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  Diving Palau on the Sundancer II.

In early May, 2000, I met up with friends Terence Fails, Steve Myers, and Teresa Strong for a week of diving in Palau, Micronesia. We stayed aboard the Peter Hughes Diving Sundancer II live aboard. This was my first trip to Palau, but I'd done two weeks in Papua New Guinea in 1997 and was eager to see which place was better, since both can claim to be the number one dive destination in the world.

The boat trip was from Sunday afternoon, May 7 to Sunday morning, May 14th. Steve and Teresa spent the previous week on Yap, diving with the manta rays, and Terence had arrived Thursday, the 4th, and bivouacked at the Palau Pacific Resort.

I left Orlando 7:00 a.m. the 4th, flying Continental to Houston, then Continental Flight 1 to Guam via Honolulu.
22 hours later, with the sun never having set, I was standing on the Guam sidewalk, my watch showing it was 3 in the morning and my eyes seeing it was late afternoon the next day. I overnighted on Guam and caught the early flight to Palau, 2 hours down the road, arriving at 6:15 a.m. local time Saturday morning.

Republic of Palau

Palau is 11 time zones removed from the east coast of the US, (+13 hours with the date change), which inverts day and night completely. The overnight in Guam went a way toward getting acclimatized to the time change.

In country

The international airport is located on the south end of the biggest island, Babeldaob, about 20 miles from anywhere else. A US territory for nearly 50 years, the Republic of Palau is now what must be the world's newest and least populated country. (Population 16,000, founded in 1994). Being their own country means that everyone entering does the immigration thing, data card and all, and then customs. Most people are waved through, but inspections appear regular and random. Outbound folks pay $20 exit fee at the boarding gate.

The Koror weather can be counted on. It's hot and wet, even at 6 a.m. The "dry" season is characterized by less rain than the wet season, but only a little less. A more appropriate definition might be a 9 month rainy season, and a 3 month really rainy season. I'd arrived at transition time, and when a tropical depression a few hundred miles to the north decided to mature into a super typhoon. The typhoon wasn't a threat, but it's long range weather pattern caused 20 - 30 knot winds that played havoc with diving early in the week.

I shared Terence's room Saturday night at Palau Pacific Resort, a pricey, upscale, full service resort about 40 minutes west of the airport. If you arrive the day the boat departs (Sunday), Peter Hughes shuttles you to a day room at PPR until time to board the boat. Arrive earlier in the week and you are on your own. After listening to horror stories about the cheaper hotels in downtown Koror on the boat all week, I recommend avoiding them and heading for PPR. On it's large grounds are several boutique shops including a well supplied diveshop, with many camera parts, and two nice resturants. Day divetrips can be arranged with the diveshop. A huge beachfront, a pool with Tiki bar, and a salt water lagoon complete with tropical fish round out the amenities.

The airport shuttle service runs through downtown Koror, which sprawls about 1 block deep along several miles of winding two lane road. There are enterprises of every sort, sans any notion of zoning control. The thought of hiking the streets in the heat of the afternoon discouraged me from touring, and by night the rain squall line hit with a vengence.

The Boat
Sundancer
Sundancer II

The Peter Hughes' shuttle took us from PPR to the Sundancer II, where we met our fellow divers, settled into the cabins, set up our dive gear. Besides my 3 friends from Tennessee, we had a group of 4 divers from Maine, two newlyweds from Frankfort, Germany, a couple of Intel employees on sabbatical, 3 divers from the Houston area, and two couples from California. The Sundancer II is the fleet flagship. It has 10 big cabins, each with bathroom and shower, individual airconditioning that worked well, and spacious dining and lounge facilities.

All food and beverages are included in the price, and Yanis, the Belizian cook, does a a gourmet job with the meals. Despite 4-5 dives a day, with the food and constantly available snacks onboard I always seem to gain a few pounds on these trips.

