Kwajalein

I’m Baaaaack!!!

My sis and me, tired, hungry, and a bit bedraggled, but overjoyed to see each other at the airport!

My sis and me, tired, hungry, and a bit bedraggled, but overjoyed to see each other at the airport!

Over 5,000 miles later…I made it!!

Emotions overwhelmed me again as I walked outside to the airplane steps at the Kwajalein airport a couple of days ago. Leaving behind people and places that had meant so much to me (even to the United plane sitting beside my ATI plane, I waved at both sides to a good friend who had just arrived back from vacation), I tried to both soak in the last moments and shut out the feelings of sadness.

Just as I got to the steps it started to sprinkle, and I said aloud, “a fitting farewell for Kwaj” (to which one of the airport workers said “yep!”). The sun then came back out though, for a fine last view of the island. As we taxied down the runway, I saw one of the weather station techs outside getting the 00Z balloon ready to launch, and he waved at my plane, not even knowing if I could see him. I managed to get a window seat on the DC8, so I did see him though, and that made me both happy and sad again.

When the plane turned around and kicked it into high gear, I couldn’t help the tears streaming down. I cried until I could no longer see the island (which was a bit longer than you might think, as I craned my neck back for so long it hurt), and then settled back with a sigh to watch the rest of the islands of Kwajalein Atoll disappear into the blue of the sea and the sky.

The flight to Hickam (air force base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu) was uneventful and seemed to go by fairly quickly. At the baggage claim I said a quick goodbye to a couple of Kwaj friends and shared a taxi to the Ala Moana Hotel.

Part of the view from my 9th floor balcony

Part of the view from my 9th floor balcony

This time even with three large bags (quite hard for me to deal with, but doable) and a backpack, I somehow managed to make it up the elevator and to my room on the first try (might have something to do with someone else inserting their key card and then me pushing my button after his).

The other part of the view from my balcony

The other part of the view from my balcony

After settling in a bit, I walked over to the mall across the street for dinner. Every time I leave Kwaj I feel a bit overwhelmed at first by the traffic and “civilization”. One of the first sights to greet my eye was a trolley full of Asians with the driver leading in a hearty rendition of “YMCA” (maybe having something to do with the tour group just having passed the Y. They all looked so happy I couldn’t help smiling and waving back.

I got a good night of sleep and was up at a decent hour for breakfast before taking a shuttle to the airport.

Open breezeway at HNL

Open breezeway at HNL

I had a direct flight to Portland that was only a few minutes longer than my flight the previous day to Hickam, but somehow it felt an hour or so longer (perhaps having something to do with it being a crowded commercial flight instead of 15 people on a private carrier being treated nearly like first class).

Approaching PDX (Columbia River on the left, Mount Hood on the right)

Approaching PDX (Columbia River on the left, Mount Hood on the right)

My first glimpse of land was dramatic; coming out of the clouds, I saw forests of dark green Oregon conifers, and I thought I’d rarely seen a more beautiful sight. Barring the dying Black Hills of South Dakota (forests turned to brown and orange thanks to the pine beetles) that I saw a couple months ago while storm chasing, I hadn’t seen evergreen forests in two years.

I saw pasturelands next, against the beautiful backdrop of the Cascade Mountains, with Jefferson and Hood being most prominent.

Next came cities and the Willamette River, running down to the Mighty Columbia, with my home state of Washington on the other side. I also then saw Mount Adams and St Helens.

At this point the journey ended almost as emotional as it had begun. After two years, my reunion with the Pacific Northwest was a wonderful one, and I laughed and shed a few more tears of joy and yet still sadness for the life I had left behind on a tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific.

My sister and I were then happily reunited at the Portland airport, and after we got my bags and went to dinner, we made it safely back to her home in Kelso (southwest Washington).

May the next 2.5 weeks of visiting family and friends, sightseeing, and shopping and preparing for my New Zealand adventure go slowly and fantastically!

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Categories: Hawaii, Kwajalein, Living Abroad, Marshall Islands, Oregon, United States, Washington | Leave a comment

Off to Civilization

It took me two years to earn it (or rather to find that a passport stamp existed for Kwaj), but earn it I did! Until we meet again!

