YAP & PALAU - March 8-22, 2015

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to a slideshow and videos.)

I tend to think of Yap & Palau as being somehow related, like brothers. Talk about one and you invariably seem to talk about the other. Maybe it’s because to get to Palau you go through Yap and when you leave Palau you again go through Yap. And there are certainly plenty of people who book one and then add on the other.

But it’s been eight years since we paired them up. The “traditional” way to do it was to book a week in Palau and then add on a three or four day stopover in Yap so you’d have time to do the mantas that Yap is so famous for. But one year, we did a full week in Yap and that changed my perspective since with a full week, you’ve got time to do more than just the mantas. And since 2007, for no particular reason, we’ve not gone to Palau but have only been doing a full week in Yap.

This year we decided to bite the bullet and do a full week in each, back-to-back. Everything was set up so that you could do both weeks, or just Yap, or just Palau. We ended up with 12 divers total, 7 of whom did both, 2 who did Yap-only, and 3 who did Palau-only.

And what a fortnight we had: Mantas, sharks, cuttlefish, baitballs, schooling barracuda, schooling snappers, schooling jacks, vertical coral walls, currents, and one (brand new and very expensive) flooded camera. I’ll break this report into sections but maybe I’ll start with the camera.

HELLO & GOODBYE TO THE D750
I have been wanting to upgrade my Nikon D200 for some time and decided that on this trip, especially since we were doing both Yap & Palau, that I’d make the leap to the D750. This meant not only investing in the camera itself ($2500 including the tax) but also required purchasing a new Ikelite housing (another $1800).

The camera and housing were really great in Yap. I can’t say enough good things about them (especially when coupled with my dual Sea&Sea YS-D1 strobes). I was really happy with the quality of the images I was getting and I thought the white balance on the D750 was far superior to that of the D200. Specially, the white underbelly of mantas looked white on the D750, whereas they had a bluish cast on the D200 that I couldn’t seem to get rid of.

But there is that old underwater photographic adage of, “It’s not IF you’ll flood your camera but WHEN.” My “when” came in Palau on the first dive of our second day at Blue Hole. It was definitely user error. I didn’t notice that one of the three clamps that secures the back of the housing to the main housing body hadn’t latched. I can’t recall if I didn’t latch it the night before and just forgot to check it, or if I was talking to people Tuesday morning and wasn't paying 100% attention to what I was doing. Regardless, it’s on me.

It’s also rather depressing how quickly a camera housing fills with water. There’s frequently not a lot you can do. My camera was handed down to me from the skiff and I started kicking on the surface towards the shallow top entrance to Blue Hole. This all took less than 60 seconds. I had just started down when I glanced at the camera and noticed a bubble. That didn’t seem right. Then I realized that the bubble was INSIDE the now-blank LCD top display of the camera. That also didn’t seem right but I didn’t notice any other water inside the housing. Then I realized that the reason for that was that the entire housing had filled with water so there were no visible bubbles inside. And that's also when I noticed the not-caught latch. (The bubble I was seeing was actually an AIR bubble trapped inside the camera itself.)

I immediately knew the camera was toast. Nikon has told me over the years that, especially with the all-electronic cameras, there’s so much stuff deep inside that they'd have to rebuild the camera to mitigate the damage (usually more expensive than just buying another camera of the same model) and even then they couldn’t guarantee that some water hadn't gotten into some deep recess that they couldn’t find and the ensuing corrosion would short something out six months down the road. So it ends up that replacing the camera, not repairing it, is the safest and recommended solution.

Knowing all this, I stopped my descent, surfaced, and kicked back to the boat as quickly as I could, handed the camera back up, and watched helplessly as a steady stream of water literally poured out of the inside. There was nothing else I could do at that point so I went on and made the dive.

I sat out the next dive to give myself time to see if there was anything I could salvage and if there was any visible damage to the housing or the camera lens. The housing seems fine but I’ll probably have to send it back to Ikelite to check the metal electrical/strobe cables to make sure there’s no hidden corrosion.

