We all have our favourite places to dive, and were always looking for places to surpass them. Would Palau live up to everything Marie Davies had heard about it?
THERE ARE FEW GUARANTEES in life (death, taxes, youve heard it before) but one thing I will dare to guarantee is that every diver will be asked the following question at least once in his or her lifetime: So, wheres your favourite place to dive
The ultimate search for the best dive spot ever is mulled over daily around the world. It keeps dive operators, clubs, magazine editors and writers in jobs.
I have been a diver for almost 15 years, with more than 1000 hours under water, and answering this question just gets harder. But if forced into making a choice, I would probably have to name Papua New Guinea.
Until I travelled to Palau, that is.
This group of almost 300 small islands in Micronesia is now a contender for first place in my affections.
Most divers have heard of Palau, which is not too far from the famous wreck sites of Truk Lagoon, or the reefs of Yap.
Palau has won countless Worlds Best Place to Dive magazine accolades, and it has long been on my list of places to explore. I cant remember when I first heard of it, but it seems to have been in my consciousness ever since I took my first dip in the icy waters of Stoney Cove.
So when a friend started telling me she was organising a dive trip to Palau, I had already greased my O-rings and packed my dive gear before she had finished the sentence. Chuck in the expert guidance of Sams Tours, one of Palaus longest-running dive centres, and I knew this could be a trip of a lifetime. Worth the expense I would find out.
Palau is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. No, really. White sandy beaches, clear azure waters that hover around the 30° mark, tasty cuisine and laid-back, super-hospitable locals. Its still under the radar as a holiday destination, too, so theres just enough unspoilt culture mixed with tourist luxury to satisfy the well-travelled diver.
Its great for non-divers too, 40m-plus visibility ensuring that snorkelling is relaxed and varied and other activities including kayaking, helicopter rides, exploring the Rock Islands by boat and historical bush walks.
And, if that all seems like too much hard work, you can always relax by the pool, picnic on a deserted beach or get pampered at the PPR (Palau Pacific Resort), arguably one of the most luxurious resorts on the main island of Koror. Its the perfect location for honeymooners with a passion for diving.
THE ONLY ROMANCE I was looking for would involve snuggling up with the local marine life. Sams Tours offers a package including 10 dives, a trip to Jellyfish Lake and a bonus Chandelier Cave dive. On day one, however, the group realised that this was too unambitious, so we extended our two boat-dives a day to three, and added an extra couple of days just to be sure.
It seemed rude not to.
After a cruisey check-out dive at Ngerchong Channel in which we were treated to a friendly cuttlefish, a not-so-camouflaged leafy scorpionfish and a plateau of pristine corals, it was time to experience what made Palau famous - its wall-diving.
Turtle Cove, Sias Wall, Sias Tunnel and Pelilieu Wall were just some of the wonderful sites on offer, but the main ones deserve a little more attention.
BLUE HOLES & BLUE CORNER
When it comes to shark action, we loved Blue Holes and Blue Corner so much that we asked to do them several times. Drifting down into the 40m cavern that is Blue Holes is exciting, especially with the sun-rays filtering through the many holes in the reef. Its like a scene from Merlin, or an Indiana Jones movie.
Dont expect too much marine life in the cave, except for a couple of flame file shells hidden in crannies, or a lone humphead parrotfish. This dive is more about appreciating the scenescape.
On a good-vis day, Blue Holes blows you away with its vastness. Swimming out through the main arch into the blue, the second part of the dive begins, and its impressive, especially when the grey reef sharks coast in to check you out.
The wall drops more than 1000m, so keeping an eye on depth is a must. The water clarity can be deceptive, though its all the better for seeing the vibrant soft corals and gorgonians that saturate the wall, as well as a few ball anemones and an unusual number of sweetlips.
Looking up we occasionally saw turtles swimming around the top of the wall, which lies at 15m, but the deep blue was too alluring for us to be in any hurry to join them.
Especially when a large school of barracuda wafted by, followed by an even bigger school of trevally.
The walls are best dived when there is a bit of a current, because this brings in the big stuff.
If you swim far enough from Blue Holes, you reach Blue Corner. The highlight of this dive involves hooking onto the top of the reef and hovering in the current, hands free to take as many photographs as you can fit on a 4-gig card.
Youre now officially an ocean pilot, flying in the current. Here you encounter the most sharks, unperturbed by the 10 or so strange spectators. At one point I counted more than 20 sharks, and the longer we hung there, the more curious they became.
Finally, one big reefy came in so close that I thought it was going to take a bite out of my camera. At the last minute a quick swish of its tail changed its course. That got my heart racing.
On the second dive here, I was literally enveloped by a big school of trevally that really didnt seem at all phased by bubble-blowers.
When it was time to unhook, we floated with the current across the reeftop, often greeted by a resident school of humphead parrotfish feasting noisily on coral, plus more sweetlips,
an octopus and a moray eel, popping its head out to see what the commotion was about.
You could hardly ask for a better day in the ocean.
Another of Palaus famous sites, Ulong Channel starts out as a wall dive. You can amble along encountering sharks and dog-tooth tuna - Im not sure what the latter feed on in Palau, but these guys are massive! At one point I almost mistook one for a shark.
Towards the end of the dive, you ascend to about 15m and hook in for another viewing session as the ocean inhabitants go about their merry business - thats shark, mackerel, tuna, trevally, eagle rays and the odd turtle.
But the highlight of this dive is the gentle drift through the channel at the end, with its spectacular coral gardens that grow in huge mounds either side of shallow sand gullies. We spotted what is possibly the largest clam in the world, and a pristine patch of cabbage coral.
A few turtles hurried by on some mission, and there were moorish idols and more sweetlips. The feeling of flying through the channel is exhilarating.
