PALAU - May, 2006
For a variety of reasons, our group was rather compact: Marlene Patterson, Ceci Alleguez, Di Krall, and me (Ken Kurtis). Originally, we were going to do our traditional combo of Yap for three days of diving and then moving on to Palau. But about two months ago, Continental Micronesia totally revamped (or screwed up, depending on your point-of-view) their Micronesia flight schedules and it's now impractical to do both Yap & Palau since you can't get to Palau from Yap without having to go back to Guam and then laying over for 18 hours. So we decided to make this a Palau-only trip.
The nice thing about that plan is that you can actually do it within the space of a week, as long as you use both weekends. You can leave LA on Saturday morning, arrive in Palau Sunday night (you fly LA to Honolulu to Guam to Palau - total travel time is about 20 hours), get right on the boat, and start diving the next morning.
We chose to leave on Friday instead of Saturday, to give ourselves time to acclimate to both an 8-hour time change and to get the feel for being in a foreign country. So we got out of LAX on Friday morning and arrived in Palau Saturday night, checking into the West Plaza Desekel, conveniently located in the middle of Koror (the main city in Palau).
After a decent night's sleep, we started our adventure with a walking tour of Koror. First we hit the Palau Aquarium to get a feel for where we'd be diving during the coming week, as well as to get a preview of some of the creatures we might see. Then we stopped by Fish 'N Fins to get some local fish ID cards. After that it was lunch at Furusato, which has always been a favorite of ours, and which now resides in a brand new building about 50 feet away from their old location.
After that, we all went to jail. Now before you think we committed some felonious act during lunch, you should know that a visit to the jail in Koror is a must-do. Probably the most traditional of Palauan souvenirs is the storyboard, a large piece of wood that's intricately carved to tell a traditional story of Palauan culture and history. Depending on their size and complexity, these storyboards cost anywhere from $50-750. And the best ones can be found at the jail.
This is because the prisoners are allowed to carve the storyboards (their families bring them the wood during visiting hours on Saturday and Sunday), which are then sold in the "store" actually inside the jail, and the money goes to the prisoners themselves. So we wanted to stop by and take a peek, not only to get an idea of what we might want to buy later in the week, but also just because visiting the jail is an experience in and off itself. (And if you've never been there, don't picture an American-style prison. Think more along the lines of Midnight Express.)
And that's where we met Haines, who's in charge of selling the storyboards. I asked him if he wouldnít mind telling me what he was in for and he readily volunteered that he was sentenced to six years for drug trafficking. (He made a point of telling me he never used drugs himself, only sold them to others.) But he also said prison was the best thing that could have happened to him as he felt like a new man and was looking forward, as much as possible, to serving out his sentence and becoming a better person because of it.
After some more walking and sightseeing (we also dropped in on a basketball game in the National Gymnasium), it was time to board the boat. The Aggressor van picked us up promptly at 4PM, got a couple of other fellow passengers, and then it was off to the PA2.
If you've been on this boat before, it's not where it used to be, a commercial dock that also served container ships, and Palauan and US Naval vessels, all of which created problems with heightened post 9/11 port security. The PA2 is now docked in an area adjacent to Neco Marine. Access is much easier, it's a nicer area, and it makes the end-of-trip on-and-off the boat much easier.
The PA2 is a great vessel to spend a week on. It's quite roomy and spacious with well-appointed cabins, lots of storage in each room, showers/heads in each of the rooms, plenty of space on the dive deck, a huge camera table, plenty of hangers and pipe to hang wetsuits, and individual gear lockers for each diver. The diving is done from the high-speed skiff/tender, which sits in a hydraulic cradle level with the rear of the dive deck. Once the divers & crew are loaded up, the skiff is lowered into the water to speed us to the dive site.
Generally, the first deck of the boat consists of nine guest rooms (during our week the boat was full with 18 divers - but it never felt crowded) covering the front 2/3 and the dive deck accounting for the rear 1/3 of the deck. The second deck has the salon which is broken down to a sitting area with stereo and TV and the eating area, with three tables that can each accommodate six people. It was never a problem having plenty of space to eat. There's also a bar, whose windows can be swung up and open to create an open-air bar/counter, there's a rear shade deck (with a wooden table left over from when "Survivor - Palau" used the boat as a reward) and a Jacuzzi.