The lens also has some water in it. It’s my beloved 28-105 macro that Nikon no longer makes and which I felt was a great lens to use with the D750. I’ve already been to Nikon here in L.A. and they’ve told me that both the camera and lens are beyond repair. But I’ve also discovered a number of these 28-105 lenses on eBay so I guess that’s my only option.

And for those of you thinking “Well at least he has insurance on all of this” . . . uh, no, I don’t. I had been insured with DEPP but they went out of business a while back and because I only got this setup literally the week before we left, I had looked into insurance but never got around to getting any. I mean, what are the odds that something could go wrong???? Lesson learned and an expensive one. In my case, the “D” in “D750” stands for “Drowned.”

The lessons for any of you who are fellow photogs – aside from buy the insurance right away – are to get some protocols and procedures down for how you hook up your camera and then follow them to the letter. In my case, I think I may have violated my standard procedures in one of two ways.

If the night before I didn’t fully hook things back up and just figured I snap the latches in the morning, that was a big error. I counsel people to never turn their air off once the regulator is hooked up because you don’t wasn’t it to look like it’s ready to go dive when it’s not. The same principle applies to cameras. Don’t leave them in a state where they look like they’re ready to go underwater but they’re not. Either fully seal everything up or leave it in such an obvious state of not-ready-to-dive (port off camera, camera not in housing, whatever) that it would be impossible to assume it’s ready to go.

If my mistake was made in the morning, then it was because I allowed myself to become distracted from the task at hand. My rule of thumb is that I don't talk to anyone else while I’m assembling the camera and I know I violated that that morning. It means I wasn't fully concentrating on the camera. I had snapped the down camera back latch but what I failed to notice was that the pin in the snap had popped over the latch and hadn’t really caught. So the latch itself was flat and locked but not connected to the camera back and that left that corner open which allowed the water to rush in. Had I not been Chatty Cathy that morning, I likely would have caught that and the flood wouldn’t have happened.

So while it was a sad day, all was not lost because I had another (brand new) camera with me which was my GoPro Hero4 Black. At the risk of making this a camera report rather than a trip report, let me share some thoughts with you on that.

GOPRO AS A VIDEO CAMERA
In a word: Excellent.

I had previously shot with a Hero2 and it seems to me that results from the Hero4 are much better. The video is crisp and lifelike and you can choose between four lens angle/lengths: Superview, Wide, Medium, and Narrow. You can vary the resolution from 4K down to VGA (I shot everything at HD 1080P 60fps). You can vary frame rate, you can play with the white balance and color temperature, the display on the back of the camera (I added on the full-color monitor) is much-improved over the Hero2, and the battery life seems to be better as well. On the Hero2, I’d kill a battery (with the monitor running at all times) in a little under an hour. With the Hero4, I still had juice at the end of an hourlong dive.

I shot video every day and assembled some edited videos over the course of the trip. I was really happy with the quality of each of them and would call the Hero4 Black a huge hit if you’d like a small camera that can produce some high-quality video. (I did think the Superview gave too much of a fisheye look and didn’t use that at all.) I assembled the videos in Windows Live Movie Maker which as limitations, but was good for a quick-and-dirty edit.

And because I also used it as a still camera, a few thoughts on that.

GOPRO AS A STILL CAMERA
In a phrase: Not-so-good.

I was able to get some very good pictures from the GoPro, as you’ll see when you look through the SmugMug slide show of the trip. But the still picture ability of the camera is spotty at best and there are numerous limitations you need to learn to work around. And I find it puzzling that a camera that can consistently produce such wonderful, crisp video shots, can’t do the same consistently in Photo mode.

The first thing I noticed, based on the EXIF information, is that the aperture is fixed at f2.8. Although this would seem to limit depth-of-field, it doesn’t as far as I can tell. Objects from about a foot out to infinity seemed to my eye to be in focus.

