Travels with Lois and Jason

Micronesia Snorkeling (and WWII History)

May 14 – 27, 2010

MapWhere in the world is Micronesia? Of all the places to go, why go there?  How did we ever pick this trip?

Micro (meaning small) nesia (islands) is a collection of thousands of small islands in the western Pacific Ocean.  We visited three:  Yap, Palau, and Peleliu, and passed through one (Guam) on the way there.  Except for Guam, we had never heard of the other islands.  So, how is it we ended up on one of the most adventurous of our trips in such an unknown and remote place. 

In making an online donation to World Wildlife Fund we spotted their travel page, and there was a description of “Micronesia Snorkeling Adventure.”  We had figured that the snorkeling in the Maldives just couldn’t be topped.  Well, we were wrong.  The web description was very appealing.  It advertised that there was world class snorkeling in terms of variety of fish and coral, and the trip was designed for experienced snorkelers (i.e., those that could snorkel for an hour or more at a time).  We felt intrigued and qualified.  We hadn’t been on a trip for almost 18 months, so we decided to go!

But, it was a challenge figuring out where the trip was going.  A quick map search on the internet shows Palau and Yap as dots in the middle of the Western Pacific.  (It took lots of magnification to make the dots big enough to see.) Yap is 500 miles southwest of Guam, and Palau another 280 miles (and one more time zone) southwest.  This of course assumes you know where Guam is (which we really didn’t).  Guam is about 3300 miles west of Hawaii and 1500 south east of Japan.  Note map is not to scale. 
Of greater importance is that Palau was seen as a strategic location, being only 600 miles from the Philippines and 1300 miles from Okinawa.  We’ll discuss why this is important later in our story.

Our trip turned out to be three different stories:  snorkeling, the culture of Yap, and an introduction to the war in the Pacific during World War II.  


We wondered if any snorkeling trip could match our incredible trip to the Maldives.  We doubted it.  But we were wrong.  Our Palau trip was by far the best snorkeling we’ve ever done anywhere, even superior to the Great Barrier Reef.

Journal entry for May 22: Yesterday we saw so many beautiful and varied fish that we thought we were swimming in an aquarium.  Today we really swam in an aquarium.  Flower gardens of incredible beauty;  coral baskets of enormous size and layered, like pedals of a rose.We saw basket coral inside basket coral, climbing the walls of  a rock island, appearing like rose pedals of enormous size (several feet across).  While the coral was all basically brown-gray, it was the amount and arrangements that made this such a special visit. basket

When you look at the top of the ocean it is hard to believe there is an entire world out there, and we saw it on this trip as never before.  What made it so special was a combination of factors: in addition to its natural beauty of Palau’s Rock (limestone) Islands, it has a huge variety of very beautiful fish and coral.  We swam in Jellyfish Lake, a completely enclosed saltwater lakes surrounded by mountains of limestone a 100 feet high, where the water source was the water percolating through the limestone at high and low tide. We saw tiny tropical fish and enormous sharks and manta rays.  We saw table coral which could easily seat 12, and fan and brain coral of every conceivable color.

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And bringing it all together and making it all come alive was our guide, Marine Biologist Ron Leidich.  Ron pointed out and explained everything, and selected each outing to specifically match the tides and currents.   Ron took pictures throughout our trip, frequently free diving to take close ups of the fish and coral.  He very generously provided us with a disk with all the pics, many of which are included in our story. 

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At our first meeting we were told that we'd be snorkeling according to the tide.  This was a new experience for us.  In the past the snorkeling boat left at 10 and returned at noon or left at 2 and returned at 4.  But we were told the tides make all the difference in terms of which fish were to be seen and which lagoons were accessible.  In fact, we were told the entire trip was scheduled to optimize a tidal flow so that we could experience a saltwater “water fall.”  As tidal waters flow out of an enclosed marine lake, they cascade into Mandarin Fish Lake.  It was very strange to be snorkeling and hear the sound of flowing water like a river.  But there it was, cascading over rocks in front of us.  And it is most dramatic at maximum high tides, just when we were scheduled to be there!