The third deck has a covered area with tables and chairs and indoor/outdoor carpeting, two hammocks, and a rear sun area for those who wanted to work on their tan. (In fact, during our week, the upper deck became known as the "Sunrise Yoga" deck since three of the women on the trip always began the day with a 6AM yoga session.) In short, there's plenty of room for everyone to do their thing.
But what really makes a trip like this is not only the physical amenities offered by the boat, but the attitude of the crew. And we couldn't have asked for a better group to take care of us. It certainly helps that I'd been there before so knew some of the crew and they knew me (it was nice seeing Hector again, a great DM, skiff driver, and all-around good guy) , and it was also nice to see Pam McPherson again, who had been one of the DMs on the Kona Aggressor with us last August. Captain Mike Farmer and I knew each other from some previous non-Aggressor business dealings so, to some degree, it was like old home week. The crew was rounded out by Amanda (Mike's wife), Bhoyet (pronounced "Boy-ET"), Fontaine, Lita, and Zach in the galley. And speaking of food . . .
Zach (with Lita's assistance) did a phenomenal job in the galley. The Aggressor's motto is "Eat, Dive, Sleep" and they sure got the "Eat" portion right on this trip. The food was always interesting, tasty, and plentiful. There were always multiple choices at every meal, snacks in between, and no one went hungry. The fare ranged from marinated shrimp, pork spareribs, stir-fry, variations of fish, chicken, steak, and soups that were sometimes a meal in and of themselves. (There was a tomato bisque and, separately, a chicken-and-shrimp gumbo that could both find their way to the menus of fancy-schmancy restaurants.) Diving burns up a lot of calories but it was hard to lose any weight during the week with food this good because you were always tempted to get seconds on something.
And speaking of diving . . .
We made a total of 23 dives over the course of the week and hit all the major spots. The seas were as calm as I've ever seen them in Palau - rarely over a 1-foot swell and most of the time no discernable swell at all. That made Peleliu accessible to us, something that hadn't happened during our other trips. One change from past trips was that we "only" did three night dives, but that didn't seem to put a damper on things. In some respects night diving actually made the day a bit tougher because we were trying to get in five dives, usually at 7:30AM, 10:30AM, 2:00PM, 4:30PM, and then 7:30PM. It's a day that's got to be fairly regimented to get all the diving in and the Captain Mike and the PA2 crew did a good job of herding us along without making us feel like we were being badgered.
Water temps ranged from 83-87ļ and most people dove in a 3mm or less. (I dove in a Pinnacle Shadow 1mm suit that was perfect for me.) Gloves are not allowed and a couple of people added hoods to the mix when they got cold.
Vis averaged about 50-60 feet with some sites a little worse than that and the dives at Peleliu significantly better than that (easily over 100-foot vis). Some of this was weather-related as we hit a lot of cloudy days and some drizzles (and one or two downpours) as well. But it IS the tropics so what are you going to do? I looked back at previous Palau trip reports and this is pretty typical of what we've had in the past. I don't know when they get those sunny-and-flat-all-week trips, but we haven't had one yet. But overall, especially with regard to surface conditions, this was one of our best trips.
We started the diving Monday morning at Lionfish Rock, a traditional first-dive for the PA2. It's scenic, it's pretty easy diving (no current usually), and it gives them a chance to check out the new divers as well as gives people who may not have been diving in a while a chance to get back into the swing of things. We spotted numerous Titan Triggers (many guarding nests), and noticed that there was a whole lot of cleaning going on.
Our second dive at Turtle Wall saw us explore one of the vertical walls that make diving in Palau so special. The walls are pristine with plenty of fish activity, and loads of enormous seafans and soft corals dotting the vertical terrain. The soft corals come in every color imaginable and they're so pretty that it's really hard to resist taking a picture of every one of them. And then we moved on to Ngedbus Corner which was also not only a spectacular dive but also provided us with a fabulous memory as an adult Teira Batfish "adopted" us and hung with us the entire dive. He would be swimming in and out of our fins, would come around and peer in your mask, actually let me touch him a couple of times, and seemed to enjoy the dive as much as we did.
