Micronesia is both a country, and greater region. Like the Marshall Islands the FSM exists mostly through US aid, but there the similarities end.
Pohnpei, the FSM's capital, is not an atoll, but a lush volcanic island, and even though evidence of American influences abound, it still retains a quiet island charm with warm friendly people.
It's a nice place. Nice, but wet, as Tuk informs me at the airport, it has some of the highest annual rainfalls of any island in the world.
Of course, nothing involving me is ever that easy. Micronesian airports are pretty low-key affairs, usually one runway hacked out of the coral and baggage claim is wherever the truck happens to stop. Even so, we show up two hours early for our "domestic" flight.
"Do you have your cholera card?" asks the check-in person. "Umm, no..."
It seems that there has recently been a Cholera outbreak in Pohnpei, and the folks in the neighboring FSM states are uptight about it spreading. To enter Chuuk from Pohnpei we have to have proof we've been treated for Cholera.
So, it's off to the government hospital for three free mystery pills and a tap water chaser before racing back to airport for our flight. By the time we clear security Tuk is dry heaving into rubbish bins as whatever they gave us stirred up a fury in her previously calm stomach.
Welcome to Chuuk, at least they did ask for our hard earned cholera cards, I was going to make someone eat them if they hadn't.
|Bridge of the Shinkoku Maru.|
Chuuk is all about diving, wreck diving. Even the local license plates read, "Diver's Haven." A nice thing about Chuuk though is that the diving varies from entry level to expert. As long as you like wrecks, you'll like Chuuk, and even if wrecks aren't quite your thing, many of the sunken ships here are so encrusted they could just as easily be reefs.
In the 10 dives we did at Chuuk we didn't see any large fish, but we did see vast quantities of small colorful tropical fish. And, a close examination of the wrecks yields many tiny but exciting discoveries, small eel-like pipefish and dancing anemone shrimp were only a few of the "macro" sights we spotted.
Tuk descending into the Yamagiri Maru.
Tuk hadn't done a lot of wreck diving before and was nervous about diving in Chuuk. The thought of wriggling through the dark collapsing hulks of 55-year-old ships didn't exactly excite her.
Luckily, most of the ships on the bottom of Chuuk Lagoon are freighters whose wooden hatch covers have long since rotted away. The contents of the holds are viewed by just dropping in through the open hatchways. The holds tend to be big open areas and often aren't even overhead environments.
There are many easy dives to be done for any diver with good buoyancy control, but still plenty of challenges for the expert.
where it is the ships themselves that are the primary attraction, at
Chuuk, it's their contents that are more interesting. The cargo of
the freighters is an amazing testament to all the stuff it
takes to wage war. From tanks and torpedoes to sake bottles and rice
cookers it call all be found be found, slowly dissolving away on the floor
of the lagoon.
The diving at Chuuk is so good that it's easy to forget it came about at a terrible cost. More than 3,000 Japanese, American and Chuukese lost their lives in Operation Hailstone, a two-day onslaught by carrier based American aircraft.
The Japanese seized Chuuk and all of Micronesia in WWI. Chuuk's atoll and mountains provided formidable natural defenses and over their years of occupation the Japanese fortified it even further. The atoll became Japan's "Pearl Harbor," a safe haven for their combined fleet.
On February 4, 1944 the American navy sent two reconnaissance planes over the atoll. The Japanese scrambled many zero fighters but they couldn't reach the highflying Americans in time. The reconnaissance planes returned safely to base and reported a huge concentration of Japanese warships at Chuuk.
The Americans quickly assembled a massive taskforce that set sail. Three battleships, four heavy carriers, four light carriers, and their escorts all made way at top speed for Chuuk. The Japanese were made nervous by the reconnaissance flight and withdrew the super-battleship Osashi and four carriers from the lagoon.
Tuk near the bow gun of the Fujikawa Maru.
The Japanese had built an airstrip on Eten Island and their air force put up a valiant defense. But even though the island couldn't be sunk, the American planes damaged it badly and Japanese air operations were chaotic at best.
In the end, the carriers of Operation Hailstone lost 25 planes. But in exchange, over 260 Japanese aircraft were destroyed and 45 ships totaling 220,000 tons were sunk. Chuuk was a massive defeat for Japan. A material and emotional loss that struck at the core of their defense strategy for the Pacific.
After 55 years in the nutrient rich waters of the lagoon,
the wrecks are now kaleidoscopes of life, no longer drab conveyors
of destruction. The artifacts of war are in evidence all over the
ships, but they pale in comparison to nature's work. Time as always
makes things over in its own designs.
Our dives at Chuuk:
|#||Date||Max Depth||Dive Time||Wreck|
Freighter with one gun, and a nice engine room.
At 155m (512ft) the largest ship sunk in Chuuk Lagoon. She was once a passenger liner, but was converted to a submarine tender for the war. Piles of spare periscopes and other submarine supples are seen on the dive.
One of the best wrecks in Chuuk. The holds are full of sake bottles and disassembled Japanese "Zero" fighter planes.
|0:51||Rio de Janeiro Maru|
Another large converted passenger liner. She lays on her side though and is not as pretty as some of the other wrecks.
A really interesting albeit a tad deep wreck. A battle tank on the main deck and the remains of a truck dangling half over the side. Gas masks and other war supplies litter the holds.
We thought this was the prettiest wreck we dove. Amazingly colorful soft corals all over the ship. An oil tanker, so no holds to penetrate, but an interesting an easily accessible bridge.
A large combined freighter/passenger liner. Easy penetrations into the cargo holds where there are 14" battleship shells.
