Travel Micronesia

Best of Micronesia Field Report

Shirley Campbell|April 18, 2018|Field Report

Monday, February 26, 2018
Cairns, Australia / Rabaul, Papua New Guinea / Embark Caledonian Sky

After a good night’s sleep in Cairns we flew to Kokopo airport, Rabaul. Splendid views of the Torres Strait below marked the northern edge of Australia and the southern coastline of Papua New Guinea. Upon arrival we stopped to visit a Japanese barge tunnel, part of over 300 miles of tunnels laboriously cut into the mountainside to hide Japanese munitions, stores, hospitals, artillery, and other relics of the Pacific War. Arriving at the Caledonian Sky we had a quick dinner before buses transported us into Baining country to watch the famous Fire Dance, a performance still considered essential to Baining life. The dances celebrate the birth of a child, the commencement of harvest, as well as to honor the dead. The masks are made of bark cloth, bamboo, and leaves. They are thought to be inhabited by ‘bush spirits’. Once the dance is finished the masks are destroyed so as to protect the village from these spirits. The fire dance is also a rite of passage for young men being initiated into adulthood. Because the spirits were considered too dangerous for women and children they were forbidden to watch the dances in the past. Even today, they keep their distance as the young men, emboldened by the spirits that inhabit their costumes, defy physics and challenge the fire.

Tuesday, February 27
Tingwon Island, New Hanover Group

There is something very soporific about a rocking ship, gently lulling one to a deep sleep. After what seemed like days of travel, the opportunity to get a good night’s sleep set us up for the day ahead. Shirley Campbell presented our first lecture of the trip, Micronesia: A Known Seascape. We were treated to an overview of the archipelago of islands we were on our way to explore. However, we were still in Melanesia, and today we visited one of the most northerly island groups in Papua New Guinea, the New Hanover Group.

Tingwon is a low-lying coralline island with a maximum elevation of 23 feet above sea level. Its small population was excited to have us visit and put on a spectacular display of cultural dances despite the pouring rain! The welcoming songs of the Uniting Church’s choir were presented with stunning choral harmonies, the Christian nature of the lyrics a reminder of the missionary activity in this region. This was followed by boys performing a dance recalling the story of a man who had been injured and, dying from his wounds, sought refuge from the villagers on the island. It was during the second dance that the monsoonal skies finally broke, spilling torrential rain upon the dancers. Nevertheless, the dances continued with girls presenting a story about fishing off their island.

Once the deluge had subsided we were free to follow Brent Stephenson in search of the Nicobar pigeon, of which there were many good sightings. Those who accompanied Annette Kuhlem and Shirley explored the main village, about a 30-minute walk to the far end of the island where we visited the school, health clinic, the church, and observed people going about their daily tasks. Others found tranquility in the water observing marine life. Snorkelers swam over a steep drop-off and saw three different kinds of anemone fish. One of these had made a home within a beautiful, purple anemone. There were a large number of pyramid butterflyfish patrolling their paired territories.

This evening was captain’s welcome drinks and dinner, so we dressed up for the occasion to meet with our fellow travelers and Captain Håkan Gustafsson and his senior staff.

Wednesday, February 28
At Sea

Sailing north on lovely seas to the southern reaches of the Federated States of Micronesia, our day was full of educational opportunities. The morning started with Jack Grove pointing out some of the key features that help identify fish in Ichthyology and the Art of Watching Fish. From fish to WWII, Terence Christian prepared us for the theater of war fought in the islands we were heading towards, Everything and all the World Became my Enemy. After lunch Annette told us the story of the migrations of Polynesian people west instead of the more generally known migrations east in Little Strongholds of Polynesia: The Cultural Relationships of the Outlier Islands. The hotel department put on a non-fattening Ice Cream Social before the last lecture of the day by Rich Pagen, Productivity on the Coral Reef: How Interspecies Relationships have Built an Empire. Fully fed both mentally and physically, we enjoyed the gentle rocking of the ship as she continued north.

