Colors, shapes and textures fly past me as if a hurricane were sweeping through a candy shop. I'm hurtling through space, grinning madly as I ride the crazy currents of the Peleliu Express. There's no critter-hunting on this dive, just an adrenaline-fueled drift down the soft coral-dressed wall.
We spill out of my gossamer dream where the Pacific Ocean and the Philippine Sea converge, at Peleliu Corner. Here we hook into the reef (an eco-friendly technique that's unique to Palau) and await sightings from our wish list.
Curious whitetip and blacktip sharks swing in, closer than I've ever seen them. The unmistakable shadow of a hammerhead passes through my peripheral vision as an eagle ray glides by flights of fancy all. Our guide finally corrals us and at once we release our hooks from the reef and are whisked off into the blue.
Peleliu sits at the southernmost end of the 400-island nation of Palau and is surrounded by magnificent walls dominated by forests of soft coral and a thick underbrush of sea fans, sea whips, hard corals and anemones. Right now, all I can think is that if air consumption and off-gassing weren't vitally important, we could continue around the bend to Yellow Wall, the deepest in Palau. When we surface in the open sea, volcanic fingers reach from land, as does a tangible eeriness.
The crew of Ocean Hunter II, Palau's newest live-aboard, shuttles us to the white-sand beaches of Peleliu to tour this lush island steeped in stories and sorrow. Twelve thousand soldiers, mostly Japanese, died here in the late months of 1944, during WWII. Our guide leads us down jungle paths and into caves used as hideouts by the Japanese, following a trail of tanks, plane wings, helmets and canteens that serve as memorials.
Our small group (the Ocean Hunter II has a maximum capacity of 12 passengers) shakes off the melancholy by planning our next dive. The day boats have all returned to the town of Koror as we head back to dive Yellow Wall a bonus afforded by virtue of our floating hotel, the crew's flexibility and, thankfully, the weather.
Not a minute is wasted on this drift dive, as schooling snappers join us along the deepest wall in Palau and perhaps the most bizarre one. Everything that grows here is yellow: twinkling yellow soft coral garnishes the yellow tube-coral polyps blossoming in the current. Even some of the fish are yellow. We just drift, basking in the golden glow like sun-worshipping spring-breakers.
All week we find ourselves against the walls. Big Drop-Off, possibly the prettiest in Palau, starts shallow, two feet at low tide, and plummets down 1,000 feet. Schools of yellow and white pyramid butterflyfish flutter around me in the clear-as-air water like monarchs in flight. Angelfish making their debut in my logbook blue face, regal and emperor veer in toward my mask to inspect this bubble-blowing alien in their midst. This truly is go-with-the-flow diving; the current, while not strong, abruptly changes directions and your plans. I watch for gray reef and whitetip sharks, but it's a good dive for macro, too: Leaffish, stonefish and the diminutive lionfish seemingly meld into the rocks.
Back at the surface we encounter an enormous steel ball and chain. We learn that it was part of a barrier erected by the Americans during WWII to prevent the Japanese from entering the waterway. It's impossible for me to reconcile these manmade symbols of hatred and destruction with their location in a place of ecological integrity and beauty beyond my wildest dreams. After all, I've just emerged from diving the walls of heaven.
We continue up the west side of Palau. When the sun rises, I instantly recognize my surroundings; we're in the Rock Islands, the setting of the recent Survivor Palau. More than 300 foliage-draped mushroom-shaped rocks thrust from the clear blue water. We have the day to explore. White-sand beaches beg for me to indulge my "stranded on a deserted island" fantasy, but a shimmer beneath the water's surface distracts me. Bevies of iridescent fish swirling around the shallow coral gardens send me overboard with mask and snorkel. My return to the underwater world reminds me that there are walls here, too, deep and sheer a BASE jump with no end in sight.