|Travelling from neighbouring Fiji first thing Sunday morning, we crossed the international dateline heading east and landed in Samoa. We arrived some 23 hours back in time - on Saturday morning. I like being early, but this was ridiculous!
We certainly turned out to be early for the diving. In fact it was three days before we found ourselves on a submerged volcanic pinnacle close to Nuutele Island, on the south-eastern tip of Samoas main island, Upolu. You could have counted the number of divers who had ventured here on one hand - we were in another time and another world.
If time-travelling by air had smacked of science fiction, our underwater experience bordered on the surreal. Despite the massive swell, it seemed that we could see forever through the inky blueness.
The walls of the pinnacle were bizarrely shaped and textured and formed strange silhouettes in the midday sun. Dirty brown sea-whips curled crookedly out from them and towards the sky.
I had hoped to see plenty of pelagics here and sure enough, below us and at the periphery of our vision, a small school of jacks was being circled menacingly by several grey reef sharks.
We reached 40m and I could see the sloping shelf that surrounded the pinnacle levelling out below before plunging away once more, well beyond safe diving depths. By the time we reached the bottom the sharks had gone, but as we rounded a sharp corner we came upon a school of spadefish. Like the jacks, they angled their bodies to split into two schools and give us a wide berth.
A couple of tuna cruised past us at a rate of knots, and then we were alongside another shark, a whitetip. The grey reefers had kept their distance, but this fellow we could almost have touched. We kept with him as long as we could; then, with a flick of his tail, he was off.
Feet on the wheel
American-run Pacific Quest seemed to be the only full-time dive centre on the island, and even that had only recently gone full time. Much of the underwater world surrounding the two main islands has yet to be explored. We felt excited to be in such an unexploited place, but a little frustrated - this was the third day but our first dive. The centres boat was out of action for the week, and there had been further problems with the weather.
The winds were still blowing strong, so in desperation Roger Christman, who runs the centre with his wife Gayle, had organised this trip to the Aleipata pinnacle. It was more sheltered from the south-west winds, but a dive for experienced divers only.
The dive had taken on the form of a major expedition. It involved a trip by minibus for about 90 minutes, followed by a 20-minute ride out to the pinnacle in a rather dilapidated fishing boat. This had been chartered along with its owner, who was to act as our dive captain.
During the slog out to the dive site he had had to nurse his old 40hp Yamaha engine through an increasingly choppy sea, and I had been a tad concerned to see him steering with his feet so that his hands were free for fishing!
This man was our ticket back to shore, so you can imagine our horror when, on surfacing in a 3 metre-plus swell after the planned 40 minutes, we could see neither him nor his boat!
We yelled, we shouted and we waved our delayed SMBs, but to no avail. Had he experienced engine problems, or simply been carried away by his fishing activities and forgotten about us Did he understand that we needed a lift back to the island and that our scuba tanks gave us enough air to explore only a small area
Time went by, and we went on bobbing around the surface, increasingly concerned. The sea was getting rougher and we tried swimming towards the island, but the current was simply taking us out to sea.
We were beginning to panic. Was this the end
Clearly not, as I survived to write this: after 20 minutes at the surface, to our immense relief, we heard the sound of an engine.
Talk about time-travelling - that was the longest 20 minutes of my life. I think I managed to control myself: Where the hell have you been, what were you thinking about
Apparently our captain had expected us to come up close to where he had dropped us in. He obviously hadnt taken the current into account.
As we clambered into the boat, I thanked God and vowed never again to go out with someone incapable of acting as surface cover for divers.
We tried not to let that little adventure spoil our big adventure in Samoa, and as is the way when you survive these things, by the end of the week we were joking about it.
The trade winds continued to blow with unusual strength but we managed to sneak a couple of dives from the Coconuts Resort, where we were staying, and where Pacific Quest has its main dive operation.
We explored a site known as Terraces, where we swam with turtles, which was great considering that the locals still catch and occasionally eat them. Roger told us he had started to pay each time someone brought him a live and healthy turtle, and would then release it back into the sea. Apparently the locals would try to swim after the newly released turtle and catch it a second time to double their money, but once bitten twice shy - the turtles were usually impossible to catch again.