Thursday, March 1
Kapingamarangi Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia

Our first stop in the State of Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, was this delightful Polynesian Outlier. Colonised from Samoa in the 1700s, there is now a population of about 500 living on two connected islands; Touhou and Welua.

Welcomed by young girls doing a pan-Polynesian dance to a club version of Alo’a hoi, it was hard not to giggle at the mixture of contemporary music with classical hula. Following the welcoming dances, we walked through the two villages and visited the school on Welua Island. It was still in session, but we peeked through the shuttered windows to see earnest students focused on their lessons. Walking along the pathways we saw taro patches, breadfruit, pandanus trees, and tethered pigs. Sago and banana leaf thatched houses were arranged in clusters, using corrugated iron to collect rainwater. Fishermen had brought in a catch of yellowtail tuna. As they were carving the fish up for distribution amongst their families we got to have a of taste this delicacy.

In the water there were plenty of small fish swimming around beautiful coral heads of enormous sizes; some of which must be thousands of years old! Reef sharks patrolled while pairs of redfin butterflyfish danced elegantly over the corals and burrowing clams decorated the reef. Divers explored a steep, craggy wall and saw lots of parrotfish.

Back on board Brent Stephenson offered tips on photographic success in The World Through a Lens.

Friday, March 2
Nukuoro Atoll

Conch shells blew as our Zodiacs approached the landing site, alerting villagers to our arrival. This scene is one often played out in eastern Polynesia and so somewhat out of place in Micronesia! We received ingeniously woven banana leaf hats and colourful leis. A program of the morning’s events was given to each of us, containing a map of the island. The Acting Mayor had organized a selection of local delicacies for us to try, including banana and breadfruit chips, taro and banana slices, and cooked breadfruit. Once the welcome was over we went off with our local guides to explore the island. Not far along the main path the Protestant church stood out, while another path led to the ocean side of the island where the school is located.

Out on the snorkel platform inside the lagoon, we snorkeled off a sheer wall encrusted with thorny oysters and mushroom corals. Small groups of fusiliers fed in the blue water column while schools of surgeonfish pulled bits of filamentous algae off the rocks. Divers dove in calm conditions along a channel inside the lagoon. The highlight of our underwater experience, however, was snorkeling over the Nukuoro Zero, reportedly flown by Captain Tosiuki Hiachi. The Nukuoro Zero came to rest in the shallows of Nukuoro Atoll after running out of fuel while chased by Allied aircraft. The villagers watched to see if there were any signs of life, and when Captain Hiachi climbed out of the cockpit and dropped into the lagoon, the villagers paddled out to rescue him. Reports from villagers recall that Captain Hiachi made an SOS sign out of coral on the beach. American aerial sweeps observed the call for assistance and, recognizing the SOS as specifically a Japanese request for assistance, proceeded to bomb the island. Conversations with villagers and secondary sources report Captain Hiachi living on the island for 1-2 years and fathering 2-3 children before being repatriated back to Japan.

Back on board for lunch, the Caledonian Sky sailed north toward our next destination. Terence continued his exposition on the role Micronesia played in WWII, From Island X to Island Y: The Origins of the Island Hopping Strategy in WWII. A break in feeding the mind turned to feeding the stomach when the captain and first mate prepared Swedish pancakes. Then Steven Victor from The Nature Conservancy gave his presentation, The Nature Conservancy: Building a Sustainable Future for Asia-Pacific.

Saturday, March 3
Pohnpei Island

They say that you haven’t been to Pohnpei unless it rained while you were there. Well, we can say to have been to Pohnpei! Locals claim it is the second wettest place on the planet with rain 70% of the time, overcast 20% of the time, and sunny 10% of the time. Our experience of the island might alter that calculation to 70% rain and 30% pouring rain!

A local pilot helped navigate the ship into the harbor at Kolonia where children dressed in grass skirts sang welcome songs to greet us despite the downpour. Undaunted, we disembarked for three different excursions; cultural, World War II, and birding. First, we all experienced Kepirohi Waterfalls hoping for a lovely swim in its calm pools. However, the falls were raging and far too dangerous for a swim! Nearby lunch was served and featured many local delicacies with sour sop being the most memorable.

