Adventure Sports

Fishing, Catching, and Dolphins

Tony and Leck reeling in an Aku

Tony and Leck reeling in an Aku

My Dad always says there’s a reason fishing is called fishing instead of catching. While not a stranger to freshwater lake fishing, my first time deep sea fishing was, well, a fishing trip and not a catching trip.

In years past, Kwaj fishermen tell me the fish used to be plentiful here, and they would almost never come back disappointed. More recently, an increase in the number of commercial fishing vessels licensed to operate in the Marshall Islands (e.g., Japanese, Chinese, American) has led to a decrease in success for the locals.

To some extent the fishing in the Marshall Islands depends on the time of year. Not that we really get seasons here, but some fish migrate to (or come from) other parts of the world that do.

After living on Kwajalein for almost two years, a few of the regular fishermen invited me out on a boat to finally go fishing one morning in early April.

It was towards the end of Mahi Mahi season, so they told me, but we still thought we might catch one or two and probably some tuna and/or Ono (aka Wahoo). Two of these guys had been boasting for a while that they went out fishing almost every weekend for the last two years (when they got here), and ALWAYS caught at least one fish. One of them had even recently acquired a giant cooler that was perhaps twice the size of the coolers available to rent at the small boat marina, and got me a small pair of gloves to borrow so that I could pull in one of the hand lines.

The regular setup these guys have is two large poles and two hand lines, one on each side of the stern of the B-boat (the 22-foot twin-engine powerboats available for rent on Kwaj).

We set out trawling up the west reef of the atoll, anywhere from about a half-mile away from the islands to a mile or two out in the ocean (the rental boat limit is 3 miles oceanside). As you can probably guess from the build up, we tried our best and occasionally changed lures, but ultimately came away skunked. I didn’t feel too bad as it was still a nice morning out, but the guys felt terrible (“first time!”) and dreaded the “walk of shame” up the dock with an empty cooler and no fish to clean.

Once back at the marina, we were slightly consoled by the fact that the most any of the other boats caught was three. Sadly we couldn’t even say we got a hit on a line but the fish got away.

Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins, Kwajalein Atoll

Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins, Kwajalein Atoll

The next weekend, I had to go with them again and hopefully actually catch something.

As soon as we went outside SAR Pass (the nearest ocean pass, on Kwaj’s west side), we came across a huge pod of spinner dolphins!!

I was thrilled to the core, and kneeled down at the bow of the boat to try to get close up shots (sadly with just my cheap point-and-shoot as I didn’t risk my DSLR). I had seen dolphins once or twice before from the shore, but they were always a ways off. The spinner dolphins we have here like to jump out of the water and spin around their long axis, which can make quite the show if there are a few showing off.

I had heard people say that the dolphins seem to love powerboats, and swim right alongside the boat, but I had never witnessed this until that day. Surrounded by an estimated 150 or so dolphins, I knew the day was going to be a good one. The water was literally THICK with them, and they liked to get right up under us and so close that I was a bit afraid for them, but they were fearless. That right there made the trip for me.

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Not long after the dolphins disappeared, rather as suddenly as they appeared, we got a hit on one of the hand lines, and to our delight brought in a Mahi Mahi.

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Excited to have the monkey off our back, we were in high spirits but still had to wait a while before our next bite.

This time we brought in an Aku (Hawaiian name for a Skipjack Tuna) on one of the poles. Akus are quite feisty, and as soon as one of the guys tossed it in the cooler, it started rapidly vibrating and making quite the racket, especially with all that space.

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After trawling around for a while and changing lures again, we suddenly got a hit from a marlin!! One of the guys started to reel in the pole, but it was just playing with us and got away. After another minute, it hit a handline. Our boat driver even saw it crest the water, so we knew for sure it was a marlin.

Sadly the marlin never did take a good bite, so we lost it, but it sure gave us some excitement for a few minutes. We even saw its bill frayed the end of the hand line, which was interesting.

We finally had to head back to the marina as our boat’s rental time was up. While the guys might have been a little disappointed we didn’t have much more luck than just the two fish, after the previous week we were glad to have at least caught something for dinner.

Hanging onto a couple of heavy fish (especially the mahi, on the right), thinking "don't drop, don't drop, don't drop them!"

Hanging onto a couple of heavy fish (especially the mahi, on the right), thinking “don’t drop, don’t drop, don’t drop them!”

