Roi-Namur: Island of Misfits?

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Let’s begin with a brief history and geography lesson which may be helpful for better understanding this post. The country in which I have lived for the last two years, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is located in the west central Pacific Ocean, and is made up of many islands and atolls. An atoll is a sunken volcano, where all that is left is a ring of coral that builds a reef around a lagoon. Each of these atolls may be made up of dozens of small islets and islands.

I live on Kwajalein Atoll, supposedly the largest atoll in the world (disputed by Chuuk Atoll, in the nearby Federated States of Micronesia). My particular island, Kwajalein, is about the largest island in the atoll, at a whopping one square mile. Kwajalein is located at the far southern point of the atoll.

During World War II, the Marshall Islands played an important role in the Pacific theater. The Americans eventually won out, but many remnants of the war, such as both Japanese and American structures, have remained (not to mention many ships and planes that have proved excellent dive sites). Since the war, the Marshall Islands gained their freedom, but the USA began to pay big bucks to rent out certain islands for military work.

Japanese Cemetery on Roi-Namur, honoring those who lost their lives defending the island in WWII

Japanese Cemetery on Roi-Namur, honoring those who lost their lives defending the island in WWII

That’s the short story, and that’s the basic reason why I’m here; to serve a contract on a US Army base, to support test rocket launches and the occasional public launches such as NASA satellites.

There are about 1,000 people that live on Kwajalein Island, most of whom are American civilian contractors. Roi-Namur Island is also rented by the US, and is situated about 40 miles away on the north point of the atoll, home to about 70 people.

The joke is often told that the misfits and those who possibly annoy their boss are sent to Roi, but in reality it is a nice, quiet place and most of those who are there chose to go there, and tend to stay longer than people that live on Kwaj. It is an even tighter-knit community with less drama on average.

Looking towards the airport and golf course on Roi. The main mode of transportation on Kwaj and Roi is the bicycle, followed by the golf cart ("scooters", as they are called here, may be rented).

Looking towards the airport and golf course on Roi. The main mode of transportation on Kwaj and Roi is the bicycle, followed by the golf cart (“scooters”, as they are called here, may be rented).

Roi and Namur used to be two separate islands, but the narrow strip of water between them was filled in over the years and now the two have become one, Roi-Namur (still generally call it Roi, for short). The people all live on the Roi side, while the many radars that are used to track the missions are located on the Namur side, which is still heavily forested (and infested with rats, hence the nickname for Roi residents–“Roi Rats”).

ALTAIR, the largest radar on Roi-Namur, pokes up above the jungle

ALTAIR, the largest radar on Roi-Namur, pokes up above the jungle

Some people commute to Roi from Kwajalein, about a 20-minute free flight on the metro (see Wikipedia link for photos of this type of small plane, as I have yet to obtain any of my own due to regulations on taking photos around the airport). All you have to do to go to Roi is get your name on the standby list, and as there are several flights each day, most of the time you will be able to make the flight you want (though due to weight limits, any heavier or larger bags may have to be returned to you on a later flight).

I have been able to go to Roi on two occasions. The first was a weekend in March 2012, when I was supposed to go diving but my dive partner missed the flight and I instead spent an enjoyable couple of days with a few teacher friends. The second time was Thanksgiving weekend 2012, when I finally got to go on the dives I wanted.

American WWII bunker

American WWII bunker, Roi-Namur

Roi is a great getaway for Kwaj folks, and I have tried to go back up in the middle of the week, but commuters are given first priority. Also, there are no flights on Sunday, and I rarely have a three-day weekend arranged so that I can go up for a couple of nights. Still, I am glad that I have been able to visit the radars and WWII sites, as well as go on several great dives.

Kwajalein has only a few of the WWII sites left, but Roi-Namur still has many.

Japanese WWII structure

Japanese WWII structure

Remains of a WWII pillbox

Remains of a WWII pillbox

WWII structure

WWII structure

Roi also has a couple excellent beaches, the longest of which my friends and I relaxed on one afternoon.

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On my second trip to Roi, I got to dive oceanside, the Eiko Maru or 1st Ship (they have very creative names on Roi…the three ship dive sites are numbered, as are the first eight or so islands on the southeast reef), 8th Island, the Airplane Graveyard, and a C46 cargo plane.

The main reason for my wanting to dive up there was to go to the Airplane Graveyard, but I was actually so impressed by the large number of sharks I saw on the oceanside dive, it was a surprise favorite dive. We saw probably 20 or so sharks, mostly gray reefs, and many of them got quite close to us in their curiosity. The largest ones were probably about 6 feet long.

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The Eiko Maru, or 1st Ship as the locals call it, was a Japanese merchant ship sunk some time around WWII. Here we saw some interesting coral formations growing on the ship, and some beautiful (but thankfully harmless) jellyfish.

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King post on the Eiko Maru

8th Island was a fun little dive in which we saw some marine life and pretty corals in the shallows, but sadly missed our target of the reef dive site known as the Gardens. The two divers who had been on that dive had only been there once before, and I’m sure it would have been difficult to find if you didn’t know just where it was or the GPS coordinates.

Brain coral, 8th Island

Brain coral, 8th Island

The Airplane Graveyard certainly lived up to expectations. After WWII, about a dozen or so airplanes that the US no longer had need for were removed of their engines and shoved into the lagoon at this site. This was my first time diving airplanes, and it was pretty awesome!

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Our final dive of the weekend was a C46 cargo plane. It was empty inside and looked a little sad without the wings, but again was an interesting dive.

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I did write a couple short posts from my dive trip on my Kwajalein blog that you can check out if interested, most of which is filled with more photos (Roi Diving and Roi Dive Photos).

I also just started (finally?) a Flickr account, and you may see a good selection of all of my Roi-Namur photos, both above and below water, in this collection.

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Categories: Marshall Islands, Roi-Namur | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Roi-Namur: Island of Misfits?

  1. Pingback: Ebeye: Island of Contrasts | Just Down The Jet Stream

  2. Pingback: Kwajalein’s Bread and Butter | Just Down The Jet Stream

  3. jeff

    Your posts and pictures never disappoint! Beautiful….thank you.

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