I am going to Palau today! Years ago James had mentioned this place that had a lake filled with jelly fish that he wanted to go see. Then a few years ago I met a couple on a tour in Cambodia who raved about the same place; Palau! Way back then I looked it up and it is a pain in the ass to get to from Canada. Most international flights go via Guam and are expensive. Another friend told us about the Continental Micronesia Pass that includes all the islands in Micronesia and Palau. Using this pass to see Palau and other islands in Micronesia makes it more worth your while to spend the time and money getting all this way.
Palau is in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles east of the Philippines and 2,000 miles south of Tokyo. In 1978 Palau chose independence instead of becoming part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Finally in 1994 it became one of the youngest and smallest sovereign states. Palau was initially settled over 3,000 years ago likely by migrants from the Philippines. Today Palau’s population of 21,000+ is made up of 70% native Palauans who are of mixed Melanesian, Micronesian and Austronesian decent. The official languages are Palauan and English making it an easy place to visit.
But before we get to Palau we had some flying to do, about 2 days worth…first stop was Narita, Japan. Luckily our stopover was more than three hours meaning we could visit the tiny shopping street in Narita, well lucky for me. Anyone flying via Narita and has a stopover more than three or four hours can take a 20 minute train ride to a cute town with a beautiful Temple, one of my favorites in Asia actually. We’ve both done the temple so I took James shopping. James did luck out – it was 7 degrees and we were dressed in shorts so our shopping was quick, especially when it started to rain. Brrrrrr. We had a quick, and expensive, meal at McDonalds before heading back to the airport to warm up.
Our next flight was at midnight to Guam. We got in at 1:30 am and had opted for a cheap hotel and a pick up. Our flight to Palau didn’t leave until 9 pm, 19.5 hours, so we picked a place that allowed us to hang out by the beach and pool after we checked out. We slept as late as we could and checked out with no time to spare. We went looking for breakfast and ended up in a knock off Denny’s. We could have cabbed to the real Denny’s or any other American chain we wanted. Guam was definitely the USA! It was funny to be so far from North America and yet be in America.
After breakfast I headed to the pool and beach for some sleep in the sun. James went for a walk. While I was being checked out by creepy guys in tight white jeans James was seeing the sights; outlet stores and fast food chains. He picked us up Subway (yum!) and we spent the rest of the day around the pool. The hotel was in a tiny bay and the area was really busy, considering it was a Thursday. There were jet skis and big bananas and tubes flying by. The hotel was also fairly busy with vacationers.
We finally got ready to go and went into the lobby to wait for our ride. I hung my sarong, my poor beaten up, ripped, used for everything sarong, on a chair to dry it a bit before I had to pack it and then promptly forgot it. I’ve purged my wardrobe so much it’s my dive towel/dress/cover up and I nearly cried when I realized I’d left it behind.
Despite sleeping in and the napping by the pool I was exhausted. I fell asleep before the plane took off and slept sound for most of the flight. I love being able to sleep anywhere and everywhere.
Palau-picture obviously not taken by us
Our flight arrived at almost midnight. “sigh” Immigration was painfully slow. James and I were one of the first through, collected our bags and went to look for our transfer to town. We were met by our ride and a rep from Sam’s Dive Tours, who we booked everything through. We arranged for our morning pick up for diving and were told to wait outside. And wait we did. We waited so long the airport staff started to turn the lights off and friendly locals started to stop and ask us if we needed a ride – we should have taken one. I walked back inside and our hotel guy said they were waiting for a girl who lost a bag. Oh, poor thing. We waited a bit longer…now it’s been about a 1 hour wait for a 15 minute ride…and I was trying desperately not to be bitchy, in my tired mood. She finally came out and they loaded her stuff into a pickup truck behind our van. She was a researcher in town with a bunch of gear. I understand it wasn’t her fault she lost a bag…but the truck that was carrying her stuff had no one in the passenger seat. Meaning – we could have left an hour ago and she could rode in that empty seat. I tried not to think about it.
At Lehn’s, our budget hotel, we checked into our dark, musty, dirty room. “sigh” again! My allergies (mold) went haywire and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to dive by morning. I finally got up the nerve to go ask for another room. I was told there weren’t any, didn’t believe him so pushed a little. He called the booking girl from Sam’s and they somehow found a room, one with a nice big window that opens and wasn’t quite as dark, musty or dirty. They couldn’t tell us what the price would be for the upgrade (HA upgrade!) but we decided to deal with it in the morning. For now all we wanted was sleep.