I had another wonderful day, from the dolphins, to the fish we caught, to the excitement of the marlin, to another fine day with friends, and a most delicious grilled fish dinner outside on a lovely tropical evening!

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Nurse Sharks at the marina, devouring discarded bits of the fish

Nurse Sharks at the marina, devouring discarded bits of the fish

For a few more photos of the fishing adventure, see my Kwajalein Atoll Fishing Flickr set.

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Categories: Adventure Sports, Fishing, Kwajalein, Marshall Islands | 2 Comments

Bigej, A Kwaj Getaway

Bigej Island

Bigej Island

Another of Kwajalein Atoll’s fine islands is Bigej, a popular little getaway for Kwaj residents.

I had only been at Kwaj for just over a month when a new friend of mine at the time invited a bunch of people out on a couple of B-boats (Kwaj’s 22-foot Boston whaling twin-engine rental powerboats) to go up to Bigej for the day.

Bigej (pronounced BEE-gee) is an island partway up the east reef of the atoll (not quite halfway), and as far northeast as you are allowed to go in the B-boat rental area. It takes about 30-45 minutes to get from Kwaj to Bigej on full speed in the twin engine boats. Driving on the lagoon side of Bigej Pass is always fun, as there is a large, often rough ocean pass in the reef between Bigej and the next island south, the northern end of a long chain of islands connected by a causeway all the way to Ebeye. We anchor on the protected lagoon side, but as you pass by that pass, you’ve got to be prepared for a bumpy ride.

Bigej beaches

Bigej beaches

Bigej is a pleasant, jungley island, and just what you might think of for a deserted tropical island. There are a few Marshallese who have homes there, though, so we are supposed to get permission from the RMI office on Kwajalein a few days in advance if we want to step foot on the beautiful beaches. They are quite friendly people, and sometimes bring us bags of beautiful cowry shells they have collected.

Most of the time people go up to Bigej to go snorkeling and enjoy the more luscious corals and peaceful atmosphere. I have made it up there a few times, both on powerboats and once on a sailboat, and it’s always a lot of fun.

Over-under photo attempt, while snorkeling at Bigej

Over-under photo attempt, while snorkeling at Bigej

My first time sailing (for more on that adventure, see my Kwaj blog post from the time), we went only as far as Gugeegue (pronounced about how you might expect), a couple islands south of Bigej, as the winds were not very strong and it was already promising to be a long day.

Sailing on the Down East Trader

Sailing on the Down East Trader

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Despite the slow voyage, it was quite exciting for my first trip, and once we arrived, I went snorkeling for the first time with sharks. I was a bit nervous at first, but my excitement quickly overcame any fears I had, until I realized they were much more scared of us than we were of them.

Whitetip Reef Shark

Whitetip Reef Shark

Another time I went sailing on the Panacea, one of the largest sailboats here. We went up to Bigej for a fine day of snorkeling and tacos. One of the wonderful things about going sailing here is that because they are privately owned boats (most of them anyway), we can stay out all day, instead of having to return in 4.5 hours as we do with the rental B-boats. More people tend to own sailboats than powerboats, but all but one of the rentals are powerboats.

For a few more photos of my relaxing sailing and snorkeling trips, check out my little Flickr set from sailing, Bigej, and Gugeegue. Some of the underwater photos from my Kwajalein Atoll scuba and snorkel Flickr set are also from Bigej.

Categories: Adventure Sports, Boating, Kwajalein, Marshall Islands | Leave a comment

Under the Sea

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Instead of writing about individual scuba dives, some of which I have already done on my Kwajalein blog, I’d like to share a bit about the experience as a whole, where I have been, and where I hope to go in the near future.

I have always loved the ocean. I grew up in Washington State, and spent a lot of time in the mountains and a little bit of time on the coast. If my family had to decide between mountains and ocean, my Mom and I would always say ocean, while my sister and Dad would always say mountains.

I love looking across the ocean and thinking about what and who is on the other side, and what all is under the water. Now that I have lived on a tiny island surrounded by nothing but water for two years, I yearn for the mountains, so am that much more excited that I can have the best of both worlds in New Zealand.

At any rate, coming to Kwajalein I figured I would finally take the plunge and learn how to scuba dive.

My second day of diving; photo taken by my instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

My second day of diving; photo taken by my instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

Within two months of my move, I was certified as an open water diver, which meant that I could dive to 60 feet.

On my first dive, I fell in love.

