Published: June 16th 2008June 15th 2008
Schooling Jacks at Blue Corner
An unbelievable dive, Blue Corner is spectacular even after hordes of divers have moved through all day. Resident Grey Reef Sharks and Schooling Jacks congregate above the reef edge in the current, looking for food.
During a conversation with Simon the Frenchman (Ed's flatmate), we talked about where to dive in asia. Simon had been an instructor in the area for several years. Philippines? ok. Thailand? very touristy. I mentioned our plans to fly to Palau
and Simon's response was "don't quit diving after Palau, eh? You'll never think diving is good elsewhere again!!"
With this in mind Lauren and Simon arrived at 1:30am on Saturday morning to a stifling hot airport (at least it didnt smell like vomit as in Manila) and were taken to a transfer hotel where they collapsed. Simon's impression was that Palau was supposed to be a remote archipelago in the middle of the pacific but its proximity to Japan meant plenty of old Japanese import vehicles driven by burly islanders. Just like South Auckland, but sans the glue sniffing. It's easy to tell when you're in Koror (the main/only town) that you're on an island but it was found to be surprisingly modern. The US government subsidises the islands to the tune of $15 million p.a. so perhaps that's the reason why?
Taking the water taxi out of the harbour the next morning, Simon and Lauren
The Eco Explorer
The coolest rustbucket in the world. (It was actually really well maintained inside).
played the guessing game of 'which boat is ours' anchored in the harbour. There were several dive-liveaboard type boats on offer - clean, gleaming white and relatively modern, but they were passed one by one and the water taxi headed towards the fishing vessels...the fish don't care how much we paid to get there, Simon told himself when booking the trip... The Eco Explorer came up ahead, and at first it was mistaken for another of the many fishing boats in the harbour. Clearly built as a Japanese longline factory vessel, this ship had been converted to serve as a dive liveaboard and boasted many of its features from its previous life, as well as what was required to serve as a dive boat. Festooned with the necessary rust, floodlights, radio aerials, radar towers and winches the Eco Explorer wasn't the prettiest, but it was incredibly functional and extremely spacious. At approximately 125' she was big, and Simon's jaw hit the floor when he was told they would have a maximum of 9 guests staying on board over the entire week! Eco Explorer is surveyed for up to 40 divers, so this was going to be a very spacious trip.
Then, Simon and Lauren learned there was a giant Jacuzzi up front, and that all the meals were buffet-style, and there was unlimited fresh (hot) water thanks to reverse-osmosis, and there was a membrane nitrox compressor...the list goes on, but we dont need to tell you that the week was unbelievable not just because of the diving.
The Helmet Wreck:
The first day involved diving the attractions around Koror Harbour. The 'Helmet wreck' is a Japanese cargo ship from the war sunk across the bay from the pier. Visibility was poor but there were some interesting corals on board that only slightly covered the hundreds of live and unexploded depth charges/bombs/ammo on board. Even now, 70 years later, bubbles and brown coloured liquid could be seen slowly seeping up from the holds below the layers of fine silt (Simon resisted the temptation this time Nick). Deeper down towards the bow several large radial aircraft engines could be seen alongside what appeared to be a tractor of some sort. An interesting dive, this was the only wreck seen during the week as much of the WW2 heritage around Palau is beyond the reef edge, so is in hundreds of metres
Stalagtites hanging down into one of the air pockets in Chandalier Caves, slowly creeping towards the water level. Some extended below the surface as well, we had to be careful when ascending :)
This dive has to be one of the most surprising, amazing and otherworldly dives Lauren and Simon have ever done, and it involved no fish life, a maximum depth of 15m and it was inside dirty Koror harbour! motoring past several decrepit and half-sunken fishing boats, they anchored in a shallow muddy bay around from the main harbour pier. The dive guides told them to get in. Seriously?? the bottom here was only a couple of metres down, and the visibility roughly twice that. They jumped in and headed towards the land (??). As they approached the shore a small dark patch became visible in the mud - an opening. Dropping inside the opening became larger and larger and woah! they were transported to a different universe (almost, it felt like it anyway). Chandelier cave was enormous, completely submerged with the exception of four air pockets at atmospheric pressure. The water inside was gin-clear, and it was completely dark. Surfacing inside the first pocket the divers were speechless. This was a cave like no other; limestone formations of stalactites and stalagmites, flowing rivers of rock suspended in animation underwater. Air pocket after air pocket, they
Extremely brightly coloured, the shy Mandarinfish is a task to photograph well and is only seen easily at dusk.
