Micronesia - Guam by Nevil Adkins
An island about the size of the Isle of Wight, Guam lies fourteen degrees north of the equator and 144 degrees east of Greenwich in the western Pacific - it is a very long way from the UK. Many UK divers will know it as an intermediate step on the way to more famous locations such as Chuuk (Truk), Palau, Bikini and a host of other Pacific islands. It is however a mere 3? hours flight from Yokohama, Japan where I am currently living and on looking for a sunny get-away from Greater Tokyo's endless congestion my wife, Rachel, and I decided that it would make an ideal destination for a short family break. We visited it first for a week in early November 2003 and again in April 2004 for a fortnight.
Guam is an outlying territory of the United States so visitors must comply with the usual entry requirements for the USA (see United States section at www.fco.gov.uk). British divers can make use of the "Visa Waiver Programme" which essentially is a visa-on-arrival arrangement but from 26th October 2004 they must have a machine-readable passport to do this.
There is a wide selection of hotels available; the first time we visited we stayed in the Holiday Inn, located a few metres away from the middle of the main Tumon Bay beach. It is a fairly typical chain hotel; nicely appointed but with relatively little character. There is a buffet restaurant in the large atrium and a cosy Hys steakhouse restaurant off this. Service was good and the food excellent, especially the seafood - not surprising perhaps given its location. The only disappointment was that the "babysitting on request" advertised on the website was simply not available and the children's club was limited. The Management was helpful however and after a day's research came up with a list of possible day-care centres that could take the children (Robert, aged 3 and Luke, aged 18 months). After picking up a hire car we checked out Naomi's Violin Pre-School & Daycare (116 Plumeria Road, Tamuning tel. (671) 646 8385). This 24-hour day-care center is aimed at locals but was happy to take our pair and at US$3 per hour per child during the day and US$4 at night offered excellent value.
We decided to take a day-trip round the island after checking out Naomi's, so headed on south to find Micronesian Divers Association (MDA, www.mdaguam.com) about 10 minutes away. We called in to suss out the scene and book some dives. MDA run dives at 08:30 daily from their berth at Apra Harbour and special dives from Agana at the weekends. The daily dives (US$ 35) run to fairly local sites along the coast and inside Apra Harbour if the weather is rough. The special dives vary in cost depending on the location but average US$ 45 and visit a wider range of sites. All trips include two dives but are pretty much no-frills; tanks, weights and other equipment can be hired separately and bring your own drinks and food. The boats are 42' long, stable and comfortable with a shaded diving deck and an upper sun deck (don't forget to apply the sun lotion as the tropical sun is strong even if the breeze keeps you cool). We booked a special trip for the weekend, fawned over the impressive array of kit in the shop and spoke with Cindy, MDA's travel agent before heading off to tour the far south of the Island. Cindy had booked the Holiday Inn for us and got us a price of US$100 per room per night, bed and breakfast. She can also arrange trips off to the other locations nearby; Chuuk, Palau, etc and with the current exchange rates these are at very attractive prices.
The south of the island boasts a beautiful range of mountains, white sandy beaches and blue seas. There is a memorial where Magellan came ashore in his "discovery" of Guam in 1521 and, since this was the site of many epic battles in the Second World War, there are several memorial parks and viewpoints along the road. November is in the rainy season (July to December) so it wasn't long before we had a downpour and discovered that the sealing around the rear window of the car was not watertight but at US$25 plus US$10 optional insurance and free child seats (Cars Unlimited, http://www.carsultd.com) who's complaining about a free shower?
The weekend arrived and setting off early, we dropped the boys at Naomi's and picked up our cylinders at the shop (book DIN valved cylinders in advance if you need them and you will be required to deposit your qualification card or logbook as surety). Pete's Reef is close to the marina so it wasn't long before we were moored to the permanent buoy in 16m of perfect blue water offering 30+ metres visibility above a crenelated coral reef that hugged the rocky headland. The reef bottomed out to flat sand at 22m and offered a variety of gullies, swim-throughs and pinnacles to explore. After a suitable surface interval we conducted a second dive on another patch reef nearby called Hap's Reef. This reef is quite small; maybe 25m wide by 75m long and rises from a rocky bottom at about 15m to its shallowest point at about 5m, so you have plenty of time to explore its nooks and crannies. Eagle eyes are required to spot the scorpion fish and small lion fish whereas the fusiliers, Moorish idols and variety of butterfly and angel fish are much more obvious. The water temperature is a constant 27?C all year round so a shorty or 3mm full suit should be sufficient for most people and those with a less sensitive disposition could dispense with a suit altogether. After a very relaxing couple of dives we had lunch at Jan Z's, a casual bar-restaurant at the marina, before heading back to collect the boys who were tired after a morning of hard play. Adults and kids both satisfied!
Unfortunately Rachel's ears had been playing up on the dive and we decided not to dive again so we left Guam after a week having done only one day's diving, but having done a lot of research and we felt that there was still a lot more to see both above and below water. When we came to plan an Easter break we considered a new location but decided to go back to Guam and capitalise on our previous experience. This time however we decided that we would splash out and stay in an apartment. Hours of web-surfing later we booked a two-bedroom apartment at the Ohana Ocean View (www.ohanahotels.com) for US$130 per night including airport transfers, a rate that even Cindy couldn't beat. The Ohana is an older property that is showing its age a little but is being revamped slowly. It has a couple of low quality restaurants that we didn't use, a small swimming pool that is ideal for an afternoon splash with the kids and the rooms are large, comfortable and adequately equipped for simple cooking. From the hotel it is a five-minute walk down a fairly steep hill to the cluster of much more expensive hotels (Outrigger, Marriott, Hyatt, etc.) and restaurants (including TGI Fridays and Hard Rock CafóFat the northern end of Tumon Bay so we ate out a fair amount. The Ohana has an arrangement that guests can use the beach, swimming pool and other facilities at the Outrigger and they will even shuttle you there in a minibus. In fact if you reserve a table at a restaurant, most of them will come and pick you up and return you to your hotel for free.