The "Good" pictures of me from Jelly Fish Lake
We entered the lobby 5 minutes before our Sam’s Dive transfer was scheduled. The guy behind in the office looked surprised and said Sam’s had called and he told them not to come, we weren’t up. He quickly called them back and we sat and waited. Once they arrived (in a squeaky old van you could hear coming a few minutes before it arrived) it was only about 15 minutes to the dive shop. It was a busy place. We were directed to the office to find out what was what. We tried to find out what our room upgrade would cost but no one knew. Hmmmm.
Our boat was the Mako (all the boats are named after sharks) and packed full. We got set up, checked our equipment and sat….to wait. The boat was a mix of brand new divers to experienced open water divers to dive masters to instructor. Despite the experience on board it felt a lot like the dive guides were trying to herd cats. A group of three Americans introduced themselves right away and we started to chat. One of them had been to Palau a few times and was talking about how great the diving was going to be. I was anxious to get going!
A few minutes into the first dive I knew (or saw) what all the hype was about. It was fishy with decent visibility, good healthy reefs and we saw a bunch of sharks. The second dive was just as great and again we saw a lot of sharks. I’m not a big shark fan, not that I’m afraid (well maybe when they swim close, or are circling above, or look hungry – so yeah maybe I am) but they aren’t why I dive or go diving. If I see them I’m happy, if not I’m not disappointed. But so far in one day of diving Palau I’ve seen more than I needed to see.
Amazing and kind of creepy lake
I can still feel them on me
Instead of a third dive we went to the famous Jelly Fish Lake. I’m not exaggerating when I say as many people who know Jelly Fish Lake in Palau and have it on their “bucket list” equals the people who have never heard of Palau. You either know about it because of Jelly Fish Lake or not at all. And we were about to find out why. Similar to the hot dive we did in Coron the boat pulls up to an island and you walk up and over a tiny hill (although here there is no nice wooded walkway) and on to a dock. In only snorkel gear we jumped in and swam towards the sunny part of the lake. It was a decent swim, about 15 minutes, until I started to see jelly fish in the water. A few at first, then a few more…until I was surrounded by them. It was nothing like I expected – it was even better. The water was murky and they were pulsing up from the depths. Others were doing their dance towards me, around me, and (ewwww) against my bare legs. It was weird and wonderful at the same time. They were everywhere, the lake was filled with them! Once I got used to them James decided to do a photo shoot. Now for all you out there who have tried to “model” above water try to imagine doing it below. The water had a bit of salt in it and it was a pain to stay down. Once down I had to remember not to puff my cheeks with air, stay still, straight but not stiff and look comfortable. Ya right! I think he got one or two shots – out of 100 – Haha. When the photo shoot was over we swam back to the dock and hiked back to the boat. What an amazing experience.
Even video doesn't do it justice
(Click on picture for link to videos, appx. 1.6MB, 1.3MB and 1.4MB)
Pictures taken before I mastered posing while snorkling
Back at the dive shop we rinsed our gear (it feels like “doing the dishes” on vacation) and joined our new friends for a beer or two. They were all Americans, two who called Guam home and one who was based out of Costa Rica (and had spent a lot of time in Panama) but traveled for a huge chunk of the year. They were actually all well-traveled and we had a great time.
One of the many caves/swim throughs
After a quick breakfast of oatmeal (the immersion heater we got for Christmas is so handy!) we caught our ride to Sam’s. We were back on the Mako, with pretty much the same group as yesterday, to do a two dive day but found out a few minutes into the ride the boat was scheduled to do three. We had really enjoyed the diving so decided to add a dive…no surprise there.
The dives were great! After two days I’m impressed. The reefs aren’t great and there isn’t really any macro (that we could/did see) but the dives were fishy and full of sharks. The boats were full but in a place as popular as Palau we shouldn’t expect anything but. We did two of the most popular sites; German Channel and Blue Corner. German Channel is a manta cleaning station and was a busy spot but everyone was excited to catch a glimpse of the graceful fish. The Blue Corner was very cool. It is right in the channel so you get full on current, so we hooked on to the dead coral and sat back and watched the show. SHARKS! SHARKS! And more SHARKS! Wow! For all the people I’ve dove with in the past 10 months who have whined about seeing sharks – Shut the bleep up and go to Palau! Said with a smile of course.
