Most divers have heard of Chuuk Lagoon’s famous ghost fleet of WWII wrecks. This bucket-list destination is a true underwater museum and a wreck-diver’s dream. Nowhere else in the world has so many WWII wrecks in such close proximity. For divers already spending cash to travel such a long distance, doesn’t it make sense to add in another Micronesian island for a little more?
Some divers choose Yap, well-known for its manta rays and large schools of fish, but savvy travelers island-hop vacation over to another Micronesian gem: Pohnpei. Not only is Pohnpei a far cheaper flight with the same extraordinary marine life, but it’s also a misty mountain, rainforest dream of an island.
The First Stop on Ideal Micronesian Diving Trip: Chuuk Lagoon
The perfect Micronesian diving trip begins in Chuuk onboard the incomparable Odyssey liveaboard. Sunk during the U.S. Navy’s 1944 Operation Hailstone, more than 60 wrecks are scattered over 77 square miles (199 square km) in Chuuk Lagoon, where divers will also see tanks, aircraft and trucks. Divers can also see crates of wartime staples, such as ammunition, remains of uniforms and gas masks. Sake bottles and rice bowls also litter the wreck.
The famous compressor, nicknamed R2D2, sits in the machine shop of the Fujikawa Maru. A latticework of hard and soft coral and anemones adorns each piece of history, rusting quietly on the bottom. Many of the shallower wrecks are corroding rapidly and may not be around for much longer. Porcelain crabs, gobies, nudibranchs and shrimp hide among the structures along with some schools of fish. You may spot an occasional shark or ray swimming past.
Depth: Most dives are at 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 m). There are plenty of deeper dives for technical divers as well.
Water temperature: Temps are usually 82-84 F (28-29 C)
Visibility: Often murky; usually 40 to 60 feet (12 to 18 m)
Current: Little to none
When to go: The dry season is December to April. Chuuk is a year-round destination, though, as the rain is rarely heavy and there is still a lot of sunshine even in the off-season.
Topside on Chuuk
While the focus is definitely on wreck diving, divers can round out their stay by taking a day to tour two Japanese WWII sites. The shrapnel-torn Sapuk Lighthouse sits atop a hill, offering visitors a sweeping panoramic view of the strategic northeast passage. A visit to Nefo Cave, a fortified natural cave with a large artillery gun, is a sobering reminder of the island’s once fierce warfare. Aside from diving and these two historical sites, there is very little else to do so bring a few good books if you’re staying more than a day or two on the island itself.
Island-Hop to Pohnpei, the Garden Island
In just a little over an hour via the United Airlines island hopper, travelers can touch down in Pohnpei for quite a contrast from Chuuk. Known as the Garden Island, Pohnpei boasts lush, tropical forests and cascading mountain streams. Rich swathes of mangrove shelter plentiful marine life, making this magical island one of Micronesia’s most varied marine environments.
Don’t be fooled by the name, the Pohnpei Surf Club offers gasp-worthy dives. Expect hordes of mating eagle rays, congregating sharks, large schools of pelagic fish and dancing manta rays. Diving the underwater cleaning station on Manta Road is an outstanding way to see the mantas up close. Pohnpei also offers a unique manta experience with the vast number of striking all-black ‘Black Morph’ variety that swim these waters. Lagoon-passage dives timed with the current allow divers to drift past teeming marine life.
With 11 marine-protected areas surrounding this island and strong conservation efforts both below and above the water, Pohnpei remains pristine. To top it off, it’s almost a given that no other boat will be on your dive site. Visitors mentioning this article will receive 10 percent off diving/tours as well as 10 percent off stays at the Mangrove Bay Hotel for bookings made by 11/17/17 paid in advance.
Depth: Most dives are at 60 to 100 feet (18 to 30 m)
Water temperature: Temps are usually around 86 F (30 C)
Visibility: Often 100 feet (30 m) and occasionally up to 150 feet (46 m) in many locations
Current: Varies depending on location and time of day from none to slow drifts with an occasionally stronger current.
When to go: While May to October is the best season, this is a year-round destination with rain often occurring at night.
Topside on Pohnpei
A maze of mangrove forests with small channels completely surrounds Pohnpei’s coastline. It’s the perfect environment for canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding. Further out to sea, the surfing and kiteboarding are world class, but the land-based activities are just as mind-blowing. Hiking amidst the many tumbling waterfalls in the bright green rainforest, below the gaze of towering mountains, is not to be missed topside.
The ancient ruins of Nan Madol are a must as well. This famed lost city is often called the Venice of the Pacific due its network of canals. Visit by boat, snorkel or scuba for a unique experience. While most of the WWII artifacts are found underwater in Chuuk, some fascinating WWII land-based sites are accessible around Pohnpei.
Lucky adventurers can attend a sakau ceremony. Like kava on other Pacific islands, sakau is made from the stone-ground roots of the pepper plant. While the bitter extract is an acquired taste, the ceremonial imbibing is of paramount cultural relevance and the effects are pleasant — mild euphoria, sociability and greatly reduced anxiety. Travelers preferring to eschew intoxicants, but wanting a Garden Island novelty can try Pohnpei black pepper, almost impossible to acquire anywhere else.
When flying back to Chuuk or hopping over to Guam in preparation for the trip home, travelers should know that Micronesian planes only touchdown on certain days and can face occasional cancelation. Keep abreast of the flight schedule by calling the island-hopper service directly.