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Adventures in a South Seas Paradise

The 138-passenger World Discoverer docked at Palmyra Island (S. H. Smith Photo; Sept. 14, 1994)
The 138-passenger World Discoverer docked at Palmyra Island (S. H. Smith Photo; Sept. 14, 1994)

The National Geographic Magazine came in the mail on Saturday; it contains an article on the Southern Line Islands in the South Pacific.  The article also featured a nice aerial photo of Caroline Atoll; one of my favorite places visited on a September 1994 voyage covering 3,500-miles of the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Tahiti.

For my autobiography, I used the aerial photo to pinpoint the sites visited on Sept. 21, 1994; and thought why not use it for a post.  Besides, the voyage has a York County connection; and not just the fact that I took the trip.

The cruise was billed as a voyage of discovery and adventure; sailing on the 138-passenger World Discoverer.  In 20 years of small ship expedition service, our ship had become legend with an impressive history of firsts.  This was the first cruise ship to ever visit several islands on this inaugural itinerary.

The first Line Island was encountered 1,112-miles south of Hawaii; Palmyra Island.  At the time, a family in Hawaii owned this island and the only inhabitant was a caretaker that they had living there.  However, during World War II, the United States built a runway on the coral reef; a refueling stop for planes being ferried across the Pacific.

The owner of island had the channel into the lagoon and the dock area dredged, in anticipation of our visit.  The captain eased the ship alongside what was left of an old PT-Boat wharf.  Lines were fastened around the wharf’s aging bollards, however it became quickly evident that they were unfit to hold the ship.  Hastily the crew wrapped lines around a couple of nearby palm trees, which held; resulting the photo at the beginning of this post.

We had a whole day to explore the island and snorkel in the lagoon.  The snorkeling was fabulous.  The hiking around the island was a rare experience; especially when we got to the old airstrip, with trees now growing up through the runway.  One of the passengers had spent time on Palmyra Island during World War II.  He indicated that the difference was staggering.  During the war, the island was devoid of vegetation.  In 1994, it was completely covered in lush vegetation.

Roger, the caretaker, was a virtual modern-day Robinson Crusoe, with all his unique gadgets and giant pet coconut crab.  He lived on the island during the day and spent nights on his sailboat in the lagoon.  I could have spent hours just relaxing in his homemade hammock; hanging between two palm trees, just inches above the waters of the lagoon:

Stephen H. Smith on a Hammock over the Lagoon of Palmyra Island (Passenger Photo; Sept. 14, 1994)
Stephen H. Smith on a Hammock over the Lagoon of Palmyra Island (Passenger Photo; Sept. 14, 1994)

We next visit two of the Northern Line Islands, Fanning Island and Christmas Island, in the Republic of Kiribati, before crossing the Line.  Sailors often refer to the Equator as the Line, and since these islands are on both sides of the Line, they were called the Line Islands.

After crossing the Line, we spend a day each on three uninhabited Southern Line Islands: Malden Island, Starbuck Island and Vostok Island.  As we awake the morning of September 21, 1994, we off the east side reef of Caroline Atoll.  I urge you to purchase the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Magazine to see the much larger and clearer aerial photo of Caroline Atoll.

Caroline Atoll from September 2014 Issue of National Geographic Magazine (Annotated by S. H. Smith, 2014)
Caroline Atoll from September 2014 Issue of National Geographic Magazine (Annotated by S. H. Smith, 2014)

The bottom aerial view shows the whole Caroline Atoll.  At the right is Nake Island, located at the northern end of the 6-mile long atoll.  At the left is South Island in the atoll, the island where we landed and which I’ve enlarged and annotated in the upper half of the illustration.

The only useable passage into the island was a narrow Blind Passage through the nasty reef that encircled Caroline Atoll.  This uninhabited grouping of islands was the epitome of a South Seas paradise, with lush undergrowth punctuated with a forest of palm trees overlooking deep blue lagoons.

Zodiacs Scouting Snorkeling Locations in Lagoons north of South Island in Caroline Atoll (S. H. Smith Photo; Sept. 21, 1994)
Zodiacs Scouting Snorkeling Locations in Lagoons north of South Island in Caroline Atoll (S. H. Smith Photo; Sept. 21, 1994)

Passengers congregate on the north side beach of South Island while the Zodiacs scout snorkeling locations in the blue lagoons.  The scouts reported the whole area as superb; with undisturbed corals virtually covering the whole seabed.  The grayish-brown area between the beach and the blue lagoons contained about 2 feet of water.  We used zodiacs for transport from the beach, out to the deeper blue area, so that the corals in the shallow areas did not get damaged.

Corals and Fish the Blue Lagoons of Caroline Atoll (S. H. Smith Photo; Sept. 21, 1994)
Corals and Fish the Blue Lagoons of Caroline Atoll (S. H. Smith Photo; Sept. 21, 1994)

I have yet to top the snorkeling experience in the Blue Lagoons of Caroline Atoll.  No photos can do justice to the never-ending, unspoiled coral formations, however this is my favorite photo.

The crew offered lunch on the beach for those that did not want to leave this island paradise.  After lunch, I went on a birding walk, then back into the lagoon for more snorkeling.  Several of us walked the perimeter of South Island; it was about a three-mile hike.  About the only shade that we had was as we neared the gathering point; I thought this particular palm tree was picturesque.

Palm Tree overlooking the Blue Lagoons of Caroline Atoll (S. H. Smith Photo; Sept. 21, 1994)
Palm Tree overlooking the Blue Lagoons of Caroline Atoll (S. H. Smith Photo; Sept. 21, 1994)

We returned to the lagoons to cool down from our hike and do some more snorkeling, for the longest time.  It started to get overcast and everybody was rounded up to immediately return to the World Discoverer.

Stephen H. Smith sitting on South Island beach of Caroline Atoll (Passenger Photo; Sept. 21, 1994)
Stephen H. Smith sitting on South Island beach of Caroline Atoll (Passenger Photo; Sept. 21, 1994)

Here I am sitting on the South Island beach of Caroline Atoll waiting for the last zodiac back to the World Discoverer; which can be seen out beyond the reef.  The most nimble passengers were asked to return in the later groups of zodiacs, because with the storm approaching, later rides and transfers into the World Discoverer were going to be rougher.

Several more islands were visited before our September 26, 1994 disembarkation in Tahiti.  My favorite island remains Bora Bora in French Polynesia, however my favorite lagoons remain those in Caroline Atoll.  It is nice to see that they will be protected as part of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project.

At the beginning of this post I noted this voyage had a York County connection; and not just the fact that I took the trip.  The ships staff was augmented with one archaeologist, two ornithologists, two naturalists and two marine biologists; who lectured and accompanied passengers as we explored the islands, ocean and lagoons.  At Malden Island we saw our first 4-foot reef sharks below us while snorkeling off the island and more would follow at other islands.  Both marine biologists, however most emphatically Jack Grove, lectured that the reef sharks would not bother anybody.  We discovered that these sharks were indifferent to us and soon we were observing them along with the other fish species.

A few days later, a group of us were reporting our sightings to Jack Grove, who was keeping a detailed list of all the fish species by island.  I had a YORK shirt on that day.  I soon discovered Jack Grove was a native of York County.  Just out of high school he got a job as a Milkman delivering for Warner’s Dairy in Red Lion.  When I got home, I told people that I was in the ocean with 4-foot sharks because a Milkman from Red Lion said it was safe to do so.  Actually Jack Grove has the credentials to make that statement; see this site.

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