Guamania! Part II:  Alutom Drift and the Lunacy of Coral Garden

Guamania - Photo by Erin Durbin-Sherer
Guamania - Photo by Erin Durbin-Sherer

I’d like to tell you that after our amazing morning on Cocos Island we broke for a leisurely gourmet lunch, elegant cuisine complementing the natural beauty that had come before and setting the stage for the wonders still to come.  What really happened is that Elaine’s husband Rob brought us McDonald’s.  Sitting in the cool shade of a giant daok tree with a view of the marina and the glorious blue beyond was a good reminder that fast food or no, I was still taking my lunch on a tropical island.  Alas, there was nary a public trashcans to be seen, and the remains of someone else’s picnic lunch were tied to a branch of my shady tree by the handle of the plastic bag it came in.  That was a great reminder that what seems like paradise to me is just another local spot to someone else.  We put our detritus in the car to dispose of later, and then the three of us carried our fresh tanks down to the boat for the second half of our adventure.

RELATED: Guamania! Part I: Cuckoo for Cocos

We barely had time to don our gear and acquire a fourth buddy to round out our trio before we were at the next site.  Due West from Agat Harbor, Alutom Island is a tiny triangle of land, just big enough to host an idyllic dive.  Dropping into turquoise water clear as a swimming pool and warm as a bath is as good as it gets, and there’s a gentle current at Alutom that sometimes makes it a drift dive so you might not even have to swim too hard.

During the 40’ descent along the mooring line, I got turned around and found myself oriented opposite from the direction everyone else was going.  Sometimes it’s these little mistakes that afford you the most amazing opportunities though, because the first thing I saw was the only big pelagic of the day–a huge black-spotted ray. Taeniura melanospilos winging its way out across the reef.  It swam off quickly, hovering like a speckled magic carpet as it disappeared in the distance with only myself and Rob to bear witness to its silent flight.

Guamania - Photo by Erin Durbin-Sherer
Guamania – Photo by Erin Durbin-Sherer

The wide reef plain eventually gave way to a subtle slope that took us down to 90’ or so.  Just like a topside prairie, the seascape that looked homogenous and featureless from above resolved into endless dells and niches in the sea floor that hosted all kinds of life.  There were big porites with their dazzling arrays of skittish Christmas tree worms ranging from white, saffron, and periwinkle blue to the more flamboyant varieties that change colors along their spiraling fronds.  Huge Merten’s carpet anemones played host to coy little anemone fish in different combinations of black, white and amber.  Every time the current would surge, the lifting lobes of the anemone would reveal new and curious fishy faces, then the eddy would return to sweep them back under the rug.   My favorite discovery was the fluted giant clam, its corrugated smile dotted with hundreds of unblinking eyes.

In the crystal blue it’s easy to forget how deep 90’ is, and all too soon it was time to head back to the boat for the voyage south to Anae Island.  The view from the deck is across a flat, shallow sea to a light sand beach that leads right up to a margin of deep green tropical forest.  Our dive plan was to swim to shoreward until we hit half-tank and then turn around and make our way back along a parallel heading.  One by one we stepped off the dive platform…and promptly fell down the rabbit hole.  The view from the other side was as simply surreal.

Spread out before us was the aquatic analog of a natural hedge maze, paved with that kind of white sand that is comprised of the tiny pieces of a million years’ worth of pulverized seashells. Or maybe it was more like a Japanese zen garden with coral heads set ponderously atop.  Only instead of flowing in concentric rings around those silent sentinels, the sand was coaxed into sinuous waves heedless of the coral above, mastered only by the gentle, relentless surge.

Guamania - Photo by Erin Durbin-Sherer
Guamania – Photo by Erin Durbin-Sherer

As breathtaking as Coral Gardens’ opening gambit was, I wanted to save my air to explore the weird and amazing formations stacked all around.  Here the coral grew in such  profusion it lent the impression of some lunar landscape where fantastical alien creatures might lurk.  The foundation of each coral island was the species Turbinaria reniformis, plate upon plate piled skyward like drunken layer cakes, with the more vertical variety Dysidea herbacea as birthday candles perched on top.

RELATED: Photos from the Frontier – Fluorodiving In Guam

Upon closer inspection, these coral cake islands became apartment blocks to house the bizarre aliens I was looking for.  Tucked in among the plates were the long tentacle arms of giant brittle stars sharing gorgeous ocean views with their more polished cobalt cousins the Linckia laevigata, and the diminutive red-white-and-blue Linckia multifora.  Sprawled across the sand like a monster caterpillar was the friendly neighborhood sea cucumber, Thelenota ananas.  Perhaps the weirdest of all was the honeycomb grouper, whose white skin was mottled with a perfectly regular pattern of tiled hexagons, a little bit of pop art geometry to further complicate the surreal surroundings.

Guamania - Photo by Erin Durbin-Sherer
Guamania – Photo by Erin Durbin-Sherer

At the bone-crushing depth range of 5’ to 45’, we were able to stay below for just over an hour before our stolen moments in the sea were up.  Our depleted tanks and exhausted bodies reminded us that in the end, we must drag ourselves landward once more, returning to our much less dazzling lives as pedestrian terrestrial creatures.  After carefully collecting the last of the divers, Captain Bob brought us about a final time and made for Agat Marina, and home.

And Now For Something Completely Different…

Not scuba certified, or simply prefer the simplicity of freediving?  It was a bit difficult to suss out, but there is a community in Guam.  After two weeks of asking around with no results, we finally spied a lone diver emerging from the water at Old Wives’ Beach with his Deep Apnea fins in one hand and a speargun in the other, so we knew there must be some kind of spearo culture here.  Our source, PFI Instructor Ryan Reed, told us that he and his partners, Cris DeBeer and Pete Green of Leagues Deep, have been actively promoting the sport on-island for some time. Check out their Facebook page for more information.

According to Ryan, it’s been an uphill battle as many of the local population have been freediving to spearfish for years, and neither seek formal training nor wish to share their local hunting spots.  There are no meetup groups or freediving competitions, just two main spearfishing events each year: one’s a private affair, available by invitation only and the other’s a competition in August that’s open to the general public.  And there’s only one shop on the whole island catering to the apnea crowd — Fa’nu’i Spearfishing in Hagåtña.  Their Facebook page can be found here.

Guam may not boast as much support for freediving as for scuba, but the resources are there, and the community, while not large, is definitely present.  The links above should be enough to get you started, and we’d love to hear your experiences and resources as well!

Erin Durbin-Sherer

Erin began diving in 2012 as preparation for a trip to Hawaii and before the year was out she’d left her old life behind to work in the dive industry full-time. When she’s not out exploring the deep and collecting c-cards, you might find her making art or working on her master’s thesis in cultural anthropology at San Diego State University. Erin is an Associate Editor with DeeperBlue.com.

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