Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)

26 Oct 2000
Fly to Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia for a reunion with Tuk.

27 Oct 2000
Explore the town of Kolonia.

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.

28 Oct 2000
Back to reef diving. Manta rays at the aptly named Manta ray road dive site, and then schools of small reef sharks in one of the channels were the ocean water enters the lagoon.

29 Oct 2000
Same dives, take two.

30 Oct 2000
We had planned on kayaking through Nan Madol, Pohnpei's 800-year-old archeological site of man-made islets, but weather and logistics conspired against us so we ended up lounging around instead.

31 Oct 2000
Fly to Chuuk (nee Truk), a different state (and island) in the FSM, and a wreck diving Mecca second only to Bikini.

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.

1-5 Nov 2000
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.

Unlike Bikini 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.

Gas mask on the Nippo Maru.
Tank on the deck of the San Francisco Maru.
Sake bottles inside the Rio de Janeiro Maru.

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.
On February 17, 1944, when the American carriers began unleashing wave after wave of attacks. They found not the Japanese warships they'd been hoping for, but rather a huge and only lightly defended fleet of Japanese merchant ships.

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.

Cargo derrick on the Sankisan Maru.
Bow of the Sankisan Maru.
Ventilator from the Yamagiri Maru.

Our dives at Chuuk:
#DateMax DepthDive TimeWreck
11 Nov30.8m/
101ft
0:43Kansho Maru
Freighter with one gun, and a nice engine room.
21 Nov28.2m/
92ft
0:42Heian Maru
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.
32 Nov27.9m/
91ft
0:47Fujikawa Maru
One of the best wrecks in Chuuk. The holds are full of sake bottles and disassembled Japanese "Zero" fighter planes.
42 Nov29.6m/
97ft
0:51Rio 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.
53 Nov38.9m/
128ft
0:35Nippo Maru
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.
63 Nov28.3m/
93ft
0:46Shinkoku Maru
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.
74 Nov33.2m/
109ft
0:44Yamagiri Maru
A large combined freighter/passenger liner. Easy penetrations into the cargo holds where there are 14" battleship shells.
84 Nov25.0m/
82ft
0:47Sankisan Maru
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.
95 Nov
(Evan)
61.3m/
201ft
1:17
0:45 deco
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.
5 Nov
(Tuk)
33.5/
110ft
0:39Gosei Maru (Tuk)
Small costal freighter with a hold full of torpedoes. Tuk says there were lots of fish.
105 Nov30.3/
99ft
0:58Kiyuzumi Maru
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.

6 Nov 2000
Rest and write.

7 Nov 2000
Fly to the U.S. territory of Guam where we have an overnight layover en route to Yap back in the Federated States of Micronesia.
American Hospitality
(lack thereof)

Our saga begins way back at the American embassy in Pohnpei where we tried really hard to do the "right thing." We knew we were scheduled for a 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. layover in the American territory of Guam so we went to the U.S. embassy and tried to get Tuk a transit visa.

Pohnpei is assuredly a backwater and I'll admit that it's probably not too often they get Thai nationals showing up wanting transit visas. But, given that Pohnpei is the last U.S. Embassy before Guam on the only airline route through Micronesia I didn't think our request was that outlandish.

Beyond just denying the visa, the woman was downright rude to us. She had no interest in our fist full of onward tickets or our logbooks showing we'd dove half the islands in the Pacific. Instead, she clung to her stereotypical view that a Thai woman traveling with an American man must surely be on a secret mission to emigrate.

She stopped one step short of calling Tuk a prostitute and I stopped one step short of smacking her upside the head.

It was one of those situations where in the midst of the kowtowing you lose track of just how degrading it is and it was only when we returned to our hotel that Tuk burst into tears.

It wasn't easy task, explaining to my tearful and disillusioned girlfriend the patent bigotry of a "diplomat" who purports to represent the "land of the free."

In Chuuk, where I at least wasn't expecting to be treated with any respect, the Continental agent informed me that he'd have to check to see whether Tuk would be able to transit through Guam.

Generally, international arrival halls are treated as if they aren't really part of any country, and transiting without a visa is usually just a matter of not leaving the waiting area.

But, in the United States' infinite sense of self-importance they've seen fit to complicate what everywhere else in the world is a simple procedure.