It took me two years to earn it (or rather to find that a passport stamp existed for Kwaj), but earn it I did! Until we meet again!

Said my final goodbyes this morning, and now sitting in the Kwaj terminal waiting to board the direct flight to Honolulu before long. It’s about a 5 hour flight, and I got my window seat!

While I have mixed feelings about leaving, after being sentimental last night I am back in the mindset of being ready to move forward. I can’t wait to see my family again, and hope the next three weeks will go slowly and be very enjoyable…as THREE WEEKS FROM TODAY, I WILL BE IN NEW ZEALAND!!!!

Categories: Kwajalein, Living Abroad, Marshall Islands | 1 Comment

Memories Past

The final goodbye

The final goodbye

Tomorrow morning I fly out of Kwajalein, leaving my home of the past two years.

This evening I biked and walked around the entire island for the last time, and I was overwhelmed much more than I thought I would be by memories of my life here. At almost every sight at least one memory came to mind, reminding me of mostly good times, often bringing tears to my eyes.

Last night my neighbors and friends threw me a going away party, with Dungeness crab and ham as the main entrees. I was overcome by everyone’s kindness and the amount of people who were there (granted, it was excellent food!). It hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m leaving for good, but it is starting to.

In the midst of my excitement for my next adventure in New Zealand, it is very bittersweet to be moving from Kwaj, and I think I will miss it more than I think.

As I look out on the same view I have had every morning (photo), I still feel so blessed with having had this wonderful opportunity and taking it. What a beautiful place. Maybe I’ll come visit again someday.

My last evening here now I will spend again with friends and acquaintances in the courtyard. Then it’s up early for my flight. So long, Kwajalein! I trust my next adventure will be all that I hope for and more.

Categories: Kwajalein, Living Abroad, Marshall Islands | 3 Comments

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.

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

US Countdown: 6

Countdown

Down to the single digits now, less than 6 days left on island, and the reality of leaving Kwajalein probably forever still hasn’t quite started to sink in. I don’t think it will until I’m on the plane, heading down the runway. Which by the way, I see the old DC-8s are coming for ATI in place of the C-17s this month (new planes, I think 757s, still not ready yet), so I think I just might have dodged the bullet of flying on a plane with no windows. Though the adventure of flying on a C-17 for the first time could be interesting. But also claustrophobic in spite of all the space. I love windows.

Anyway…

I think I’m just about ready to go; my bags are packed with the exception of a few sets of clothes (mostly living out of suitcases now), room is now thoroughly cleaned and ready for the final inspection (just have to avoid walking on the floors the next couple days…wish my childhood fantasy of walking on ceilings could come true, but then I’d just have to clean the ceilings), I have most of the signatures I need for my PCS (permanent change of station) clearance form, and my work is throwing me a goodbye party tomorrow, with pizza and chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Just 3 more day shifts to go, and I’ll be finished working on Kwajalein! Maybe then I’ll take a bit of time this weekend to enjoy myself, and go to the beach and take a last bike ride around the island.

I officially changed my address today with the USPS, which also felt rather, well, official. No more mail to be received at Kwajalein. Now my postal address will be my parents’ house for about 3 weeks, before I find out what my first New Zealand address will be.

Yikes, I will be IN New Zealand in less than 27 days. Very exciting and just a bit scary at the same time!

Coming down the home stretch!

Categories: Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, Ramblings | Leave a comment

Kwajalein’s Bread and Butter

The US Army's USS Worthy, at home in Kwajalein Harbor. The Worthy can travel long distances to set up for mission activities, where they track and observe various mission activities.

The Worthy, a missile range instrumentation ship at home in Kwajalein Harbor. The Worthy can travel long distances to set up for mission activities.

So why is the US Army interested in renting several islands in the Marshall Islands? A short answer is for the purpose of various test rocket missions, as an isolated area in the middle of the ocean.

