Palau – Diving in Rainbow’s End

In 1995, I went to the OmniMax theatre in Vancouver to watch a film titled “The Living Sea”. Overwhelmed by Sting’s beautiful soundtrack and the sheer richness in marine life that was portrayed, I couldn’t possibly imagine that my travels would one day take me to some of the remote places that were shown in the film. Palau especially seemed out of this world for me. My perception changed, however, when my friend Anke enthusiastically wrote about the great reefs and islands in Palau and when my Soneva Fushi guests Jaqueline and Robert highlighted the wonderful diving there as well. As I was planning my summer holidays in eastern Asia (and found I had sufficient money to make the trip), I determined to make Palau my first two-week stop.

On June 14 in the middle of the night, I arrived in Palau’s capital Koror and was taken to my hotel, which was the least expensive and therefore basic. The Tree-D Hotel’s manager Emma was an amiable Filipino and made me feel welcome and comfortable at once. And so did the staff of the dive centre I chose to dive with in the following 10 days, Neco Marine. I had pre-booked 10 days of diving with them and was looking forward to spending most of my Palauan time in the water. But I was also excited to explore some of the numerous rocky islands with their eroded bases that seem so typical for Palau and that are inhabited by endemic birds, coconut crabs and a lot of jungle. Wonderful times were lying ahead!

Let’s start with the scuba-diving. On the day after my arrival, I was the only guest at Neco Marine and therefore had Bert, my dive guide, all to myself, which was great for the orientation in new waters and getting to know each other. Along came Mandy, who has lived in Palau for more than 20 years, has worked as a dive instructor, photographer, artist and naturalist and has published a number of books about the nature and culture of the country. I was especially honoured to be diving with her, as I had read a little bit about her beforehand and admired her great photography. A very inspiring lady! We dived some of the best sites on the first day (Shark City, Siaes Corner, Ulong Channel) and were treated with great visibility and little current, diverse coral and fish life and, most notably, a huge spawning aggregation of Red Snappers! Everyone got really excited about the latter, as these aggregations are little studied and don’t happen too often. Upon our return, we consulted the staff of the Coral Reef Research Lab and were treated with a lecture by a visiting scientist from Hong Kong about spawning aggregations a few days later! The exchange of biological ideas with the Palauan scientists meant a lot to me, as I don’t have the chance to do so much at my resort in the Maldives. The following dive days were full of sights of marine life, from Grey Reef Sharks, Bumphead Parrotfishes, enormous Giant Clams and delicate soft corals to World War II wrecks, blue holes, steep drop-offs and deep tunnels. Even though I had already seen many of the animals in Maldivian reefs, here they just appeared bigger, more diverse and more numerous. Altogether, I enjoyed the diving immensely… even though I can’t remember ever being completely warm during the day! We usually had three one-hour dives a day in water that was 27-28 degrees Celsius. Surely these temperatures sound very tropical; however, they do make you lose a lot of calories, especially when you don’t wear a wetsuit, which my (otherwise) very kind and fun dive guide Bert had convinced me to do (“It’s all a matter of the mind, Anke.”). I did feel much less restricted in the water and tried to forget the cold but as soon as we got back up on the boat, the almost constant rain and wind really kept me freezing near the equator!

One of the highlights for a biologist in Palau is to visit its marine lakes. Of these, Jellyfish Lake (as the name implies) is full of little-stinging, symbiotic Mastigias jellies and has evolved its own unique fauna of anemones, cardinalfishes and other organisms. While it is not allowed to scuba-dive in the lake, hundreds of snorkellers daily are permitted to swim amongst the jellies (and possibly introduce new species into the lake). It was quite a big surprise for me to see so many tourists in the water, and I immediately discarded my romantic thoughts about this special lake, which I had kept from “The Living Sea”. Our time in the lake was limited but I managed to take some nice photos of the animals. Please have a look at the slide show!

When the rain had finally stopped and I had grown some webs between my fingers from the 25 dives, I started to discover the Palauan islands. Even though I didn’t get a chance to tick off some of my points on my wish list – like a big coconut crab, a dugong close to shore or a traditional Palauan ceremony –, I was glad that I could see some of the major islands. I once went to Babeldaob with its pretty waterfalls, lakes and road-side plants and was impressed by the perfect highway from south to north. It turns out to be a major concern to environmentalists, though, as it fragments this big island and could cause a loss of its biodiversity. Another weird sight was the beautiful, yet (not only in my humble opinion) inappropriately big government building, which apparently boasts a huge energy bill. Further south, on Peleliu, I took part in a tour around former World War II battle sites, where tanks, cannons and air strips can still be seen. Yes, it was impressive to a certain extent, but American tourists seem to get more out of this experience. I was more intrigued by the tour guide, an americophil, very “sweet” Palauan, whose eyes welled whenever he talked about the American soldiers who lost their lives on Bloody Nose Ridge. He didn’t seem too concerned about all the Japanese souls… During one rainy afternoon, I also went to the Etpison Museum, which was established by Mandy and her husband Shallum. Both have always had a keen interest in the history, culture and nature of Palau and had recently donated many items from their private collection to this museum. If you are ever in the vicinity, I recommend you go and see the great selection of historic photos, articles, handicrafts and shells – and say hello to the cockatoo at the entrance!

All in all, as you could read, Palau is a great travel destination. The islands and reefs are amazing, the islanders are friendly and helpful (but quite Americanised), and Neco Marine was a perfect dive base. Yes, it is quite an expensive place to get to, to stay and to dive, but for me it was all worth it. Anytime again!

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