Sometimes the spectacular sits on your doorstep. You travel far and wide searching for the most amazing places – To Sua Ocean Trench, the Sliding Rocks of Papase’ea, Papapapai-Uta Waterfall – and all the while a real little gem sparkles right under your nose.
We heard about Palolo Deep Marine Reserve on the second or third day after arriving. We even drove past the entrance a couple of times – a hand painted signpost between the harbour buildings and a functioning orange digger. Too close to Apia’s unlovely shoreline to be wonderful, we thought. It could never match the white beaches and turquoise seas of the south. We ignored it, promising ourselves we would visit one day, honest.
Then on Tuesday, after doing bloody battle with the internet – and losing, I fled the appartment in search of water. Too late to drive anywhere nice. Too late to go to the Aquatic Centre either. And Apia doesn’t offer any beaches – other than the pebbly, whirlpooly Viala, and Palolo Deep Marine Reserve.
Palolo, it was then.
Five Tala to go in. I handed a crumpled red note to the lady on the gate. She directed me past a caravan selling drinks, past several little fales in the shade to a man in a red-striped shirt, who in turn pointed out to sea, as if I might be new to snorkelling.
“It’s just past the stick.” He indicated a distant bent stick, its notches barely visible above water. “Not that stick.” He swung around to point at another more prominent stick. “But this stick.” He swivelled back to the original. “You can see the patch of dark blue, that’s where the hole is.”
“Right.” I held my snorkel up the right way, hoping to prove I’d been snorkelling before.
I put on my mask, snorkel, and fins. Entered the sea from a small coral-strewn beach. The noise of machines and workmen diminished as I put my head under, and as I finned out, so did the murk in the water. Lots of coral peaks to dodge though, yellow-brown sea grass waving like a watery savannah. I thought of Dances With Wolves and hoped no Indians or sea-monsters lay in ambush.
Several times the coral became too shallow. I had to retrace my bubbles, find another way. By chance I discovered a canyon of gravel that threaded around the coral pinnacles, through the underwater forest, taking me closer and closer – every time I stuck my head up – to the enigmatic angled stick.
The sea grass petered out. Coronets and candlesticks of coral dappled in its place. A black fish gaped on my right. Another on my left.
The sea floor dropped. A twisted upside-down Manhattan landscape, with strangely shaped sea-scrapers, circled by fish instead of cars. Hundreds of fish, patterned grey and black, yellow-striped, a constellation of blue against an ever deepening ocean.
Here lay Palolo Deep, a coral-encrusted, fish-teeming hole in the most unlikely place. Beautiful and magical, it is Apia’s secret kingdom.