While many of the civilian contractors on Kwajalein may have a rather normal sounding job (i.e., teachers, air traffic controllers, meteorologists, etc.), we all are here to support mission activities, primarily for the US Department of Defense. Basically we all get our paychecks from Uncle Sam, even though most of us don’t actually work directly for the government.

Coming out here, I have had an amazing opportunity to be a part of and to witness several interesting missions for the US Army, MDA, NASA, etc.

A Minuteman III approaching Kwajalein Atoll on re-entry

A Minuteman III approaching Kwajalein Atoll on re-entry, shooting across the handle of the Big Dipper

The most common type of mission we participate in is the Glory Trip (GT). An unarmed Minuteman III (intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM) is launched from Vandenberg AFB (in southern California) towards Kwajalein Atoll, a distance of about 5,000 miles that only takes some 20-30 minutes (according to Wikipedia, they can travel at up to Mach 23).

Most of the missiles splash harmlessly into the nearby ocean or occasionally the lagoon, or even terminate on the tiny island of Illeginni for the odd land target.

Illeginni-001

Bigger bucks are sunk into intercept missions. We just attempted one of those this last weekend (LA Times: Problem-plagued missile defense system fails in $214-million test).

These missions are pretty much what they sound like; rockets are launched and other missiles try to shoot them down. Sometimes the rockets are launched from Roi-Namur and sometimes from Meck. Even little Omelek has had launches in the past. SpaceX used to use Omelek as one of their launch sites, but pulled out not long after I got here, due to budget cuts. Interceptors may be launched from Meck, Vandenberg, Hawaii, ships, etc.

Meck Island, Kwajalein Atoll; the site of many of the mission activities

Meck Island, with Omelek just to the north (up). The harbor with one of the docked catamarans is on the left (lagoon) side

Meck Island is about halfway up the atoll, on the east reef. No one lives permanently on Meck, though some live there temporarily; for the bigger missions they set up large tents.

Meck, with Launch Hill the raised area right of middle. Looking southeast, with the ocean on the bottom and the lagoon on top. Omelek is the next island north (off to the right) of Meck.

Meck, from the northeast (ocean) side, with Launch Hill the raised area right of middle

Meck

Meck

Workers generally commute from Kwaj to Meck on a daily catamaran. The journey takes just under an hour at full speed.

Private Anderson at Kwajalein Harbor, one of two catamarans that daily takes workers to Meck and back

The Private Anderson at Kwajalein Harbor, one of two catamarans that daily takes workers to Meck and back

Not all of the missions are about testing warfare, though; sometimes we get more scientific missions like cool NASA launches.

There have been two NASA missions from Kwajalein that I have seen in the last couple of years.

The first was the launch of a high-tech x-ray satellite for studying black holes and such, called NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array). The satellite was tucked away inside a Pegasus rocket, which was dropped at a high altitude from a large aircraft, an L1011 called a Stargazer.

Stargazer landing at Kwajalein, with the Pegasus rocket attached to the belly

Stargazer landing at Kwajalein, with the Pegasus rocket attached to the belly

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One of my favorite parts of this mission was getting the chance to view the inside of the aircraft and see the rocket up close, while talking to NASA folks at an open “house” (aircraft?).

Most of the inside, where economy seating would be, was stripped down to reduce weight

Most of the inside, where economy seating would be, was stripped down to reduce weight

Where first class seating would be, they had a large instrument panel set up for controlling the rocket and deployment of the satellite. The screen on the right is showing a simulation.

Where first class seating would be, they had a large instrument panel set up for controlling the rocket and deployment of the satellite. The screen on the right is showing a simulation.

Living out my fantasy of being a pilot! The real pilot was taking my photo and explaining what did what.

Living out my fantasy of being a pilot! The real pilot was taking my photo and explaining what did what.

On mission night, the aircraft flew a ways south of the atoll and then released the Pegasus. When the first stage of the rocket fired, I was able to go up on the roof of the weather station and watch it fly high into the sky. I also saw the second stage, and just missed the third stage as I went back inside thinking we wouldn’t see it after waiting a while (the site manager remained outside a little longer and did see it, though).

