West Pacific Jewel - Palau
Appearing like nebulous emeralds adrift over a deep-blue ocean, Palau is richly endowed with some of the world's most-stunning and unique terrain, above and below the sea. Geologically, the islands are pinnacles of an undersea ridge of volcanic mountains, part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire," known for its violent subterranean activity. Its vast lagoon is sheltered by a 70-mile-long barrier reef, which extends down the west, from Koror to Peleliu, sheltering more than 340 mushroom-shaped islets. These Rock Islands exemplify Palau's natural wonder. The bases of these rounded limestone isles have been undercut by eons of water and biological processes, creating an optical illusion: They appear to float above the turquoise lagoon. Among the labyrinth of twisting channels, white-sand beaches, underwater caves and secluded marine lakes are nurseries for juvenile animals, which means all of Palau is continually awash in new life
Situated closest to the Coral Triangle, the reefs of Palau are home to more than 1,300 species of fish and 385 coral species. Reef flats plummet to depths beyond 6,600 feet. Blue holes, huge caverns and immense growths of sessile life are easily accessible in clear water with visibility averaging 100 feet. Vast numbers of sharks, mantas, eagle rays, turtles, dolphins and migratory pelagics convene at a unique crossroad of the world's three major ocean currents. Because the best sites are located outside the lagoon, it is wise to choose a seven-day live-aboard, such as the Big Blue Explorer run by the Expedition Fleet, to dive the best sites at the best times, without the crowd and long boat rides from resort-based operations.
Three particularly distinctive sites are: Blue Corner, Chandelier Cave and the enchanting Jellyfish Lake, which is a snorkel-only spot. Situated off the edge of Ngemelis Island, Blue Corner epitomizes adrenaline diving: Redolent with shark action, the site teems not just with large schools of moorish idols, but grouper, Napoleon wrasse, barracuda, gray reef and whitetip sharks, turtles, moray eels, jacks, mantas and huge marble rays. Especially when the current is running, the action seems endless and electrifying. The reef starts at about 40 feet, jutting out sharply into the sea before dropping abruptly into the deep abyss. Large plate corals and gorgonians are also prolific. While aboard the Big Blue Explorer, you will dive the Blue Corner several times.
Chandelier Cave is one of the most-unique marine caves easily accessible to Open Water divers: Its large entrance leads into several interconnecting, relatively large chambers. The cave was once an air-filled cavern, possibly millions of years ago when the sea was much shallower. The entrance is about 15 feet below the surface, and the short tunnel opens up to a huge chamber with a ceiling of stately stalactites and seemingly endless clear water. Farther back in the deeper recesses, the chambers are filled with a sparkling field of stalactites that are mirrored by the lens of still water above.
Landlocked marine lakes once linked to the sea are breeding grounds for endemic species of jellyfish and rare critters. A short hike up a tropical rainforest easily leads to Jellyfish Lake, home to more than 2 million nonstinging jellyfish. The lake is a surrealistic milieu and hauntingly beautiful just another surprise among many in Palau.
Quick Guide Expedition Fleet's Big Blue Explorer, with 18 cabins, hosts up to 24 guests and runs trips from Saturday to Saturday. Full-board packages include hotel transfer and six full days of unlimited diving. Choice of standard cabin, deluxe and suite. Nitrox is available.