Micronesia Reef Cleaners.
“Kosrae is the crossroads of the Pacific,” explained Katrina Adams, as she drove us from the little airport to the secluded resort. “It’s the first landfall for hundreds of miles. The Kosraeans have always been great navigators.” I guess they had to be. When I first saw the small island through the window of the 737, I wondered how anyone found it even today.
The trees formed shady arches; our
arrival is interrupted by a Monitor Lizard.
Kosrae (pronounced “ko-SHRY”) is part of the Federated States of Micronesia, a nation of small islands halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines. FSM has been closely linked to the U.S. since World War II. American currency is used, and English is commonly spoken. Known as “The Sleeping Lady” for its rather buxom mountain skyline, Kosrae is home to some 8,000 friendly islanders. Katrina and her husband, Bruce Brandt, established the Kosrae Village Resort as both a relaxing, romantic escape and a base for some incredible diving. During one special week each summer, guests can even partake in the reef-monitoring surveys that the resort’s staff divers perform throughout the year. Our hosts are dedicated stewards of the island’s ecosystems as well as promoters of the island’s nascent tourism industry.
Kosrae Village Resort is an ecolodge, existing
in harmony with the surroundings.
Kosrae Village Resort (KVR) is an ecolodge, built to exist in harmony with its surroundings. The first thing you notice upon arrival is the ubiquitous rainforest. Next you notice the singing of birds and the sound of nearby surf. Night falls quickly under the forest canopy, and tiki torches light your path to dinner. If that sounds kitschy, don’t worry; KVR is no molded-plastic tourist trap. The thatch roofs and other local building materials are used for their practicality and low cost compared to imported wood and metal, and their charm lies in their authenticity. The resort can use such natural, lightweight materials because Kosrae lies outside the Pacific typhoon belt. Nothing worse than a light squall blew through during my stay, and the rain on the roof sounded — well, charming.
Wooden walkways lead to the dive shop, restaurant,
and cottages, or bushwacked into the jungle.
Okay, there’s some molded plastic here. While installing the resort’s plumbing, Bruce kept losing small elbow and end-cap fittings from his supply of PVC pipe. Kosrae is heavily populated by delightful little hermit crabs, which are always on the lookout for good strong shells. “I lost 150 to 200 fittings before I figured out what was going on,” laughed Bruce.
A short stroll on a wooden footbridge brings guests from the parking lot to the resort and the Sleeping Lady Dive Shop. The spacious guest cottages are scattered in the rainforest for privacy, and several are wheelchair accessible. Telephone and internet access is available in the office, but the cottages are blissfully free of phones and TVs. Our group was too busy visiting over morning coffee or evening drinks in the resort’s restaurant to spend much idle time in our rooms anyway.
Buoys around Kosrae are
used by fishermen and divers alike
BUOYS WILL BE BUOYS
The installation of mooring buoys around the island has been KVR’s most visible environmental accomplishment. As of 2005, 56 of them have been installed. Every time a boat is tied up to one of these buoys, its anchor isn’t being dropped onto the fragile coral below. Conservationists have installed buoys at other islands only to have them ignored or stolen. At Kosrae, the key to the program’s success has been citizen involvement. Bruce and Katrina convinced the local fishermen of the buoys’ benefits and consulted them on the best locations. “Half the people on the island think the buoys were their idea,” said Bruce. And that’s just fine with him.
The darned things do wander off occasionally, though. At one survey site, the buoy had broken from its mooring line and disappeared, and we had to search for the line underwater. Another buoy was badly cracked, probably from a boat impact in the dark. On the sea floor, the iron re-bar pins that mark the reef-survey routes occasionally break loose and are lost. KVR obtains buoys and other gear through donations and grants from such organizations as PADI Aware, NOAA, and the Australian embassy. The program is succeeding with a shoestring budget and dedicated divers.
The author notes coral types along the survey line.
A WARM WELCOME
The guests arrived on a Saturday and spent the evening getting acquainted — and fed — at the resort. The Inum Restaurant has an extensive menu that changes a bit each day. We met Stephen Smith, Ph.D, who has come out to help conduct the annual guest survey program since its inception in 1996. KVR’s surveys are coordinated with Reef Check International, which monitors over 250 reefs worldwide. A Dive Safety Officer from California, Steve operates Ocean Earth, a non-profit umbrella organization for volunteer work in preserving the underwater world.
Barbara searches for invertebrates.
Sunday is by custom a day of rest on the island, and no diving is allowed. After visiting the old church in Malem village, we returned to the resort for some classroom training in the conduct of our reef surveys. I knew these dives would be different from any that I had done before, and I was eager to do my job well when the time came.