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We met our boat each morning at 8:30 and were scheduled to returned to the hotel dock at 4:30, but usually arrived about 5, or 5:30, or whenever we were snorkeled out!  Being in a group of only 13 with a personal guide made it a very flexible and enjoyable experience.  Our days consisted of snorkeling, kayaking, saltwater lakes and lagoons, karsts, caves, and rain.  We think more rain fell on us while we snorkeled Jellyfish Lake than falls in an entire year in LA.  At least it felt that way!  And it didn’t hurt the visibility.  In fact, sometimes the full sun was too bright and washed the coral colors out – like over exposing a picture.  Fortunately the weather was constantly changing with rain showers every day.

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Journal entry for May 25:  Today we snorkeled Disney Lake.  We entered through a tunnel at medium tide so our feet wouldn’t scrape the bottom and our heads not hit the top, and most importantly, the current was manageable.  At low tide you can "limbo kayak" into the lake, through the tunnel, but our "young" backs don't quite limbo they way they use to, so we did the snorkel option at mid-tide.  Anyhow, Disney Lake, an "old growth" coral bed, is a salt water lagoon totally surrounded by high limestone walls, with the only entrance being the tunnel, which is about 15 feet wide and 5 feet high.  At high or low tide, the current through the tunnel makes it very difficult to pass. It is called Disney Lake because of the spectacular colors of the coral.

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milkyway We visited a bay called the Milky Way. The bottom of the bay consisted not of sand but of white limestone mud, which gave the water a “milky” sheen.  Ron dove to the bottom and brought up hands full of the muck and we gave ourselves facials.  Great fine fun!

We snorkeled at Blue Hole.  Four holes that were carved in the ocean like the grand canyon but with  arches, corals, and numerous fish.  When you looked down the holes from the surface, the water appeared to be a dark rich blue and it was just beautiful.  This picture was taken by Ron from deep in the hole of all of us "sky diving."


We snorkeled Soft Coral Arch to view the spectacular soft corals.  What a treat!

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And on a couple of occasions, we snorkeled the outer reef.  Here we’d be two feet above the coral but then swim off the coral to a 200 (or was it 2000) foot drop.  All kinds of big fish liked these walls, including barracuda, black and white tip sharks, sea turtles, and of course manta rays.  (Ron, free diving, took all these great pictures.)   And of course, an uncountable number of smaller tropical fish of every hue and color.  It was spectacular.   And one time at the outer reef we simply drifted with the outgoing current for about an hour.  It was an unusal experience being swept along, and lots of fun!  The boat followed us and picked us up when we were ready to get out.

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ron crownTragically the coral reefs of Palau are threaten by the crown-of-thorns starfish.  This starfish eats coral, and plays an important role in the natural sequence of events in maintaining coral diversity.  However, pollutents, particularly from sewage plants, have caused the population of crown-of-thorns to thrive and mushroom.  The crown's natral predators, the Giant Triton (a mollusc) and the harlequin shrimp, are both popular food items with locals, and their populations are in decline.  So the crown-of-thorns are now literally wiping out entire coral reefs.  Ron has undertaken a campaign to eliminate these starfish, and to-date has been very successful when he arrives in time.  He took us to areas of devastation where entire coral beds are dead, and there are no fish.  The fish need the coral for food and shelter.  And he showed us some of his success stories where he has purged an area in time for it to begin to heal itself or actually stopped an invasion that had begun.  To eliminate this starfish, Ron dives down, digs them out of their hiding place, and makes mince meat of them.  When chopped into tiny pieces the arms cannot reproduce.   When Ron undertakes the eradication of a large number in one area (as in hundreds at a time), he  spears, bags, and then dumps them in the middle of a Rock Island.  What is incredible is that Ron has taken on this challenge as a volunteer, and finances the work himself.

Yap Culture

Our first day in Micronesia was a very limited introduction to Yapese culture.  We visited a village community house and learned about stone money, visited a traditional men’s house to learn of the working of a village, and attended a presentation of traditional dances.

Stone money, carved from limestone on Palau (300 miles away), and transported via bamboo rafts over open water without navigational technology, are a defining aspect of traditional Yap culture.  Limestone as such does not exist in Yap.  The stone money weighs hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of pounds.   It is a few feet to as large as 12 feet in diameter and remains in front of each village’s community house.  Its value depends upon its history, how it is used (as in marriage arrangements), and varies in exchange with other villages.