But with such a wide lens opening, you’d also think you’d get fairly fast shutter speeds to help freeze the action. Not so. I rarely got anything faster than 1/30 and frequently got speeds as slow as 1/3. Underwater, even though the lens is short (EXIF data says it’s a 3mm lens with a 35mm equivalent of 15mm in Wide and 20mm in Medium), it’s almost impossible to hold the camera that steady underwater, especially if you’re suspended mid-water, and that meant a lot of shots were blurry due to camera movement or subject movement or both.

The camera will also alter ISO at the same time and while you would think it would give you a high ISO to allow for a faster shutter speed, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it seemed to want to leave the shutter speed fairly slow and raises the ISO to account for differences in light levels. I’d rather it was the other way around.

The final issue I had with it as a still camera is that there is no option for Narrow. Your only choices are Wide (12MP and 7MP) or Medium (7MP or 5MP). It’s fairly impossible to shoot anything small. For the shots I got of a yellow Leaf Scorpionfish, I had to have the camera maybe 6 inches away from him (with a +10 macro lens on) and then you run the risk of going closer than the minimum focus distance for the camera.

So overall, better than nothing, but a fairly difficult camera to use for stills with many limitations that affect what subjects you can shoot and how you can shoot them. In short, it’s a lot of work and planning/thinking to get an acceptable picture. And much more work than it ought to be for a camera that’s basically pitched as point-and-shoot.

But enough of my bitching about camera issues. On to the diving . . .

YAP
This is still one of my favorite places in the world to visit. The diving is good to excellent and I just feel an affinity for the place. You also don’t get a feeling that they’re trying to be something they’re not or trying to grow faster than the infrastructure can handle. Yap’s just got a great feel to it.

Trivia about Yap: It's the ONLY place in the world where the airport code (YAP) is exactly the same as the name of the place you're actually visiting (Yap).

Our group to Yap consisted of 8.5 divers: Tamara Toitser, Lionel Galway & Susan Tritt, Ric Selber, Di Krall, Pat O’Brien, Audrey Anderson, and Laurie Kasper & me (Ken Kurtis). Audrey was the 0.5 due to circumstances beyond her control. She lives just outside of Denver and was flying through San Francisco to meet up with us in Honolulu. She wisely booked herself out of Denver a day early with a night in San Francisco in case of Denver weather issues. Little did she know it was The City by the Bay that would do her in.

She was set to arrive in Honolulu at the same time as our LA flight with a 2-hour layover before the flight to Guam. But her plane had mechanical problem and left SFO four hours late which meant she missed the Guam flight (there’s only one per day). And although United put her up in Honolulu and then flew her to Guam the next day, the flights from Guam to Yap only run twice a week, not every day. So she had to spend two more days in Guam before she could get to Yap which meant she missed half of the Yap trip (ergo, the point five). She was not a happy camper.

We’ll be helping her negotiate for compensation from United (their opening offer to her was a measly $100) but the lesson here is to make sure when you’re traveling that you understand what the options are if you miss a connection. United might have been able to get her to Honolulu in time for flight, even on a different carrier, but given the connection time, that’s something you’d need to set in motion quickly plus you’d have the issue of getting bags transferred. In Audrey’s case, she was able to get in a day of diving in Guam but it certainly wasn’t anything like what she’d have experienced in Yap. And since she was also doing Palau, it wasn’t like the entire trip was ruined. But it certainly wasn’t enhanced by being in Guam those first two days instead of Yap.

We stayed, as usual, with Bill Acker and his excellent staff at Manta Ray Bay and Yap Divers. Over the years you’ve heard me extol how wonderful everything is there and I’m going to be singing that song again. We stayed in the Ken Kurtis Wing (306, 307, 308, & 309 – these are the rooms I’ve always booked for the last ten years so Bill put a sign up with my name on it) which I think are not only the nicest rooms in Yap, but probably the nicest at any dive-dedicated resort I’ve visited over the years.