Nan Madol was the seat of power for the Saudeleur dynasty until the early 17th century. The complex of 108 artificial islets stretches for more than a mile offshore on a coral shelf, the stone structures and coral fill platforms are bordered by tidal canals. There were temples, royal homes, jails, hospitals, officers’ and priests’ quarters, tombs, and many other as yet unidentified structures. The large basalt stones used from around 1180 CE to construct the buildings were taken from a volcanic plug on the opposite side of Pohnpei. Though much of the complex is in ruins, it was interesting to walk along paths and bridges through the mangroves to get to Nan Dowas, featuring a royal tomb and small prison for military personnel according to our guide.

Those on the WWII tour traveled along washed out roads toward Japanese coastal gun installations, viewing a collection of bomb, battle, and post-war damaged tanks. We were also able to tour—and even climb aboard—a restored Japanese Type 97 Te-Ke tankette. This specimen retained an original, though corroded, main turret machine gun and restored camouflage pattern. The opportunity to get hands-on experience with such unique survivors from the Pacific war was a rare treat!

Sunday, March 4
Oroluk Atoll

This morning the scouting team attempted to find a way through the lagoon to get us all ashore on the tiny island of Oroluk. The lagoon is very shallow and the tide was going out, making a landing impossible. So the ten residents of the island were left in peace while we had fun with underwater explorations.

Divers took a longer Zodiac ride south of the main lagoon entrance and found a beautiful wall with good coral coverage. Schools of steephead parrotfish, blue-stripe fusiliers, a scattering of smaller reef fish, and a juvenile gray reef shark were the show stoppers!

On the snorkel platform a white-tip reef shark was seen cruising along the wall while several free divers dropped in on a large anemone where Clark’s anemonefish had made their home. Large roaming mobs of parrotfish busily chomped the algae and several species of antheas flitted through the corals.

Back on board Shirley presented Wayfinding: Navigating the Pacific, followed by Terence’s presentation, The Gibraltar of the Pacific.

Monday, March 5
Chuuk Atoll

The large, 820-square-mile lagoon, surrounded by a 145-mile protective reef system is a diver’s nirvana! Snorkelers and divers alike had no complaints as the lagoon lived up to its reputation for a spectacular viewing of both history and sea life. The sunken WWII vessels and aircraft have become vibrant reefs bringing life from tragedy. Divers explored the remains of the Fujikawa Maru, a Japanese transport ship containing remnants of Zeros in its hull, together with oil barrels, presumably once kept to maintain the Zeros. Divers also explored the 500-foot Japanese oil tanker, Shinkoku Maru, while snorkelers swam over a Japanese Zero and a Subchaser, both encrusted with corals and algae.

Our WWII excursions on Tonoas Island focused on Japanese defensive structures along an arduous hike. Our first stop just before the Japanese causeway linking the island’s two eastern peninsulas was a site locally referred to as “Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Bunker.” This cave network was carved by Japanese soldiers and local people employed/conscripted as laborers in response to Allied aerial bombing. Set deep into the rock, the bunker is reportedly the site of a communications facility. Continuing on, our guide led us to a pillbox overlooking one of two main Japanese fleet anchorages.

The afternoon saw many of us return to Yamamoto’s Bunker to explore further with some continuing on with Terence to a site locally referred to as the “German HQ”. The site was not German but rather a Japanese air raid shelter of standard design in remarkable condition. In fact, what we had found was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 4th Fleet (South Seas Force) Headquarters and associated air raid shelter. This air raid shelter was the very site where Vice Admiral Chuichi Hara—the last commander of the IJN 4th Fleet and the man who would surrender Chuuk, in conjunction with Lt. General Shunzaburo Mugikura of the Imperial Japanese Army, to the United States on September 2, 1945—sheltered from Allied bombing raids! Trekking through the jungle to find this incredible wartime survivor was a perfect way to end our exploration of wartime Chuuk.

