“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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 zooxanthellae bacteria 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.
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 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.
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!
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
“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 . . .
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.
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.”
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.
Editor's Note: The next Kosrae reef cleanup and monitoring event is scheduled for September, 2007. The resort offers divers discounted rooms during the event in exchange for assistance in the reef project. For details visit http://www.kosraevillage.com/whatsnew.shtml
By Rob LaGrone, Jetsetters Magazine Dive Editor.