We finished up the day along Matt's Wall, part of a stretch the includes Bid Dropoff, Matt's Wall, Fern's Wall, and New Dropoff. You could dive any of these for the entire week and not get bored. And you need to remind yourself to leave the lushness of the wall and work your way up to the shallows where you'll find Anthias of every variation by the tens-of-thousands pulsing in and out of the crevices, along with Dartfish (Fire, Elegant, and Two-Tone), nuidbranchs, small butterflies, and others too numerous to mention.
Probably the most famous dive in Palau is Blue Corner. This is a section of reef that literally (when you look at it from the air) sticks out into the ocean. Because of this feature and the way the currents run there, it provides a spectacular dive as the current brings in large numbers of sharks who cruise just off the wall, large schools of snappers, jacks, and barracuda also patrol the area, and there are some resident Napoleon Wrasses who interact with divers. Adjacent (north) of Blue Corner is Blue Hole, a massive cavern with three entrances (holes) on the top in about two feet of water, a floor/bottom ninety feet below these holes which is probably 100 feet wide as well, and large exits at the bottom that spit you back out onto the wall, heading down to Blue Corner.
We started Tuesday at Blue Hole, the plan being to then drift down the wall to Blue Corner. Blue Hole was spectacular. The light plays in amazing ways as it filters down through the holes to the cavern floor and Pam found a Pizza Nudibranch by the large exit. But there was no current to speak of and that not means you now actually have to kick down to Blue Corner, but it also affects the activity there, which was minimal. Doesn't mean it wasn't a pleasant dive, but not what I'd expect from Blue Corner.
After exploring Fern's Wall as our second spot, we returned to Blue Corner for our 2PM dive. Still no current. I didnít even bother to hook in. (For those not familiar with this technique, in Palau and other current-rich environments, you wear a "Reef Hook" that's a 6-foot long line with a large barbless hook at one end and a clip at the other. You secure the clip to your BC. When you want to hold position in heavy current, you find a dead spot on the reef, plant the hook, reel out the line, and simply hang.)
But lack of current didn't mean lack of excitement. There was an enormous school of jacks on the plateau behind the hook-in point. I swam into them and they simply engulfed me. They then merged with a school of barracuda, the larger ones of whom were getting cleaned. Just amazing to be in the middle of all of that. Additionally, there were numerous Whitetip Sharks along the plateau, some getting cleaned, others just lying on the bottom.
There is some news from Blue Corner that will sadden those of you who've been there before. Sweetie and Stitch, the two resident male Napoleons, are nowhere to be found. According to Hector, they both disappeared a few months ago and haven't been seen since. They have no idea if they were caught by a fisherman, eaten by another fish, or simply moved on to a new location. (But they also havenít been spotted anywhere nearby.) Sweetie is an especially big loss (IMHO) since he was so cooperative at interacting with divers and especially with Hector. But, as Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, "Nature finds a way."
The good news is that there's a new resident Napoleon, this time a female, who they're calling Maria (and she's got a friend who hangs with her sometimes). And, as we'd find out later, Maria's almost as friendly as Sweetie (and sure does like hard-boiled eggs). And there's also a male Napoleon who splits his time between Blue Corner and the close-by New Dropoff. His name is Mickey and we were about to meet him. Straight from my personal dive log:
"NEW DROP - Now this is what diving Palau is all about. Not a lot of current but just a wealth of sealife. Numerous butterflyfish (including two Teardrops), both types of Anemonefish (cooperatively posing), great Peacock grouper getting cleaned, and a bunch of others. Highlight was the male Napoleon Wrasse Mickey, who came zooming over to eagerly get the eggs that Mike had sequestered for him. Mike was able to use the eggs to get Mickey to pose for the cameras as Mickey would come flying across the reef anytime Mike flashed his hand and then would sit patiently awaiting his treat. Interestingly, Mickey turned on his side when he was ready to feed the same way our Napoleon at the Aquarium of the Pacific does when he's ready to eat."
