Visited November 1997
As the Air Mike island hopper broke through the clouds, fog shrouded mountain peaks came into view. With its' airport built on a man made spit dating back to the second world war, this mountainous island glowed like an emerald, even under an overcast sky. Korsae, (pronounced a number of ways, most commonly KOR-shy) is the half way point for Continental Micronesia's island hopper flight from Honolulu to Guam. Korsae is the only single island state in the Federated States of Micronesia. As one of the less developed and populated islands in the region, Korsae has retained much of the traditional atmosphere from the past 50 years, in spite of being conquered by Germans, Japanese, and then handed to the US as part of the trust territory of the Pacific following W.W.II. The villages are not yet all connected by roads, and the modern conveniences such as sewer and water are still making their way around to the homes. Of course telephones seem omnipresent, even in the absence of electricity.
Korsae is known as the island of the sleeping lady, as when viewed from the east the profile of the mountains resembles that of a reclined woman. The small island of Lelu (pronounced lay-la) is connected to the main island by a causeway, which once also served as the islands landing strip. Lelu was once home to the king, and an ancient village where the royalty lived can be seen to this day. Huge basalt logs form walls, paved walkways and canals connect the royal grounds with meeting areas, food preparation areas and royal tombs. The jungle is slowly reclaiming the ruins in spite of local efforts to preserve them.
As was typical of each stop the island hopper made on this journey, the terminal at Korsae is nothing if not minimal. The customs people are not terribly used to receiving scuba diving, camera toting visitors, and the questioning was motivated by curiosity more then anything else. Never before have I been asked by customs "How did you learn about our island ?". A friendly woman we met while waiting for our gear was equally as curious. She was a public health nurse assigned here by her employer, and was intrigued that we would visit on holiday. If this questioning of "Why would you come here" seems like it might give one second thoughts, that is exactly the case. The heat, humidity, rain, the 10 hour flight from Hawaii all combined to cause some serious questions.
We bravely left the airport, and were met by a driver from the Korsae Nautilus Resort. The right hand drive van (driving on the right side of the road) took us on the 20 minute drive to the Nautilus. The scenery was nothing short of stunning. Waterfalls mere feet from the road were on our right, while wild banana, lime, orange, and tangerine trees were on our left. The smells of citrus, and lush greenery were almost overwhelming .We were quickly jarred back to reality as the van bounced from pothole to pothole. Driving on the two lane roads is an adventure, endeavoring to avoid as many potholes as possible. No section of road appeared to be capable of allowing 2 cars to pass without one of them being subjected to these craters.
Arriving at the Korsae Nautilus Resort, on the east side of the island, we were treated to a spectacular view of the leeward side of Mt. Finkol. This peak, only 2000' high, is cloaked in dense jungle. As the rain ended and the clouds retreated to the upper reaches of the mountain the full picture of this island Eden emerged. Flocks of birds flitted through the mangrove less than a mile inland of the resort, while still more circled high up in the mountains. The only words to accurately describe the foliage would be lush, very very lush.
The Nautilus Resort is a modern facility with 16 rooms, a pool, dining room, bar and air conditioning throughout. Our large room with twin double beds had ample desk space and a mini bar. It was a pleasant surprise that the mini bar prices were comparable or lower than those at the store down the road. When was the last time you saw beer for $1.50 in a hotel mini bar ? Even bottled water at eighty five cents was a steal. No need to use the bottles water however as unlimited catchment water is available at the bar to refill the pitcher in your refrigerator. Tap water is not recommended for drinking.
The purpose for visiting Kosrae was to dive, and that meant getting in the water as soon after arrival as possible. The resort is just across the road from a huge beach, which contains Kosraes Blue Hole. A walk across the tidal flats to the blue hole revealed free swimming spotted and sharp tail eels hunting in the knee deep warm water. At the edge of the blue hole, the challenge was in finding the paths through the coral heads around the edge of the drop-off. Pushing out from the iron shore ledge, I found, or rather was nearly impaled on my first Lion fish. It was sunning itself on top of a coral head in just over a foot of water. Only evasive action on the parts of myself and the surprised Lion fish prevented a painful and ungraceful meeting of snorkler and fish.
The water of the blue hole is fairly turbid, and visibility can range from 10 - 30 feet. Looking into the dark waters at the center of the hole one is overcome by the number of large moving shapes below. Deeper investigation revealed this to be a mixture of Stingrays, Jacks, and snappers. Legend has it that the bones of the deceased kings of the nearby island of Lelu were deposited into the waters of the Blue hole. This, of course comes to bear on just how deep one might chose to go in this hole. We chose the let sleeping kings lie !
Many Caribbean divers are aware of how hard it is to find a harlequin Pipe fish, or any pipe fish for that matter. The Blue Hole of Kosrae is home to thousands of pipe fish, in as little as 10 feet of water. These comical relatives of the sea horse were a joy to watch as the moved about in pairs amongst the coral heads. They even permitted some extensive photography of this behavior. Later visits to the Hole revealed groups of up to 8 pipe fish in areas of less than one square foot. These are not at all a rare species here !
