Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Northern Islands

It wasn’t until we were finally under way that I really believed we were heading to the Northern Islands and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

There were so many false starts to this expedition that I wondered if we’d ever really get to go. In 2008 we tried and failed to work out a deal with three different boat companies. This year’s magic number was also three and the one that finally worked out was the Lady Carolina, a 105-foot longline fishing vessel. It’s not exactly the Love Boat, but it was big enough and comfortable enough to fit 10 passengers and 5 crew during our journey.

I worked with Bryan Jones to secure the charter for the boat and to recruit people to come along. The cost of the charter was $20,000. Pew Environment Group helped offset some of our costs, as did many of our friends on Saipan. People donated kayaks, dive gear, tents, hammocks, and even oxygen tanks should anyone get bent during one of the dives.

Our group consisted of two public high school teachers, two reporters, our essay winner, three Friends of the Monument (but isn’t everyone a Friend of the Monument?), a doctor and her husband. Everyone got along fairly well most of the trip. There was the occasional appearance of a certain reporter wearing nothing but his underwear and a few small disagreements, but most of us are still going to be friends now that it is all over.

After costs for food, skiff, and supplies are figured in, the cost of our trip was much greater than $20,000. Food was about $300 per person and we each spent different amounts on gear. Those of us that dove ended up spending $15 per dive for the tanks. I also spent a small fortune on beef jerky.

We had set the date for our departure for Monday, July 20. Our goal was to leave port at 3 AM. Naturally, we didn’t leave until 7 PM later that night. We spent a long day of waiting at the port being told every 30 minutes that we were about to leave in 30 minutes.

At least we left port on the day we had planned. Even though the sun was already setting on our first day as we set to sea, we were all excited and in good spirits for what lay ahead. The water was calm and the skies were clear as we pulled out of the Saipan lagoon and headed north.

marianas sunsetWe spent many hours of that first night out on deck. I remember Dennis, our essay winner, asking me, “When will the lights of Saipan disappear?” I told him it would probably be while we slept. His question made me reflect on the fact that we were leaving the modern world behind. Where we were heading there were no convenience stores, no hospitals, and thankfully, no floating hotels.

Several of us slept out on the deck of the bow that first night, myself included. The water was calm, but the rocking of the boat woke we several times. I would open my eyes and see stars brighter than any I’ve seen in years. Lying on my back I felt like I could almost reach up and touch them. The last time I woke, at about 4:15 AM, I looked over the starboard bow to the huge silhouette of an active volcano. Anatahan.

I couldn’t go back to sleep after that. I decided then that our day at the port would count as Day Zero and that our first day at sea would count as Day One. The sun rose over Sarigan on on Day One , then after passing Anatahan and Sarigan, we passed Guguan, Alamagan, and Pagan. As the sky darkened we could see peak of Agrigan’s volcano in the distance.

Calm Seas: Sarigan in the background with Dennis and me on the bow of the Lady Carolina. The calm seas allowed for the boat to travel at 8 knots, getting us to Maug in time for the solar eclipse despite our late departure.
The swells on the surface of the water were no more than an inch tall the first few days of our trip.

water reflection
Reflections of a Calm Sea: The water was so flat that I could see my reflection in the surface of the ocean.
This allowed the boat to move very quickly and Captain Carl told us that even with our late departure, we would still make it to the Maug Lagoon in time for the eclipse.

ken kramerKen Kramer spent most of his time on the stern trolling (when the boat was moving during daylight hours) or bottom fishing (when we were anchored). The only exception was that I wouldn’t let him fish inside the monument waters. On that first day he spent 10 hours watching his lines and not much else, until right off the coast of Pagan, just as everyone else was finishing their dinner of vegetable curry (what kind of meat was in that?), he hooked himself a marlin.

marlin fishingIt was a marlin that would eventually get away, but not before we got some photos of it fighting on the line. Hey, we are environmentalists, aren’t we? We joked for the rest of the trip that he was just practicing catch and release.

