PALAU TRIP REPORT - June 19-23, 2007

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

If a bad beginning ensures a happy ending, then this was the trip to prove that thought true.

We embarked on our fifth trip to Micronesia on June 15. The plan was for a week in Palau followed by four more days in Yap. Our travelers this year were Donna Groman & Cecilia Quigley, Ferdie & Matt Franklin, and Tamar Toister, all led by Reef Seekers owner Ken Kurtis (who's also writing this report). Everyone arrived at LAX bright and early for our 9:30AM flight to Honolulu, then on to Guam and on to Palau. But we were in for a rude awakening.

I won't go into excruciating detail since many of you who read this have also gotten the blow-by-blow account while this was actually going on. But the short version is that Continental delayed our Honolulu flight by almost 10 hours, finally getting us out at 7PM. It turned out that 14 of 18 Aggressor guests (including our group of 6) were on this plane. After talking with the Aggressor by phone, we managed to find the others and I became the coordinator/ringleader for everyone, and managed to get us all on a Honolulu-Majuro-Guam-Palau fight. But then Continental cancelled THAT flight and didnít know if theyíd even be able to get us get us out of Honolulu on Sunday. It took an e-mail from me to the CEO of Continental, Larry Kellner, explaining our plight and asking him to intervene. He replied to me within an hour and from that point on, things worked like clockwork.

In fairness to Continental, a number of their people as well as other non-Continental people have assured me that these kinds of flight cancellations are rare. And once we rattled the right chain, the Continental folks couldnít have been nicer, especially Jeff Moken, Continentalís GM in Honolulu, who personally shepherded us through the airport.

But since Continental is frequently the only choice to many dive destinations, especially in Micronesia, you'd hope their understanding of diver needs to meet a schedule would be a bit higher. And there were options in L.A. (like putting us on another carrier's flight) that could have avoided this whole mess. So one hoped-for result of this is to have some discussions with Continental and see if we can raise their diver awareness a bit.

Once we got to Palau (but having now missed the first full day of diving), things fell into place. We were tired, but happily ensconced on the Palau Aggressor II by 10PM and were able to get clothes put away, gear assembled, c-cards checked, briefings done, and even got a reasonable night's sleep so we'd be ready to hit the water early Tuesday morning. The boat was aware that we missed our flight so they did their first day of diving (with the four guests who made it on time) in close to their dock so they'd be ready to receive us that night.

This was our fifth trip on the PA2 and it's always a joy to be on board. The rooms are comfortable and well-appointed (although there were some complaints about room #9 - their discounted room - being somewhat cramped and claustrophobic since it doesn't have a window and the door opens right on to the dive deck), there's plenty of room on the dive deck and the two upper decks, they feed you constantly (and Rose's food is fabulous), and the crew will do everything they can to accommodate your needs.

I've traveled before with Captain Mike Farmer and we've had many discussions about my views on the shortcomings vs. benefits of Nitrox. So I was looking forward to his reaction when I showed him my Nitrox card and let him know that I'd be diving it (strictly for the increased bottom times - as I did in Cocos) during the trip. And his face not only met my expectations (along with the good-natured ribbing that followed) but he's made my nitrox use part of his report in the "Captain's Log" part of the Aggressor web page.

Since turnabout is fair play, I must also point out that Mike has instituted a "no shoes in the salon" rule for the PA2. For those of you who have done foreign trips with me before, you know that I not only hate going barefoot, but I LOVE to put on my shoes and socks (along with dry clothes) as soon as I can between dives. So I wasn't relishing the idea of going shoeless. Mike's rationale has something to do with dampness on the bottom of shoes and microbes and alien abduction (or something like that). So our compromise was that I would wear my shoes to the salon door, take them off, but keep my socks on. It got to the point where Lita, the galley assistant, would greet me each morning with, "Good morning, Mr. Shoes."

In fairness to Mike, he did offer in the middle of the week to let me wear my shoes but I declined saying (with love in my heart and a tinge of sarcasm in my voice), "No, Mike, I'm more than happy to follow your stupid rule that makes me abandon my beloved shoes." All in good fun and certainly didn't mar the trip.

All the diving on the PA2 is done from their high-speed dive skiff. This has advantages and disadvantages. The pluses are that all the dive gear lives the entire week on the skiff and you never have to worry about hooking your stuff up after each dive. Just turn the air on because the tanks are all filled on the skiff as well. And there's no doubt you need something speedy and more maneuverable than the big boat given the drifting nature of many of Palau's dive sites.

But one of the minuses of the skiff is that with just a 15-minute ride to a dive site (a few are longer and a few are shorter) and a 15-minute ride back (the big boat usually sits on a mooring in a protected area) and doing that five times a day, you spend 2Ĺ hours each day in transit. Now this doesn't really cost you any diving time because the underwater time isn't affected by the skiffs rides (dives are generally a max of one hour). But what it does affect is your on-the-boat time which just means you have that much les time to fiddle with cameras, download photos, fix gear, or just relax. I'm not sure that there are really any viable alternatives but itís something you should be aware of and be prepared to budget your boat time accordingly.

The diving is simply spectacular. One of the great things about diving in Palau is that almost every site offers a marvelous dive. There are so many things to see - fish, invertebrates, and coral - that youíre almost guaranteed to see at least one thing on every dive that you havenít yet seen on your trip. And sometimes you find that going to a site at one time and then going back later produces two very different dives.