After diving we decided to join our new friends for a drink so I headed to the shower to rinse off (dried salt water hair is gross). I got talking to a lady from Victoria who was retired and traveling with her husband on their boat that was anchored in the bay. The conversation turned to where she had grown up and started boating, and where I think my love of the water started, right in Ontario! I grew up on the St. Lawrence River and am lucky enough to have parents who love the water and boated for a few years. She started out a few miles away on the Rideau Canal. It really is a small world.
We enjoyed a few pints of the local beer, Red Rooster (again), and our new friends helped me talk James into going for a bite to eat. It was a fun evening but made me a bit home sick. Sam’s picked us all up and drove us to our hotels, they were staying in the lovely Sea Passion! I’ve been impressed with Sam’s Dive Tours . They are a tad on the expensive side but include so much. Free coffee is out in the mornings, and lunch is served on an island. It’s a decent lunch (we had yummy chicken bento boxes) and lemonade, water and iced tea and is provided. After diving they have showers with hot water and lots of space to clean, rinse and soak your equipment. Nitrox is free and so is diving the tiny wall right in front of the dive shop. They also provide a telephone and radio which seemed popular with the thriving yachting business they do.
Back at our hotel I fell into a diving and sun and too much Red Rooster sleep.
And more fantastic diving! We ended up adding a third dive again and did a full three dive day. I wonder why we are so over on our dive budget? The diving was just so great and the group was just so fun! The dive highlight today was the New Drop Off site. It was similar to the Blue Corner but our guide divided the group and took the experienced divers to a small curve in the coral reef where the current was stronger. There were a bunch of sharks (maybe a dozen or so) and once they got comfortable with us hanging around (we were hooked on with our reef hooks) they started to “surf” on the current. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like they were having fun and playing around, kind of like us. We sat and watched for as long as we could before surfacing.
(Click on picture for link to videos, appx. 2.8MB and 3.2MB)
The non-dive highlight was where we had lunch on Ulong Island. I don’t usually go out of my way to visit tourist spots made famous by television or movies but as a Survivor fan I was excited. I’m patiently waiting for the Canadian version so I did a bit of practicing today. I took my bento box to the edge of the beach and pretended it was my reward for eating squishy fish (which after living in Korea I’ll be awesome at!) or standing on a pole for an hour in the sun (which after being on local busses with no air-con for 12+ hours in Lao I’ll be awesome at!) or being eaten alive by bugs (living in Canada?).
After a great day of diving I decided to be social and James went home for some alone time. I was treated to a delicious Indian meal by our new friends.
Inside the cave
The boat was quiet without our new friends, thankfully – I was a bit hung over. The diving was just as great as ever! We repeated German Chanel (manta cleaning station) and the Blue Corner (hooked on to watch the shark show) and then did another famous site – The Chandelier. The Chandelier is a shallow dive a few minutes swim from Sam’s. You swim down a few feet and enter a giant cave that you can surface in. The chamber is filled with stalactites and you have to be careful surfacing not to crack your head. We then swam down again and into another chamber, and then another. The third was tiny and the group barely fit. We did one big long swim back and you could really see the size of the cave.
Once we were done diving I practically ran for the van. I was exhausted after my three full days of diving and three nights of drinking. I’m way too old for this.
According to our pre-bought package we were done boat diving (we could still do the tiny wall as much as we wanted) but somehow talked each other into doing just one more day of diving. We were hoping a boat would go south to Pelieu. So far we’d just been diving the Rock Islands and were curious what the sites were like a little further away. There wasn’t a boat going today so we decided to wait until tomorrow and hopefully we could get on a boat. So the tiny wall was on the schedule!
The view from the diveshop above and below the water
Our plan was to go early and get in before the boats got going but Sam’s forgot to pick us up and we ended up getting there late. I sat and enjoyed a free coffee until the place cleared out. While we were waiting Sam’s posted a sign-up sheet for cleaning their “wall” area off. In exchange for a few hours of work they’d give us a free BBQ dinner. Sold!
Once all the boats had left for the day we got our gear on and jumped off the dock. The wall was tiny but had a surprising number of critters. There were a few dozen mandarin fish, who are usually shy, sitting out just staring back at us. They weren’t doing the mating dance; they only do that at dusk. We managed to amuse ourselves for about an hour looking in all the holes and cracks in the wall. By the time we were done it was lunch so we had a bite to eat and I settled in to play on the computer while James took a walk.