progressed deeper into the cave. Torches became essential and Lauren/Simon were both glad they had such devices that worked at this point. At the deepest point, the dive guides asked that all divers descend to 15m, turn off their torches and swim in the direction of the diffuse glow! Although slightly scary, the swim out was the most amazing 5 minutes in mid-water they'd ever experienced. No ceiling, no floor, a universe of nothing except the dim light at the end of the tunnel, and spectacular, scary, imposing limestone features dimly silhouetted against the exit that slowly passed by as Lauren and Simon calmly made their way back to reality.
We saw mandarinfish
For a moment, Simon entertained the possibility that he would never dive again after Blue Corner so as not to ruin the memories, but the next dive was at Palau's famous 'Blue Holes' so the thought was dismissed quickly. They say the site 'Blue Corner' is the "best dive in the world" according to Scuba Diver Magazine. Simon was cynical. The best sometimes perhaps but not always, right? Consistency should be hard to achieve after hundreds of divers a day,
Sea turtle on the reef
365 days a year. Dozens of sharks, chevron barracuda schools, turtles (that may have been ridden), tuna, wahoo, lionfish, nudibranchs, crinoids, spanish mackerel, GT's, Jack schools, very large Napoleon wrasse (very friendly, obviously fed by divers here) and a dropoff from 20m straight to 2000m later Simon and Lauren were reasonably convinced. Blue Corner - a promontory on the edge of a coral atoll that juts into 'German Channel' and exposes a diver hanging on for dear life at 20m to fierce tidal currents and the associated clouds of feeding fish and their predators, is a place every diver should dive at least once. Once a day if possible.
From the air, Palau's 'Blue Holes' look very out of place. A shallow reef fringes an island. Three dark holes - each about the size of a large car - are visible near the edge of the reef. Their depth cannot be determined by looking down through them; there appears to be no bottom. It's hard to tell if the holes become smaller deeper down or not from the surface, and only when you descend with some trepidation down one of the holes and touch the bottom at
Simon with Shark
White tips like to nap on the sand, so it was easy for Simon to sneak up behind and harass (I mean, pet) it
around 27m do you realise the magnitude of what you've dived into. An enormous cavern unites the three vertical limestone shafts. A multitude of horizontal passages - some leading out to the reef wall and some leading in to darkness and a silty death abound. The Blue Hole reminds Simon of Rikoriko cave at the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand, except this one's completely underwater and the cave system is more complex. Staring out of the main horizontal exit it's easy to become disoriented - the 'real' bottom outside the Blue Hole is hundreds of metres below. Shy groper lie in wait against the ceiling and old, fragile gorgonians festoon the walls. A fire clam (Lima scabra)
inhabits the dark recesses of a cave within the hole.
The Eco Explorer thundered to Peleliu for a day during the week. Peleliu is the southern limit of the barrier reef around Palau, so it's where the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. This means lots of current, and lots of fish. Sharks were in plentiful supply on the wall here, and the use of 'reef hooks' was important again (A useful piece of gear in Palau,
Lunch/nap break at Ulong Island
reef hooks allow you to relax in the roaring current, tethered to a piece of dead coral). Peliliu Island was a Japanese then American base in WWII, and the history is evident on the island. Names like 'Bloody Beach' are a constant reminder of battles fought and lives lost here. A land tour of the island revealed rusty tanks that appeared to have been placed in the tropical jungle for decoration, littered across the ground and near the road. It's a little surreal to remember this, when we spent the rest of the afternoon playing on a rope swing with some filipino kids.
