In Palau every dive was my favourite dive. And of these favourite dives, every single one was exceptional. The question is not, why would you go to Palau, but why would you not go to Palau?
Last year, sat on a dive boat in Hong Kong I was told ‘If you love sharks you need to go to Palau.’ I jotted it down in my logbook, but didn’t give it much thought, it sounded very far away and expensive; I wasn’t entirely sure where it even was, but probably not possible to visit anytime soon. But when the Insider Divers newsletter landed in my inbox, trip info complete with pictures of sharks, WW2 wrecks & a snapper spawning I thought I might as well enquire; it looked pretty inviting. After a few emails with Simon, coupled with reviews from people who had been (some with Insider Divers), I had no doubt; I had to make this happen!
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I usually travel solo, and loved the ease of which this trip came together. Simon & Pauline made everything exceptionally stress-free, and I was also looking forward to having some ready-made dive and post-dive buddies! We were a group of 14, Expats from Hong Kong and Singapore and a few from the US. By the time we landed in Palau, I was laughing with everyone; happy to be spending the next week with them all, chilled but cheeky, as divers tend to be!
Thanks to Simon's briefing talk we learned that the President is taking marine conservation and wildlife protection very seriously.
Palau, made up of 340 islands (of which 70 are in a fully protected marine reserve), is located in Micronesia, a 3.5 hour flight from Taiwan or Philippines. And with an average sea temp of 28°C and air temp of 27°C, it really is a tropical paradise. Palau’s underwater world is bustling with critters large and small, and no doubt due to its ‘Shark Sanctuary’, a 600,000 sq km area (the size of France) in which any shark fishing is illegal. I saw sharks on 16 of my 18 dives.
Batfish, Boxfish, Butterflyfish and Barracudas. Turtles, Triggers, Puffers and Jacks. Nudibrancs, Shrimps, Octopuses and Mandarin Fish. Lionfish, Stonefish and Scorpionfish. I could go on; Palau seemed like the Noah’s Arc of the underwater world; everyone was there.
But it’s not only the creatures that are plentiful and diverse, but also the types of diving you can do. There aren’t many places in the world where you start the day in blissful tranquility, slowly making your way through a bright blue sunlit cavern, then hook in on a reef corner before lunch - watching shark after shark swim past, whilst having your space invaded by the local Napolean Fish, Sausage! And then, finish the dive day exploring a Japanese WW2 shipwreck.
With three dives a day we were up early, and the first dive sites were approximately a 30-60 minute speedboat ride away. The scenery was spectacular; the water, sky & land a dazzling variety of bright blues & greens. Numerous birds flew overhead, and occasionally we would spot a turtle, and even saw a couple of dolphins, but rubbish was never in sight. I hugely enjoyed the boat trips themselves, either nattering away with pre/post-dive excitement or just staring out into the landscape meditatively, in awe of the raw Jurassic Park-esque islands and their incredible rock formations. A tasty packed lunch was usually eaten either out in the ocean on the boats, or tucked away in a turquoise cove, with the opportunity for snorkelling, and one day we ate on land in a beautiful beach setting. Picture a beachy paradise island; that is where we ate.
We dived with Sam’s Tours, taking two boats, with a dive guide on each. These guides were exceptional; their knowledge of the marine life, currents, and general environment matched by their passion and friendliness. My guide Matt confessed to be ‘obsessed with the Ocean,’ which I still think may be downplaying his thirst for knowledge and quest for discovering new sites and species! Sam’s Tours also houses the customized tours provided by Unique Dive Expeditions (UDE) and it was them who took us out for the Snapper Spawning.
This happens every month for four days around the full moon. I honestly had no idea what to expect, but what ensued was more magical and exciting than I could have imagined. After a briefing on the different stages of the spawning, we copied our guides by dipping our heads in the water looking out for the schools emerging from the deep and for the colour changing signs that it was about to happen! We jumped in when told and then spent the next 40 minutes finning to follow shoals of snappers, watching a flurry of fish, twisting and spiralling up in an underwater firework display, explosions resulting in the next generation of snappers… and less visibility! As if this wasn’t enough, I saw my first Bull Sharks, and my first Oceanic White Tip! Getting back on the boat, my elation had me smiling non-stop, reference made to my ‘banana smile’ for the rest of the trip by one of my fellow divers.
There are tons of sharks in Palau. They are literally everywhere.
To add slightly to my shark count, and my most incredible life moments, whilst drift diving the Ulong Channel we swam alongside schools of baby grey reef sharks. At one point we were looking at between 50 – 70 of these cuties, with a couple of pregnant females following them too. Of course this was not all the channel had to offer, aside from a huge cabbage coral home to a variety of fish it seemed to be the underwater equivalent of a 8-lane high way during rush hour; complete with the obstacle of nesting Titan Trigger Fish!
Blue Corner, one of Palau’s most famous dives gave us another spectacular shark show. We dived here three times, but each experience was so different; hooking in on incoming & outgoing tides, as well as admiring the diverse marine life on the plateau behind you.
Located closer to the dive shops (5-10minutes boat ride away) there are ten WW2 wrecks, and two sea planes, laying at depths between 20-40m. Personally I love diving wrecks; as soon as the torch is on I feel like a Nat Geo explorer inside a living memorial. We dived the Iro Maru and Chuyo Maru, both well intact and very easy to navigate with the option to penetrate the wreck going through the engine rooms. The huge upstanding masts, now teeming with sealife were quite something to be seen.
During our initial briefing from Simon there was one specific dive that made me a little nervous; Siaes Tunnel. But it sounded too amazing to miss, and as soon as I dropped in the water all nerves dissipated; it was spectacular, and the only issue was ensuring I kept an eye on my no-deco time - as promised, I would want to spend as much time in the tunnel as possible! A cavern opening at 30m, then dropping down a little further, time was spent slowing finning through, looking for creatures in the walls and admiring the magnificent sea fans, silhouetted by the spectacular rays of light shining through the three cavern openings, until ascending to a wall, abundant in marine life of course, with a couple of turtles too…
One afternoon we visited the recently re-opened Jellyfish Lake. I knew it would be interesting, but I was overwhelmed with how cool the jellyfish and their home actually was! On arrival after a short walk up to the 12,000 year old lake, (the basin filled when the sea level was higher), I was surprised at its large size. The surroundings were so tranquil, and the thousands of Golden jellyfish put me in some of meditative state; swimming over them, under them, through them, and into them; in certain parts of the lake there was no other option!
We stayed at The Cove Resort, a five minute walk from the Dive Centre. The rooms were spacious, the breakfast buffet large, and a great swimming pool and chilled bar area was especially welcoming at the end of the day. On most mornings we were even picked up by our boats from the hotel pier, very luxurious!
Though you can do your Open Water in Palau, I’d personally wait until you are a fairly comfortable diver with an advanced qualification (many dives are 20-35m) and some experience behind you. The currents are often strong, with conditions changing, but this is of course what makes much of the diving so wonderful, and each dive unique. One thing that never really changed on the marine life dives was the great visibility, 25+ meters at all times sometimes even more.
I said to myself this was a once in a lifetime trip, an unintentional lie. I will be back, for sure… hopefully during Manta Season February 2021 - just trying to persuade Simon & Insider Divers to run a trip, as there is no one else I’d rather go with!
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Weeze Christina Coulcher is a blogger and shark activist based out of Hong Kong. Follow her exciting blogs here