Monday morning’s dive at Buoy 16 was just for practice. Katrina and I went in first to lay the four twenty-meter measuring tapes along the survey route, navigating by compass to locate the iron pins that mark the route’s segments and attaching the tapes for others to follow. Right behind us came Chaffin, a young KVR staff diver, to do the fish count — probably the toughest job because the fish won’t hold still. Next came guests Barbara and Denise, cataloguing the various invertebrates (including clams, shrimp, and starfish) in the nooks and crannies along the route. I followed them with an underwater clipboard, recording the type of coral substrate every half-meter along each tape. Finally, Steve swam along each tape with a video camera to make a visual record of the survey route. At each site during the week we would also check the visibility, temperature, and salinity of the water. At one spot the visibility was 155 feet! Did I mention that Kosrae is a great dive destination?
Smile! A giant clam watches the world go by.
One of the biggest dangers to a coral reef is increasing water temperature. At most of the sites we surveyed, the water was 86 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a welcome number for divers but not so good for the reef. If the coral colonies get too stressed, they expel the symbiotic zooxanthellaebacteria that give them their different colors. This is called “bleaching,” since the remaining coral is white and usually dies without the nutrients provided by the photosynthesizing bacteria. Last year a local fisherman spotted a large area of bleaching near Buoy 49. Katrina believes it happened during several days in which no rain fell and very little wind blew to cool and circulate the water. With new colonies already growing in the area, Bruce and Katrina hope the event was a climatic anomaly and not a harbinger of things to come.
A giant brain coral provides a base for other hard corals and algae
JACK WAS NOT A DULL BOY
On the reef-monitoring trip, guests typically survey a reef site in the morning, enjoy lunch on the boat, and do a “fun dive” in the afternoon (not that the survey dives aren’t fun). Our first fun dive, at Buoy 15, was a ninety-minute drift along a sloping coral wall. A healthy reef supports a variety of sea life, and besides countless small fish we saw two spotted eagle rays and a school of barracuda. Sharp-eyed Steve found a peacock flounder hiding in plain sight on a pink coral surface. On other dives we saw white-tip reef sharks and explored a U.S. Navy seaplane that had crashed and sunk in Lelu Harbor in the 1940s.
This anemonefish guards his territory as it guards him.
Lelu itself was originally an islet in Kosrae’s largest harbor and the site of the royal residence. Stone ruins dating to the 1400s mark the site of the old palace. Food was brought by boat to the king and his court, and numerous channels were dug through the coastal mangrove forests as highways. Later a causeway was built, and today ordinary people live on the tiny islet. Children walk to and from school through the palace ruins. Tourists can visit the ruins and, with a good guide, the ancient channels as well.
Corals and coralline algae of different types build the reef together
Tadeo was born during the Japanese Army’s occupation of Kosrae, when all local newborns were required to have Japanese names. He is intimately familiar with the mangrove channels, and he gave our group a marvelous tour through this primeval fantasyland in his homemade dugout canoe. An army of fiddler crabs squatted on one bank, each with one sinister oversized claw held in front of its small body like a deadly weapon. On the opposite side the wavy roots of a Tui tree covered the entire bank. A monitor lizard interrupted its afternoon nap on an overhanging limb to watch us glide by. Everywhere mangrove roots reached downward from the branches, seeking water and nourishment. Tadeo explained that the tips of these shoots can be chewed to prevent seasickness. Another tree is used to ease a woman’s pain during childbirth. The whole forest is a natural pharmacy still used by the local people.
The reefs provide habitat to a variety of sea life.
On our second Sunday we hiked into the island’s lush interior and declared, “It’s a friendly forest!” Nothing is particularly hazardous here: no venomous snakes, no malaria, no poisonous plants. Under the huge Ka trees and taro leaves we found an ancient pounding stone, a relic of the days when sakau root was ground into kava for drinking at royal ceremonies. Farther up the trail were the remains of stone walls — possibly from a family home, but no one knows for certain. Our tour guide, Tadeo’s son, Salik, climbed a tree to pick oranges while we rested. Everywhere the jungle grew relentlessly, and the historic ruins would be buried without frequent grooming by Salik and other concerned Kosraeans. “Usually we come here with machetes, but this is Sunday,” he said.
Sleeping Lady Divers has Nitrox available to qualified divers, and after a refresher lecture from Bruce, several of the guests used this special gas to gain extra bottom time during survey dives. I needed it: Chaffin and I splashed first to lay tapes, and with two iron pins missing from our route, we took longer to measure the correct bearing and distance of those segments. One tape snarled on its reel, and we had to improvise by laying the fourth segment with the tape from the first, after the survey on that segment had been completed.
Stuff happens. At another site three of the eight pins had gone missing, and I surfaced with less than the normal minimum of 500 PSI of remaining air in my tank after just getting the four tapes installed and taking a water sample. Then I rode out a rain squall on the boat with safety diver Roman. I had to be ready to go back down with a fresh tank in case another diver surfaced before completing a task. This was work. This was cool!
Bruce fills a tank with Nitrox.