The standard package includes a wonderful buffet breakfast each morning on the Mnuw, their huge wooden sailing schooner that also serves as restaurant and social hub. Although we ate lunch each day at Ganir, the place down the street where I love to go for my $5 Regular Ramen & Pepsi, we ate dinner each evening on the Mnuw. Also as part of the standard package you get two dives per day but we add on to that with a third afternoon dive as well, plus a dusk Mandarinfish Dive, and the end-of-the-week Shark Feed.

In the past, the food’s been good, but sometimes a little hit-and-miss. But I think they’ve improved all that tremendously (including the speed of their service) since we were there in 2013. They’ve got a standard menu that includes some appetizers (I especially liked the regular chicken wings) and a variety of hamburgers and pizzas, all of which were also very good.

Each evening, they augment that with three or four specials. Food & Beverage Manager Detlef Trux has done a superb job of getting a good mix of food so each night you were interested in seeing what was available and whether you’ve go with a full meal special or combine some appetizers.

The other thing their staff excels at, and I mean the entire staff (not just the dive staff), is quickly learning your name and frequently addressing you by name. Granted, most of them know me because I’ve been coming there so long but a number of our divers commented how impressed they were with how many staff quickly were addressing them by name. Adds to that “I’m at home” feeling.

New this year is what they’re calling their “VIP Treatment” in reference to your dive gear. Basically, you won’t need to touch it all week. You’re assigned an open-air locker when you first arrive and each morning, your gear will be taken for you and set up on your pre-assigned boat and after the day of diving is done, the crew will wash everything and hang it back up in your locker. Definitely a nice touch.

And we've got to single out our "regular" dive guide and boat captain, John Pekailug & Willy Seiwemai. John & Willy have been taking care of us (or putting up with us) for over a decade now and their attitude, laughter, helpfulness, and general good-nature always makes our visits here even more special.

We did have some weather issues in Yap which made for a very interesting shark feed. The problem wasn’t so much the daily weather in Yap itself (we got a little rain – generally a torrential downpour daily that lasted for 10 minutes and then it was sunny again) but from three typhoons that were churning in the Pacific. They generated a big swell that made diving some parts of Yap difficult if not almost impossible, since they affected the visibility and the underwater surge.

Manta Ray Bay has three of what I would term signature dives: the manta feeding stations (there are three), the Mandarinfish dive, and the Shark Feed. And when we did the Shark Feed on Friday morning, those storms really packed a powerful punch.

We estimate the swell was running 6-8 feet at maybe a 12-15 second period plus there was a mild current running south to north. Because the dive is done along a sheer wall in about 40 feet of water, that wasn’t a huge concern although we knew there’d be surge. What was a concern was that if people got in shallow, the swell would simply pick them up and smash them into the shallow parts of the fringing reef. Not good.

And the surge was occasionally massive underwater. You definitely were hanging on for dear life, as you’ll see in the Shark Feed video. I was using my reef hook so I was anchored to a bare spot on the reef, but even so I was thrown 8 feet one way and then 8 feet the other way when some of the bigger waves passed overhead.

John & I debated canceling the dive outright but we felt that, as long as people listened to what we said during the briefing, we could do this safely. And the eventual outcome was just that. But not without some trying times.

The divers were actually in two groups, ours and then another group of about 10. Our group dropped in up-current, quickly descended, and planted ourselves in the feed area. No major problems, other than dealing with the surge.

But the other group was dropped slightly DOWN-current, which meant they had to kick against the current to get to the feed area. Most of them didn’t make it down the first time and to be picked up and re-dropped in a better position. And one diver literally grabbed on to the end of the bait line (no bait was on it) and was pulled down into position. We finally got most of the people down (a few aborted the dive) but it took thirty minutes overall.

