Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

July 18 - 30 2011 / Guam: A Snorkeling Trip

Seeing Fishes, Corals, and a Far-Distant Island
Part 1 - A Hope and a Disappointment

Part 1 - A Hope and a Disappointment

[NOTE:  All underwater images many thanks! to Lee Goldman,]

I have signed up for a trip to Guam and Yap!   The trip, a snorkel trip which is wonderful for me, is to include the experience of watching the coral spawn on the one night a year when they release their gametes, their tiny sperm, surrounded by eggs, into the water in great clouds.  I have seen the extraordinary and mysterious phenomenon on television and can’t believe I would be able to see it for myself.  This happens each year a week or so after July‘s full moon.

Three long flights and I am here.  I have flown one-third of the way around the earth—8,000 miles!  I called home all the way including talking to our daughter from the jetway as I was entering the plane in Honolulu (just like the important businesspeople, you know). 

I managed to leave my expensive and very effective compression stockings in the LAX airport hotel, so on the huge long Honolulu flight I had to walk, walk and exercise, exercise.  At the Honolulu airport though I was able to buy a new pair and that was good. 

Since I don't sit by a window any more while flying, I could only briefly see the sky and the sea.  Once there appeared a ring-shaped atoll island and then pile after pile of whipped cream clouds, in lines east-west, above the sea.  Some cumulus clouds higher than we were at 34,000 feet. 

For the first time I used a kind of sleeping pill thing, and immediately felt my thoughts gently unraveling, a lovely sensation and I must be careful not to overuse this! 

At the Guam airport, a brief intoxicating lungful of real air, moist and fragrant, a taxi ride to the hotel.  Madam this and madam that.   

There is a small little balcony off my room, overlooking the long low rollers, on a curved beach lined with hotels, but there are two promising headlands, high, across the curve.  Below, a nicely planted lush “garden” and a good-sized koi pond, with lots of big heavy slow-moving fish in it, of gold and white.  A curvy swimming pool, and early this morning, about 6:15, a couple of people swimming their laps in it.

We are to meet the main guide in an hour or so.  The thought of snorkeling today does not interest me but since that is what the trip is about that is what I will do.  The nice co-leader young man last night mentioned short hikes.  They do what's called boonie stomping here, hiking, and I wonder if that might be on offer.  All I have is sneakers, but I did bring my hiking clothes.

So.  I am here, a long long way away from home, near to Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and that part of our world.  The Pacific Rim.  I feel pretty good.  I am who I am, and can be here as myself. 

An hour or so later, I’ve talked with the family at home, had breakfast and met the guide, whose name is Lee.   I have had most of my concerns addressed (I expressed them obliquely I hope) and there is even the promise of a hike at some point.  I've gotten into my snorkeling gear and in half an hour or so we are off for our first snork.  I will feel a lot relieved to experience this first one so I can see how I am doing.

On the map, I am in a very strange place!

I stepped out on my tiny balcony and saw how hazy everything seemed to be—and then realized it was lightly raining.  The air is heavy with moisture and fecundity.

I could not live on a tiny island though!  I am a land person, a continental person!  This whole place is only 30 miles long by 4 to 12 miles wide. 

So, much later now, at the end of the day, we have been snorkeling, had lunch and dinner, and I am ready to go to bed.  The sun sets early here, and quickly; there is little dusk.  This morning on my balcony, what a joy it was to step out into the humidity and rich air. 

I snorkeled a long time, and everything worked.  Well over an hour, the longest time I think I have been in the water.  I held up well and felt pleased with myself.  The abundance of fishes is glorious—such an extravagance of form, color, decoration.  The water was shallow enough to stand up in most of the time.  The sunlight dappled the sandy, coraly bottom.  Great forests of soft coral, and small fishes lurking within.  Bigger ones outside the coral, or above it, grazing, gnawing, flashing.  There are so many that it is not like the Caribbean where you can, pretty much, identify everything you see from one fishcard.  I studied a little before I left, and I did bring the big book with me, and tomorrow I will have two things to bring into the water with me, to try to identify as I see.

This hotel, while luxurious in some ways, is also of its place: they are turning the water off tomorrow—from 1-5 pm.  Hilarious.  One tiny bar of soap.  Nothing in the mini bar.  No bathmat.  Bathroom light sometimes works, sometimes not.  No grab bars nor anti-slip stuff in the tub.  That kind of thing.  The breakfast buffet has no sneeze guards over the food—so I can't have any fruit. 

But the bed is wonderful, and the air outside is wonderful.

Our two–-or one and a half—guides are good.  Smart, interesting or interested, nuts about what they do.  Both are researchers.  The other person on the trip does not show a strong personality, so I can pretty much be myself. 

