways have been little touched by the march of time. There is virtually no development; there are still village chiefs, a caste system and an ancient currency built around huge--as much as 10 to 12 feet tall--disks of carved stone. For divers, there is a pristine marine world, scarcely explored, yet profound in what has been discovered.
A visit to Yap, then, is a quiet cultural experience, with the opportunity to see Micronesia at its roots. Friendly people, shy, yet welcoming; traditional dress; ages old dances and songs, preserved and performed by successive generations of children. These are a part of each day in Yap--warm, tropical days otherwise punctuated by intense excitement, the excitement from repeated, close-up encounters with one of the ocean's most dramatic creatures--the huge, gentle Manta Ray.
In two of Yap's tidal channels, schools of Mantas, some as large as 12 feet across the wings, ride the incoming morning tide into shallow water. There, in a pattern undisturbed over the ages, they move to certain coral mounds where they hang motionless as hundreds of small fish come up to meet them, moving across their gigantic bodies to pick away the tiny parasites the Mantas carry.
For the divers waiting motionless just a few feet away, quiet witness to this incredible natural phenomenon, it's an experience somehow beyond adequate description. The Mantas are awesome, immense, yet gentle and supple; their movements a dance of power and grace. Undisturbed, they may stay for hours, each taking its turn, one after another, giving the grateful humans in their midst a sense of wonder never to be forgotten.
But other dives have been discovered around Yap that share the richness and variety for which Micronesia is known. The walls, especially those at the reefline's extreme southwestern tip, are breathtaking and swarm with life. Clear, clear water is the norm, and there are places where Whitetip Reef Sharks lie in quiet, sand bottomed grottos; Green Turtles meander over lush fields of hard corals; and lionfish, as many as five different species, crowd together in one small overhung section of a steep wall.
To the southeast of Guam, there's an experience of a different sort to be found, one born of conflict, of man's damage to his own race and to nature, and nature's intense will to adapt and survive. Inside Chuuk's lagoon there is a scattered ecosystem, perhaps one of the most purely colorful and dramatic in the sea, built solely upon the results of humankind's greatest folly, the mass destruction wrought of WWII.
When bombs fell and ships sank 50 years ago in this remote place turned strategic by war, the deep, silt bottomed lagoon received new platforms for life. Each of the more than 60 ships that sank during the fierce attacks in February 1943 became the substrate for marine life that could not find a place to survive otherwise. Gorgonians, soft corals, ball anemones, zigzagged Hyotis Clams, wire corals and hard corals took hold and, over the decades, transformed the shattered hulks into bizarrely beautiful gardens of color and motion. Fish also thrived around the new habitats and today each site is an oasis of life nurtured by rich, warm Pacific waters.
The huge ships still hold their artifacts as well as their weapons of war. Bullets, torpedoes, airplanes, tanks and other vehicles; books, phonograph records, dishes and clothing; and even skulls and a few scattered bones, are somber reminders of a dark, violent time in our history.
A visit is an awe inspiring, yet faintly disturbing, juxtaposition of nature's ability to create beauty and our own ability to destroy; of the pure excitement of swimming along massive ships of war and the quiet reflection of the terror of those times. At trip's end, there is a logbook full of memories of ships with lilting names, such as the 500 foot long Shinkoku, now covered with soft corals and ball anemones; of the 367 foot long munitions ship Sankisan, her tall masts now hanging gardens of corals, shellfish and sponges; of the 338 foot long Fumitsuki, a slim destroyer bristling with cannons and torpedo tubes, her lines softened by huge stands of Black Coral and swirling schools of Silversides. These are but a few among so many, each with its own tale, its own intense, ever memorable impression.
Hilton Tree Bar: At poolside, the Tree Bar is one of Guam’s most popular night spots, with live music and great tropical drinks.
Dragon-Tei: Authentic, excellent Japanese food served in the traditional way (but there is an English translation of the extensive menu), along with cold beer and saki.
Rock Islands Cafe: You'll probably see most of the American divemasters of Palau here at one time or another during your stay. Real American food, including great burgers and fries, provides a touch of home.
Crystal Palace: A great Chinese restaurant upstairs; an Asian-style karaoke club downstairs. Private rooms make it easy for your group to sing, drink and party without having to decide if you are ready to perform in public!
Poolside at Palau Pacific Resort: One of the best sunset bars you'll ever find, with an unobstructed view of Palau's amazing sunsets, right down to the horizon. Special tropical drinks--like the Shark Attack--are the house favorites.
Outrigger Hotel (four bars and restaurants): Brand new on the scene, Outrigger's lounges and eateries provide a choice of Asian and American food and drinks, complete with great views of the Rock Islands.
Slacktide Saloon & The Upstairs Restaurant at Manta Ray Bay Hotel: These are the gathering places in Yap; great food, ice cold beer and a view of the harbor at sunset.
O'Keefe's: Indoor/outdoor bar under the trees, frequented by locals and visitors. Island-style decor (the real thing), drinks and snacks.
Pathways Lounge: Great tropical drinks in a tropical garden setting. Bamboo and carved wood create a comfortable island ambiance.
The Truk Stop: Chuuk's most popular restaurant and bar has either indoor or outdoor seating, a broad local or international menu and the coldest beer in town.