We steamed north towards Agrigan as the sun set on that first day. The next morning Agrigan was as far behind us as it was in front of us the night before. The mighty peak of Asuncion lay directly in front of us.

asuncion islandWe were inside the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

Ken, Gary, and the other three crew members who were fishing begrudgingly put away their fishing lines. I told them that the magic number was 19.22. As soon as the GPS read that we were south of 19.22 again, they could resume fishing.

The immensity of the Asuncion volcano was breathtaking to behold. Lifted right out of the Marianas Trench, it rises 2923 feet into the air. It is an active volcano with recent signs of eruption, like the upside-down V on its western face.

Our plan was to stop at Asuncion on our way south. There are supposed to be giant coconut crabs all over the island and I wanted to find some. I also wanted to get in a dive or two. I was looking forward to seeing it on the return, unfortunately we never made it back.

Maug emerged from the water soon after Asuncion. At first we thought we saw Maug and Uracas to the west, but it turned out to be the three islets of Maug. Uracas was another 40 miles beyond Maug.

The excitement mounted as we headed towards the southern channel leading into the Maug Lagoon. For those of us who had worked so hard, quit jobs, put our reputations on the line for the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, this was a moment of justification for everything we had done. A moment of triumph, like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo being presented with the Alderaanian Medal of Freedom at the end of A New Hope.

To make the occasion even more special, the solar eclipse was beginning. We were about 50 miles southwest of seeing the full eclipse, but at 93.5 obscuration the Maug Lagoon and the surrounding islets looked as if someone had dimmed the light bulb and turned up the air conditioner. The color reminded me of some of the scenes in the Vin Diesel classic Pitch Black.

We spent about 48 hours inside the Maug Lagoon. Most of us kayaked and snorkeled and tried a little hiking, which turned out to be nearly impossible. I managed to get in 3 dives and spent one night camping on the “beach.” While I was there I went ashore on both the eastern and the western islets.

Last year we talked about Maug as if it were unspoiled. If I could do it again with the knowledge gained after visiting these islands I would know that these islands and the surrounding waters are anything but pristine. They aren’t even “undamaged,” which is the term we usually used to describe them (we never once called them “pristine”).

The shores and near-shore environments of Maug are covered in marine debris, mainly discarded fishing gear. Longline fishing floats with fishing line and dozens of hooks still attached floated inside the lagoon. Ropes and nets were washed ashore and I’m sure were in the water, too. There they will remain, killing fish and other marine life until somebody goes up and removes them.

There is also a giant broken anchor sitting in the center of the Maug caldera on top of some coral. It makes for an interesting dive, but where you find one broken anchor you’re sure to find anchor damage. Measures really need to be taken to ensure that more harm doesn’t come to the area.

As for the wildlife, we did not see the giant humphead parrotfish or Napoleon wrasses during this expedition to Maug, but then again we only managed three dives in 48 hours. This was due in part to unfamiliarity with the diving in Maug and to the general level of chaos of being at our first island on the first day of an expedition. Next time I’ll have more confidence and experience and I’ll get in five dives per day.

We still managed to see sharks nearly every time we got in the water. I also saw barracuda and schools of tuna swimming in 20 feet of water just off shore. On our last morning Patrick and I went swimming with a school of tuna as they attacked baitfish. We drove around in the skiff and jumped in the water when got close to the attacking birds. Cool stuff.

After two full days at Maug we spent our fourth day at sea. We drove the boat north around Uracas and then headed south, leaving the monument as we slept.

Uracas is as dramatic as you could imagine an island volcano to be. I imagined James Bond infiltrating SPECTRE’s secret volcano base in You Only Live Twice as we rounded the island.

Except for a small patch of green on the southern face the island is completely covered in ash. Giant boulders lie on the sides of the steep mountain, belched from the center of the Earth, no doubt.

We saw our first dolphins at Uracas. There was a pod of spinner dolphins playing in the surf off the southern coast (we saw dolphins two other times during the trip).

Our fifth day was spent at Agrigan. We met the Saures boys on the beach and they were very hospitable to us. They showed us their island and pointed us towards points of interest.

They took us to their village and let us hike through their farm. They also pulled out three giant coconut crabs and let us photograph them. We barbequed fresh tuna steaks on the beach and went swimming in the big waves.

mangrove monitor lizardIt was a great experience learning how these guys live all by themselves in the Northern Islands. It is a way of life that has all but disappeared from the southern islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.