That certainly happened with us at Blue Corner. We dove it on Tuesday after lunch and then again on Wednesday morning. The big difference was the current (or lack thereof). Here are the entries from my dive log:

(Tuesday): "Nice dive, but a bit ho-hum for Blue Corner. Didnít really need to hook in as current wasn't all that strong but we did anyhow, so it was a good hook-in practice run, as Mike had intended. Usual schools cruising the wall. Very nice. Not too many sharks, though, due to the lack of current."

(Wednesday): "Oh my!!!!! What a difference. Current was running and the joint was jumping. Nice drift down the wall (reef left) to the hook-in point. Sharks escorting us as we drifted, ending end going through a HUGE school of Bigeye Jacks. Gray Reef Sharks all over the place with a few Whitetips thrown in for good measure. Amazing to watch the pattern. They'd glide way to our right, settle in to be level with us, and then just drift into the current and on by, then break off and do it again. Napoleons all over again. Spent a decent amount of time at the edge then unhooked. As we started back, saw school of Chevron Barracuda moving in. I managed to maneuver myself right into the middle of them and just swum with them. REALLY cool and I felt strangely at home with them. Hmmmm. Amanda and Hector played with Napoleons at the end. Now THAT'S what I call a dive!!! Woo-hoo!!!!!"

We also had an incredible dive (and ride) at Peleliu Express. Interestingly, the dive started out pretty mellow as there was barely any detectable current. But as we moved along, it picked up, and up, and up, until we were simply flying across the plateau. Very similar to some of the dives I've done in Tahiti (though the current in Palau was not quite as strong).

But the amazing thing at the end of this dive was the Whale Shark. More amazing was that nobody underwater saw it. It was spotted by Bhoyet, one of the crew guys manning the dive skiff. He even managed to get a picture of it and we estimate it's length at somewhere around 18 feet. We're amazed that we didn't spot it underwater but it also goes to show how much luck plays into any dive, and this one in particular. Look in the right direction at the right time, and you see something special. Look in the wrong direction at the right time, and you miss a Whale Shark thatís lurking behind your back.

The same thing happened to most of us on a dive on Fern's Wall. This time the animal we missed was a Tiger Shark who was apparently stalking a turtle. Only dive guide Hector and two or three others saw it but Hectorís eyes were pretty big. They estimate the length at 17 feet.

BTW, one of the things you need in Palau in a Reef Hook since thatís the way we hold position on the reef in a current. (They're useful in many other parts of the world, too.) But there's now a great version you can get on the PA2 that's the creation of Hector, and which I dubbed the Hector Hook.

What Hector's done is added a short piece of line with a ring in the middle. There's a snap on each end of the line. You snap one side into a left-side BC D-ring and the other side to the right. This leaves the round ring in the middle. Now you snap your reef hook on to the ring and hook into the reef. Because you're hooked in through the center of your body, you stay square to the current instead of being twisted around as with all other reef hooks. It's a really great idea and one of those "Why-didn't-I-think-of-that" ones. They're available on the boat and, if you're interested, I'm sure they can figure out a way to ship one to you if you contact the PA2.

We had a lot of other fabulous dives, including starting out our final day at Siaes Tunnel. What made this dive special was not only what we saw underwater, but the enormous school of Spinner Dolphins we encountered as we left the dive site. From my log: "If the dive itself wasn't good enough, as we left the site, we went through a school of a couple of hundred Spinner Dolphins who demanded that we stay and circle, which we did. They ended up putting on a spectacular show, with 6-10 of them on the bow at a time, much leaping, much spinning, and even one that was doing endless back flips. What a great way to start of our final full dive day in Palau."

No trip to Palau is complete without a trek to Jellyfish Lake and that's how we started Saturday. You take the skiff through the Rock Islands and arrive at a small dock (they've rebuilt both the arrival dock and the dock in the lake) and then hike up and over the hill on the stone path with the rope railing. And please don't fall against the poison trees. (No kidding. The sap on some of the tress really is poisonous.) But the effort is well worth it.

I'm certainly not a religious guy, but this is as close to a religious experience as you can have without being in a church (or diving with the Pope). There's a simple serenity to the place that sweeps over you. Voices become hushed, chatter subsides, and you realize you're in a very special place. And this was one of the best Jellyfish Lake dives I've ever had as there were more jellies there than I've ever seen before.

As you kick out from the dock (it's a snorkel dive - no scuba allowed), the people begin to spread out a bit in search of jellies. And pretty soon someone calls out, "Hey, I've got a bunch over here," and eventually you're able to figure out where the densest swarms are. Well this year, it was amazing. The jellies were so thick you almost felt like you couldnít move. A number of times when I was taking pictures of people two or three feet away I couldnít see where they were because the jellies were so thick. "Amazing" and "surreal" are the two words that come to mind but even those don't do the experience justice. It's something that no matter how often you read about it or see pictures of it, it won't match the feelings when you actually experience it first-hand.

So, despite our missing a full day, Palau was pretty spectacular and certainly lived up to it's reputation as one of the top dive destinations in the world. And the Aggressor also lived up to their billing as the #1 dive fleet in the world. It started off shaky, but ended with a bang. And Yap still lay before us. Read on for that adventure.


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