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Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | "Skin diving" in the Pacific

From mid-1954 to late 1958 I was stationed at Barber’s Point Naval Air Station on the southwestern tip of Oahu, in what was then the Territory of Hawaii.

I was assigned to Air Transport Squadron VR-21 as an Avionics Technician and Flight Radio Operator. Missions covered mostly the Pacific, with regular flights to and from Japan, Korea, The Philippines, Alaska and occasional trips to Hong Kong, Saigon, Australia and New Zealand. We made regular stopovers at Johnston Island, Kwajalein, Guam and Midway.

I took up "skin" diving very soon after I got to Hawaii and spent many hours exploring reefs around Oahu.

One favorite spot was Makaha beach. My friend Dick Scheid and I would get a couple of our favorite ladies, a large galvanized tub and a cooler full of beverages (we were under age for beer) and go to Makaha early in the afternoon. Dick and I would swim out to the reefs and dive for spiny lobster, which we would catch by hand and keep in a sack. In those days it was a snap to fill a sack in a couple hours.

Around sundown, which is almost a religious experience on the west coast of Oahu, we would come in and build a fire on the beach, fill our tub with sea water and put it on the fire to boil. When it was rolling we tossed the lobsters in for just a few minutes. We spent the rest of the evening (sometimes all night) toasting lobster tails over the glowing embers and scarfing them down with butter and lime juice, enjoying ice cold beverages and basking in the magic that happens on a clear night on a Hawaiian beach. In October of 2007 my “favorite lady” of those days and I returned to Hawaii to remember our courtship and marriage there some 52 years earlier.

Another favorite was the Molokai Channel off of Hanauma Bay. This was strictly a SCUBA location. We would park on a hill just east of the entry to Hanauma Bay and climb down the cliffs to a spot near the mouth of the bay where we could enter the water from the rocks with minimum risk. We would then swim with snorkels about 1/4 mile east to where the depth dropped sharply from about 50' to several hundred feet. These were mostly sight-seeing trips but we did collect occasional shells and lobster down to about 100' along the wall of the channel.

It was here that we had one of my most memorable underwater adventures. Dick and I and one of our buddies were exploring caves on the wall for lobsters when there was a darkening . . . not really a shadow, just a drop in the light level. I turned to the opening and saw a great expanse of grey sliding silently by. We all rushed (well, as close as one can get to rushing when under about 75' of water) to the opening and beheld a grey whale about 50' long and her calf, about 20' slowly cruising to the surface to breathe. We had seen them surface once in a while from the hill but never before when in the water.

No words or photographs can adequately portray the experience of floating, weightless, over a healthy coral reef, with 100' of visibility and a thousand species of brilliantly colored aquatic life. I have stood at the windows of many aquaria and tried to recapture it. It is just not the same. It is my understanding that the past 55 years have not been kind to Oahu’s reefs and that saddens me.

I do hope the same has not happened at Kwajalein. "Kwaj" is the world's largest coral atoll. It is located in the Northwestern Marshall Islands in the Southwest Pacific. Kwajalein Island is at the southern tip of the atoll, which is about 75 miles by 20 miles. In the ‘50s Kwajalein Island was a U.S. Navy Air Station, and our fuel stop between Hawaii and points west (WestPac), usually Guam. Every now and then we would be grounded on Kwaj for a day or so waiting some needed part for our airplane. Those times were welcomed by those of us who loved to snorkel about. . . like taking a long stroll through an enchanted forest. There were times that I wished for my SCUBA gear, but aircrew did have limits on what personal gear we carried on these flights. I usually had a mask, snorkel and fins stashed in my luggage.

Another stopover was Guam, southernmost of the Marianas Islands. That is where we collected seashells. Guam is not part of an atoll and has only local reefs. We snorkeled large flats looking for “spider” and “scorpion” shells. These we would wrap securely in plastic and take home before purging the animal out.

I sometimes wonder if we appreciate the great adventures of our youth, when young - nearly as much as we appreciate the wonderful memories, when old.

(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the Boating Forums)

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