Most people who take six hour flights from Honolulu are headed back to mainland USA after a great vacation in Hawaii. I also hopped on a six hour flight after a fantastic experience in Hawaii, but my plane headed in the opposite direction – I’m currently writing from American Samoa, roughly 5,000 miles southwest of California! A National Park full of pristine coral reefs, lush jungles, and rare wildlife is spread over this remote chain of tropical islands. I couldn’t be more excited to have three whole weeks to dive throughout these islands, which is the United States’ only territory in the Southern Hemisphere.
After flying into Tutuila, which is the most populated island of American Samoa at almost 60,000 inhabitants, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was in a completely different setting than any of the previous parks I experienced. Although American Samoa has adopted bits and pieces of American culture (there‘s a McDonalds by the airport and football is hugely popular), it’s retains a strong core of traditional Samoan values. The island is divided into close-knit villages, each with its own chief and high priests, which are divided by gorgeous stretches of beaches or rainforest. Although almost everyone speaks English, the Samoan language is very commonly spoken as well, which means that I’ve gotten pretty good at smiling and nodding during conversations that I can’t understand!
One of the first things on my to-do list was to learn how to respect the local customs of a place with such a different culture than my own. Luckily, marine biology technician/park diving officer Jim Nimz picked me up from the airport and quickly helped me decode some traditions. For instance, the sounds of chiming bells fill the tropical air every evening during a tradition known as “sa.” This signifies a short period of prayer when all villagers are supposed to be indoors and driving is prohibited – very useful info for a visiting diver! I also learned that it’s important to show respect by asking permission from villagers or local chiefs before using the amazing beaches. Even though most beaches are considered the private property of a family, on most occasions they graciously allow public access.
Shortly after arriving, I met the rest of the marine team at their headquarters in Pago Pago. In addition to Jim, the team includes marine ecologist Tim Clark, marine biology technician Burt Fuiava, and marine technician Tasi Toloa. The first two days at the park were spent preparing for the busy weeks that were approaching. One of the highlights of my time in American Samoa will definitely be the Closed Circuit Rebreather course that I’ll be able to join. Due to the limited number of divers in this remote location and the necessity of frequent, deep dives, the park’s three divers (plus me) will all be getting rebreather certified! During those prep days, we completed online rebreather training and Jim certified me in Nitrox diving. I’ll explain much more about rebreathers in my blog about the actual course, but if it takes two full days to complete the online portion of the course then you can imagine that they’re a bit complicated!
As we anxiously waited for rebreather training to start, we dove for a fish tracking project that the marine team is setting up. The team set up an array of underwater receivers along the coast of the park, which pick up the signals of acoustic tags that have been implanted in certain fish. They’re hoping to learn about the movement patterns of key reef fish, such as where they spawn and where they spend most of their time, in order to aid future conservation efforts. We spent a few days fortifying the receivers by fastening ropes around their underwater anchors. I was excited to help with this work because I’m really interested in fisheries and marine conservation, but it definitely helped that the diving in American Samoa is absolutely incredible! The water is crystal-clear and as warm as a bathtub, the reefs are full of diverse and complex corals, and colorful fish are abundant. On several dives, I could hear the songs of humpback whales that swam in the distance!
If this first week in American Samoa is any indication, I’m so grateful that I’ve got another two weeks remaining! Our focus is shifting from the fish tagging project to tackling rebreathers, which should prove to be a fun challenge. I owe Tim, Jim, Burt, and Tasi all a big thank you for all their help with settling in and showing me this beautiful island, and I’m really excited to continue working with them!