Wednesday was a treat for me as we were able to make it across the channel to the island of Peleliu, site of a ferocious World War II battle in 1944. I'd been diving there once before (but we only could do a single dive) and it was spectacular, so I was very eager when we pulled into the mooring in Peleliu Harbor for a full day of Peleliu. And our first spot was to be Barracks Point, the place I'd dove previously.
It's simply a fantastically beautiful dive. Rather than the vertical wails found elsewhere, Barracks Point has a gently sloping profile that, with the proliferation of red and purple soft corals here, makes it look like you're gliding over a field of brilliantly-colored flowers. On top of that, there are Giant Clams here (Tridacna is the fancy name) that are about 4-6 feet across.
One option you have at Peleliu is to skip a dive and do the Peleliu Land Tour to see some of the highlights of the Battle of Peleliu. It's led by a local guy named Tangie, and to say he's a character would be an understatement. Tangie's a bit flamboyant, is very well-schooled in the details of the battle, and his favorite phrase seems to be "My beloved ladies and genetlemens . . ."
The tour shows you the story of the Battle of Peleliu as well as does modern-day Peleliu, an island of about 600 people who mainly now farm. It's hard to believe that some place so idyllic could have been the site of such carnage 62 years ago. 1224 American troops died in the battle along with an estimated 11,000 Japanese soldiers. The fighting was brutal and intense. (Eight Congressional Medals of Honor were issued as a result of this battle.) Commanders predicted that the fight would last only a few days, but in fact it went on for three months and had one of the highest casualty rates for an amphibious invasion during the war in the Pacific. The battle left Peleliu a devastated wasteland with little or no vegetation. The topography was so altered that when the locals finally returned home after the fighting stopped, they thought they had been taken to the wrong island.
Our first stop was the cemetery by Orange Beach, one of the invasion landing sites. There are still monuments here to the fallen, and a number of plants (Moses in a Boat) have been laid out so they to spell ďUSAĒ near a cross with a helmet on top that represents all the American battle dead. We walked out to the beach area and tried to imagine what it was like with battleships sitting offshore bombarding the island, landing craft shuttling in-and-out to deposit troops in the sand, while Japanese machinegun fire raked the beach. Certainly a different picture that what we see today. Think of the landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan.
We next stopped at the Peleliu Museum, founded by Tangie, which has letters artifacts, articles, and all kinds of information about the battle. Throughout course of the tour we also saw a wrecked Japanese Zero, two U.S. Sherman tanks, and a small Japanese tank that was no match for the Shermans.
Most amazing was the tour of one of the larger tunnels/caves dug in the island. The Japanese hid 1400 men in this one. Dug by hand and interlocking, the Japanese lived in these for months and even hid out in them after the war was over. The tunnels are about five feet high and the same width. They had areas designated as offices, food stores, hospitals, and sleeping areas. The tunnels really were like a little underground city, hidden from view. After the war, a survey discovered 500 of these on Peleliu.
Overall, the whole tour was very unique and interesting and certainly gives an interesting perspective on things. Additionally, Tangie certainly leaves an impression that won't be soon forgotten. the whole tour took about two-and-a-half hours, costs $23 (payable directly to Tangie) and was well worth it.
Thursday we crossed over from Peleliu back to the area of Blue Corner to give that another shot. But still, at least on the first dive of the day, there wasn't any current to speak of. So the sharks were not that numerous. However, the two female Napoleon Wrasses, who seemed to have a thing for Hector and Bhoyet, more than made up for that.
Now we do have to confess that both Hector and Bhoyet had hard-boiled eggs in their pockets. Granted, this is not part of the normal diet of a Napoleon Wrasse. But it seems that over the years, the Wrasses have gotten used to the fact that the local dive guides will come down with eggs and that the eggs are tasty. The wrasses inhale the entire egg, crack it in their mouth, somehow just suck down the yoke portion, and then spit out the white of the egg (which is then gobbled up by other opportunistic fish) along with the shell. It's actually quite a sight to see. Of course, it also makes you wonder if the guides should be slipping a Lipitor in there every now and then . . .