The second NASA mission occurred just a couple of months ago, and was a two-in-one mission, called EVEX/MOSC. The object of this mission was to study turbulence and radio waves in the ionosphere just after sunset.

There were four rockets launched from Roi (two for EVEX on the same night, and two for MOSC each on a different night), which shot up into the ionosphere and released harmless colored chemical tracers that were then tracked by various instruments.

NASA MOSC cloud

NASA MOSC cloud

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I looked outside for this first one (MOSC), so what I saw shocked me and creeped me out.

Two or three minutes after I saw the rocket shoot up from Roi, I saw a small, brilliant pink orb rapidly grow in size to about maybe five times the size of the full moon. It was smooth but a bit fuzzy, bright (in a near pitch black sky), and pinkish purple, and if I did not know what it was, I might have been completely freaked out. It looked like something out of a bad scifi movie.

(As an aside, NASA was sending some of their people out to schools through the Marshall Islands, trying to educate the people a bit about what was going to happen. I think this was mainly so they wouldn’t worry too much, despite being rather used to mission oddities.)

After the orb hung in the sky for a few minutes, it started to trail off and fade, and after about 20 minutes it was gone.

I joked that NASA knew it was my birthday that day, as I got quite the show. 🙂

A few days later, the conditions were right for the EVEX launches.

First NASA EVEX cloud

First NASA EVEX cloud

NASA EVEX clouds (lower red cloud and green trail are from the rockets' descent, while the upper two are from the ascent)

NASA EVEX clouds (lower red cloud and green trail are from the rockets’ descent, while the upper two are from the ascent)

EVEX was also bizarre, but I was slightly more prepared this time for what I might see. This time we had a couple of green streaks and two large red orbs.

A couple of days later, MOSC was able to launch their final rocket, which looked pretty much like the first, though not quite as impressive (still very weird and mesmerizing).

So what do I do during missions? In short, as you could probably guess, the meteorologists provide weather support, giving more detailed and frequent forecasts and nowcasts (very short-term forecasts) to mission test directors. We don’t make any of the decisions as to whether the launch goes or not, but given the weather criteria, we advise those who make the decisions.

Mission time can be very exciting and very stressful, depending on the complexity of the mission and whether or not the weather decides to cooperate. I am glad that I have had such a wonderful opportunity to be a part of something like this, especially the scientific missions that may benefit people for years to come.

For more mission-related (including Meck Island) photos, check out my missions and Meck Flickr set.

Categories: Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, Roi-Namur | Leave a comment

Ebeye: Island of Contrasts

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A few days ago I touched briefly on the history and geography of Kwajalein Atoll when I wrote about Roi-Namur. The third island up on the east reef from Kwajalein Island is Ebeye (pronounced EE-bye…though half the time now I mix up my pronunciation of eBay and Ebeye).

I wrote a little bit about Ebeye on my Kwajalein blog a couple of years ago, but that was before I stepped foot on the island and I never did get around to posting my photos from a couple of visits I took to the island since.

So for the newcomers, those who have forgotten, and for the sake of a bit of descriptive text as I finish going through old photos of my time in the Marshall Islands, here are a few pieces of info about Ebeye.

Me, standing at Beach Park on the south tip of Ebeye. Looking south across the reef towards Big and Little Bustard (left) and Kwajalein

At Beach Park on the south tip of Ebeye. Looking south across the reef towards Big and Little Bustard (left) and Kwajalein

Ebeye Island is a little smaller than Kwajalein Island, at just about 80 acres. Yet this tiny island is home to over 15,000 Marshallese. It is estimated that over 50% of the population is under the age of 18, which I find easy to believe while wandering the streets and seeing so many children out and about, both in and out of school.

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Following WWII, when the US took possession of the Marshall Islands from the Japanese, the US conducted several nuclear tests in the Marshalls (most famously at Bikini Atoll) and moved many Marshallese to Ebeye. When the US started to use Kwajalein Atoll for other missile tests, Marshallese from the mid-atoll were also moved to Ebeye, thus setting the stage for overpopulation and various social and economical problems such as a lack of food, water, jobs, and money.