Technically not a dive site, snorkelling the lake on the island of Eil Malk is still as beautiful as any of the underwater delights found at depth. There are about 70 marine lakes in the Rock Islands, but this world-famous one is open to tourists. In Palauan it is called Ongeiml Tketau, or Fifth Lake.
Diving is not permitted because of the fragility of the non-stinging and non-venomous golden jellyfish (Mastigias cf. Papua etpisoni) that inhabit the lake.
Finning out to the centre, I wasnt quite expecting the huge numbers that engulfed me. Im talking thousands, if not millions, pulsating like translucent light-bulbs, some as small as your fingernail, others as large as a football.
To swim with these mesmerising creatures is one of lifes privileges.
With the sun sparkling at the surface and throwing beams of light into the murky depths, this snorkel has
a massive wow-factor.
Thousands of years ago the jellyfish were trapped in this lake after a submerged reef rose from the sea to create a self-contained area banished from the ocean.
They evolved, lost their sting and survived by living off internal algae.
Every morning they migrate horizontally across the lake in pursuit of the sun, and swim back in the afternoon. The suns rays help the jellyfish to absorb their photosynthetic leftovers.
The walk to the lake is quite adventurous. A rope has been set up to help, but I opted to leave behind my 25kg underwater video housing set-up, and take my slightly less heavy stills rig.
Chandelier Cave may have been thrown in as a freebie, but it was a perfect third dive of the day - shallow, easy and intriguing. The opening to the cave can be found in just 5m.
There are four limestone caves, and you can ascend to the surface in all of them. It was the first time I had dived a cave where I could pop up and take my mask off and regulator out safely - a pleasant novelty.
We were warned to hold our arms into the air when ascending, because of the lethal-looking stalactites. It did get a little crowded with a group of 10, but the knocking into each other was taken in good humour. This dive was the cherry on the cream cake.
You dont have to go out on a boat or dive the deep blue to be amazed in Palau. Right on the doorstep of Sams Tours dive centre is a little treasure trove of life.
At night, heaps of mandarinfish can be found frolicking around the rocky wharf. We joked that someone in the restaurant must be throwing leftovers off the side, but shallow muck-diving areas around busy harbours always offer up a great variety of critters.
After a full day of diving, our guides were more than happy to give us another tank of air to night-dive off the wharf. Having spent hours waiting to get footage of shy mandarinfish doing the mating dance in PNG, you can imagine my delight that their Palauan brothers and sisters were way more extrovert.
Scorpionfish, frogfish, sea snakes, octopuses, flying gurnards and even flamboyant cuttlefish are also regularly spotted. This little muck dive makes it well worth postponing those after-diving beers.
I have left the best until last. A second dive at this site has entered my top three best dives ever (the others being Observation Point in Milne Bay, PNG and the Yongala wreck off Townsville, Australia).
German Channel is where you go for manta-ray action. When you first jump into the murky water, you wonder if youve been transported to another country. This isnt the 30°-plus temperature and 40m vis youve become used to. But mantas are shy creatures, and youre more likely to see them if the vis is slightly poor.
We sat on the sand, a few metres from a coral bommie, with high hopes that this cleaning station would provide us with a manta experience.
I have spent many hours in front of similar bommies in PNG, so after about 20 minutes I was not only shivering with cold, but also a little impatient.
ALL THAT WAS FORGOTTEN when the first giant manta swooped in, and we sat back to watch it glide around and around, occasionally hovering to let the fish carry out their cleaning ritual.
After the display was over, we had just enough air left to explore the rest of the channel, though most divers come here to get their manta fix.
Its not a pretty site, and doesnt offer much other marine life, although we did encounter a small school of trevally swirling around at 30m below us.
As we made our way back to the boat, another smaller manta swam by to check us out. This one was completely black and apparently a rare sighting, so a sweet end to a successful, if chilly, dive.
Going back later in the week proved to be our best decision. Unfortunately, its such a popular dive that we had to share it with two other groups, and they didnt all seem to understand the instruction sit quietly on the sand around the bommie, or the mantas wont show up!
After 30 minutes, we decided to go for a swim around. And thats when they floated in - six rays in a state of some friskiness! March is mating season, when mantas are at their friendliest, never mind whether youre ray or human!
When you see a manta wrapping itself around a diver, you have two thoughts: Wow, thats amazingly close and Why couldnt it have been me
Ive read accounts of mantas playing with divers, but I had never experienced it before. It makes you want to laugh, cry and do whoop whoop circles in the water.
For about 40 minutes these mantas swirled around, over and above us, with a few 360° loops and the odd fly-by, so close that you could touch them. This kind of interaction with a wild marine creature stays with you forever.
After they had disappeared we headed back, making screaming noises of satisfaction through our regs.
But the mantas hadnt finished showing off. Three came back and stayed with us for another 10 minutes, coming even closer than before. Three words to describe this site: wow, lucky and wow!
Papua New Guinea remains my Number 1, but only because I spent three fantastic months exploring the most popular areas, and in three months its hard not to blur all the amazing diving into one big best dive ever.
If you asked me for my favourite place to dive over the space of a week, Palau would be in pole position. Hoorah!
|GETTING THERE: There are daily flights to Palau from Guam and also direct flights from Manila in the Philippines. Guam is reached via Manila.|
DIVING: Sams Dive Tours, www.samstours.com
ACCOMMODATION: The 160-room 5* Palau Pacific Resort, www.palauppr.com
MONEY: US dollars
WHEN TO GO: Located outside the typhoon zone, Palau enjoys good weather year-round. Most of the rainfall is between July and October.
PRICES: Sams Tours offers a one-stop service for a stay in Palau, including seven nights accommodation at the Palau Pacific Resort starting from $1645, www.samstours.com.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.visit-palau.com