The idea of diving Micronesia forms dreams of warm, crystal blue waters with big animals, wrecks and mantas. Most divers probably include it on their dream dive destination list, or, those who’ve been there eagerly recommend it to dive buddies and reminisce about sharks, mantas and the beauty of these wonderful islands.
I had returned from my second trip to Palau and, like the first trip, it was amazing. I was anything but disappointed with ten female grey reef sharks on one dive at Ulong Channel, ripping currents at Blue Corner and the curious mysteries of unidentified Japanese World War II wrecks.
But along with the remarkable marine life, pristine corals and spooky wrecks, my dive group and I found crowds of people, with several boats at each dive site, lots of other divers hooked into the same areas, and restaurants and resorts congested with other divers and tourists.
It’s not that I don’t like diving with other people... well, okay, it is. I want paradise to myself, or at least just for me and the group of divers I prefer to travel with. So when my dive buddy—who didn’t get to go with us to Palau—wanted to go diving in Micronesia six months later, I wasn’t thrilled. I loved Blue Corner, but not with two other boat loads of people flying by in front of my group and interrupting our shark show. So, I set out to find us that untouched, perfect reef, the one reef that no one else knows about yet.
The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is made up of four island states: Pohnpei (the capital), Kosrae, Yap and Chuuk. Located just north of the equator and all having played a role in WWII, these islands have world class diving. We had heard of Chuuk and Yap, so we choose to go to Pohnpei and Kosrae. If anyone was going to ask us, “Why?” We were ready to answer, “Why not?” Of course, we couldn’t tell anyone where we were going just yet, as we didn’t know how to pronounce the islands’ names. (Pohnpei is pronounced pon-a-pe, and Kosrae is kosh-rye.)
It’s cliché, but we wanted to go off the map. And my mother pointed out that not all maps have these small islands marked. Amazing adventures never were supposed to be easy, so we decided we would go, a week on each island. Our first stop—Pohnpei. A plane change in Hawaii or Guam is required, to board the “Micronesian Milk Route”, which visits Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Truk.
Our flight left Honolulu at 6AM for another nine hours in the plane, and at each island stop half the passengers on the plane had to disembark for a security check and then would re-board about 45 minutes later. As the plane descended to Pohnpei, 3,240 miles southwest of Hawaii, through the window we saw a lush, green, heavily forested island with almost no buildings or houses. The airport consisted of a large, outdoor shack-like building. We collected our luggage, which was hand carried from the plane and placed in front of us with the plane still in view and went to meet the small van waiting for us.
Pohnpei has the most land, the most people (estimated around 34,000) and the most development of the FSM. It’s boasted to have the friendliest people. Birds flit about everywhere, several of which are endemic or only found on Pohnpei, and there are several species of lizards commonly seen. Pohnpei’s only original mammal is bats, and with humans came rats, dogs, pigs and most recently deer.
It’s thought that the first settlers to come to Pohnpei migrated from Southeast Asia to Yap and the FSM and then southward to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. Historically, Pohnpei was divided into five tribes, with the tribal chiefs having complete control of the land, the people and everything on it. It’s likely the five tribes battled amongst one another.
The first European documentation of the island of Pohnpei was from a Spanish ship in 1595, but they did not go ashore. Second contact was likely an Australian ship in 1825, and the ship was chased off by natives in canoes. A Russian ship in 1828 also attempted to land but could not due to native resistance, but for the first time, native Pohnpeians came aboard their ship. Due to whaling, more and more ships came to Pohnpei in the 1800s and with them they brought smallpox, which caused a huge epidemic and many casualties.
Pohnpei has been occupied by several countries, the first being the Spanish in 1886 as part of the Caroline Island chain in 1886. In 1899, the German Empire purchased the Caroline island group, part of the Marianas and the Marshall Islands, which was then granted to Japan as they assumed control of all German colonial possessions north of the equator in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.
Although the FSM played quite a large roll in World War II, no shots were fired on Pohnpei. The island was bombed significantly during the Japanese occupancy and then the island was abandoned by the Japanese. Although there are no battlefields, there are some remnants of the Japanese occupation on land. Hiking into the jungle can be quite an adventure for a WWII history buff, as there are anti-aircraft guns, a few pillboxes and trenches that are carved-in tunnels.
This is all mostly off the beaten track, and it’s a good idea to find a local guide or at least get very good directions before setting off by yourself into the jungle. There are rusted gun emplacements, an overgrown airbase (where we had lunch one day), bunkers, bomb craters and several rusted tanks.