|Micronesia offers a tonic for every diving personality. From big animals like gray reef sharks at Bikini Atoll ... Photography by Doug Perrine/Seapics.com|
The mere mention of Micronesia conjures up images of lush reefs, hulking wrecks, turbocharged drift dives and animals so huge they eclipse the intense equatorial sun. The most beautiful places lie at the end of the worst roads, and history has worn a very winding, bumpy path to these remote islands.
|... to tiny treasures like this crinoid shrimp in Palau. Photography by Jesse Cancelmo|
No destination can be everything to every diver, but Palau comes pretty close. To many divers, Micronesia's most popular dive destination is one place you've got to see before you die. The westernmost island nation in Oceania offers the jet set a little bit of everything--wrecks, reefs, walls, drift dives, big animals and macro critters. You could easily do a lifetime of diving without ever leaving the country.
Palau is stunning above water, too. The emerald Rock Islands sprout mushroom-like from the unforgettable blue of the Philippine Sea, making for some of the most jaw-dropping scenery on the planet. Whether you dive with a land-based operation or from a live-aboard, you can't go wrong with a pilgrimage to one of the dive world's greats.
GET WET AT: Ulong Channel > Let the crowds fight for a place to latch their reef hooks at Blue Corner, and head for Ulong Channel, a similar--but far less frequently dived--drift, big animal and wall dive all in one.
DRY OFF AT: Peleliu > This island was the site of a bittersweet victory for the U.S. Marines and is a World War II treasure trove, a museum without the roped-off areas. Crawl through Japanese tunnels and stumble on human bones and rusted ordnance.
EXOTIC FACTOR: 5 > There are no American fast-food chains in Palau yet, but it's far from the backwater it was just a decade ago. And it's getting more developed every year.
|Pennant butterflyfish in formation off Christmas Island (Kiritimati) in Kiribati, the world's largest atoll in land area. Photography by Jim Watt|
|From adrenaline-pumping dives in Truk Lagoon ... Photography by Howard Hall|
Westernmost and smallest state of the Federated States of Micronesia, Yap is entering the 21st century kicking and screaming. This is a culture that truly embraces age-old traditions--visitors to the island are still greeted at the airport by barebreasted women bearing leis and smiles.
Although Yap has earned a reputation as the finest place in the world to get close to giant manta rays--many as large as 14 feet across--it also offers excellent reef and wall diving, in addition to a new shark encounter.
GET WET AT: Mi'il Channel > Making a trip to Yap and not seeing the mantas is like going to Egypt and skipping the pyramids. You just can't do it. But look and don't touch--keep your hands to yourself and you'll have them hovering over your head.
DRY OFF AT: Bechiyal Cultural Center > Here, you can see a traditional meeting house, or pebai, and the legendary stone money, rai, arduously shipped here by outrigger canoe from Palau.
EXOTIC FACTOR: 7. > Strong tradition--including the continued use of stone money for land purchases and the prohibition of women from entering a pebai, or meeting house--makes Yap seem more exotic than most islands in Micronesia. Travel to the even remoter outer islands, and you will indeed become a pioneer.
Saipan & Rota
|... to lazy snorkeling in Kiribati. Photography by Jim Watt|
Just north of Guam and west of the deepest point in the world is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Saipan and Rota are the two main dive spots in the archipelago, known for shore diving, clear water and hard coral gardens. As at Peleliu, Truk Lagoon and Guam, evidence of World War II still lingers in these islands six decades later.
GET WET AT: The Grotto > Saipan's most famous shore dive begins with a descent of 110 steps to a water-filled cavern that ultimately dumps you on the island's northeast drop-off. Be on the lookout for flame scallops and sleeping whitetip sharks in the cave, and schools of barracuda and turtles out
on the wall.
DRY OFF AT: Banzai Cliff > Thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped off this sheer rock wall in northern Saipan to evade capture by U.S. troops during World War II.
