Just Another Day In Paradise - Marshall Islands

By Tim Gernold

Hi all,

I had a great dive the other day and I just had to share. There are certainly some advantages to living in Micronesia.

I just bought a used boat and I took it outside the lagoon to the ocean side of the wall to a favorite local spot called Speedball, named after the missile launch complex on that side of the island. It is a pretty steep wall dive. Reef extends out about 100 yeads from shore at a average depth of 20ft, then a sudden drop to 6000ft. This sight is also famous for the schools of grey reef sharks that seem to like the area. Why, I don't know. Yesterday didn't disappoint.
My boat is a Marshallese special, which means it ain't pretty but its very functional. Another American expat bought the hull a few years ago and basically built it up by hand using fiberglass and plywood. Like I said, it ain't pretty. It's also painted in the colors of the Marshallese flag. Blue, white, and....orange. We have a white spot at the bow that I'm thinking of painting a sharks mouth, ala Flying Tigers. The Army provides rental boats for us, but they are pretty shitty. Run down and unreliable. I can't tell you how many times we've limped back to the marina with one engine, or the steering broke, or the time I spent the entire 10 mile trip continuously squeezing the priming bulb so the engine could still run. Thought my hand was gonna fall off.
Anyway, my new toy is a late 60's 24' Boston Whaler hull with twin 50hp Honda outboards and all the electronic goodies like GPS, 3D fish/depth finder (its kinda fun to watch it freak out to go from 30ft to 6000ft), and radio/CD player, but believe it or not the most appreciated feature of the boat is the canvas top. I've spent too many days out on the rental boats getting sunburnt. The boat is a little underpowered IMO, but those Honda's are sweet. Very quiet and very fuel efficient. I have a 68 gal fuel capacity and I can go from one end of the atoll to the other and still have plenty of fuel left over. If the boat was a little more seaworthy and could handle the open ocean a little better, I could drive right up the pier at Bikini. Wouldn't that be a trip? Anyway, boat handled the six ft seas pretty well, just had to take it easy.

On with the diving. Like I said, almost everything is wall diving along the oceanside reef. Had great visibility both above water and below, around 150ft. We dove down to 135' and discovered an impression in the wall. It would be a real stretch to call it a cavern, but I think you get the idea. Didn't have much time to explore it because this was a no-deco dive, but later plan on doing some more dives in the area to check it out. It seemed kinda weird because usually you don't see much fish life at these depths along the wall, except for some large palegics, but in this impression was a lot of the same species of fish you'd find at much shallower depths. A lot of bumphead parrotfish and various kinds of smaller groupers. After spending a few minutes at that depth, we slowly worked our way up the wall to shallower depths and along the peak of the wall. I saw a whitetip reef shark that was hunting for something. It kept circling a small area along the reef. It wanted something really bad. What I found really interesting was a small gray reef shark that didn't like the whitetip in its area. As the whitetip was hunting, the gray kept making passes at it. I've never seen that before between sharks. I've had grays make passes at me, but I've never seen them go after another shark. I watched them for a few minutes then moved on. I'm sailing along in the current looking down along the wall and I see what I thought were a couple of sharks below me but they turned out to be some damn large yellowfin tuna's. Easily over 100lbs ea. Still cruising along the reef and see some spotted eagle rays. One of them darts for the surface and breaches. Interesting to watch underwater.
We were within sight of the anchor line of the boat and I happened to look down along the wall again, and I see what I thought looked like a piece of black canvas moving in the current. I don't know why I thought it was canvas but it looked like cloth debris. I turned back to the eel I noticed and I happened to turn my head and I saw this black shape with a gaping mouth about 5ft from me and moving slowly in my direction. Scared the @!#$ out of me. It turned out to be a 10-12' manta. My first manta in diving two years out here. As it passed over me, all I could think of was the opening scene in Star Wars. I started humming the Darth Vader theme. Very surreal. I pointed out the manta to Kim and she didn't look in the right direction and the manta almost brushed up againist her. She caught sight of it at the last second and it visibly scared her, too but only for a second, then it went to go check Roger out and then merrily went on its way. No sign of fear at all, just curiousity. Absolutely amazing creatures.
A few minutes later, we are stowing our gear on the boat and went to pull anchors. One of them didn't release and it looked like somebody was going to have to gear up again. Not me...not me... I can honestly say my Spare Air has found a home. When the anchor fouls, mask, fins, and Spare Air and your all set. Roger was the lucky one, really. As he was about to jump back in the boat the manta reappeared. Kim and I were looking at Roger and the manta as they took turns staring at one another about two feet apart. It was funny as hell to watch from the boat. Roger would turn one way and the manta would turn to match him move for move, always face to face. Roger finally exhausted the Spare Air and jumped back in the boat and the manta checked out the boat for about 5 minutes. I really hated to start the engines but we had to get moving.
We trolled along the reef on the trip back and caught two 30lb mahi mahi. No more discussion what we were doing for dinner. As we were coming through the pass back into the lagoon we met up with a pod of dolphins. They traveled with us for a few minutes then went on their way. They really like the pass at tidal change. Tons of fish hang out. The pass also makes for a great dive, but currents can exceed 10knts so it takes some planning.

It just doesn't get better than yesterday. Piloting my own boat on the ocean, great diving, great fishing, seeing all the wonders of the underwater world and sharing it with great friends.
Days like yesterday make me want to stay out here forever and make me forget all the frustrations of living on an isolated island. Yesterday was about as perfect as it gets.

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