Bridging the Equator: Micronesia, 2010 Field Report

Susan Langley|March 23, 2017|Blog Post

Saturday, August 28, 2010 - Guam

This morning we gathered for brunch before setting off to explore the island of Guam. Our first stop was Puntan Dos Amantes, or Two Lovers Point, where local lore tells of star-crossed lovers who leaped to their deaths together. In addition to spectacular views of the coastline, there is also a vertiginous cleft showing the geological strata of the area. Then we were off to downtown Hagåthña to visit Latte Stone Park to view the eponymous pre-contact, chalice-shaped stones that supported the homes of Chamorro chiefs. Walking across the street, we entered the Plaza de España to see the ruins of the Chocolate House where wives of Spanish Governors served this delicacy to guests. Adjacent to the Plaza is the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica and near the Basilica is the famous statue of Pope Paul II which rotated once every twenty-four hours until a typhoon left the statue pointing, appropriately enough, at the church.

From here we visited Asan Beach, one of the landing sites of American Marines during the liberation of Guam on July 21, 1944. The beach is part of the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, with cave sites, walking trails, and a polygonal memorial to the participating military forces. Our next stop, at the Fish Eye Marine Park, provided an opportunity for Jack Grove, Jonathan Rossouw, and Paul Ehrlich to introduce us to the aquatic life of the region. Scuba students we had watched training above, came down to feed the local residents providing some interesting photographic opportunities. After this brief introduction to one of America’s outposts, it was time to head to the harbor and board the Clipper Odyssey, our floating home for the upcoming weeks.


Sunday, August 29 - At Sea

Our only full day at sea provided a chance to hear about Micronesia from our anthropologist, Shirley Campbell. Paul provided our next lecture on the cultural evolution of the region and we rounded out the afternoon with a lecture from Jack on the fishes and marine life of the area. The divers and snorkelers organized their gear and met about the activities planned for them. The birders among us were pleased to spot both wedge-tailed shearwaters and a single white tern. 

We capped off the evening with a welcome cocktail party and dinner hosted by our Captain, Peter Gluschke, who introduced some key members of the ship’s company. Most of us then retired to finish adjusting to the time change and looking forward to an exciting day to come.


Monday, August 30 - Yap, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)

The birders set off early in search of the four endemic birds of Yap and were delighted to sight numerous dapper Yap monarchs and plain white-eyes, at least four of the scarce olive white-eye, and the uncommon Yap cicadabird. Other highlights included the elusive Micronesian pigeon and white-throated ground dove, abundant Micronesian honeyeaters and starlings (all regional endemics), as well as roadside Pacific golden plovers and yellow bitterns. 

Other morning options included the chance to kayak through the local mangrove forests or to visit the village of Kadai for cultural performances and to view the huge stone disks, called rai, which serve as a form of currency and status. The Yapese were extremely welcoming and performed a number of energetic traditional dances; the dancers golden with turmeric powder. We were also permitted to visit the Men’s House, and had the opportunity to talk with women who were weaving palm leaf baskets and flower garlands. We also had a chance to purchase some handicrafts, such as the textiles called lava-lava and gold-lipped pearl shells hafted to handles, which serve as wedding tokens for these people. The adventurous among us joined Shirley in chewing betel nut, which greatly entertained the residents.

After lunch aboard, there was another opportunity to kayak as our divers and snorkelers set off to enjoy an introduction to the aquatic reef life, including pipefish, tomato anemonefish, and delightful decorator crabs. We returned to the ship for tea and our first recap of the trip.


Tuesday, August 31 - Sorol Island

Approaching over the coral gardens, darting shapes of reef fishes clearly visible through the crystal water below, we were met by squadrons of red-footed boobies swirling above the scruffy tops of the coconut palms. Once ashore, the primordial nature of this far-flung atoll was further reinforced by a welcoming committee that included a young frigatebird, loafing on a low palm and ethereal white terns looking down unconcernedly from their precarious nests. A few steps into the littoral scrub confirmed our suspicions that this island is indeed rarely visited by humans, as enormous coconut crabs, prized both for their flesh and as an aphrodisiac, sauntered across the sand. Every step revealed a new treasure: Grapsus rock crabs on the wave-cut platform, attracting the attention of numerous peppered morays that stealthily hunted them at the water’s edge; palm trees festooned with young frigatebirds; and level areas of limestone dotted with brown boobies on their nests. Those in the glass bottom boat as well as the divers and snorkelers were met with terrific clarity and colorful lionfish, moray eels, parrotfish, trumpetfish, and diverse butterflyfish. In a world where wilderness is ever-more difficult to find, it is indeed a pleasure and a privilege to experience a tropical island paradise, in the truest sense of those words. 

In the afternoon Jonathan presented a lecture on the tropical seabirds we have seen and should yet see on our voyage. After an ice cream social, we joined Susan Langley, our historian, who described the fibers and fabrics of this region. Then we set off to our next destination with memories of the fantastic birding, snorkeling, and diving experiences of the day. 


