National Geographic : 2000 Jul
Nappingafter church, these teenagers have grown up in what to outsidersseems like paradise,butAmeri can Samoa is not the Eden offree love it was once believed to be. Nineteenth century missionaries found thatlocal mores meshed with their own, and Chris tian churches like Sa'ilele's Congrega tionalparish(above) have multiplied. THE SAMOAN WAY "slippery." On the positive side, Paka o Amerika Samoa expands the concept of parklands-and the possibilities for making more of them. It could prove to be a model for conserving nature hand in hand with a thriving culture. 'Alava, the heavens pour rain thick as drapery. The steep, machete-cut path down Levaga Ridge turns to goo. Never have I sunk so far in status so fast, from feasted dignitary to bedraggled butt slider with one hand clawing mud and the other flailing for branches to grab. Yet the air is warm as ever, and I take comfort knowing that this kind of wet built the surrounding forest of trees heavyset with orchids and twisting lianas. Wild ginger blossoms burn orange in the understory. Samoans use gel-like sap from the buds as shampoo. Since I'm already showering, I go ahead and soap my head. Siaifoi Fa'aumu of the territory's Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources points out a bird's nest fern, one of 230 species of ferns and their close relatives found on the Samoan islands. In the center of its broad leaves is a young brown booby, looking as if it had sprouted right there. A step beyond, the ridge falls away at a sheer cliff. I can see boo bies, frigatebirds, and fairy terns riding the sea winds back from fishing sites while waves break a hundred feet straight down past my feet. Here on the island's steep slopes the rain forest structure has remained largely intact-spared the logging and intensive agriculture that, in Samoa and other South Pacific islands with more accessible terrain, have shed silt and agrochemicals onto coral reefs offshore. The reef in the park along Ofu is a filigreed labyrinth of at least 64 different varieties of corals, from azure-tinged mushrooms to char treuse vases. Boulder corals hundreds of years old bulge big as whales. I free-dive the underwater channels between them, gawking at unicorn fish, a banded snake eel, green sea turtles. Gradually the reef reveals itself to be a collection of highly organized neighborhoods. One type of staghorn coral resembles stalagmites rising from a table top. Minnow-size damselfish school around the coral structure like haze. When alarmed, they withdraw in a flash to crowd among the stalagmites, turning them a quivering black and blue.