The two wrasses put on quite a show for us, letting both Bhoyet and Hector hold them, as well as allowing other divers to hold on to them as well. It's really amazing to realize that these are wild animals, who are not only choosing to hang with the humans, but are also allowing us actually make physical contact with them. And granted, they're being bribed with an egg, but it's still a pretty radical departure from what you'd predict their "normal" behavior" to be. Like our little batfish mentioned earlier, there's something else going on inside their brains that's beyond what we would normally expect.
The next two dives were spectacular. First we hit Matt's Wall and the notes in my logbook say, "How about a dive that gives you everything Palau has to offer?" Vertical wall, good vis, mild current, proliferating soft corals, fish galore, nudibranchs and flatworms, sharks cruising just off in the blue, and even a couple of turtles. How could you not love a dive like this?
Then (after another sumptuous feast at lunch) we went back to Blue Corner for one more go. THIS time, the current was running, the sharks were cruising, you had to hook in to hold position, and THIS is what diving Blue Corner is all about!!! Afterwards, Marlene referred to it as the most exciting thing she'd ever done in her life. You're literally tied in to the reef and watching this spectacular parade of underwater life unfold before you. And it's not the Discovery Channel from the comfort of your living room couch that you're seeing. This is the real deal, you're 50 feet down, and watching it all unfold live and in person.
And if that wasn't enough adrenaline-pumping action, our next dive was in German Channel to visit the shark cleaning station. We were able to plant ourselves in the sand just outside the rocks that serve as the focal point and watched in amazement as Blacktip, Gray Reef, and Whitetip sharks came in to allow the cleaner fish on this part of the reef give them the once-over. It's a sight that never fails to amaze me.
Interestingly, the most "dangerous" part of the dive comes not from the sharks at the end but from the Titan triggers at the beginning. Boy, are they pissed off! It seems to be more so in this area than anywhere else. You've got dozens of them around, usually in pairs, a male and a female guarding a nest. With most fish you need to get within a few feet of the nest before they will make a run at you. But with the Titans, who can grow to be as much as three feet long and have a healthy set of canine teeth, all you need to do is enter the water and they get insulted. "You looking at MY nest??? Why, I oughtta . . . GET OUT OF HERE!!!!!!" I had one make a run at me from about 50 feet away while I was moving in the opposite direction. Usually they nip at your fins and it's actually pretty comical because they even look pissed off. But you do need to be aware of where they are.
Friday was going to be our last full day of diving and I was excited about going to two spots where I'd never been before: Siaes Tunnel and Siaes Corner. The tunnel is actually another enormous cavern, with a huge entrance tat has a ceiling around 90 feet and a floor around 130 feet, and it's probably about 60 feet wide. The bottom slopes upward from the front for a length of about 100 feet, with exits on the left side and at the rear. There's a variety of life inside including a lot of Black Coral framing the walls and gorgonians on the floor. Various fish flit about including many varieties of soldierfish, and we spotted some nudibranchs as well.
Siaes Corner was also nice but once again, current-less. We started with a huge bright yellow pleurobranch all stretched out, found not one but TWO octopi. Possibly the saddest thing was watching another Titan Trigger nest but this time the attack on the nest was real, consisting of a variety of wrasses and smaller triggers. The Titans weren't have much success protecting the eggs. When one group of fish would make a run from the right and the Titan would move in that direction to shoo them away, another group would move in from the exposed left flank and nibble at the eggs. We watched for about five minutes and it didn't look promising, but thatís also life on the reef.
Then we followed this one with one of my favorite dives - Ulong Channel. (For you Survivor - Palau fans out there, Ulong Island is where they shot some of the series.) Ulong Channel has two things going for it which makes it almost two separate dives. For the first part, you're hooked on either side of the front of the channel, which means you've got a great view of the sharks cruising by. After 15-20 minutes of that, you unhook and drift down the channel. Because the channel narrows, the speed of the current really picks up and rivals that of some of the currents we had in Tahiti. You're flying through a serious of nests of mating groupers who simply watch you fly by. After five or ten minutes, you pass by (and that's the operative phrase, because there's no way you can stop) an enormous stand of Lettuce Coral that's perhaps one hundred feet long and thirty feet high. After that, you have to jump over two more channels and you'll end up by two very large Giant Clams. It's always a thrill-packed dive and it did not disappoint us.