Kwajalein’s waters are warm, clear, full of marine life and wrecks, and not full of people (actually I liked that about diving; you can hang out with people without having to talk with them). It truly feels like swimming in a giant tropical aquarium, and it’s right in my backyard.

I love a friendly octopus

I love a friendly octopus!

To tell the truth though, it took me a couple of extra lessons in the pool before I passed that portion of the scuba class and was able to go on the first dives. I have long enjoyed swimming, but my biggest fear has always been drowning, and I had a hard time relaxing that first time breathing under water.

I then remembered a memory I had long suppressed; when I was about 5 years old or so, I jumped off a diving board in a public pool near Seattle, and lost my orientation. I remember swimming down instead of up, and then I blacked out. When I came to, a friend of the family was leaning over me, probably assessing whether or not he needed to perform CPR. I guessed that’s probably where my long-standing fear of drowning came from.

I’m generally one to face my fears head on. I was terrified of my first tornado, so I decided to go storm chasing. I was terrified of drowning, and decided to scuba dive as soon as I had the opportunity. I see a cliff, I want to walk to the edge and look down. Okay, not always, but sometimes I feel that urge, but know I’m only invincible in my dreams.

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Taken by my dive instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

I really don’t say this to boast, though, but more for the benefit of those who are scared to go diving. If I can do it, you can do it.

A few months after I completed my initial training, I completed the advanced diver class, and was certified to dive to the recreational dive limit of 130 feet. I also took Nitrox training, which means I can dive with a higher blend of oxygen, allowing me to stay in the water longer on some deep dives, with lower risk of getting decompression sickness (DCS, aka the bends).

Since I love photography, it was only natural that I should want to take my camera underwater. After I began with just a relatively cheap point-and-shoot waterproof camera, I decided to go all out and upgrade my DSLR to a Canon 7D and purchase a full underwater system for it.

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Yes, it’s heavy, and a bit unwieldy, but underwater it’s only slightly negatively buoyant and works like a dream (most of the time). I’ve been told I look like a submarine on night dives, with my two strobe lights on and my wide angle 8-inch-diameter dome port.

While it was quite expensive, I have not once regretted spending the money. I have only to improve my photography skills, as the equipment is top notch and I expect to use it for years to come.

Underwater photography has given me more of a purpose and happiness while diving and snorkeling. While I love to just quietly observe marine life, the most dull dive can usually be made interesting if I have my camera with me, as I can always see something from a different perspective.

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Clownfish are my favorite fish to see and photograph!

I have enjoyed about 100 dives around Kwajalein Atoll. I could have had many more, but did start to experience a bit of burnout earlier this year as I had already been to many of the sites so many times, and wanted something fresh. In spite of what I just said about my camera making a difference, I just needed a bit of a break to do other things (such as spearfishing in the tide pools for lobsters and crabs at night–quite fun!), and felt pretty happy about some of my photos from many of the sites.

I have dove from Kwajalein to Roi-Namur, and so far my only trip outside of the Marshall Islands to dive was to go to Kona, Hawaii, to see manta rays (my blog post from that dive). I have seen manta rays here at Kwajalein, but Kona is one of the famous spots for large groups of them.

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I had never seen such beautiful creatures, and it remains my favorite dive.

Aside from the marine life, Kwajalein Atoll has many WWII wrecks. I already wrote about the planes near Roi-Namur recently. One of the best wreck dives near Kwajalein is the Prinz Eugen, a German WWII battleship which you can learn more about on this Wikipedia link.

Torpedoes on the Prinz Eugen

Torpedoes on the Prinz Eugen

There are so many highlights photos I could post; so many of my favorites. So instead of bogging you down too much here, I hope you will go to my Flickr collection of dive photos.

Clown Triggerfish

Clown Triggerfish

As to where I hope to go diving in the near future, New Zealand has lots of great diving, so I’ve heard. I’m just going to need to get a much thicker wet suit or learn how to use a dry suit, as the waters are just a bit colder there!

There are lots of interesting sites for marine life, including probably the most famous, Poor Knights, off the northern peninsula of the North Island. There are also opportunities to go diving in and around an active volcano, and to see some wrecks such as the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship blown up by the French in 1985.

Speaking of facing fears….they also have Great White Shark cage diving off of Stewart Island, just south of the South Island. I think I’m going to have to do that at some point soon!

Categories: Adventure Sports, Hawaii, Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Roi-Namur, Scuba Diving and Snorkeling, United States | 2 Comments

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