Even beginning divers can see bounty of tropical fish in Guam

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Posted by on September 27, 2005 at 15:27:12:

PITI, Guam (AP) - Wetsuit and flippers on, oxygen tank strapped to my back, I steadied myself for the underwater descent.

"Look below you," my scuba diving teacher said. "There are some fish right there."

Breathing carefully through a mask - a skill acquired just minutes earlier - I gingerly dipped my head into the shallow water to see several black and white striped butterflyfish darting between our legs.

Welcome to Diving 101 on Guam. This small island, about seven hours west of Hawaii by plane, offers great diving opportunities for beginners as well as experts.

In two outings as a beginner diver and snorkeller, I swam among schools of elongated purple trumpetfish, tiny red arceye hawkfish, and multiple varieties of boxy butterflyfish with shimmering yellow scales.

More experienced divers can explore dozens of shipwrecks, a legacy of intense battles for the strategically located island by Spanish, German, Japanese, and American navies over the past 450 years.

As a novice, I enrolled in an introductory scuba class to learn the basics of inhaling and exhaling.

My teacher, Michael Bass from Guam Tropical Dive Station, showed me how to pinch my nose and breathe so my ears would adjust to increased pressure during our descent. He also taught me hand signals for "I need to surface now" and "OK."

At Piti Bomb Holes Marine Preserve, a common training ground for beginners, we swam among rich varieties of purple, yellow, and blue fish just yards from the shore.

I got to hold a red and white striped creature called a banded coral shrimp on the palm of my hand after Bass nudged him out of his hiding hole. The shrimp, with spindly white legs and striped body that made it look like a colourful spider, danced on my hand for a few seconds before scurrying off.

Locals tout an underwater reef tunnel known as the Blue Hole as a must-see, though you will need to be an advanced diver to go.

Part of the way down the Blue Hole, about 37 metres below the surface, a shaft opens out to views of whales, sharks, and turtles gliding by.

John Bent, the president of Guam Tropical Dive Station, said Guam's warm, translucent waters made the island a top diving location.

"I will give you some of the best visibility anywhere in the world," said Bent, a native of Adelaide, Australia. "In Blue Hole, you can get dizzy looking, it's so clear."

Divers can also get a good look at Guam's shipwrecks, including the Tokai Maru, a Japanese freighter sunk by a torpedo in the Second World War. It rests atop a German ship, the Cormoran, purposely blown up by its captain to avoid capture by the United States in the First World War.

Divers have found debris from at least one 17th century Spanish galleon scattered around the sea floor, but tropical waters have eaten away at the wooden vessel and there is little left to see.

If you prefer not to hoist a heavy tank on your back to go scuba diving, you can see plenty of fish just by snorkelling.

Borrowing a breathing tube, I waded out for a look in Tumon Bay just off the beach fronting Guam's major hotels.

Both Tumon Bay and Piti have become magnets for fish since Guam started enforcing marine preserve rules there and at three other points around the island four years ago.

The Guam Department of Agriculture is still studying the effect of the regulations on Tumon Bay, but data from Piti and one other preserve show fish populations doubled in the two years leading up to 2003.

In Tumon, several Picasso triggerfish - a palm-sized fish with purple, red, and yellow scales splashed across a white torso - darted along the ocean floor.

A lone snapper, about two-thirds of a metre long, swam nearby among the plentiful coral beds.

To protect the marine preserves, Guam is mulling requiring permits of dive and paddle boat companies that take tourists to the areas. Individuals would still be free to explore the areas without special permission, as long as they obey the rules.


If You Go...

Getting there: Commercial airlines fly nonstop to Guam from Honolulu and Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, and other major Asian cities. Guam is about seven hours from Hawaii and three hours from Tokyo by plane.

Guam: The Guam Visitor's Bureau office in Tumon Bay has booklets on diving, hiking, and other activities around the island; http://www.visitguam.org or (671) 646-5278/5279. The website also lists local accommodations, from global resort chains to budget options. U.S. citizens do not need a passport, but proof of citizenship - such as a birth certificate - is required for Americans visiting the island. Guam's currency is the U.S. dollar.

Diving resources:
Guam Tropical Dive Station : (671) 477-2774
Micronesian Divers Association : (671) 472-6321.

Marine preserve information: Find out about Guam's five marine preserves from the island's Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources: www.guamdawr.org/aquatics/mpa/.

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