Saturday, 15 December 2012

Snorkelling with Manta Rays at Hermit Islands

WOW, Manta Rays are super duper cool animals. This was definitely an experience on par with whales in Tonga and the volcano in Vanuatu. They are very majestic and apparently very intelligent too.

These islands are the kings of pineapple growers! There are tons of them and they are deliciously sweet. We have eaten at least one a day and we still got 4-5 more that will need eating within the next few days. We also traded for eggs, kumera, pumpkin, beans, lemons, limes, oranges, mangoes, guava and of course bananas.

We had read another cruiser's account of the islands when they visited in 2007 and back then they did have some Taiwanese fishing boats here (it's not their mooring we're on, but one the village has put down for yachts). Apparently they cheated them and used cynoid (?, poison), so luckily they sent them away. They have also for years been making money on sea cucumbers, but the government has put a ban on that now (probably to let the population recover). The islands are too far away from anywhere else to make any other trade viable, fuel is simply too expensive. This all means that there's no way to make money and they are therefore very keen to trade with us. We got the impression that they they have been used to having money and being able to buy stuff, but haven't actually saved much up. Many people have solar panels, batteries and there are some generators in the village also. They also have 40 hp outboards that they use to go to Manus and the mainland, a 6-12 hour trip using 400 liters of fuel. Vanuatu is so poor that canoes are the only mode of transport and most people have no power at all, if lucky maybe a solar panel, but batteries are expensive, so often they weren't hooked up. Solomon was a little bit in between. Most amazing though is that almost everyone in all three countries has a cell phone, even when there's no reception where they live, they still have one for when they travel to where there is! We have also several times been asked to charge a cell phone for someone.

Trading-wise, sugar, like at Nissan Island, was the most sought after item! Lucky for them this is the last place where we can trade, as we don't anticipate much of that in Asia, and if there is some, it's easy to buy new things in the bigger towns. We has a fair bit of clothes, rice and various other items left, so we were quite generous with our trading.

Back to the Manta Rays. There's a passage between the two biggest islands where there's usually always Manta Rays, sometimes even hundreds! Bob, the village councilor who doubles at the tour guide took us there and we anchored Sophia nearby for the night so we were ready early next morning for the low tide. Unfortunately the visibility wasn't the best (May to August are the best Bob told us) but it was still maybe 10 meters or so. At first we didn't see any and had almost given up, although it has still been a pretty good snorkel where we had also seen several turtles and some huge giant clams. But suddenly we spotted one Manta, and then there were several They are really beautiful, most were black on top and white on the belly, but one was all black with only a small white spot on the belly. The biggest one would have been 3-4 meters wing span. I got some OK photos, but unfortunately the battery went flat quite early on, big time bummer, as I could have gotten some really cool ones because they didn't swim away from us, but mostly stayed in one spot and we could even swim down to them and be within touch distance! At one point there were three Mantas and one turtle and various fish and remoras (sucker fish) in one frame, would have been such a awesome photo!

We have only been here three days, but we have already made some really good friends. Hermit Islands despite its isolated location gets a surprising amount of yachts visiting each year, and actually throughout the year as it's on the passage both to and from Asia (both via Indonesia and Philippines). The visitor book was full of praise and many people declare it a favorite, but we actually hadn't read or heard much about it beforehand, so it seems a bit of a well kept secret, or otherwise we don't mingle enough in the cruising circles. All the people we met were super friendly and really keen to chat with us. Last night we were invited ashore for a farewell meal and lots of people came along to see and chat with us. The cookies I had made and the small photo prints I can make were a huge hit.

So, the islands are very paradisaical and visitors tell the locals how lucky they are to live here. However, if you're stuck in paradise it may not seem like it. People live off the land and the sea, but they still need clothes and some foods they can't grow themselves. Then there are all the other nice things you can buy like cell phone, boom-box (music player), TV and the list goes on and on. Plus school past primary cost money, as well as hospital and dentist. It's very hard to move on and there aren't many jobs around either and even less on this small island.

If the weather we are about to download looks OK, we are leaving for Palau now. It's a bit over 800 miles and xmas is in 10 days so we are in a bit of a hurry!
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