In the afternoon snorkelers did a kind of ‘muck’ dive in which shrimp gobi and snapping shrimp paired up for mutual benefit. Those walking with Annette and Shirley also found remnants of Japanese occupation. At the local school there was a large air raid shelter together with anti-aircraft gun mounts. We walked past a Japanese hospital before heading down a little path towards the large Catholic Church at our landing site.

This evening, the hotel staff put on a sumptuous BBQ dinner accompanied by much singing and dancing.

Tuesday, March 6
Pulap Atoll

During breakfast, our first sighting of an outrigger canoe under sail brought a sense of thrill as we neared the more remote islands of the Federated States of Micronesia. The men and women of Pulap put on a wonderful display of Micronesian singing and dancing at the village gymnasium, constructed by the American military in the 1970s. Women started by chanting from outside as they slowly made their way into the gymnasium. Dressed in yellow and red sarongs, their skin colored with turmeric and adorned with magnificent beaded necklaces, the women’s entry was electrifying. Next it was the men’s turn. They too entered from outside with a rousing war-like demeanor, dressed in yellow and red sarongs. The formalities over, we were free to explore the island on foot as locals proudly showed off their village. We saw outrigger canoes under huge boathouses to protect them from the sun. Some of us were able to ride out to the reef on these magnificent vessels, expertly sailed in these azure waters.

Coral gardens provided a playground for snorkelers and divers in the afternoon. There were assorted squirrelfish, butterflyfish and fusiliers, as well as lots of turtles.

After dinner, while enjoying desert in the lounge, we watched the documentary The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific.

Wednesday, March 7
Satawal Island

Once ashore on Satawal, the first thing on the agenda was the famed Pwo Ceremony. After 8 to 10 years of practical and theoretical study on the ways of navigation, a young initiate is invited to participate in the Pwo Ceremony to give him the next stage of the training—magic. The ceremony is designed to imbue the initiates with the necessary wisdom and steadiness to make a compassionate navigator. The ceremony was nearly extinct; Mau Piailug was the last navigator to go through it in the early 1950s. However, due to his dedication to reinvigorate navigation throughout the Pacific, the ceremony is being performed throughout the Caroline Islands today. We were very lucky to be a part of the ceremony where two navigators were inducted into Master Navigator status, the school principal of the island and our captain! Following the ceremony there were various demonstrations of cultural practices such as women using a back-strap loom to make the ubiquitous lavalava. These were once made of banana or hibiscus fibers, but today the women prefer brightly colored cotton threads from Guam. We visited Mau’s grave and paid our respects to this visionary and then watched as new navigators recounted the star positions to younger boys. We saw rope-making as well as the lashing of an outrigger to a canoe’s platform. Boys performed a war dance with sticks, and women sang and performed a dance they had created to welcome Mau back to the island after his international success.

After lunch, the warm waters off the Satawal Reef beckoned. We dropped in on a wall on the outside of the reef where there was a bit of current. Although this made us work off our lunch, the plankton eaters were drawn in for their lunch including butterflyfish and bicolour chromis. We also saw surgeonfish foraging on algae and sixbar wrasses patrolling the reef flat.

Back on board Jack presented his lecture, Biodiversity in the Sea and Why it Matters.

Thursday, March 8
Ifalik Atoll

As the Caledonian Sky neared Ifalik Atoll we could see a number of outrigger canoes in full sail within the lagoon. Zodiacs took us to the beach were women and children gave us a warm welcome. Making our way into the village and past the Chiefs’ House, a raised house under which three chiefs sat, we found some interesting items for sale: fishing lures, tackle boxes, coiled coir rope, weather charms used by navigators to ward of evil magic and bad weather, together with lavalava. As we wandered along the path there were several demonstration areas where young boys were carding coconut husk fibers to be twisted into short lengths before being twisted into longer, more durable strands of rope. We saw the building of a new canoe and had a chance to see the adzes used for their fine cutting and shaping. Boys were working on a fishing net, while others were working on fish traps. On the other side of the main path women demonstrated the weaving of mats with bleached pandanus leaves while others showed us the preparation of banana fibers, setting them onto racks ready for weaving on the back-strap loom. We had two women’s dances before several of us were helped onto the large outrigger canoes. These are magnificent vessels with their beautiful lateen sails. The skills of the sailors have been well honed and they made this ancient technology fly along the calm waters of the lagoon. One of the outrigger canoes was capsized for a demonstration on how to right it, a skill essential on the open seas.