This time we also decided to forego the free shower and hired a car through Hertz (US$57 per day), also located at the Outrigger (don't pick up your car at the airport since they charge a hefty surcharge for this). Although somewhat more expensive it was a brand new vehicle and more pleasant to drive. We picked up the car and headed off to the Payless supermarket at the Micronesia Mall - what a joy to be able to read the labels on things instead of being faced with acres of Japanese text! K-Mart is the other big supermarket in town, and although it has an excellent takeaway pizza bar, the food shopping selection is rather limited. If you want cheap clothes, CDs, DVDs, or other 'hardware' items, it is the place to go however.
The next day we had a hard morning learning the fundamentals of civil engineering and soil mechanics - otherwise known as sandcastle building on the beautiful Tumon Bay. In the afternoon we visited MDA to book some cylinders and Naomi's to book the childcare. As we pulled into the car park at Naomi's the owner, Miss Heidi, greeted us with a beaming smile of recognition - its nice to be remembered! Thereafter we had nearly two weeks of mixed diving, sightseeing and relaxing-on-the-beach days.
Some of the highlights:
Blue Hole. This is probably the most well known site on the island - you can even do a PADI Speciality Course on this site! The cliff drops immediately down to around 15m and there is then a broad horizontal rocky shelf in which the top entrance to the Hole is located. It is perhaps ten metres across so there is plenty of room and light streams down into the vertical shaft as it drops down into the depths. At a shade under 40m an arch opens in the side of the shaft which then essentially becomes a deep crevice in the cliff. It is at this point that you exit the Hole and continue your dive, gradually winding up the outside of the cliff. There is little coral in this area and not that many fish so in all honesty it is a curiosity of a dive - worth doing once but I wouldn't go back time and time again.
11 Mile Reef - as its name suggests this is located 11 miles offshore and is definitely an advanced dive. The reef is a very large hump that rises from over 40m to a peak of around 25m and has constant strong currents flowing over it. The perfect visibility (in excess of 50m) and pristine coral make it a great dive and there is a good chance that you will see reef sharks, turtles, barracuda and rays out here. Swimming against the current will quickly drain your air and drifting with it will sweep you off the reef in a few minutes so the best strategy is to get down to the bottom as quickly as possible and tuck yourself into one of the sandy gullies that traverse the site and watch things go past. Some divers use reefhooks to achieve the same effect but be a bit higher up and so see further.
Double reef. This site is close to shore and features a drop-off from around 12m to 30m followed by another drop to at least 60m, although the shelf at 30m was not really noticeable at the particular point we dived. The deeper sections feature pretty sea-whips but as your air supply drops, head inshore and you will eventually end up in a beautiful coral garden in only 5-6m - an ideal place to offgas. This area is also called Nathan's Dent and is offered as a dive in its own right.
The Crevice is a large fold in the ubiquitous 12m to very deep cliff that runs along this part of Guam. The Crevice is about 20m across, 50m or so long and the floor is at about 45m. We descended the inner cliff to about 40m, swam around the Crevice, out onto the outer cliff and then circled up and around back to the boat. Again, the deeper depths offer sea fans and whips and the shallow water lots of fish, especially since this is one area where the fish are fed by divers.
There are plenty of shore dives possible; buy a copy of "Diving the Pacific: Micronesia and the Western Pacific Islands" (David Leonard, Periplus Action Guides), have a chat with the MDA crew and go exploring. You can hire cylinders from MDA at US$8 per day, and on subsequent days you just pay US$5 for the air fill.
Piti Bomb Holes are located straight across the road from MDA's shop and are an easy, shallow shore dive, ideal for training, checking out kit or simply fish-watching. There are two curiosities at this site; the "Oceanwalkers" who walk around a set circuit wearing a bubble helmet in about 5m and the Observatory, an underwater viewing chamber accessed via a walkway from the shore. In both cases those on one side think of those on the other as a tourist attraction, so give them a friendly wave!
Gun Beach is located just to the north of Tumon Bay beach and is reached down a rough track behind the hotels. Enter the water by the gully where the road meets the beach and follow the telephone cables out across the reef until you get to the drop-off. There aren't many places where you can do a 40m or deeper shore dive! We had been told that manta rays had been seen earlier in the week at this site but we had to put up with only seeing a turtle, lionfish, morays and a million other reef fish. Only attempt this dive in calm sea conditions.
Point Reserve - not a dive but a drive up to the very northern point of Guam. Go there during the week and it will be deserted. You can walk on the fantastic white coral sand beach, watch the blue Pacific crashing onto the fringing reef and breathe the pure fresh air, feeling like you are the only person on the island.
Underwater World - also not a dive but it claims to be the world's longest walk-through aquarium. They have a good display of many of the animals found around Guam, including several species of sharks, rays, turtles and some enormous groupers. Great for the kids and non-divers to get a taste of what's out there.
Guam is easily reached from a number of south-east Asian cities - Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila, etc. and makes an easy and enjoyable break. A popular option is to spend a few days on Guam doing technical dive training such as Extended Range, available through MDA, before going on to Chuuk or elsewhere to put those skills to use. It does however offer a range of good diving in its own right and there are plenty of activities to keep non-divers satisfied too.
Other useful sites: www.visitguam.org
Nevil Adkins (BSAC National Instructor) firstname.lastname@example.org