In order to transit through Guam, Tuk needs to fill out a TWOV (transit without visa) form, her passport and tickets are confiscated, and she is supposed to remain in the custody of airline staff at all times. Welcome to the Gestapo States of America, let the degradation continue...

In Guam we were met by the Continental staff who were to escort Tuk through immigration. I've never seen another country were transiting passengers need to be seen and stamped by immigration, but by this point the heavy handed American bureaucracy was slowly ceasing to surprise me.

Guam is Continental's pacific hub, and on our layover I wanted to make some changes to our onward tickets. But, as they don't have a ticket desk inside immigration and Tuk wasn't supposed to even hold her tickets never mind actually go through immigration, I first had to wait for Tuk to get her superfluous stamp and then talk her handlers into giving me the tickets.

According to my reading of the forms involved, their giving me the tickets was a violation of American law, but then so was their just abandoning her in the waiting area (she's supposed to be in their "custody" at all times). This seemed like a lucky break at the time, but I should have known better.

With a, "Bye honey, I'll see in a little bit," I left Tuk cooling her heels in the waiting area's Wienerschnitzel and headed through immigration myself.

Swiping my passport through the scanner at immigration produced no immediate problems, but now I need to start over on my "continuously absent for 365 days" tax status.

I made the mistake of being honest, and telling customs idiot #1 that I was going to be there only for a few minutes to change some plane tickets. This it seems merited a full-scale search.

Customs idiot #2, the searcher, was also full of questions and it still hadn't quite dawned on me that the time for honesty had long since past.

I told him the truth, that my Thai girlfriend was stuck on the other side of immigration and that I'd brought my carry-on out with me so that she wouldn't have to lug too much stuff around if she, for instance, wanted to do something so outrageous as take a pee.

He gave me the, "Oh, that old trick," look and started going through my bag with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. Irritated as I was, I don't begrudge him the search, I suppose these morons do serve some purpose. But, then he launched into the questions.

CI #2: Rifling my postcards, So, I'm not going to find any pictures in here that might, you know, surprise me? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Me: No officer.
CI #2: She hasn't been giving you any 'love potions' has she? (Repeated four times amidst a flurry of more winking and nudging).
Me: No officer, No officer, No officer, Do you mean drugs officer?
CI #2: Wiping his hand down the inside of my bag, There seems to be an awful lot of foreign material in here?
Me: Yes officer, that would be dirt, I've been away 1.5 years.

After 1/2 an hour of this offensive crap I was ready to take a swing at the guy, but the Continental ticket desk was closing in less than an hour and I didn't have time to go to jail.

In the end, he ignored my laptop which, having been bought in Singapore but accidentally left off my form as "overseas goods," was the only thing I had with me that was even slightly dodgy.

Welcome to America, home of the brave, not since Indonesia, land of the corrupt, have I been subjected to such nonsense.

After all the hassling it took me exactly 3 minutes to discover that our tickets were completely, absolutely, guaranteedly unchangeable. Continental-- efficient only in their resolve to be unhelpful.

So, at 9 p.m., after three patience trying hours of jumping through hoops, all I wanted was to go back up to the passenger lounge, curl up on a bench with Tuk, and catch a few hours sleep before our 5 a.m. flight. But, the fun was really just beginning.

At the security checkpoint I flashed my boarding pass and started for the metal detector.
Excuse me sir, I can't let you through. Your flight isn't until tomorrow.
And so began an endless cycle of explaining. The whole story again, to this guy, then to his supervisor, the Continental people, and finally to their supervisors.

The rule it seemed couldn't be broken, and to top it all off, the rule didn't even make sense.

In Guam, passengers are only allowed through the security checkpoint on the calendar day of their flight. It doesn't matter whether the flight is an hour away, or 23 hours away, as long as the day is the same.

It also seemed that it didn't matter if waiting through all this had been a confused and upset Thai woman who'd been treated badly by every authority figure involved in the fiasco and was probably close to panic wondering where her boyfriend who said he'd be gone only a few minutes had wandered off to. Nope, women like that definitely don't matter at all. Rules it seemed are rules.

After it not making sense, and not being bendable, the next most annoying thing about the rule is that no one would take responsibility for it. Continental claimed it was the security firm's rule, while the security people said they were just doing as Continental had told them to; two tails wagging each other with no dog in sight.

