24 July, 2011

Swimming with Sharks ... and Other Adventures

Today was quite an eventful day. Dad, Mom and I arranged a kayaking and snorkeling trip through The Village resort. We arrived at The Village a little before our 8:30am arrival time. I had assumed that it would just be us when I called and booked the trip earlier this week, but it turns out we were joined by another fellow and his two daughters. The fellow’s name was Bill. He works for the federal government, but in a different department than Dad. He’s been on island for about a year already. His daughters, Ashley and Amber, were visiting for summer vacation from San Diego. Ashley will be entering 8th grade when she returns. Amber turned 17 yesterday, so they were celebrating her birthday. Fortunately, they were nice folks, and we enjoyed their company.

Kayaking was scheduled for the first part of the day. This was necessary so that we could make sure to get the boats in the water before the tide receded. We had two [awesome] guides, Jay and Bernard. They loaded up the kayaks in one boat, and us in another and took us out to one of the little islands that rest just off of Pohnpei. My mother does not really like water. We made sure to tell the folks at The Village this when booking the trip. She rode in a tandem kayak with Dad. They were pretty funny at first, with both of them trying to paddle, usually in opposite directions. But pretty quickly they were making good time and rowing in sync with each other like old pros. I was very proud of them. The rest of us had single kayaks. Bernard was our paddling guide. He deftly navigated us through several mangrove channels. It was really beautiful, but also slightly treacherous at times. The overgrown mangrove root systems could get a little grabby in some areas making maneuvering the kayaks through the already tight spaces even more challenging. This, of course, was half the fun. The water was very shallow, too, since the tide was on its way out to sea, so there were a few spots where the kayaks would get temporarily stuck on the bottom. Good times and good fun … and hard work, that paddling! I loved it, though. It put me in mind of buying my own kayak sometime in the near future.

After our adventures in tiny boats, we loaded the kayaks and ourselves back into the motorboats. The guides then transported us to another little man made island for lunch and some shallow snorkeling. This island was chosen specifically so that Mom would get a chance to try snorkeling in a shallow easily navigated area. (Which served Dad and me well, too, as we were all brand new to snorkeling.) When I made the trip arrangements we were assured that we could do our snorkeling in a location that was shallow enough for us to be able to touch bottom and where there would be a very gradual slope into the ocean. Turns out, they took us to this first location just to get mom in the water as preparation for taking us on to two other popular (and not shallow!) snorkeling sites. (My guess is that Bill made his arrangements later than we did, and The Village decided to try to accommodate both our parties in one excursion. It turned out to be a blessing for me and Dad, and Mom was fine with it, so there was no harm done.) Mom was very brave as she took her first forays into the water. She was able to put her head under water (almost unheard of for her!) and stay there for several minutes at a time. She did have some moments of panic, but she didn’t let them stop her from trying again. Jay and Bernard were fantastic at staying by her side and giving her support and advice. The rest of us took a little time examining the underwater inhabitants of the shallow reef.

After about a half hour of this “warm up” snorkeling, we climbed back into the motorboats and were whisked away to the next snorkeling site. This site is what is popularly known as Manta Road. It is, in case you didn’t already work it out, where manta rays can be found, and even has a popular manta ray cleaning station where, according to the Pohnpei Ecotourism Travel Guide, mantas go to have tiny fish eat "parasitic insects and leftover food which cling to the mantas' skin and gills". It’s about forty or so feet deep, if I heard the guides correctly. Mom sat this one out without a second thought. I was feeling very nervous about the idea of being in ocean this deep, but was considering it. Then I hear mom ask Jay, “What was that fin?” “Sharks,” he said, smiling. Crap. That shattered all of my considerations. I wasn’t ready for sharks. I have been working very hard on reprogramming myself to release my ridiculous phobia of sharks, but I wasn’t ready to jump in the water with them on my very first day of snorkeling. Bill and Amber had already gotten in and were out snorkeling. The notion of sharks stopped Ashley in her tracks, too. She was still willing to get in, but only with her dad nearby. He, however, wasn’t willing to swim back to the boat to get her. She was, naturally, bummed. But Jay said he’d take her out to her dad if she wanted. She was considering this as we saw the shark fins again. This time I saw them too. They were small. I have been researching the reef sharks that are native to this area, and I am pretty sure they were immature black tip reef sharks. Jay confirmed that they were probably no longer than his arm. They didn’t strike fear in me when I saw them, so I decided that I would consider getting in the water if my Daddy would go with me.