Roger hoped to make the locals understand that the turtles were worth more alive for the tourists to see than dead and in their stomachs. So long as the people can find enough other food, he might win them over yet.
At another site, which Roger called Treasure Island, we saw dolphins and a spotted eagle ray, but my favourite place was one on the north side of the island, Coral Canyons.
Here a massive plateau of table corals shelved away from 10 to 30m, and although we didnt come across the manta and eagle rays we had hoped to see, I was impressed by the immense coral formations, which formed a structure resembling a Roman amphitheatre.
We were told that one of the top sites is the Garden Wall on the north side of the island, which drops away from just 8m to nearly 40m. But time was not on our side and we didnt manage to dive on it. Of course we would have liked to dive more but there were rich compensations exploring what must be among the most beautiful islands in the Pacific.
On Savaii we stood next to spectacular blowholes to watch coconuts being tossed miles into the sky, and trekked up an ancient volcano in the Tafua rainforest reserve to look for rare fruitbats and poisonous plants.
On Upolu we visited fantastic waterfalls and swam in freshwater pools full of shrimp, crawfish and tropical fish, surrounded by lush vegetation and tropical island flowers. We walked along white sandy beaches and visited Vailima, home of Robert Louis Stevenson.
We also climbed to the top of Mt Via, where the great Scottish writer is buried. We had waited till the sun was down but it was a long slog. From the summit, beside Stevensons grave, we enjoyed a spectacular view over Apia and out towards the Tokelau and Kiribati Islands, a few hundred miles away. It was a magical experience.
Wherever we ventured we seemed to be the only tourists, and often the only people, around. Until now the Samoans have always been anxious to protect their culture and traditions from the outside world.
What has forced them to reconsider has been the devastation caused to their all-important food staple, the taro plant, by an African snail species which arrived on a container vessel.
If youre thinking of going, go now. Samoa needs tourists, but with them will come changes.
You wont find any diving closer to the dateline, so if you can find a last-minute flight, why not use the Millennium as an excuse
GETTING THERE: Samoa (until recently Western Samoa) is 1500 miles north-east of New Zealand and 750 miles east of Suva in Fiji. It has two main islands, Savaii and Upolu, and seven smaller ones. There is no direct route to Samoa from the UK, but you can get there using Air New Zealand via Los Angeles and Honolulu. Standard fare is£679 return. The airport is in Upolu, close to the main town Apia, and the dive centres are on Upolu Island.
DIVING : Pacific Quest has expanded since Gavin Andersons visit and now has centres in Apia, close to the famous Aggie Gray Hotel, and at the Coconuts Beach and Sinalei Reef resorts on the south of the island. It runs a twin-hulled 32ft dive boat with twin 55hp engines on the north side of the island and also has boats at the other two resorts. All-day trips are run to the Aleipata pinnacle and the company assures us that it doesnt have to resort to hiring a fishing boat anymore! A 10-dive package costs US $330. Call 00685 20915, e-mail: email@example.com or check the website www.ssamoa.net/pacificquest). There is also a locally run operation without a dive shop called Sqvama Divers (tel/fax: 00685 24 858)
WHEN TO GO: All year round, but diving is best from April to October. The water is usually 28C.
ACCOMMODATION: Coconuts Beach resort provides the chance to stay in a luxury tree-house from US $95 a night. Right on the beach, great atmosphere and good food, but lots of biting bugs! On the north side, the Aggie Gray Hotel in Apia boasts that members of the royal family have stayed here, as well as Marlon Brando and Gary Cooper (so were going back a bit). Rooms are luxurious but again cost from $95 per night. Also in Apia, the Insel Fehmarn is a German-run hotel with self-contained units for $65 per night. Pacific Quest can organise accommodation/dive packages at several hotels and has its own guest house for divers.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Tourism Council of the South Pacific, 0181 392 1838.
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