While Ebeye is very much in third world conditions, most of the faces I have seen are smiling, and make me want to be more grateful for the many blessings I have been given. I have found the Marshallese quite friendly and social in general, and only wished I knew a little bit of the language (most of my Marshallese doesn’t go much farther than “Yokwe” == hello, welcome, or literally “you are a rainbow” and “Kommol Tata” = thank you very much. See, now you speak about as much as I do!). Many of the (especially younger) Marshallese are brought up learning English as well as their native language, but most signs you will see through the Marshall Islands are written in both English and Marshallese. The Marshall Islands also uses the US dollar as their currency, even after they gained their independence.

Ebeye police and fire station

Ebeye police and fire station

A number of Marshallese from Ebeye work on Kwajalein each day, and take the daily ferries between the islands. The ferry takes about 20 minutes, and is free both ways (you just swipe your badge at the Kwajalein dock security checkpoint going to and fro). Generally the only Marshallese who are allowed to live on Kwajalein Island (as it is a US army base) are those married to Americans.

Ebeye Harbor; the large building in the center is the fish market

Ebeye Harbor; the large building in the center is the fish market

In stark contrast to Kwajalein, residents of Ebeye are allowed to own private vehicles, and you will frequently see taxis (generally pickup trucks with people riding in the back). Ironic for a smaller island with 15 times the population.

Mobile phones are also available on Ebeye. I’ve been told foreign phones will not be able to pick up the network, but you can purchase a local phone with a number of minutes to make local calls. Kwajalein does not have any cell towers so we rely on landlines and pagers, and since landlines are routed through the US, calls between Kwajalein and Ebeye are strangely considered international.

And while Kwajalein is still stuck in the dark ages of the Internet, with only dial-up available in residential areas, Ebeye has (relatively, compared to Kwaj anyway) high speed Internet.

One of the nicer houses on Ebeye

One of the nicer houses on Ebeye

So even though many of the houses people live in with several large families look like old shacks with chicken coop wire for windows, and the poverty and lack of clean water and sanitation is saddening, you will see some strange contrasts throughout this tiny island.

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Early this year one of our technicians at the weather station, a Marshallese man called Ernie, told me of a Christian school on Ebeye (Ebeye Gem School) that wanted me to go speak with the 4th through 7th graders about weather and forecasting during “education week” (a week of different speakers and activities). They had never had any speakers from Kwajalein before, and I felt honored to go talk to the kids.

I found that many of the teachers are American volunteers, sponsored by a missionary organization, and even the Marshallese teachers are required to teach in English. The school began about 7 years ago, and each year they add on an extra room to their building, for the next highest grade. They hope to go to at least 9th grade from what I understand. Most of the buildings around the school were relatively new (the church building I spoke in was not yet finished, but I heard they’re finishing it up and having the dedication this month I think).

The children were so friendly and grateful (and with so many good questions!), as were the teachers, and while they felt more blessed to have me there, I wound up feeling as if I had the greater blessing to go there.

The blue building is the 7th Day Adventist school

The blue building is the 7th Day Adventist school, one of several private schools on Ebeye

For more photos from around (and above, via helicopter!) Ebeye, check out my Ebeye Flickr set.

Categories: Kwajalein, Marshall Islands | 2 Comments

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

US Countdown: 15

Countdown

I have my work visa and plane tickets, most of my belongings are nearly to my parents’ house by now (where I will have a second pack out to have everything sent to NZ), my bags are about as packed as they can be aside from the final prep of the last few days on Kwaj…and I’m counting down (15 days now!) until I get to go see my family for nearly 3 weeks. After the craziness of the last few months, I’m more or less just in a waiting mode now. I can’t even have any more underwater photo sessions, as my scuba and underwater camera gear has already been sent off.

So as I wait and enjoy looking out over warm blue tropical waters and watch out for falling coconuts, I thought I’d go back and share some of my previous adventures and photos, which I always meant to obsessively document at the time.

The next post I’ll work on will be about Roi-Namur, an island on the north side of Kwajalein Atoll, which I’ve visited twice and wish I had the time to see again.

Categories: Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, Ramblings | Leave a comment

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