Originally, Yap had a main path made of stones circling the island and each village had a stone path leading from the main path to their villages. The main stone path around the island is now paved, but some of the village paths still are in use. We were taken down one of these stone paths and asked to carry a fern branch with the leaves in front to indicate we came in peace.  The village community house was the first structure you'd see at the end of the village path and this is where the village stone money is kept.  We saw additional paths leading from the community house and we were told those lead to where the people lived, but we were not allowed to walk those paths so we never saw their homes. 

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We were taken to another village to visit an extremely well preserved traditional men’s house.  The chief of this village recognizes the potential of tourists and welcomed us. They displayed the plant weaving and handiwork of the women and told us they were for sale.  We were told that you always need to ask permission before taking anyone's picture.  When we visited his village we were free to take all the pictures we wanted. In traditional Yap society, the men's house is where the boys were taught to be men, where the men gather to go fishing and do battle with their neighbors, where the village business was conducted.  It was always near the sea.  We had trouble gathering info on the women’s houses, which apparently no longer exist.  What we did learn was that they were always just on the outskirts of the village, where women went when they had their periods and to deliver their babies.

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In the evening we attended a dance presentation, which also included the laying out of a traditional banquet of foods in baskets made by the women of that village.  The dishes were mainly fish and taro (a root vegetable and staple in their diets).  The dancers were all from the same village (they seem to have village dance competitions).   We saw several traditional stick dances.  The group was mostly women (ranging in age from very young to one who could easily be a grandmother).  In Yap culture, bare breasts are acceptable, but bare thighs are not.  The instruments were drums, voices and sticks. 

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The van used by our tour only held 10 people, so we chose to ride in the pickup truck that held 3 people so it was easier for Jason to get in and out.  This gave us a chance to speak extensively with our driver who shared quite openly with us about his country.  Here are some of the things he told us:

The people of Yap still live in their villages, and for the most part live off the land.  (According to the CIA World Factbook , “Economic activity consists primarily of subsistence farming and fishing.” Per capita income in Yap is about $2000.)

There is clearly a conflict over maintaining traditions.  We saw a few of the men wearing the traditional cloth, but everyone else wore western clothes.  Our driver told us his daughter, now a high school senior, wants to go to the States for college, and it would be unlikely that she would return to Yap.  He said he has electricity at his house, but no television, but his daughter uses a computer at high school.

We were told there are no traditional or native religions, the majority of people are Catholic, and that some people were Seventh-day Adventist or Mormon.  We saw a couple of Seventh-day Adventist schools.

There are no traffic signals on the entire island of Yap.  Tragically a Yapese boy serving in Afghanistan was being brought home for burial and as we came in on our boat we heard a whistle blowing constantly.  There was a traffic jam as so many were going to the funeral and they had a policeman directing traffic.  We were told that was an highly unusual event.

bettle nutMany people we encountered seemed addicted to “betel nuts.”  Remember the song from South Pacific, “Bloody Mary is the girl I love…she is always chewing betel nuts…”  Well, betel nuts are addictive and are a mild stimulant.  The seeds of an areca palm tree are wrapped in betel leaves and chewed.  Many men keep their thumbnail very long and sharp so they can use it to open the seeds.

Finally, here’s a tiny bit of Micronesian history as it helps to understand some of what we saw. This is a history of occupation.  Micronesia has had four external rulers: the Spanish, the Germans, the Japanese, and the Americans.  All shave left their mark.

The Spanish occupied and converted vast reaches of the Pacific to Catholicism during the Age of Discovery during the 16th century.  In 1899 (to pay for the Spanish American War), Spain sold its Pacific islands to Germany.  Japan joined the Allies in World War I and as a spoils of war was given the German territories in the Pacific, including Micronesia. During WWII, the US captured the islands and they remained a part of a US Trust Territory until November 3, 1986, when the Federated States of Micronesia became independent. Yap has been open for tourism for barely 20 years, with diving (and snorkeling), and WWII history buffs its major attractions.  The government of Yap is trying to expand the offering with the preservation of traditional Yap culture.