Our final day of diving in Palau is actually a snorkel in Jellyfish Lake. There is one of the many marine lakes in Palau, five of which contain mastigias jellies. This is the only lake open to the public.
To describe this as surreal is almost an understatement. The PA2 is moored in a lagoon smack in the middle of the Rock Islands. You leave on the dive skiff and are going almost 40 miles an hour cutting through the small channels and gaps between the various rock islands. You then pull up to a small dock where you disembark for the climb up and over a hill to get to Jellyfish Lake. But first, you have to read the warning signs about the poisonous trees (truly) whose sap you do not want to touch on the climb.
Once properly informed, you begin your trek as there's a semi-natural path that's been formed into the limestone rock. A rope handrail helps you to steady yourself. (Note to future visitors: Bring a backpack where you can put your mask, snorkels, fins, wetsuit, etc., as that will leave both your hands free for the climb.) It takes about five minutes to get up, and then another five to get down.
As you descend, you see Jellyfish Lake before you, roughly 400 yards long and 200 yards wide, surrounded by trees growing out of the steep rock walls, and the first thing that impresses you is how quiet everything is. In fact, that was a common comment from all the divers. There was a silence we all observed, almost a reverence, for the whole experience.
Once geared up, you kick out from the dock and youíll start seeing the jellies almost immediately. The trick is to get going and try to see where they get thicker and thicker. Eventually, it's like you're swimming through living Jell-O. The jellies are constantly moving and pulsing, bouncing into each other (and you). The requisite shot is to have a diver do a head-first surface dive and then come up through the pulsating mass of jellies. It's estimated that there are now 13 million jellies in the lake so there are plenty to swim through.
Once we've finished at Jellyfish Lake (with another hike up and over - you get a good workout on this one), it's back to the PA2 and stat rinsing things and packing up. Even though they offer another dive, at Chandelier Cave, since we were flying out on Saturday night and not Sunday night, we decided to pass on that so as to give ourselves plenty of time between our last dive and our flight.
But we did get another chance to go back into town on Saturday afternoon and once again went to visit our friend Haines at the jail. The purpose was twofold because not only did we want to get some storyboards (pretty much the entire boat came with us) but I also brought my computer so that Haines could take a peek at what we had been doing for the past week. He seemed to enjoy it and it certainly didn't hurt the discounts we were able to negotiate off of the marked prices.
I do have one complaint about the week and it's one I'll discuss directly with the Aggressor main office because this is out of the control of the folks on the boat. My beef is with the fact that the Aggressor has recently started adding on a $100 fuel surcharge to their PA2 trips. (And I think they do this on their other boats as well.)
Now there's no question that the price of fuel has skyrocketed, perhaps even beyond what they could have reasonably been expected to forecast when they were planning the 2006 prices. But if the cost of doing business has gone up, then increase the prices of your trips, don't add on a $100 surcharge at the end. It seems to me like nickel-and-diming. Airlines adjust their prices weekly (almost daily at times) based on fuel costs so it's not like there's not precedence for this.
On top of that, I'm sure it makes a dent in the tips the crew gets (the extra $100 has to come from somewhere in the passenger's budget) and that's not fair to have them indirectly bear the brunt of the increased fuel expense. By folding it into the overall upfront cost of the trip, it gets it out of the way from the beginning and also might make the passengers more generous to the crew since there are less expenses for them at the end of the trip. If you're an Aggressor customer and have some thoughts on this matter, perhaps an e-mail stating your position would have an effect if they get enough of them. Just a thought.
But overall it was a fabulous trip. The worst pat of it we're enduring right now, as this is being written during the final leg on the redeye from Honolulu into LAX. We've already been traveling for 18 hours and have 3 more to go. But itís an investment in time that's well worth it for the type of diving and the variety you're likely to get. Despite our misgivings with the fuel surcharge, we can recommend the Aggressor with 100% confidence that they'll run a quality operation and will do their best to meet the needs of all the divers.
So Palau awaits you. All you need is the time and the money to make the trip. And if either of those are in short supply, then enjoy it vicariously through this report and the pictures of our trip that are posted on this website.