While the Sundancer II also has a big dive deck, this doesn't come into play, as diving in Palau is from the accompanying tenders. The diver's BC and regulator is rigged to a tank, then transferred to the tender for the remainder of the week. The tank is filled on the tender between dives, with either air or nitrox as required by the diver. Personal dive gear is stored beneath the tank, so everything but wearables and cameras remain in place on the tenders. It is also usually drift diving, so Peter Hughes issues safety gear. An inflatable safety sausage, an air alert, a strobe light, and a reef hook are issued to each diver for use throughout the week.

dive tenders Dive tenders the "tram" and the "Bus"
The Diving

Palau is a multitude of mostly small islands scattered over a north-south distance of about 70 miles, with a few remote outliers beyond that range. Diving in Palau is almost exclusively along the southwestern edge of the main archipelego, in the Philippine Sea and western Pacific, about 30 miles from Malakal Harbor where the diveboats are berthed. The famous dives at Blue Corner and Peleliu Corner are located there, as are several nearby wall dives. When the weather is poor, or as the boat begins it's return toward the harbor late in the week, there are many wrecks from WWII to serve as divesites, and a very unique cave system in the harbor itself. All diving inside the outer reef is at the mercy of the tides. Outside, the water is deep and clear, with visibility usually over 100 feet. The incoming tide brings that clear water in, but the outgoing tide is full of fine white silt and jungle runoff.

We stayed at the dock Sunday night, waiting on the people coming in from Yap, who's plane didn't fly that Sunday, and on lost luggage somewhere back up the line. It's always thus.

Alice's Garden, Ngemelis Wall
Butterflyfish
Scythe butterflyfish.

Monday wasn't a good day. It started with the rain and a strong west wind, leftovers from the typhoon. By 9:00 a.m. the Sundancer was buoyed up inside German Channel and we departed in the tenders to dive a site called Alice's Garden by the PHD folks, in honor of Peter's wife Alice. It's otherwise known as the Manta Cleaning Station, but this time of year it's without mantas. We had the outgoing tide. Visibility was about 30'. But hey, we were diving!

Immediately noticeable was that the water was very warm (82F+)and the fish were the asian pacific variety. I was back to reacquainting myself with the myrids of colorful fish that dominate the ocean and reefs in that part of the world. That's always fun. As a side note, all the thumbnail photos on this page, and several others, can be viewed full size in the UWPhoto page, Palau section. Use the top navigation bar to get there.

Back at the boat, I learned my new divewatch didn't make it past it's first dive, and the electronic section of one of the Ikelite 200 Substrobes had flooded when the (permanent) cover on the LED status indicator popped out. This was just the beginning.

By noon we were on our way again, heading past Alice's Garden to the next site, when we came upon two dayboats out of Koror searching for a missing diver. A 52 year old Japanese diver, diving with his 25 year old daughter, her friend, and a local dive guide, was an hour overdue to surface. Our two tenders joined the surface search, crisscrossing the area in each direction. By 2:00 the local police, a plane, and several other landside boats joined the search. The tenders returned to the Sundancer, by then the base of operations, deposited us, and rejoined the search. About a dozen divers from the other day groups were onboard, being fed, while their boats participated in the search.

Both surface and underwater searching went of for the rest of the week, but the diver was never found.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with matters like this. It's one thing to hear about a diver being lost some place where you're not. It's a different matter when he was on the same divesite at the same time you were. Mostly one just rechecks one's gear for the 10th time, runs through the silent mantra of things to do if an emergency occurs, cinches the gear up a little tighter, and presses on. It does put the strobe flooding in proper perspective, however.

At 4:00 it was clear there were far more boats than needed for the small area to surface search, so we resumed diving. We departed to Ngemelis wall, well removed from the search area. This was an exciting dive, for interesting reasons. It was just past low slack tide, so the water was murky. It gets dark around 5:30 p.m. in Palau, so it was already twilight.

We saw several big sharks.