EXOTIC FACTOR: 3 > Like Guam, Saipan is a popular playground for Asian tourists. Head north from Saipan, however, and you'll find uninhabited volcanic islands awaiting discovery--and someday soon, a live-aboard itinerary.
|Micronesia offers plenty to do while your gear is drying, including kayaking and taking cultural tours. Photography by Michael Aw|
Chuuk (Truk Lagoon)
You can thank the U.S. war machine for creating the world's largest permanent parking lot of diveable shipwrecks. In two days, Operation Hailstone set a World War II record: 250 Japanese aircraft were destroyed, and 180,000 tons of shipping (almost six dozen vessels) were dispatched to the seafloor. When you're diving this aquatic graveyard, remember that the lagoon is a monument to the soldiers and sailors who lost their lives here and is protected by law.
You'll have to choose between good live-aboard and land-based dive operator options, or a combination of both. If you're looking to fill your logbook, then a live-aboard might be for you. If you want to soak up some topside culture and move on to another island, consider a resort.
GET WET AT: San Francisco Maru > This is one of Truk's most challenging dives--don't even think about it unless you're an advanced diver and have a logbook to prove it. It's 130 feet to the bridge and 170 to the stern; plan this dive thoroughly and count on decompression. The payoff is a well-preserved wreck complete with heavy trucks, tanks and motorcycles as well as fragile sake bottles and china.
DRY OFF AT: Dublon Island > Visit the old Japanese seaplane base and hospital on Weno's neighboring island. When walking the wooded trails, you may have to make a $1 or $2 donation to landowners.
EXOTIC FACTOR: 4 > Since Kimiuo Aisek discovered the ships he witnessed sink during Operation Hailstone, divers have made this the undisputed wreck-diving capital of the world.
The capital and largest island in the Federated States of Micronesia is also one of its best-looking, too: Lush jungle peaks rise from impossible angles to create an islandscape reminiscent of Tahiti's. Hundreds of inches of rain annually create an idyllic setting replete with waterfalls, but for divers this means heading out beyond the massive barrier reef to enjoy clear water, healthy reefs and thrilling drift dives.
GET WET AT: Ahnd Atoll > About an hour's boat ride from the main island, uninhabited Ahnd Atoll is a world away from the bustle of Kolonia. Catch it during the incoming tide and ride the stiff underwater breeze from the cut into the lagoon to watch tuna, eagle rays and sharks whizzing by.
DRY OFF AT: Nan Madol > This enormous basalt log complex is steeped in mystery and is the most celebrated archeological site in all of Micronesia. Most resorts will arrange boat tours of the site--a must-do.
EXOTIC FACTOR: 6 > Though Pohnpei is Micronesia's capital and largest island, once you depart the small city, you may think you're on one of the remote outer islands.
|Photography by Tim Rock|
One of Micronesia's quietest islands, Kosrae offers a glimpse into the simple life of years gone by. During the 19th century, Kosrae was frequented by missionaries, whalers and pirates, and the missionaries won the battle for the islanders' hearts and minds. The devoutly religious island grinds to a complete halt on Sundays, when visitors are encouraged to observe the Sabbath and do no more than stay at the resort and read a good book.
Easternmost and second largest island in the Federated States of Micronesia, mountainous, sylvan Kosrae has no outer islands orbiting it. A relatively undeveloped infrastructure will make you feel that you're among the first to enjoy this Pacific jewel, and in fact, you are.
GET WET AT: Hiroshi Point > A gently tumbling wall is packed with a who's who of Indo-Pacific hard corals. You can dive it from shore or boat, and you're sure to see trevally, snapper and barracuda and experience little to no current.
DRY OFF AT: Lelu Ruins > Like Pohnpei's Nan Madol, Lelu Ruins is an ancient city constructed from basalt logs.
EXOTIC FACTOR: 7 > Most travelers pass through Kosrae on Continental Airlines' Island Hopper service, and never take the time to explore this beautiful island.
Unlike rugged, mountainous Pohnpei, Kosrae and Chuuk, the Marshall Islands are flat as griddle cakes, and almost as hot. Thirty million years ago, the islands were nothing more than lava-spewing volcanoes. A few epochs later, they lost their fiery power and began their slow retreat back into the seas. Today, all that's left are the very tops, eroded and covered in coral reefs. Kwajalein Atoll has reefs and wrecks, including the mammoth Prinz Eugen, and Bikini is world-renowned for wrecks that were nuked and sent to the bottom of the lagoon--just to see what would happen to them.