It was settled, then: Jay, Ashley, Dad and I would all swim out from the boat together. We all held hands (Dad and Jay on the outsides of our troop) as we swam toward the area where the mantas were. This was, incidentally, where we had seen the little sharks. As we swam, I tried to keep my eyes forward, but underwater, and focused on my breathing. (Snorkeling is still a little awkward for me as I tend to be a pretty consistent nose breather.) As we got closer to the mantas I saw a school of Rainbow Runner fish. For some reason that set off my panic button, and I started having trouble breathing. My head and chest were pressurizing. I was trying to tell the others in our human chain that I needed to turn around. I was squeezing my dad’s hand like crazy to try to get him to understand that I needed to get out of the water, but he didn’t realize I was in distress. Finally, Bernard, who had joined Bill and Amber out over the mantas, looked up and saw my building hysteria. He asked me if I was okay, and I shook my head emphatically, “NO!” He swam over straight away and grabbed my hand and helped me get back to the boat. About half way back, Dad realized that I wasn’t beside him anymore, and came to join us. I swallowed and snorted a lot of water during my freak out. I got a terrible headache from the pressure in my head and chest. It was awful. And I was embarrassed and frustrated, because I had been out where the mantas were, and had managed to not even see a single one! Dad saw several. The other snorkelers were still out there. Dad and I joined mom to watch the others from the safety of the boat, and to allow me to recover from my anxiety.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, I managed to calm myself down and give myself a good pep talk. I felt ready to try again. Jay came back to help me, and, sandwiched between him and Dad, I managed to make my way back out into the ocean. I was much calmer this round. I kept my breathing nice and steady. I looked around as I went … well, at least a little more than last time. I saw the school of Rainbow Runners again, as well as a school of Needle fish. Then Dad motioned for me to look down, so I did. There it was. It was magnificent. A manta ray was gracefully twirling and swirling in its beautiful open-mouthed dance just beneath us. And I saw it. I watched it for several moments, then decided I was ready to go back to the boat again. I felt vindicated to myself. I did it. I got in the water … twice. And I rose above my fear. And I was rewarded with the gift of this spectacular manta ray ballet. (There were apparently at least seven mantas twirling around there, but I only saw one since I was too chicken to broaden my scope of vision. But one was enough, thank you very much.) When we all got back on the boat, Bill asked if any of us had seen the shark down below the mantas. Thank goodness I had not. He said it was about five or six feet long, and was just chilling down there. He said it was the biggest shark he’d seen since he’d been here, and he scuba dives. My guess is that it was a white tip reef shark. I remember reading that they tend to just lounge about on the bottom of the ocean or under the reefs whenever they aren’t hunting. Either way, I am glad to know that I knowingly swam in water with sharks; that there were even adult sharks in there with me, and most importantly, that I didn’t see any of them while I was in the water.

We left the mantas to relocate to another popular snorkeling point. This place was called Mwand Pass. There are several of these passes around Pohnpei island. These are channel breaks in the reef surrounding the island, which create these really phenomenal living reef walls that act kind of like hallways from the inside reef area out to the ocean proper. One brochure we have describes the passes like this:

“Towering up on either side of the channel are huge ledges of coral. Looking over these ledges, one can view a beautiful white sand bottom beneath crystal-blue waters.”

I was initially not planning to get in the water here. I was feeling tired and had already taken some pretty big steps for me. But, Dad was going in, so I decided to take a quick swim to check out the reef. I am glad I did. Once again, I was flanked by Dad and Jay as I set out from the boat. This area was entirely different from Manta Road. Even though the water was about three times deeper here, the reef wall provided a sense of protection and orientation. I only explored it for a little while, but I felt comfortable enough to even release the hands of my supporters. I saw several different kinds of reef fish, but I couldn’t tell you what any of them were. They were beautiful, though. Jay pointed out some giant clams. And the reef itself, the coral and seaweed and other living structures were just amazing to behold. When I got back in the boat I really felt like I had accomplished so much. I was really quite proud of myself. This was our last stop of the day, and I felt like I finished the day with no regrets. It was a very good day.

We returned to The Village, had a bite to eat, and came home completely knackered. Now I am typing this in bed, nursing a sun burn (despite repeat applications of sunscreen) and a massive headache that I can’t seem to shake. And, still, it was worth it. A very good day.

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