Wednesday, September 1 - Ifalik Island

Today our Zodiacs were greeted by youthful warriors blowing conchs in traditional garb and pigments, and a gauntlet of women and children placing leis about our necks and floral wreaths upon our heads. Both the women and children performed several dances and songs for us. Similar to Yap, these are generally performed in a linear arrangement. We were able to watch a demonstration of the creation of the coconut sennit cordage and several of us took the opportunity to purchase hanks of this tough and versatile rope, while others bought the brightly colored traditional lava-lavas; some made of hibiscus fiber, some of banana fiber, and some of cotton. Many of us visited the church and school while some even ventured to the cemetery.

After lunch on board, some of us returned to the island to visit and play with the children while others witnessed the skill with which even young teens could handle the outrigger canoes as we swept across the lagoon. Those who fancied water sports went diving or snorkeling; exploring the surrounding reefs and spotting flame angelfish, gold-spot emperor and pennant bannerfish, as well as turtles, white-tip reef sharks, and monster sea cucumbers. Those wishing to keep their feet dry saw all the action from the comfort of the glass bottom boat.


Thursday, September 2 - Lamotrek Atoll

Another glorious morning dawned as we arrived off Lamotrek. We were entering the realm of men skilled at navigating by stars and sea state, and we were delighted when one of the village navigators demonstrated a sidereal compass for us. The residents performed welcome dances in traditional garb, again dusted with golden turmeric, a common thread throughout Micronesia. Mats of handicrafts were set out and many of us couldn’t resist detailed models of outrigger canoes complete with sails and lines and carvings of navigator statues. In addition, several family groups of women set up their backstrap looms used to weave lava-lavas and showed us the process using sharp shells to strip the fibers from soaked banana stems. We were invited to wander through the community where we visited the church with its ingenious “bell” fashioned from a suspended liquid gas tank and checked out the school, with computers linked to solar panels. Spotting containers in the palm trees, we were able to see the sap being gathered, akin to maple syrup. When collected fresh it is suitable for children but when fermented it becomes alcoholic toddy or faluvwa. We managed to obtain enough that everyone could try it at recap; decidedly an acquired taste.

In addition to the ubiquitous Micronesian starling, a pair of Caroline Islands reed warblers constructing their nest were sighted. Another interesting avian discovery was an immature redfooted booby that had been raised as a pet, which would circle out over the lagoon and return to its perch next to one of the Men’s Houses.

Those diving, snorkeling, and enjoying the glass bottom boat were able to view schools of fusiliers and paddle-tail snapper among others and the divers reported two dog-tooth tuna, various reef sharks, and a green sea turtle. All too soon we had to return to our floating home for a wonderful tropical barbecue on the pool deck as the sun obligingly set gloriously.


Friday, September 3 - Satawal Island

Another sparkling day dawned as we approached the island home of Mau Piailug, perhaps the best known of the traditional navigators. Sadly, he had died in July but his grandson, who is also the 7th grade teacher, served as translator and guide and we were able to visit Mau’s grave where his family promptly brought out his awards and honors for display. Another elder navigator provided an impressive demonstration, which was watched as raptly by the younger village men as it was by us. 

The men performed an impressive war dance, followed by the women whose dances ranged from encouraging the men in their navigation to comic ones producing much hilarity among the observing families. In all the islands we visited, the dances were significant events for the residents as much as for us and many mothers sat on the sidelines coaching their children or taking photographs.

We were invited to a boathouse to watch one of the large ocean-going canoes being constructed. Carved from breadfruit trees, the vessels take a year to complete and sport a forked bow imitating an inverted frigatebird tail through which they also sight stars for navigation. In the late afternoon when the tide was high, the men launched a canoe, hauling the hull to the water over naturally curved banana stems and floating it down the shore to the Men’s House where they hauled it out again with the aid of some of our stalwart guests and staff. The vessel was being prepared for a trip the next day to West Fayu, an atoll more than 45 miles distant, for tobacco and fishing.


Saturday, September 4 - Pulap Atoll

Today was our first stop in Chuuk State and one of the salient differences we noted was the number of concrete structures in Pulap Village. The welcome dances were held in a covered auditorium with linoleum flooring and basketball hoops, all constructed by the American military in the 1970s. Again we had both men’s and women’s dances, all appreciated by the residents equally as by us. The roofed structure amplified the sounds of the dancers, making these especially exciting performances. It was interesting that the men’s dance was more agrarian than warlike and focused on picking breadfruit in the spring. The women more chanted than sang and periodically one of the women would step out with hip twirling steps, at times resembling modern dance. Some of the chants were quite ritualistic using language no longer understood by the women, but remembered nonetheless. Some of the handicrafts on offer included textiles, coral breadfruit mashers, and magnificently beaded necklaces, which are worn by both men and women during the dances. A few of us investigated a canoe under construction on the shore.