Nitrox is a special diving gas with an oxygen content of 28, 32, or 36 percent instead of the 21 percent in normal air. The added oxygen reduces fatigue, and the lower nitrogen content (79 percent in normal air) allows divers to stay down longer without added risk of “the bends.” This painful and potentially deadly condition is caused by the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream and can occur if a diver stays under too long or surfaces too quickly.
If you’re willing to take a long flight over the beautiful Pacific, Kosrae is easy to reach. Continental Airlines flies there from Guam and Honolulu. It’s a good idea to deal with an agent who knows all the details of travel to Micronesia . One such outfit is World of Diving, a specialist in this region. If you’d rather not carry all your dive gear with you, Sleeping Lady Divers can rent you everything you’ll need. It’s quality equipment, and Bruce maintains it meticulously. He is qualified to repair almost any brand.
Who designed these butterfly fish?
“This island is young for tourism,” explained administrator Grant Ismael during our visit to the Kosrae Visitors Bureau. Divers are beginning to include Kosrae in their trips to better-known Micronesian destinations like Chuuk and Yap. In ten years the island will be a major destination, but it maintains one appealing distinction: unlike many places that have altered their ways to suit tourists, Kosrae has maintained its conservative customs, and guests are expected to observe them. See KVR’s web site for details.
When in Rome . . .
Barbara rests between dives.
The supply ship was late, and for a couple of days the resort had no ice cream. In our interconnected world, where everything we could want (and a whole lot of stuff we don’t want) is at our fingertips, this reminder of the island’s seclusion was strangely appealing. “Kosrae is 2,500 miles from everywhere,” proclaimed a nineteenth-century advertisement recruiting adventurous missionaries from America. We didn’t need a supply ship for fresh fish, however; a local man brought in a thirty-pound tuna one afternoon, and KVR’s guests and pet cats were very happy that evening.
Bruce seemed most happy just to have his evening ice cream again.
Okay, I’m getting faster. With only one pin missing on today’s route, I got the four tapes into place and checked the substrate on three segments before running low on air. While Katrina surveyed the fourth tape, I retrieved the first one on my way back to the boat (just trying to be helpful) and surfaced with less than 100 PSI in my tank. Oops! Don’t tell Bruce.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS . . .
Like many recreational activities, diving can become boring when it’s the same old thing every time. Trying it in new places adds variety. Filming the activity spices things up a bit, but only for so long. Adventurous types can switch dive buddies, or even dive in threes, and that helps. However, when it becomes your job, it really changes things. Laying my first tape was very satisfying, and I made it my goal to see how many times I could do it before coming up for air. Ever tied knots underwater? All these toys we were using lent the experience an exciting, ah, novelty.
Sunset over Lelu Harbor.
Another good thing about the survey dives is their educational value. I had to become familiar with the many types of coral and algae that form the reef. Coralline algae are hard-structured reef builders that grow on the mineral shells of dead coral colonies. Where live algae and live coral meet, there is a visible “battle line” with a bright color that is easy to identify. Other divers learned to distinguish the different breeds of fish and invertebrates. We all improved our skills at estimating underwater visibility. Instead of saying something ignorant like “Boy, you can see forever down here!” we can henceforth proclaim, “I’d say the viz is 33, maybe 34 meters . . . but it doesn’t compare to Kosrae.”
Katrina and the author identify the substrate under the tape.
I did it! Site 40 had three pins missing, but Roman and I laid the tapes quickly enough that I could then survey the substrate on all four segments before surfacing with 200 PSI in my tank. Four tapes and four surveys! Diving has always provided me a sense of inspiration and wonder, but today it also gave me a feeling of accomplishment.
Got worms? Colorful Christmas tree
worms make tiny garages in the coral.
And what did Bruce and Katrina conclude from this year’s data? At the sites we surveyed, water temperature has held fairly steady but is near the top of the reef’s tolerable range. Hard coral has suffered in areas hit by storms or localized bleaching (declining from 33% coverage in 2001 to 25% in 2005 at Site 49, for example). Otherwise the hard coral coverage has held steady. Certain food fish have declined in numbers, and the islanders are discussing fishing restrictions to protect them. Overall the reef is healthy, and with active participation by the islanders, Kosrae can serve as an example to the world in protecting its own back yard.
Why visit this island? It’s not the most accessible vacation spot in terms of time or money. However, traveling somewhere is more meaningful when you have a real reason to go. When you stay at Kosrae Village Resort and dive with Sleeping Lady Divers, you’re supporting their important work in protecting the reef. During the guest survey week, you’re actually taking part in its success. As my homeward flight lifted off from the edge of the island, I was reminded of that importance by the last thing I happened to see outside my window: a small red buoy on the clear water.
Kosrae Village Resort
Sleeping Lady Divers
Kosrae, Micronesia 96944
Editor’s Note: For he next Kosrae reef cleanup details and resort divers discounted rooms during the event in exchange for assistance: visit http://www.kosraevillage.com/whatsnew.shtml
— Feature by R.L, Jetsetters Magazine Dive Editor.