Diving was done in the nautilus resorts custom built boat Poseidon The boat was moored at a marina on the west side of the island for protection from the weather. After a short drive round the island (past the potholes) to the marina we headed out to a site known as Shark Island. As any diver know, calling a site shark anything virtually guarantees that one will not see any sharks there. Today was no exception. Nor was it a disappointment. Big schools of Barracuda, jacks and bait fish swirled about the reef slope. A spotted eagle ray welcomed us to the water. Clown fish danced in their protective anemones, chasing away curious divers. A lazy turtle swam by for a look.
The corals of the drop-offs are draped in more colors than one can imagine, but unlike other Pacific regions such as Palau, the colors do not come from the soft corals. The reefs of Kosrae are comprised almost exclusively of the hard reef building corals, which grow to silly proportions. Brain corals more than ten feet across, pillar and star corals reach towards the surface. And everywhere splashes of color; from the ever present Christmas tree worms in every color of the rainbow; and the multitude of chrinoids in wild yellow and black, yellow and white, striped, and ever imaginable combination. It was the sensation of being on a reef being attacked by tribbles ! A gentle current swept us along as the chrinoids stretched their arms into the blue, searching for their microscopic nourishment. Visibility was below normal at sixty to eighty feet, and the water a pleasant 80 degrees.
Lunch was served during the surface interval, featuring the freshest bananas, tangerines, and lime juice ever to find their way aboard a dive boat. If that were not enough, cold grilled chicken sandwiches are also provided. A second equally pleasant dive at another spot on shark island was resplendent in more chrinoids, lion fish, and another spotted eagle ray.
Following our second day of diving we lost out to the potholes and blew a tire on the drive back to the resort. As we waited for another truck from the resort to pick us up, nearly every vehicle passing by offered a ride. We ended up riding back to the resort with a load of coconuts in the back of a pickup truck. This is living island style. The Kosraeans go out of their way to be accommodating, and it is said that their local dialect has no word for "no" . This can lead to some confusion as any request will be met with a yes, as they do not know how to decline. It drove Geoff Raschou, manager and owner of the Nautilus Resort, crazy the first few years he was on the island.
The locals have a shyness which disappears when they are greeted with a smile. As so few tourists visit this island, the locals have not had a chance to grow to resent visitors. This is a pleasant change from many other dive destinations. Kosrae does not appeal to tourists, it draws mainly visitors who are there to enjoy nature, either above or under the sea. IN addition to the diving opportunities, Kosrae offers hiking in its mountains through the rain forests. In addition, one may arrange a tour through the mangrove channel in a dugout canoe.
Until 50 years ago, the mangrove channels were the main means of transportation between villages. The village of Walung is still reachable only by water. Plans for a road to the village a re met with much opposition from villagers, who fear that the access may bring great changes into the remote village.
A visit to Kosrae is certainly not complete without attending a Sunday morning church service. The islanders are said to be the most devout in the pacific, and take great pride in their church choirs. I attended services at the church on Lelu island. The simple church was filled almost constantly with music, both from within and flowing in through the open windows from the neighboring Sunday school. It seemed that the children's singing was background music for the ministers preaching. The only English spoken was a brief welcome and acknowledgment of the visitors by the minister. The soaring complex harmonies of the choirs transcended language barriers. We were latter told that choir rehearsal on Thursday nights often attracts as many people as does the actual service.
Following the service we met Ernie, a local fellow who had lived on Lelu all his life. Ernie was proud to invite us to his home to meet his family, and tell us a bit about his life on Kosrae. Ernies home bordered on one edge of the ancient ruins of Lelu, and one side of his yard was protected by a fifteen foot high wall of basalt logs. Nearly one thousand years old, the moss covered logs provided welcome shade for the cooking area of the home. Ernies' wife Ehma was proud to serve us some of her home made coconut ice cream. Made with coconut milk rather than real milk, the sweet treat was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat. Across the road from Ernies was a path leading up a hill to a former Japanese weather station from world war two. Ernie told us that he had been enslaved as a message boy at the station during the war. Since the end of the war fifty years ago, he had never returned to the hilltop. the only time that Ernie was not smiling was as he spoke of those days during the war. It was, he said, "a very bad time".
Leaving Ernies home we explored the island some more. Chickens roamed freely on the roads, and the tiny Kosraeans bananas hung from trees over the road. The remnants of the war are still much in abundance. Tanks lie where they were abandoned. Armored vehicles have been rolled into the ditches to remain as a rusting reminder of the war. Traditional Kosraeans homes are interspersed with more modern American style buildings. Every home seemed to have a dog or two, and the barking was almost non stop for the duration of our walk. This was Sunday, and that meant that we were obligated to wear long pants, despite the heat.
Kosrae is the most conservative of the islands, Sunday is firmly protected as a day of rest. At the airport a sign outlines the customs, such as no drinking or working on Sunday. This extends to no diving or boating as well. Geoff told of the local Civil Action team creating quite a stir by water-skiing on a Sunday. Naturally diving is also forbidden, although snorkeling seemed to be acceptable. Quite relaxation, contemplation, and visiting with friends are the recommended activities. Use of the hotel pool was also tolerated, although women are encouraged to stay covered until they enter the water. While it may at first have sounded restrictive this quiet Sunday ritual was a relaxing way to end our stay on Kosrae. Naturally there is no flight out of Kosrae on Sunday. So on Monday afternoon we were back on the island hopper and on our way to Yap.
All Text and Images Copyright Roxanne & Douglas E. Hook 1996-2003. All Rights Reserved