Palau is a destination to which few others can compare.
The Regal Angelfish is one of the many beautiful residents of Palau.
People often ask me where my favorite place in the world is to dive. In an attempt to be unbiased, I'll usually say: "Each place is special in its own way." But when I am asked about Palau, my unbiased approach vanishes immediately.
I have been lucky enough to explore the underwater world of Palau many times, and every time I have been enchanted with the overwhelming biodiversity of its reefs, its sparking lagoon of shipwrecks and its brackish land-locked lakes filled with non-stinging jellyfish and other such oddities.
A few months ago, I returned to Palau on a hastily arranged trip for what turned out to be a perfect day of diving and discovery. While other guests at the Palau Pacific Resort were still sleeping, I rose with the sun to jog and hike the trail that winds its way up to an overlook behind the resort property.
The spectacular view was inspirational, to say the least. The lagoon below reflected the firey colors of an intense Micronesian sunrise. Tiny commuter boats left long spaghetti wakes on the flat, calm water. In the distance, Palau's signature rock islands looked like lush limestone biscuits topped with palm trees and dense jungle greenery.
There was little time to enjoy this visual treat, however. I was anxious to get back to the resort for a quick breakfast and a final gear check because the Neco Marine dive shop had an early boat reserved especially for us. We were leaving at 8 a.m. for the southern island of Peleliu.
The mere utterance of Peleliu Island causes World War II veterans to shake their heads in reverence. They still remember this tiny speck of an island as the site of one of Pacific Theater's most infamous and bloody battles.
But to the worldly diver, Peleliu evokes stories of some of the most current-charged diving the Western Pacific. After reading and listening to accounts of divers who have visited Peleliu Corner and another site nearby called Yellow Wall, I had to see for myself if the real thing could live up to the legend.
Minutes after boarding Neco Marine's 24-foot fiberglass skiff, we were winding our way through the rock islands at 40 knots. Thirty minutes later, we stopped to snorkel on a Japanese Zero warplane that was downed in 1944. The tip of the plane's propeller was protruding out of the shallow water.
I slipped over the side with my Nikonos camera and was pleased to see the small but once nimble aircraft was in excellent condition. Reaching into the cockpit, I found that the joystick moved easily and that I could still read the gauges on the console. Then our skipper urged us to get back on the boat because we still had a considerable distance to travel before reaching Peleliu.
The dive boat skidded south between the reefs and over shoals that would have spelled imminent disaster to a lesser pilot. Our captain calmly chewed on a betel nut as he navigated a course that was more familiar than the back of his hand.
After a little less than 90 minutes, our dive boat was approaching Peleliu. The crossing had been so calm and captivating that we seemed to arrive in an instant.
As we drew closer, the clear water took on an azure tinge. Looking down, I could see every detail on the wall beneath us, a wall as vertical as any 100-story skyscraper. It was covered with a rainbow of soft corals and sponges. Pink and orange anthias danced in the swiftly moving current.
If you decide to dive Peleliu when you visit Palau, be prepared for ripping currents.
It is because of these currents that Peleliu and many of the best-known dive sites in Palau, including Blue Corner, are so rich in biodiversity and are teeming with marine life. Palau is bathed in the confluence of several currents, one delivering nutrients and species from the rich waters of the Philippine Sea and another performing a like service from the waters of New Guinea to the south. From this meeting of rich water masses results a nutrient and species pipeline that directs its special cargo to Palau's doorstep.
Roiling back over the side of the boat, I began my descent for this drift dive. The visibility on this calm Palau morning appeared to be upwards of 200 feet. Only in the Bismarck Archipelago north of New Guinea had I experienced visibility of this magnitude.
Wit the current clipping along, I felt like I was truly flying. I moved to the wall and took in the golden color of the sea fans and soft corals before quickly noticing a couple of clown triggerfish. Though reare in other places, this species seems to be common here.
