Dispatches from Micronesia: A Trip to Chuuk's Shark Island
By Angelo Villagomez
Chuuk, one of four states that make up the Federated States of Micronesia, is a world-renowned scuba diving destination, boasting dozens of World War II-era shipwrecks. It is also known for its sharks, which are attracted to the marine life that has made a home among the sunken wrecks.
The waters surrounding Chuuk's tiny Shark Island are home to several species of sharks, including the gray, blacktip, and whitetip reef sharks. The island, which is no bigger than a baseball diamond and supports a handful of coconut trees, is circled by dozens of sharks. Shark Island is known as a “cleaning station” where hungry cleaner wrasses rid sharks of dead skin, external parasites, and other pests.
During a recent visit to Chuuk, representing the Pew Environment Group, I had the chance to sit down with Cindy Hall, manager of the Truk Lagoon Dive Center, to talk about shark diving there. Hall is an experienced guide who has lived on the island since 2009. Previously she worked in the Maldives and The Bahamas, Grenada, and Turks and Caicos.
Villagomez: Chuuk is known to divers for its wrecks, but on this visit I was pleasantly surprised to hear about Shark Island. A name like that sure conjures up an image.
Hall: Well, can you think of a better name? I certainly can't. The cleaning station is a magnet for sharks. You can see up to 25 here sometimes.
Villagomez: Are sharks common in Chuuk? How often do you see them?
Hall: You can see them on nearly every dive. Beyond the wrecks, there's a good chance you'll see a gray reef shark. A lot of times the divers are so interested in the wrecks that they won't see the sharks swimming right over them.
Villagomez: What species do you find most often?
Hall: We don't see that many whitetip reefs, but we do see a lot of grays and blacktips. On the outreef, we'll see silvertips and the occasional silky, down to about 30 meters depth. I once saw a tiger shark inside the lagoon.
Villagomez: How important are sharks to your business?
Hall: It is so important. The tourism industry is the only real industry we have here in Chuuk. One diver can bring in several thousand dollars per trip. They pay the diver fees, including the government's $30 user fee, but they also stay in hotels, rent cars, and eat in our restaurants. Living sharks are worth far more than dead ones. Shark diving is a sustainable business, whereas commercial shark fishing is not. We can bring divers out to Shark Island every day, but a fisherman would only be able to fish it once and the sharks would be gone.
Villagomez: Are people pleased to see sharks swimming at Shark Island and in Chuuk in general?
Hall: I'm always surprised how many divers have never seen a shark, and I'm happy to give them the opportunity to go see them. And even for those who have seen sharks, most have never seen a cleaning station like Shark Island.
Video: Sharks Swim in Chuuk
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Building an Underwater Oasis for Sharks
During the Micronesian Chief Executives' Summit in July 2011, representatives from Chuuk and other regions pledged to join a much larger effort to create the Micronesia Regional Shark Sanctuary. The agreement includes all four members of the Federated States of Micronesia—Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae—as well as the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Once established, it will result in a regional sanctuary covering 5 million square kilometers (2 million square miles).
For more than a year, the Pew Environment Group has been working with communities in FSM discuss the important role sharks play in their waters. On Sept. 21, 2012, Kosrae became the first state of Micronesia to make the commitment to protect sharks in its waters. The unanimous vote by the legislature in Kosrae, a small island of 7,700 people in the Pacific, is an important step toward creation of the regional shark sanctuary. The legislation now heads to Gov. Lyndon Jackson's desk for signature.
For more information about the Pew Environment Group's global shark conservation work, visit www.PewEnvironment.org/sharks.
The Truk Stop Hotel & Dive Center is a full-service Professional Association of Diving Instructors dive center on the island of Weno in Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia. For more information visit, www.dive-truklagoon.com.