Of all our travels, Yap has to rank at the top in terms of being least tourist oriented, a true haven for those looking for native art and culture, but a real frustration for those seeking a tourist tee shirt.  It was quite amazing to be in a country where there were NO tourist shops and no one selling goods on the street. When we went to the shopping area in the capitol Colonia (which is also the only town on the island), the “supermarket” (which was government owned) had a section with a few things one might consider for tourists.  We actually found a tee shirt we liked on a manikin, but they were sold out and had no idea when they would get more.  Our guide then took us to a privately owned market.  It too clearly only focused on the needs of the local population.  Interestingly at this market, everyone left their shoes on the veranda outside and went in barefoot.  We were told this was a left over tradition from the Japanese occupation.  Also, almost everyone’s grandparents spoke Japanese, also a result of their time under Japanese rule.  Now of course, everyone speaks English.  One of the men (age about 40) at our hotel told us he learned US history in school, not Yap history. 

Our Introduction to the War in the Pacific

The last thing we expected on this trip was a World War II history lesson and it was quite an eye opener. We had no idea we were going to one of the most critical, and controversial battle grounds of the war in the Pacific.  We visited the air strips which were bombed, walked the beaches of the landing forces, saw remains of both Japanese and American tanks and guns, and visited Japanese caves and bunkers and heard stories of horrific events and matching bravery.

We were really ignorant of the war in the Pacific other than a few names like Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima.  We knew nothing of the significance of the Battle of Midway which was the turning point taking the US from a defensive to offense position, and the strategic importance, and later controversy, over the Battle of Peleliu.  Peleliu was a strategic Japanese base which allied commanders felt must be captured before they could attack the Philippines.   But the Philippines were attacked before Peleliu was captured.

We were told that the Japanese fire bombed the redwood forests in Oregon, but we didn’t believe that really happened. But The LA Times September 15, 1942 headline read “Report Oregon Bombing, ” and gives fascinating eyewitness accounts.  In our subsequent search, Wikipedia describes five Japanese attacks on North America during WW II.  For the first time we can understand why the country panicked and put loyal Japanese Americans into interment camps. 

On our first day in Yap we visited the location of the Japanese airfield and learned of a mysterious Japanese-American spy (no one to this day knows who it was).  The Yapese felt the spy saved the island from destruction as the spy marked the Japanese airfield runway with the message, written very large in English, that the Japanese were waiting for orders to surrender.  Click here to see the incredible picture.

In Palau we visited the island of Peleliu, about a one hour boat ride from our hotel.  The Battle of Peleliu was the most costly battle ever fought by the US Marines in their entire history (with a 34.3% casualty rate).  Our first stop at Peleliu was at the 1000 man cave, a place where Japanese soliders remained while the US bombed the island for days.  Before entering the cave, Terry, one of our fellow travelers, asked to share some information with us. Terry said he was a former Marine serving during the Vietnam War, and at one point during boot camp all the men were taken to a hut where a colonel told them of the Battle of Peleliu.  Terry told us that where we were was considered scared ground to Marines.  It was very chilling.  It made what we saw so much more personal and meaningful.

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We spent about four hours touring Peleliu and then after lunch Stephen Ballinger, Operations Director for Cleared Ground Demining, told us of his work in clearing Palau of old unexploded ordnance.  He showed us bombs, grenades, and booby-trapped things (the brick in the picture) that he collected (and disarmed) in just the last week.  The Marianas Variety, a local newspaper for Micronesia, had an article about Steve’s important work on October 7, 2009.


We find war history very emotionally challenging. One evening Ron gave a lecture on the history of the Pacific which explained many of the actions of Japan between 1853 (when Commodore Perry invaded Japan) through to 1941 and Pearl Harbor.  Although in the past we have shied away from war movie and programs, we realized that there is considerable history for which we are totally unaware and need to become more cognizant.  With this trip, our education has begun.


We can't end without a note on our hotels.  Our first two nights were at the Traders’ Ridge Resort on Yap.  This hotel is on a hilltop overlooking a bay.  We had a balcony we couldn't use because of the heat, humidity and rain (although we did have a nice view). 

The Palau Pacific Resort room had a view of the bay and restaurant and, and was very comfortalbe for our 8 night stay.  The grounds were lovely and included a large saltwater fish pond with turltes, sting rays and many of the fish that we had seen snorkeling. 

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June 11, 2010