Another beautiful wreck with vibrant soft corals. Very Photogenic! She is a freighter that was blown in half when a bomb hit a gasoline tank.
|San Francisco Maru|
Maybe the best wreck at Chuuk, but deep. Three tanks and a truck on the main deck. Interesting engine room, and holds full of munitions. I did this dive on banded but independent twins, switching regulators to breathe the tanks down evenly and decompressing on plain air. Far from an optimal setup, but marginally adequate.
|0:39||Gosei Maru (Tuk)|
Small costal freighter with a hold full of torpedoes. Tuk says there were lots of fish.
An auxiliary cruiser converted for merchant use. Interesting holds with spare ship's propeller blades and even a bicycle. But, the wreck is laying on her side and is not as colorful as some of the others.
We slept through the day attempting to recovery from our foray into the "civilized" world.
Called rai in the local language, Yap's giant stone coins have been in use for hundreds of years.
With the largest over 4m (12ft) in diameter and weighing more than five tons, rai are not small change. The U.S. dollar is now used for most day-to-day transactions, but rai are still preferred for dowries and land purchases.
In the old days, the coins were laboriously carved with soft tools from the hard, crystalline limestone on the island of Palau, 400km (250mi) away. It was a harrowing journey back to Yap and rai were valued not by their size but by their transport's toll in sailor's lives.
Modern ships and metal tools have devalued newer rai, but the old pieces still retain their value. They are permanently stored in "banks" along village walkways and aren't moved when ownership changes.
Yap is a traditional, yet welcoming place and I'd gladly give a rai to
see it stay that way.
It is silent and majestic as it glides into view, flying through the water with a stately grace that defies any explanation of evolution as a probabilistic affair. The god who penned this amazing creature must surely have been an artist, not a mathematician.
I'm excited as I first glimpse the furtive shadow, then ecstatic as it comes clearly into view, and finally nervous as the huge manta sails just over my head.
My reactions are unfounded, it is only the first of several mantas we will see and they are gentle, even friendly beasts.
Despite their somewhat ominous appearance mantas are gentle creatures. They don't even have teeth, but rather strain microscopic plankton from the water like the great whales.
The manta dives at Yap are cleaning stations, places where the mantas come to have parasites picked off their bodies by small cleaner fish called wrasse.
Due in part to their large size, up to 4m (12ft) wingtip to wingtip, mantas have few predators and are not at all afraid of divers. Rather, they hover above divers at the cleaning stations, seemingly wondering if you might be talked into scratching that especially pesky itch.
Due to the bad weather, we had only average (10m, 30ft) visibility on our dives but the mantas frequently approached to within less than a meter (yard), offering many close-up opportunities.
We were told that the Yapese reefs have lovely diving as well, but to be
honest we didn't check. We were here for the mantas, those maestros
of underwater choreography, and we were not disappointed.
Tuk and I wondered around some villages outside Colonia, but without a guide it's hard to interpret much, so on this, our last day, we did a cultural tour.
A Yapese dance.|
I always chafe a bit when forced into such a well worn tourist groove, but it was a fun and interesting afternoon and it felt nice to support a village proud of its heritage and striving to make sure their culture remains more than just a memory.
The Rock Islands are touted as one of the world's premier diving destinations and we were excited about putting the hype to the test. Then we saw the prices... US$99 is a new record for a standard two dive day, and at well more than double what we were paying back in Indonesia it's the most expensive diving we've found in this part of the world.
Palau's Rock Islands|
The best diving in the world? No, definitely not. The diving is certainly good, but I'm not sure anything could have lived up to all the hype we'd heard about Palau. Is it worth the price? That you'd have to decide for yourself, but lots of people seem to think so.
My first dive is Palau's Blue Corner, one of the most well known dive sites in the world.
Leaving the trevallys behind, we swim along the wall until we get to Blue cornertm. Here, at 18m (60ft), we use reef-hooks to attach ourselves to a free spot between two other groups of divers on the lip of the wall and settle in to watch the show.
The corner is a section of reef that juts out into the channel. As the tides change, the water rushes into the wall and creates potentially strong and unpredictable currents, but also brings in the abundance and diversity of life this dive is famous for.
You never know quite what to expect, but most of the time it's exciting. Today we're entertained by a patrolling gray shark. Bulkier and somehow more shark-like looking than the common, and almost delicate seeming whitetip sharks, this fellow is 1.5m (5ft) long and afraid of nothing.
He swims up and down the row of divers giving me ample opportunity to shoot a set of stock, "shark shots." Out in the blue, beyond the shark's perimeter, swim several schools of reef fish. Parrot, angel, and butterfly fish abound with even the occasional appearance of a large Napoleon wrasse.
By all accounts, this is an average to middling day at the corner, but we linger until the novices get low on air and then, as a group, we unhook and drift into the shallows.
A few days later, I return to Blue Corner with Tuk for what
would be our last dive in Palau. The currents aren't at their
notorious strongest, but nonetheless, they are turbulent and control is a
On the corner, fluttering at the end of the short cords attached to our reef-hooks, there is a lot to see. Many sharks have come today, circulating amongst the huge schools of fish that mill about. The sense is that no matter where you are looking, there is something just a little bit more exciting happening right behind you.
We are lucky to be the only clients on the boat, and diving at a tide outside "prime time" we are fortunate enough to have the corner to ourselves for a few minutes before another group of divers drifts into view.
Blue Corner was the best dive I did in Palau, (both times I did it), but the other dives were good as well. The reefs have interesting topographies with deep channels, tunnels, and holes.
We even spotted this cute little fellow shown on the right, a fish I hadn't seen before, and still can't identify. Any guesses?
The diving was certainly good, at times maybe even great. But, in my opinion at least, there is better diving to be had, at much more reasonable prices for those willing to look a bit further afield than the local travel agent's office.
If you are not diving or kayaking there is little else to do in Palau, and certainly nothing to be done on the cheap, so Tuk and I had a quiet couple of days getting caught up on miscellanea.