This Side of the Reef (Part One)

Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, Samoa
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Author’s Note: It was dark and raining as the plane approached the island. Through the gloom I could see some flickering lights of a village clustered along the shoreline, but nothing else. I shuddered with the thrill of excitement and some apprehension as this was my first trip to the South Pacific, and the start of a three-year stint with the National YMCA of Western Samoa.

South Coast Upolu Island, Samoa

The plane landed and we were told to remain in our seats. When they opened the door a flood of hot, damp air enveloped us. A man entered the plane and while walking down the aisle began spraying the cabin with some unknown white chemical. I tried not to breathe as the mysterious cloud of mist floated wetly down onto our heads. I learned later that treating all incoming passengers with insecticide this way was standard practice. Disembarking at last, I walked across the tarmac to the airport terminal and a tiny arrival hall lit by dim, greasy lights. A girl in uniform checked my passport, and I officially entered Pago Pago, American Samoa.


Outside in the darkness, a throng of heavy-set Samoans lounged against a barrier that seemed on the verge of breaking under their weight. While waiting for my connecting flight, I noticed the sharply rugged mountains that towered ominously in the shadows above me – shrouded in ragged clouds and mist. It was a cold, damp place, and I was glad to board the plane for the short flight to Western Samoa, where I was met by one of the YMCA staff.

Fishing along the Apia waterfront (1984)

Two of my four pieces of luggage had been lost somewhere along the way, so we loaded my remaining bags into the minivan, and began the long drive to town – past what seemed like villages and homes, but I could not make out much in the darkness. There were few lights, and I could only imagine what this mysterious island that I had landed on looked like. A light breeze was blowing, the air was soft, moist, and remarkably fresh – and again, I began to shiver with excitement as the whole long-awaited adventure was finally beginning to unfold.

The YMCA National Headquarters was located in the capital and only city of Apia. Compared to the back villages, Apia’s 35,000 people seemed like a bustling metropolis. In fact, it was more like a small town, with slow-motion traffic jams at rush hour, two-story wood frame buildings (tallest was six stories), live music and dancing at night clubs in the evenings, movie theaters, ice cream parlors, fish and chips stands, grocery stores, plus many small shops and a large open-air produce and fish market. A “fast” photo shop developed prints in 24 hours! Several historic downtown churches added to the town’s picturesque waterfront that formerly served as a whaling port for the early colonialists.

Falefa Falls on the main coastal road, Upolu Island

Three days after my arrival in December 1983, the YMCA closed for six weeks for the Christmas and New Year holidays, so I had ample time to begin learning my way around – at first by bicycle, making it up the steep incline to the Mount Vaea trail head for the short but steep climb to the summit where Robert Lewis Stevenson is buried, and for the fine views over Apia town area and out to sea – white crescents of surf breaking on the barrier reefs.

Palolo Deep Marine Reserve on the outskirts of town quickly became my favorite swimming and luncheon spot. A simple wooden platform and open fale perched on a small island made from coral rocks at the edge of a spectacular open deep area in the inner lagoon – it was like swimming in a huge natural aquarium stretching far out to the barrier reef that protected us from the open sea.

It was at Palolo Deep that I learned how to use my rubber thongs not only as protective foot gear for walking on the reef, but with no place to safely leave them while swimming, they made excellent hand paddles – one of the many practical Samoan ‘lifestyle habits’ that I carry with me to this day, especially when swimming in coral seas. It quickly became apparent that anything left unattended on the beach – or anywhere else for that matter – had a reasonable chance of ‘walking away’ by itself.

Cooling off in Piula Springs Pool

Piula Springs was perfect on hot afternoons. The 24-mile round trip along the scenic coast was a stretch by bicycle in the tropical heat, but well worth the effort to soak in the cool spring water flowing from a cave right at the seashore. Diving down into the dark cave, a distant spot of light marks an underwater tunnel leading to another cave further back where you surface in another hidden pool!

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.




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