Now if you put "murky" and "saw several big sharks" together, you know they were quite close. At Blue Corner, where the visibility is great, you see sharks "over there". They see you, you see them. They're never close enough to touch, even with a very long stick. If you try to approach them, they'll leave.

This was different. There they were, doing what sharks do, cruising and looking for interesting stuff. They'd pass by, and being unable to see what you were very well, they'd turn toward you to have a better look. You, of course, would usually be startled by their sudden appearence out of the gloom, and turn to face them. They'd turn away, but then the bigger ones would then circle back for another look. This time you'd show them the camera housing. Not wanting their picture taken in all that murk, they'd turn away and leave.

We were just two of us, down on the wall at about 80 feet, and they'd appear above, beside, and below. Exciting stuff! It kept you looking around, for sure. At least we had the wall on one side.

Oh yes, we did see some nice tropical fish on that dive too. [grin]

Ngerchong Coral Gardens, Inside and Out.

Tuesday day dawned windy but sunny in the morning. We headed for Ngerchong Coral Gardens, on the east edge of the island chain, to get away from the pounding surf. We did the two morning dives here, first on the outside wall, then on the lagoon side of the island in dead calm waters. The outside was was a fairly standard wall, good vis, a few sharks, a turtle, and, of course, a zillion tropicals.

The inside was murkier, but as interesting. I saw the only octopus of the trip here, tightly packed inside a small opening. The whitetip sharks must keep the octopus population thinned out. Also here was a wide tumbledown of cobblestone coral. Starting at about 10' this roadway wide coral garden tumbled down to around 55'. It looked like it's name, a cobblestone street. The top and edges were filled with tropical fish, so after exploring for a while I returned here to photo.

Grunts
A school of grunts.
Wonder Channel, Day and Night
Juvenile Batfish
Juvenile batfish.

The Sundancer moved back toward Koror to a buoy in Wonder Channel for the afternoon and night, out of the chop in German Channel. We dove the edge of the channel in the strong incoming tide. A wild ride, screaming past rock outcroppings, occasionally hooking in with the reef hook and coming to an abrupt stop like aircraft landing on a carrier deck. Part way into the dive the channel took an abrupt right turn toward the boat, then hit an eddy, recirculating the divers until they swam through the eddy and on down the wall.

That night we did the same dive in no current on cleaner water from the high tide. The highlight of this dive was coming upon a juvenile batfish, still in it's brownish coloring with irridescent red trim on the tall fins.

Wrecks of the Iro and the Bichu Maru

Wednesday morning we dove some nearby WWII wrecks. War wrecks abound in the back waters of the area, where they were anchored near islands to hide from U.S. aircraft. Jungle generated particulate and fine silty sand make visibility poor. This trip it was about 20 feet in the good places, outright whiteouts in others. The Iro is a 470' tanker sitting upright, and the Bichu Maru is a 370' freighter laying on it's side. There are several magnificent anemones on the Iro, the only place I saw them in the dives that week. Somewhere on the Bichu Maru one of the Sunray video lights flooded.

adult batfish Adult batfish.
Crystal Caves and Mandarinfish Lake

Mandarinfish
Mandarinfish.

That afternoon, we took a side trip to Crystal Caves, braving monsoon rains during the ride. Using underwater cavern passages, divers visit 4 rooms which open to the surface to reveal stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Care should be taken when surfacing, as the overhead is only inches above the water level in places. Near sunset we took the mandantory trip to shallow Mandarinfish Lake, to observe the Mandarinfish's evening mating ritual, and try to photograph them. As those who've tried know, they're extremely elusive down in their little hiding places. While this picture rates about a C+, it's the best there is and I'm proud of it.

Chuyu Maru, and Buoy #6

Thursday found us still inside the lagoon, near the port. We dove the Chuyu Maru, a small freighter sunk near the present day port, in limited visibility. The mastposts are covered with a fine vinelike marine plant, which holds small silver minnows, which attract lionfish. The 2nd dive was the ship channel leading southeast, with the jump coming at buoy #6. We drifted with the tide until we came to a small, nondescript wreck. It was quite well overgrown with many red and green corals, and dozens of colorful fish. It almost appeared that someone had planted an underwater oriental garden.