A little farther along I spotted a graceful emperor angelfish that was more than a foot in length. Noticing me, he paused for a second before continuing to nibble on a colorful sponge. Under a small outcropping not 20 feet away, I made my great find. It was a juvenile emperor angel whose color pattern was so striking that I struggled against the current for several minutes to compose a memorable photographic portrait.
Exhausted, I rode the current while dropping from 40 to 85 feet. That's when the gray reef sharks arrived. Four beefy 6-footers moved stealthily into the current with an ease that contrasted sharply with my own clumsy efforts. The current pushed me closer and I watched in awe as sunlight danced on their broad dorsal surfaces. The sharks finally veered off when I was about 30 feet away.
After a safety stop, I surface not far from the boat. I joined the other ecstatic divers already on board who were toweling off and sharing their discoveries as the boat headed north.
BLUE HOLE AND BLUE CORNER
Within 30 minutes our overpowered dive boat carried us past German Channel and Ngemelis Island. Soon we were entering the water near the famed Blue Hole cavern.
We descended through the cavern's ceiling and continued down a limestone crevice into a enormous chamber measuring more than 100 feet from ceiling to floor. Beams of sunlight danced merrily through portions of the cavern, but much of the place was shrouded in darkness. Lesser lights, these of a deep aquamarine blue, penetrated through oval windows on the seaward side of the chamber. Below the oval windows, an arched opening 50 feet or more in diameter beckoned us outward and along the wall toward another legendary site, Blue Corner.
As soon as we were outside our eyes feasted on brightly colored soft corals, large golden sea fans and brilliant red sea whips. We were gliding along on a gentle but persistent current accompanied by an array of fish. Hundreds of pyramid butterflyfish and anthias darted and dipped with a school of moorish idols moved in formation, their long white dorsal filaments trailing behind like streamers.
I discovered a huge anemone, purple mantled and home to several clownfish that were frolicking in the stinging arms. Nearby a coral trout sported neon blue spots on a field of orange. A longnose hawkfish peered at me from his sea fan perch. Down under a ledge I spotted a magenta dottyback. Then a school of trevally jacks blew by looking for a meal.
The intensity of the current increased and the gray reef sharks began to show up as we drew closer to Blue Corner. Here the reef projects far out into the powerful and nourishing currents. The water's action can whip this place into a fantastic frenzy.
Moving purposefully back and forth along the wall, the sharks reminded me of the wooden horses on the carousel at the boardwalk near my home round and round they went.
Looking ahead, I saw a silver cloud forming off the wall. I banged on my tank to get my wife's attention. Martha was gazing at a huge Napoleon wrasse that seemed equally fascinated with her bright yellow swimsuit. She waved back at me and I pointed toward the silver smear in the water.
We kicked out together away from the wall to discover hundreds of barracuda swirling in a circular, counter-clockwise funnel. The sight was mesmerizing and I watched as she joined in with their procession.
By now we were getting low on air, so we moved back toward the wall to find a riot of reef fish, schooling snappers, marauding jacks and gray and white-tipped reef sharks. Martha's friend, the inquisitive Napoleon wrasse, swam right up to us all big lips and blue scales. We enjoyed his visit before moving up to our safety stop. Holding hands, we rode the current out over the abyss and wondered whether the skipper was tracking our bubbles.
On the surface, our boat looked tiny and far away. And it was not pointing in our direction. Up went our safety sausages. Moments later, we breathed sighs of relief as the crew finished picking up another diver and then started toward us.
Those two dives on that perfect dive day in Palau exemplified the amazing underwater experiences that I have enjoyed there over the years.
Peleliu Island, Blue Hole and Blue Corner are certainly terrific sites. But I haven't even told you about Ngemelis Wall or about diving with chambered nautilus or about manta ray cleaning stations, not to mention the World War II shipwrecks, Chandelier Cave and about 100 other spectacular dive sites that I have visited on previous trips to Palau.
Those fond memories would make for another great story. But hopefully you will get a chance to go there and see them for yourself. Then you will truly understand why I cannot remain unbiased when speaking about the diving in Palau.