Coral gardens provided a playground for the divers and snorkelers who were surrounded by assorted squirrelfish, butterflyfish, and fusiliers, as well as lyre-tail hogfish, turtles, and orange-fin anemonefish. The amount and diversity of sea life was a pleasant surprise in a lagoon so near a community. 


Sunday, September 5 - Chuuk Island

This is it: divers’ Nirvana! Our snorkelers had no complaints either as Chuuk, or Truk, Lagoon as it was formerly known, lived up to its reputation for spectacular viewing of history and sea life combined. The sunken WWII vessels and aircraft have become vibrant reefs bringing life from tragedy. The remains of the Fujikawa Maru in the morning provided enough height and diversity of experience that everyone could find pleasure in diving or snorkeling from the bridge to the forward gun. Several intrepid souls penetrated the hull at the bridge and were able to explore the holds and engine room before emerging to rejoin the other divers. The snorkelers also had the opportunity to swim over a subchaser and a Zero at a different location before joining the divers. The afternoon dive on the merchant vessel Rio de Janeiro Maru was equally impressive with sake bottles still in their stacked cases and many other undisturbed artifacts and thriving sea life. Today’s viewing at these sites included thousands of small fish, gray reef sharks, a spotted eagle ray, grouper, Pacific sail-fin tang, pearly dartfish, and both soft and hard corals.

Our birders had set off early in the morning, first to the main island of Moen where they visited the Japanese gun site and saw the Caroline Islands swiftlet and the oceanic flycatcher; both endemic species. Then they ventured to the island of Fefan and returned triumphant in finding the State bird of Chuuk, the Chuuk monarch, and the exquisite purple-crowned fruit dove. Shirley completed our afternoon with the second half of her fascinating lecture, Micronesia; A Known Seascape


Monday, September 6 - Oroluk Atoll

En route to today’s destination, Jack continued his discussion of the Fishes of Micronesia; a portent of what was waiting for us. This tiny island boasts a population of five, although the chief’s wife was away during our visit. It also boats some of the best snorkeling and diving for sea life viewing that we’ve enjoyed along the wall of the reef. The shallow lagoon encouraged us to put off our landing until the favorable afternoon tides permitted, but no one was disappointed to have more time to participate in watersports or enjoy the view from the glass bottom boat. The divers spent time both outside and inside the atoll’s reef and had inquisitive sharks, dog-tooth tuna, bicolor parrotfish, midnight snapper, steephead parrotfish, and festoons of anthias and fusiliers along the reef’s edge.

The residents provided refreshing coconuts for drinks and were pleased to show us the small community they had constructed. Their gardens included taro, breadfruit, papaya, pumpkin, and tobacco as well as coconut palms and palms from which they were cutting toddy. Again the tide dictated we had to leave; the first ship the family had seen since December 15, 2009 was departing.

Once back on board we gathered for our group photograph, which of course turned into a major photo session while everyone collected images of groups and friends. We all then joined Paul for his lecture on WWII: The Pacific Theatre and Micronesia. After dinner, and not for the first time, our divemaster, Mike “Murph” Murphy, proved that he’s not just a pretty face, but has impressive vocal capabilities to match.


Tuesday, September 7 - Pohnpei Island

By late morning Sokehs Rock loomed above as we entered the harbor at Kolonia. The birders headed off for a full day in the montane rainforest at Oukitor, in quest of endemic species. The rest of us set out for Kepirohi Waterfall on the other side of the island. After a short walk through a forest rich with tropical flowers, we reached the falls that tower nearly 70 feet above a pool that tempted many of us to swim in the cool water. Nearby we had a local-style lunch presented to each of us in a cunning banana leaf pouch. After lunch we divided and some of us took small covered boats to the site of Nan Madol while the remainder of us elected to walk into the temple complex of 108 islets stretching more than a mile offshore onto the coral shelf. Constructed with columnar basalt, some segments nearly 20 feet long, used horizontally like logs; the hexagonal sides of the columns help to lock them in place like keystones. The groups exchanged places to boat through the canals of what has been called the Venice of Micronesia, while the groups on land heard the stories associated with the site and were able to walk around the burial and meditation chambers.

We returned to the ship to be treated to a formal sakau ceremony, where the roots of Piper methysticum are pulverized with special stones on a rock with a little water, then wrapped in hibiscus bark and wrung into cocoanut cups. Our Expedition Leader, “Little John” Yersin, was invited to the first taste, followed by George Lake, our Assistant Expedition Leader, and Julie Christensen, our Cruise Director. Much thicker than the kava or yaquona of Fiji, the hibiscus root added a viscosity that some of us found a bit difficult, but the flavor was not unpleasant and left a peppery tingle on the tongue.

Our birders returned just in time for the captain’s farewell cocktail party in triumphant spirits having spotted the Pohnpei lory, Micronesian kingfisher, and long-billed white-eye in their pristine habitat. During our final dinner on board, the dining room was abuzz with conversation and celebration of our time in this fabulous corner of the world.  

Related Blog Posts