Randall Randall videos the wreck
New Drop, Big Drop, rain drops

Finally, by Thursday afternoon, we got back outside the lagoon to the outer reef, between the raindrops. The seas were falling, and Friday promised to be a good day. To celebrate, we did a couple of wall dives. Sharks at a distance, big jacks feeding close in, tuna in between, with anemones and their fish clinging to the wall, and occasionally a turtle.

Blue Holes
Blue Holes
Blue Holes.

Finally!! Friday morning we got to the outside the reef, to the premier Palau dives. The Blue Holes site is adjacent to Blue Corner, a cavern with double entrances at the top, in depths of 4' and 10', and a large side entrance beginning at 60'. We took the side entrance, swimming down the wall to enter, then up the chimney-like holes. The water was clear and the surf crashing overhead was visible from 100' below. Veterans took pictures, then rode the current down the wall to get bonus time on Blue Corner.

Blue Corner

This is why you come to Palau. Blue Corner occupies a unique place in the geology of the area. A corner of the reef juts out into the Philipine Sea, to be washed by the ocean currents. It's also constantly washed by the incoming or outgoing tidal current. This conflux of currents makes the site rich in plankton, which attracts the entire food chain. Both whitetip and gray reef sharks are always there, resident turtles and eagle rays can be found, and a herd of napoleon wrasses graze across the top. The biggest of these napoleons has been fed hardboiled eggs from time to time, so approaches divers looking for a handout.

Eagle Rays Eagle rays feeding.
Gray Reef Shark
Gray reef shark with Ramora.

The dive at Blue Corner is to a depth of 55' and is tide dependent. You want a lot of current, because that means a lot of critters feeding. The jump is either north or south of the actual corner,driven by the direction of flow at the time of the dive. Divers drop down to below the wall's edge and swim toward the corner, then move up over the edge. The compression of the current hitting the top edge of the wall makes for a wild ride. You can blow across the landscape like scrap paper in a strong wind, which is where the reef hooks come in. Hook in at a convenient spot and watch the action.

We did Blue Corner 3 times in the last 5 dives. It had a different personality each time. Friday morning the current was from the south, and we worked our way to the dark side of the moon, an area worn smooth by the gloved hands of thousands of divers. There were sharks everywhere, in light current. The next dive the same day, current was north running and several of us stayed just short of the corner because the action was so good. Many sharks, and a school of golden crevelle wrapped around us at reef level. For the early dive Saturday morning, the sand channel cutting diagonally across Blue Corner was the place to be, with turtles, sleeping whitetip sharks, and two feeding eagle rays.

Wolfram Wolfram and Golden Crevelle.
Which is Better?

So what's the answer to the question, Palau or Papua New Guinea? That depends a lot on what you're looking for. Palau has a lot more sharks and rays. Big stuff. They are seen reliably on every reef outside the lagoon. PNG has a lot more fish. You'll see 10 lionfish and 10 anemone fish for every 1 in Palau. Palau has a lot more wrecks. It's a rare you'll find a wreck in PNG. The visibility is nearly always great in PNG on the live aboard routes, while several of the sites in Palau have downright poor visibility. The coral and plant life is rich and colorful in PNG, but it's been badly bleached in Palau. It does show signs of recovery in the southern area, however, but has far to go. Either place requires a live aboard boat, as the good sites are way too far from shore for effective day diving, unless you want a 60 mile round trip in a small boat. You'll do more more dives per day and they'll be easier on the PNG live aboards, as the tenders at Palau add both travel time and effort to the week's diving. Still, diving from medium and small boats is what we all do most. It's tough to choose just one of these fine locations. I'd say dive them both. I did, and I'm going back.