Following lunch we had a few hours in the water enjoying the array of underwater life. Back on board, Brad Climpson presented Dispersal in the Ocean: A Collection of Marine Stories.

Friday, March 9
Sorol Atoll

We started the day with a leisurely morning at sea. Rich entertained us with his presentation, Drama like your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef followed by Steven’s talk about the partnerships created with local people in his presentation, The Nature Conservancy Conservation Strategy in Micronesia.

As the ship approached the western island of this remote atoll it was clear that nesting birds were the only inhabitants. There were great frigatebirds flying high above the lagoon together with brown boobies and black noddies. Going ashore we were able to see nesting black noddies with chicks as well as three species of boobies; brown, red-footed, and masked. Beautiful white terns were the more delicate of the seabirds nesting on the island.

The snorkeling was superb with clear water along a lovely wall. Canyons enticed snorkelers into the reef flat with lots of bumphead parrotfish, scrawled filefish, bird and slingjaw wrasse, squirrelfish, barracudas, and schools of striped large-eye bream. We also spied green turtles sleeping on the reef.

In the afternoon Tom Hiney shared his experience of reef regeneration in his presentation, Underwater Gardening: Regrowing a Coral Reef.

Saturday, March 10
Ngulu Atoll

We anchored in the lagoon of Ngulu Atoll very early this morning. The island we visited was one of two that had, over a long time, become vegetated. There had once been a thriving community on these islands, but today there is only a family of four. The chief, his wife and son, together with the chief’s aunt, welcomed us to their small community. A little walk into the island from their ocean-front beach house, it was clear that the village, now abandoned, was once filled with people. There were eerie echoes of a community of some 100 or more, emanating from the empty houses still standing. The chief, George, was born on the island in 1956, worked for some time in Yap, and then returned 17 years ago to live on his own.

We circumnavigated the island and found that on one side a number of coconut trees had blown over from a recent storm. In the tangle of jungle just in from the water’s edge, the bombed remains of a Japanese radio station was in ruins. There were nesting boobies calling from the forested center of the island.

The snorkeling and diving was excellent on a beautiful coral outcrop and wall. Lots of healthy coral and some bigger fish suggested that the small population exploiting the reef for subsistence had little impact. There were groups of snappers and Oriental sweetlips and roving bands of surgeonfish.

Tonight we attended the captain’s farewell dinner—it was hard to believe that we had already come towards the end of our Micronesian adventure.

Sunday, March 11
Koror, Republic of Palau / Disembark

The Caledonian Sky came alongside at Malakal Port, Koror about 8:00 in the morning. We were cleared and on our way for various excursions; a nature walk to German Lighthouse, or a trip to Peleliu to explore relics from WWII, including a Japanese headquarters, gun emplacements, tanks, and planes. The Thousand Man Cave system was very interesting. One could imagine the voices of Japanese soldiers sheltering here.

The German Lighthouse nature walk turned into a ‘survival of the fittest’ trek, most of us failing to reach the top in the humid conditions.

Many of us chose the Rock Island snorkel trip. Boarding local dive boats, we sped through the famed marine wonderland that has come to typify the Palau experience. We played in the warm azure waters of the reefs and marvelled at the picturesque limestone karsts. The scenery was spectacular as were the warm, inviting waters and coral gardens.

The end of the day found us all at the Palau Royal Resort Hotel. Showered and freshened up, the soft evening welcomed us to drinks and dinner, where we were entertained by Palauan dancers displaying their pre-war dances. We made our long goodbyes and plans to meet up again on future trips before heading off to bed and individual transfers to the airport and homeward journeys.

 

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