Living a Dream, Part III - Alan Dynner reports on diving near Kanton

Kanton Island is a classic coral atoll: a huge blue lagoon surrounded by a narrow rim of sand, scrub and palm trees, connected to the open ocean by a channel. Every change of tide, water from the lagoon rushes out, or the ocean rushes in with the incoming tide--all at speeds of 8 to 9 m.p.h., like a white water river. Let me tell you about one breathtaking dive there.

Kanton Island

We were dropped off on the ocean side in 120 feet just as the tide was about to come in. As we hit the water, flipping backwards from the zodiac, we were surrounded by a huge school of barracuda. These beautiful but intimidating eating machines were 3 to 4 feet long, their enormous mouths studded with razor-like teeth. They circled us, but we felt more out of curiosity than menace.

Reef shark (Photo: Jim Stringer)

Below I caught sight of two grey reef sharks. And off to the left a big manta ray cruised past, looking like a graceful, futuristic stealth fighter-bomber. Then, suddenly, we felt the current pick up and Greg Stone, Larry Madin and I were swept away as if pulled by a gigantic liquid vacuum cleaner. The bottom became more shallow, to about 50 feet as we entered the channel, and seemed to sweep by us as if we were in an airplane taking off while watching the runway. At first the bottom was just rubble; the current was so strong that rocks as big as bowling balls were rolled along towards the lagoon. We had to kick a bit to keep together, trying to stay at the same depth and retaining control. After a while the bottom changed to white sand, studded with the nests of triggerfish at 15 foot intervals, each guarded by its agitated resident. A few minutes later we entered a huge area of coral hills.

Corals in the Phoenix Islands (Photo: J. Stringer)

Back in the 2000 expedition this area of the lagoon was named "Coral Castles" and Greg remembered the immense 10 to 15 foot coral plates that were unmatched in beauty. Now some of the coral was dead because of the 2002 El Nino coral bleaching that impacted some parts the Phoenix Islands. We were gratified today to see that many of these coral plates had survived and were healthy and impressive (more about this area in this post by Brian Skerry). Finally, half way across the lagoon, the current slowed to a crawl. We surfaced, put up a 6 foot orange plastic "sausage" so that the zodiac could find us in the choppy lagoon, and were soon back on the NAI'A, happy and exhilarated.

Our first dive today, having traveled overnight to Enderbury Island, was a dramatic contrast. Here the coral reef around the island is totally healthy, unaffected by the bleaching event. As I entered the water I was surrounded by a school of 15 or 20 baby gray reef sharks. These babies are not exactly cute, but rather each is a exquisite sleek miniature of its formidable parent. The reef was covered by gorgeous plates of brown, tan and blue coral (More about this area in this post by Les Kaufman).

Colorful reef fish

Everywhere were colorful reef fish--wrasses darted here and there, pairs of bright yellow and patterned butterfly fish grazed, schools of snapper cruised, dazzling red damselfish defended their territories, parrotfish nibbled on corals, schools of silver jacks patrolled the wall, and curious spotted pufferfish with pouting lips swam awkwardly. After an hour and 10 minutes of this undersea fantasy, I surfaced, thinking how wonderful these dream dives have been. And I felt secure in the knowledge that the Phoenix Island Protected Area means that my grandchildren will be able to dive in this paradise some day if they wish.

-Alan Dynner

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