The tide was right and the Cleaning station was free of other dive boats so the signal was given - dive! On the outgoing tide Manta rays sometimes appear at a certain location on the reef known by fish to be the home of cleaner wrasse - brightly coloured fishes that 'clean' other species by picking off parasites and the like. Manta rays collect a lot of unwelcome parasites in their travels so are often seen at such sites. This day was no exception, and two mantas were on the reef, mouths agape, as
We had a close encounter with two small manta rays at a regular cleaning station, the swim-bys were spectacular
small fish darted in and out of their enormous gill rakers. Once the divers were in, the Mantas slowly swam away, gliding in and out of a fishy bait ball, but not before a close encounter between Lauren and one of the giant rays as it swam past only centimetres away! A perfect day included a leopard shark siting, and spinner dolphins on the bow as we rode home through a beautiful sunset.
Silas Corner/Ulong Island:
The last day of diving saw Simon and Lauren in Northern Palau. The boat ride out was extraordinary, with water flat as glass and sunny skies showing the true glory of Palau. Islands formed completely of limestone weather into dramatic karst formations, leaving undercut bits of land coated in jungle that look like they belong in another world. The viz was amazing, and coral heads, sharks, and turtles were visible from the surface as we sped by. After a dive on the reef edge, where Lauren spied some of the most beautiful coral in Palau, was over and all the divers had just climbed into the chaseboat something - initially picked as a very large shark - was seen on the surface nearby.
Grey Reef Sharks patrol the reef edge
These guys came close...very exciting.
Driving towards the commotion it became clear that multiple animals were involved and as soon as the boat stopped the divers were in. Like fast fighter jets, the Devil rays shot past in close formation. Open water, no bottom and half a dozen inquisitive (they're usually very shy, apparently) devil rays meant one of the most memorable snorkel/dives of Simon and Lauren's lives.
Lunch was cooked by the ship's chefs on Ulong island - of "Survivor Palau" fame. An amazing place, but they call the rats "coconut squirrels" so as to not frighten the tourists. There were many squirrels. Ulong is typical of tropical island paradise, with white sand beaches, palms, coconuts, large tropical flowers, and shallow turquise waters. Simon and Lauren enjoyed a nap on the beach before another dive.
Silas Corner was similar to Blue Corner except the current was even stronger and a very strong and potentially deadly downcurrent at the edge of the reef wall saw Simon clinging to the Coral for 15 mins or so hoping Lauren hadn't been swept over the edge to oblivion (she was safe, but concerned for Simon's whereabouts). The divers had never been in such strong current before,
Simon and Sea Turtle
Note the respectful non-riding of the turtle
and even the reef hooks were straightened out by the force of the current on the divers.
A feature unique to Palau, a saltwater lake was preserved inside one of the limestone islands from when sea level was higher. Because of the limited environment, the jellyfish population has taken over and exploded. The open water is filled with Mastigias jellies, pulsating towards the sun so that their symbiotic algae can photosynthesize. The lake also contains moon jellies, which are nocturnal, and two species of anemone. One of the anemones eats the much larger Mastigias. Swimming through thousands of jellyfish in blue water was another experience that could not be harnessed or matched elsewhere, and Simon and Lauren relished in the alien lake for about an hour before returning to sunny tropical Palau. On the ride back to the Eco (which had steamed home to Koror Harbor in the meantime), the chaseboat stopped off at Milky Way. This semi-enclosed bay has fine, clay sediments rich in minerals and particles suspended in the water give it an intense milky green color. Simon and Lauren took advantage of the natural beautification and exfoliating properties of the clay mud before heading
Devil rays swimming in close formation rocket directly beneath Lauren, who had fortitously kept her scuba gear on when thrashing cartilagenous fish were spotted near the dive site.
home, they are sure it was many times better than any western spa. From here it was time to pack up, exchange contacts with new friends, and move off the Eco and onwards on their journey.
There are more photos below