This evening we went to dinner at a restaurant and the co-guide, Dave his name is, brought his Japanese fiancee to meet us.  She seems a sensible person.  The main guide, Lee, has been married for ten years to a Filipina woman, and they have a five year old.  He, too, seems sensible.  Both of the men are good.  Though the trip is by necessity (only two of us clients) pretty ad hoc.  That's okay, but a little strange-feeling. 

The air!  The air!!  Taking it into my lungs is incredibly nourishing and exciting.   A white room, a white bed, the heavy, rich air.

Two snorks today, long ones.  I am pretty wiped.   But it has been quite spectacular.  I am trying to learn the animals but it is hard because there are so many, so many similar but for one dot or stripe, and many variations of each kind.  But I saw pufferfish!  and a moray eel, and a long narrow fellow in the seahorse family, a kind of pipefish.  Twice I saw him. 

And this morning, walking around the artificial grounds, there was a lizard, a gecko (which I also have in my room under my bed at present—at least I think that is where he is [actually he was a skink]), and a totally gross and huge gray wolf spider lurking angrily in an interstice of the rocks.  He darted away on his cocked legs when he saw me looking in at him.

Just now it is gray out, and there have been bits of rain.  The water is warm as soup, and the sun is deeply intense, scary almost.  I am awkward with all my various snorkel gear, but it's ok. 

Tomorrow we are to drive south a bit, and snorkel in a different kind of place, and then tomorrow evening we will have a practice night snork.  A little daunting.   But I'll be able to do it.   [Plans changed, of course, as they did several times a day, and this night snorkel never happened.]

I miss my people.  I can't connect with the net here (on this machine) so I haven't got any emails to connect me with home.  Home, where are you???   Where am I??? 

As Lee the guide talks about the life of the corals and fish, I see, and remark on, so many similarities to the plant world, with which I am so familiar.  Last night at dinner, I mentioned the great things the young Ethan, guide on our South Pacific eclipse trip a couple of years ago, said about how maybe this world will pass away but what will come after is every bit as wonderful (or thoughts to that effect), and it turns out that the two of them, friends, have talked about exactly that. 

But, you know, there is an unnerving paucity of land creatures here.  Of course it is an island, with that limitation, but because of the horrible brown tree snake, brought here accidentally so many years ago probably during the war, there are virtually no birds.  A few domesticated animals, rats, mice and bats, and that's about it.  

Very little flying around in the mornings when I sit out on my balcony in the rising heat, with my coffee, and survey the rollers coming in below, and the pool cleaners, and the koi fish in their artificial pond.  There is a large black butterfly with a yellow stripe on his hindwing, and I think I have seen a small sulfur butterfly, and there is some sort of pigeon.  There’s the gecko and the skink, and the gray wolf spider, and those incredibly small ants, like those in the Bahamas that were in my bed, years ago.  The ones here I saw were rushing determinedly up and down the stalk of a banana plant.  But that's it on the land.

The water of course is a different affair.  Yesterday afternoon we had a long snork just above some coral, it being low tide.  I got a couple of modest coral cuts.  Why such abundance?  It's almost as if an entire planet of fishy animals were concentrated in one small place. 

Lee was talking about seeing the big picture, by which he meant the processes of nature, rather than looking and appreciating only the results of those processes, such as the different kinds of organisms, mountains, waters, etc.  It's the processes, the great laws of physics and chemistry, which do endure and will endure.  That's what we should look to.  It's nice for us that these laws result in pufferfish and humans and wolf spiders and banana plants and brown tree snakes and skinks.   But in due course those will pass on, away.  Other things will take their place.  And all of our substance will be part of them.

Star Stuff, said dear Carl Sagan.

Later today, we have been snorkeling, this time with both guides, which is a good thing because the proposed site was one in which one has to climb down big boulders to the edge of the water, and jump in.  No, and furthermore how the hell would one get out?  So I said no, I can’t do that, but it worked out that the other guy, David, took me in an easier place. 

David likes to turn over every rock to see what's underneath, which of course is wonderful with me.  I got to hold all kinds of great stuff—a number of different kinds of sea cucumber which I love, a brilliant red starfish, small and pointy, a special kind of worm that he hadn’t seen before, and then there were the vast coral gardens, vast and gorgeous.  As lush as a rain forest.  I liked it and I liked being out with him.

The coral is supposed to spawn tonight BUT unfortunately, very sadly, the place Lee had chosen for us to go in the water and see this is just too rough (recent storms).  So instead we will go to the marine lab at the University of Guam where Lee worked and studied, and watch the corals spawn in tanks, and perhaps help to capture the gametes.  Oh, oh, not at all what I had imagined and hoped for.  But nature is what it is...  We might try the beach tomorrow night.

That’s all for now.   I must rest.