I finally resigned myself to waiting until midnight and started trying to get a message through to Tuk. Over my objections that she wouldn't understand the Continental people wasted another 1/2 hour trying to page her before finally just sending someone to find her.

At the appointed rendezvous on opposite sides of the security checkpoint I tried to explain all these goings on to a bewildered Tuk.

As she came for hug the security guard barked at us not to get too close and I finally lost it. I had just enough control left to compress a huge stream of profanities into, "Buzz off!" Even this prompted a tirade from the guard, and we were quickly belly to belly with me screaming for his badge number.

To my chagrin, this guy turned out to be the only sane person at the airport. He was upset because he'd been the one to go in search of Tuk, but when I recounted my evening's tale of woe he understood how I'd ended up so strung out.

He and I had made up and he was halfway through telling me how much he'd like to let me through if only it wasn't for that pesky rule and its coconspirator the video camera, when a gaggle of off-duty Continental supervisors came by to see what my tantrum was all about.

The gaggle of Continental supervisors commingled with the phalanx of airport security people and came to the erudite conclusion that there was no sane reason I should sleep on the floor outside the security checkpoint until midnight. Imagine that!

They powered up the x-ray machine, waved me through, and I didn't evan have the heart to have them to hand inspect my film.

Back in the promised land of international ambiguity we went for corn dogs and a pitch of Miller Lite before curling up on the floor at our gate and waiting for our dawn flight out of the United States of America. Good riddance!

8 Nov 2000
Welcome to Yap, land of the giant stone money. On arrival we were lei'd by a beautiful young woman traditionally dressed in nothing but a grass skirt. Now that's hospitality.

We slept through the day attempting to recovery from our foray into the "civilized" world.

9 Nov 2000
See a bit of the town, Colonia, but mostly more resting and organizing.

10 Nov 2000

A Rai For Your Thoughts
(The Giant Stone Money of Yap)

 

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.

11 Nov 2000
Manta diving

12 Nov 2000
We'd planned on more diving, but we woke to torrential rain and decided to sleep all day instead.

13 Nov 2000
More manta diving.

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.

 
For divers, the stone money is an aside, Yap is about manta rays. This is one of the few places in the world where sightings of these magical creatures are virtually guaranteed year-round.

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.

14 Nov 2000
Yap has one of the most intact cultures of any Pacific nation. Visitation of the outer islands is strictly controlled, and life there goes on much as it always have. Even in the capital, Colonia, it's still common to see women in grass skirts at the grocery store, and in the villages, the accouterments of modern life are far less common than the stone money.

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.
Along with a busload of tourists from the big resort we shuffled down traditional stone paths, watched traditional dances and demonstrations of traditional skills like traditional basket weaving and traditional palm tree climbing.

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.

15 Nov 2000
Fly to Koror, the capital of Palau.

Palau

Palau is another country that was a US trust territory for many years after WWII, but is now an independent nation. Located on the western edge of Micronesia, Palau is most famous for its Rock Islands, a 20mi (32k) stretch of lush, jungle-covered limestone outcroppings that dot tranquil, sapphire-blue seas.

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
16 Nov 2000
A two dive day for me while Tuk recovers from a cold, Blue Corner and Turtle Cove.

17 Nov 2000
Two dives with Tuk, Ulong Channel and Siaes Tunnel.

18 Nov 2000
A day of resting and watching it rain.

19 Nov 2000
Our final diving day in Palau, Big Drop-off and Blue Corner.
Entering Siaes Tunnel.

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.

 
 
Moray eel.
(Blue Corner Shallows)
A group of eight, (two novices, two experienced divers, and four instructors), we roll off the boat and drop down the wall to about 30m (100ft). Spiraling below us in a compact swirl is a large school of trevally, leader merging into follower, the whole group putting on a dynamic silvery display.

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 challenge.

Tuk watches three gray sharks.
(Blue Corner)
Tuk with a Giant clam.
(Ulong Channel)

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.

 
 
Mystery fish?

The soft corals are sparse, but there is ample fish life. We saw sharks on every dive, and were frequently surrounded by schools of reef fish. There are giant clams, the occasional turtle, and a variety of nudibranchs to be searched for as you explore the reefs and walls.

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.

20 Nov 2000
Errands and writing.

21 Nov 2000
More Errands and writing.

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.


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