We got back on the Lady Carolina in the late afternoon and traveled during the night towards Pagan. We arrived there the next morning. We spent 48 hours on Pagan. Again, we kayaked, hiked, snorkeled, and spear-fished. Most of us camped out on the beach the first night we were there, too.

I went on two long hikes on this visit. The first day I visited the black sand beach near the lake north of our campsite and on the second day I went on a monster six-hour hike to the opposite side of the island. We found the white sand beach and loads of livestock.

I could spend an entire week or more exploring Pagan. I didn’t see the hot springs or find any latte stones, so I’ll have to go back one of these days to see them.

Our plan for Day Eight was to stop at Alamagan, pass by Guguan, and then on to Sarigan., but we were thwarted by weather. We saw hardly a wave the first week of our trip, but on this day the waves were 5-10 foot swells. The landing at Alamagan can be difficult on a calm day and Captain Carl made the call to skip it.

guguanguguanWe passed by Guguan on our way to Sarigan. I don't think I've ever seen so many birds in one place before. There were thousands of them circling atop the summit of the island's volcano.

We found ourselves at Sarigan on the morning of Day Nine. We spent the morning diving and spear-fishing and most of the afternoon on the boat because of anchoring issues.

Sarigan had some great diving. Giant clams, schools of trevalli, and thousands of reef fish could be seen in every direction. I also saw two humphead parrot fish and a five foot shark in about 100 feet of water, while Jenny and Patrick saw a Napoloen Wrasse on their first dive.

The next morning we were on our way back to Saipan. We had planned to spend the morning at Sarigan, but were thwarted again by weather.

We passed Anatahan on our way south. Anatahan is the island that causes Saipan to close the local schools when it erupts.

I've heard people say that the greenery on the island is coming back. Yeah, it's coming back a little, but it's not really coming back. No one is going to be living there any time soon.

All in all the trip was a success. I know a lot more about traveling to the Northern Islands now than I did before, so that on the next trip I’ll do a better job. If there was another trip to the monument specifically I’d be able to make some recommendations to help make the best of the expedition’s time.

I hope this isn’t my last trip to the monument. I’d like to remove several tons of fishing gear from the shores of Maug and I’d like to find the school of humphead parrotfish before someone turns them into kelaguen.

I’m a little slow because I’m running for Mayor, coordinating Beautify CNMI, and planning another coed soccer league, but I’m going to put together a powerpoint presentation for the Friends of the Monument to show to the local schools. We learned a lot about those islands and the surroundings on this trip and we want to share it with as many people as possible.

There are also more islands to visit. The only islands we spent considerable amount of time at were Maug, Agrigan, Pagan, and Sarigan (although we actually never touched land at Sarigan). Alamagan, Asuncion, and Guguan still beckon. As for Uracas and Anatahan, I don't really need to step foot on them until the volcanoes simmer down a bit.

More photos are posted on the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Facebook Fan Page.


bigsoxfan said...

You really should pay more attention in diving class. Bent/bends aside and I just hope you can work the tables for those five days a day, a magnificant tale of discovery. I really owe the Steven Thomas book "the last navigator" You may throw it all up, to rediscover a lost art and learn what so many have lost.
Best of fortune during your campaign.

Winter Park Fords said...

Great story! Catie plans to share your blog at school this week. Classes start tomorrow. Love you!

jeff said...

Any women on those islands?

Tamara said...

officially jealous!

Jeff said...

Any idea the story on that airplane wreckage?

The Saipan Blogger said...

It is a Japanese Zero from World War II.

Rick said...

Let me know if you could use a videographer on the next trip.... amazing scenery!

Leah said...

Hey, I have no idea how else I can contact you. But hopefully, this will do.

My name is Leah Padilla and I am a Junior from Marianas High School. I am currently taking an AP Bio class & would like to inquire you on details on going to the Northern Islands for a class field trip. I would like to know information on things such as costs and safety reasons.

You can contact me at

Thanks in advance,

Gina Lobaco said...

Aloha! Giant crabs abound on Palmyra Atoll, too.