GET WET AT: USS Saratoga, Bikini > Commissioned in 1927, this aircraft carrier is the largest of the 90 ships at the bottom of Bikini's lagoon that were used for atomic testing. Officials claim that radioactivity from the two blasts, conducted in 1948, is lower than that found in some U.S. cities. You'll find Hellcat divebombers at 115 feet with cockpit controls still intact.
DRY OFF AT: Alele Museum, Majuro > Explore the secrets of the ancient Marshallese mariners, who expertly navigated the vast central Pacific by reading stick charts and wave motion.
EXOTIC FACTOR: 6 > This central Pacific nation has been a crossroads of sorts for decades, and the urban density on islands like Majuro and Ebeye rivals that of some European countries. But a visit to the outer islands reveals a place that is frozen in time.
Before you take on the challenge of traveling to one of the Pacific's remotest island nations, learn how to pronounce the name: KEE-ree-bahs (it's a bastardization of the islands' original name, The Gilberts). Next, you'll have to get to Honolulu for the weekly flight to Kiribati's Christmas Island, where divers, bonefishermen and birders flock.
Christmas, called Kiritimati (kee-REE-see-mahs) locally, is the world's largest atoll land area-wise and was "discovered" by Captain Cook on Christmas Eve, 1777. The island was the site of U.S. and British atmospheric nuclear testing in the '50s and '60s, though you wouldn't know it today. Shore and boat diving on near-virgin reefs is possible from the island's token dive resort, which has its own on-site recompression chamber.
GET WET AT: Bay of Wrecks, Christmas Island > Though no wrecks have yet been found, this shore or boat dive is a drift over a gently tumbling hard coral garden buzzing with pelagics including sharks, barracuda and spotted rays.
DRY OFF AT: The Fishing Hole > Wet a line for some of the world's finest bonefishing, or head offshore to chase marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, barracuda, dorado and wahoo.
EXOTIC FACTOR: 9 > You'll be the first of your dive buddies to learn how to pronounce Kiribati, much less actually visit it.
It's in the Water
|A Truk Lagoon wreck serves as a memorial to the servicemen who lost their lives in World War II. Photography by Howard Hall|
Visibility: Expect consistent, triple-digit visibility in Palau, throughout the Marianas, on Yap and Kosrae's walls, off Kiribati's Christmas Island and most of the outer islands and atolls. Vis can sometimes be lower inside Truk Lagoon, at Pohnpei, off Majuro and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, and can be, at times, poor in Yap's channels.
Temperatures: Because Micronesia sits atop the equator, water temps are in the low 80Fs (from 82F to 86F) year-round. Water off the northerly islands of the Marianas can dip into the high 70Fs in winter.
Micronesia Travel Guide
Getting There: Continental Micronesia has excellent connections throughout the western and central Pacific. All flights funnel through Hawaii, and if you're traveling to Palau or Yap, you will have a stopover in Guam. This stopover can range from a couple hours to overnight. You are responsible for accommodations should they be necessary.
Water Temperatures: Range from the high 70s to mid-80s year-round.
Visibility and Conditions: Expect triple-digit visibility consistently in Palau, throughout the Marianas, on Yap's wall dives and most of the outer atolls. Vis can sometimes be a bit lower inside Truk Lagoon, at Pohnpei and Kosrae, and can be quite poor in Yap's channels, where the mantas congregate.
Electricity: 110 volts, 60 cycles, the same as in the United States.
Documents: Despite what the travel guides say, bring a passport.
Money Matters: The U.S. dollar is accepted throughout Micronesia.
Driving: A valid U.S. driver's license is required. Cars are usually available at airports, and some hotels have agencies as well. Don't expect luxury models. On some islands, consider renting a truck to navigate the deeply cratered roads.
Drinking Water: Water may be safe to drink in some hotels, but most savvy travelers opt for bottled water.
Dive Operators: For information on Micronesian dive operators, comprehensive travel guides, special dive deals and recent trip reports submitted by users, go to www.scubadiving.com/tripfinder.
For More Info: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board, www.visit-fsm.org.