Taking the Plunge in Palau
Text and photos Jillian Thomas
At first there was nothing, just a calm cobalt expanse stretching into the deep blue beyond. Then, as though on cue, a lone turtle glided into view and the show began. As we watched from our vantage point — hooked into a reef 20 meters underwater — silvery clouds of fusiliers, teeming columns of big-eyed jacks, and clusters of barracuda swept past.
Barely a moment later, the sharks arrived. Some were in schools of half a dozen or more, others lone swimmers flanked by smaller pilot fish. It’s hard to judge sizes and distances when you’re diving: They say that everything is 25 percent smaller and further than you think. Still, we were close enough to these beady-eyed predators that although silvertips usually measure only 3 or 4 meters and don’t eat humans, I wondered if I should hold my breath to stop the tell-tale trail of bubbles coming from my mouth.
We could have stayed here all morning watching the marine life. It was the third day of our week-long diving holiday in Palau, a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean renowned for being one of the top — if not the top — diving destinations in the world. With its deep vertical drop-offs, stunningly clear water, and wild currents, huge schools of fish and giant clams are common, and sharks are everywhere. There is also an abundance of hard and soft coral, from giant crimson sea fans swaying in the deep to violet expanses of table coral. One particular site, the Blue Corner, was certainly second to none.
We reluctantly tore ourselves away from the carnival of creatures in front of us — and realized that the plateau behind was just as magnificent. Covered with coral and fluffy anemones in every imaginable color, the reef played host to circling white tip reef sharks, turtles, rays, and a particularly sociable Napoleon wrasse. “He’s more like a dog,” my diving buddy said aft erwards. The giant fish had nudged us as if wanting to play, its pouty lips almost curving upward in a smile when it was petted.
Absolutely ravenous, we eventually headed back to the dive yacht. One of the puzzling things about diving is that although you don’t think you’re expending much energy — dives are usually planned such that the current does most of the work for you — it gives you a monster of an appetite. So it was fortunate that Captain Mike, an affable guy with just a hint of steeliness in his merry blue eyes, and his crew kept us stuffed to the, well, gills. Each day began with a hearty breakfast after the fi rst morning dive, then a cooked lunch and fresh salad, cookies and pastries mid-afternoon, and a dinner buffet, all of it wonderfully delicious. Over the course of the week, we would return from dives to be greeted by the waft ing scent of sizzling hamburgers, steaks on the barbeque, and all sorts of other cooking aromas, from Tex-Mex to Thai.
Due to a sudden storm that had blown in, making visibility poor, we had spent the previous day exploring several Japanese wrecks from World War II. The Pacific Ocean saw many naval battles during the war, with Palau an important harbor for the Imperial Japanese Fleet. In March 1944, the United States launched a massive air strike against the Japanese, sinking cargo vessels, naval ships, and some aircraft carriers off Palau. Although many of the wrecks were salvaged and transported back to Japan after the war, an estimated 60 still remain in the area, ghostly reminders of battles past.
Of the four that we dived that day, the Helmet Wreck, although not the biggest, was the most poignant. Amid the Gothic tangles of coral, rusting metal, and rotting wood, open boxes of depth charges and scattered gas masks lay caked in mud, with only the occasional butterfly fish or lion fish darting past. In the dim, murky brownness of the bow area, we also made out the silhouette of a pair of rifles, a cooking pot, and some sake bottles. It was a powerful reminder that Father Time and Mother Nature go about their business no matter what, indifferent to man’s shenanigans and sufferings.
Indeed, the days passed far too quickly. Although there was still plenty we hadn’t seen, we decided to spend an aft ernoon free of our wetsuits kayaking around the islands. As we sizzled under the scorching sun, paddling past the mushrooms of upraised coral tufted in green, our guide, a tanned, betelnut-munching chap, told us the legend of Palau.
There was once a particularly greedy child called Uab, who lived on Ngeaur Island. He ate so much that he grew too large for his own home. His neighbors, fearful of him, tied him up, but he railed against his bonds with such force that he finally shattered into pieces, forming Palau’s many islands. His torso became Babelthuap, Palau’s largest island, with Ngiwal, an area in the northwest, his stomach. “And that is why in Ngiwal they eat seven times a day,” the guide said.
If Ngiwal is the stomach, we headed on our last day to what could only be Uab’s butt on the southeast of the island in search of Jellyfi sh Lake. The landlocked saltwater lake was once connected to the ocean, but after it was naturally closed off, the jellyfish, free of predators, all but lost their ability to sting. At the end of a 20- minute hike through lush tropical forest, we reached a picturesque clearing, the lake perfectly still in the lazy afternoon heat.
With masks and snorkels on, we swam toward the middle of the lake, seeing nothing at first except for the sandy floor. Then a few jellyfi sh came into view. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by hordes of jellyfish, some bigger than a hand, others tinier than a fingernail. With their bulbous heads and crinkly tentacles, they looked like parachutes in reverse motion, moving up toward the surface then bouncing gently off again in another direction. It is said that they’ve been this way for million of years now, so perhaps there is one place on Earth where time does, after all, stand still.
WHEN TO GO:
Winter is recommended as the best time to dive Palau, with December through April offering superb diving conditions. The summer months of July through September are also excellent, although it tends to rain for a little while every day. As a result, the water can be slightly rougher in the summer and visibility can suffer.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Make your way to the U.S. territory of Guam, and take one of Continental Micronesia’s daily flights to Palau. Alternatively, Continental Airlines also flies to Palau twice a week via Manila, Philippines.
Pre-arranged visas are not required for nationals of most European countries, including Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In most cases, a 30-day visa will be issued on arrival if you have a return ticket and proof of sufficient monetary means. However, it’s best to check with the Palau Embassy (www.palauembassy.com) when you’re planning your trip for any updates.
There are three companies offering diving live-aboards in Palau: Palau Aggressor (www.aggressor.com), Ocean Hunter (www.oceanhunter.com), and The Big Blue Explorer (www. palauscuba.com). All three adhere to the highest codes of safety and service, are competitively priced, and put you on the same dive sites at optimum times, so your choice is really about which one you like the look of best. We went with the Aggressor and would defi nitely recommend it.
If your sea legs aren’t up to it, you can, of course, do day trips to the dive sites from shore. Fish n Fins (www.fishnfins.com) and Sam’s Tours (www.samstours.com) are among the most popular of the many dive operators.