Around 4 pm things started to get going on the clean-up. We signed our waiver, grabbed some gloves and geared up. We were opting to do the in water work. We jumped in with our weighted blue bin and filled it…a bunch of times. It was so gross. All kinds of broken glass bottles, tin cans, rope, plastic ties, clothing…next time I might stay on the dock. There were a dozen or so helpers and in just over an hour we half-filled a dump truck. My broken glass didn’t fill much of it but the larger stuff like old tires, boat parts and random metal pieces helped.
During the BBQ dinner (so delicious!) the couple from Victoria joined us and we had a great time catching up on Canadian news. They were/had spent more time in the area and gave us some insight into the local news as well. One thing I did not know (shame on me) was that in 2009 Palau had taken in 5 Uyghurs who had been released from Guantanamo, and their families. The couple explained to us that they had not settled very well, only one had found a job and were finding life on Palau difficult. The main reason is the treatment they receive; they are treated as outcasts. They are Chinese Muslims living in a tiny country predominantly Roman Catholic (approximately 65% of the population). Palau received a whack of cash to take them; I wonder if they used much/any to help them settle?
Despite the serious nature of the conversations we had a great visit. I have to admit it has been nice to chat with people from North America to get the gossip, news and just a little taste of home. The conversation did take a turn towards yachting and how they were looking for a “baby sitter” for their boat. From mid-July to October they were parking their beautiful boat in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia (Borneo!!) while they traveled through Europe. Let’s just say James has drawn the line and I will not be living on a boat in Malaysia – but I tried!
Stuffed to the gills with BBQ chicken and hot dogs (OMG! BBQ Hotdogs!) we grabbed our ride back to Lehn’s. There wasn’t a boat going south to Pelieu but one was going north. We couldn’t resist more diving (screw the budget), especially somewhere we hadn’t been, so were doing a full three dive day tomorrow. That would make 13 dives instead of the 10 we’d signed up for. Ooops.
The tiny divers on the right give you an idea of the size of this cave
A northern wall
Our ride came bright and early (7:30 am!) so we could be on the water early for our trip to the northern dive sites. We had enjoyed the Rock Islands and hoped this area, a short ride north, would be just as great.
The first dive had a better reef, brighter and healthier corals, than the Rock Islands but lacked the big fish and sharks. There still wasn’t much macro and I’m beginning to think it might be the whole area that lacks it. The second and third dives were mediocre manta dives. We did see a manta but off in the distance and the visibility wasn’t great. I’m beginning to think I’m spoiled when it comes to mantas. We’ve seen them, usually more than one, in remote dive sites, in small groups, where you feel like it’s just you and them. In those settings, once they get used to you – if you stay very still – they get up close and personal. I understand why everyone gets so excited to see them, but one way off in the blue is more frustrating than amazing. It was still a great day of diving; every day is a great day when you are diving!
Back at Sam’s we cleaned our equipment, packed up and headed home. Our Palau diving was finished. It went by in a flash, and I can’t believe it’s over.
The ever popular disco clam
(Click on picture for link to video, appx. 2MB)
Our flight doesn’t leave until 2:30 AM today, or tomorrow, so we had a looong day to fill. I had a great lie in and got up just in time to pack and make a coffee. We stored our luggage and headed to the laundromat beside our hotel. While we did laundry we tried to make a few plans for the next few months of our trip, mostly India. It’s a massive country, filled with things to do and see, and we had barely opened the guide book yet. James had found pepper corn cheese and real turkey cold cuts in the grocery so we had a picnic while the machine ran.
So many airports
After the laundry was done we went for a walk. We wanted to check out the other dive shop and a few stores selling dive crap (one was filled with fun stuff). We ended at Nemo’s dive shop that offered free wifi if you ate or drank – so I did both. It also had an amazing selection of decent underwater themed jewellery and I picked some up. We managed to lounge the afternoon away…. On the walk home our friendly Sam’s driver (we had the same driver most days/nights) stopped and offered us a ride, so nice!
The ride got us back a bit early but we read (James) and watched IPOD TV (me) until our ride came. Our flight wasn’t until 2 am and the ride only takes 15 minutes but the shuttle left at 10:30 pm. UGH! The airport stuff only took a few minutes and we settled back down to wait. Most of the day seemed to be about waiting it out for this crappy flight.