Then the feed started. It’s a block of frozen fish parts with a piece of rebar running through it which is then clipped to a line and pulled down. It was interesting seeing how the sharks reacted to the conditions. It seemed to me there were fewer sharks than normal (probably 20 as opposed to 50) and they seemed to stay more tightly packed around the frozen bait that was on the line. It also seemed that there were 90% fewer small fish hanging around on the outskirts trying to snatch scraps. Most likely they were all tucked into the reef because of the conditions. But it was still an exciting, albeit shortened, experience.

The Mandarinfish Dive is also one I always enjoy. Every night around dusk, Mandarinfish in Yap (and all over the world) get frisky. The trick is simply to know which types of corals they’ll hang out on and then work to spot them flitting about and hooking up.

In Yap, the dive is done at O’Keefe Island, also known as Rainbow Reef, which is about a 5-minute run from Manta Ray Bay. Everyone plants themselves on a coral head (actually, John plants you and then comes back to check on how you’re doing) and you start looking. When you find a Mandarinfish, you follow that one with your light until it hooks up with another one and then the spectacle begins.

Basically, the males are chasing the females (just like in the human world). This can go on for quite some time (just like in the human world). Eventually, she decides to give in and gives the male a peck on the cheek. Then they rise together off the reef, cheek-to-cheek, and when they’re a foot or two above the reef . . . BOOM!!! . . . there’s an explosion of sperm and egg that then drift in the current. The happy couple then descends back to the reef and go their separate ways, although they may mate again with another individual. It’s really interesting to see this whole dance play out.

The rest of the diving in Yap was a combination of reef dives, which are outside the fringing atoll, and muck dives, which are inside. The muck dives have lots of cool things to find but the water's a bit cooler (80º or so) and the viz is generally around 20 feet.

One new muck site for us was Circus Wreck, which is only (as the other muck sites are) a 10-minute run from Manta Ray Bay. There's not a ton of stuff on the wreck but a couple of holds have Glass Sweepers and as we moved along the reef once we left the wreck, it got more and more interesting so it made for a very nice dive overall.

The outer reef dives vary from good to spectacular. Water temps were generally running in the low 80s and viz ranged anywhere from 50 to 150 feet. We enjoyed Fan Dancer, Crescent Reef, and Magic Kingdom. Another fav was Yap Caverns where you start with a guide-led trip through the many caverns and then end up exploring the sandy plains in front of the caverns, or turn one way for Lionfish Wall or the other way for Gilman Wall. In either case, at the top of these walls are millions of brightly-colored Anthias that are involved in a never-ending attempt to catch whatever morsels the current happen to be brining by at the moment. I could sit and watch that all day.

One of our favorite encounters occurred on the very last dive on the trip as we were going from Sakura Terrace to O'Keefe Reef and ran into not one, but TWO large Broadclub Cuttlefish. They were very approachable (as the pictures attest) and fairly tolerant of our presence, although at one point, one of them turned totally white which is usually a sign of fear. But eventually, it turned back to a more-normal brown-ish and continued ambling about the reef. Pretty cool.

Yap, to me, really has it all: Big and small animal encounters, healthy corals, generally healthy fish populations (although some reefs are less-populated than others), a great place to use as a base of operations, and a culture and ambiance that's very welcoming.

We'll definitely be going back again and I hope you'll give some thought to joining us or just going on your own some time.

PALAU
Seven of our nine Yappers continued on to Palau (Pat & Di only did the Yap week). Getting from Yap to Palau is amazingly easy. The Saturday night flight leaves Yap at 11PM and arrives in Palau at 11PM since you cross a time zone. And we picked up Audrey's husband, Marlow Anderson, along the way (his flight out of SFO was on time and he connected in HNL to GUM to YAP). In addition, Donna Groman and Cecilia Quigley-Groman met us in Palau but they flew from LAX via Taipei and China Airlines. (FYI for those traveling to Palau, the Groman's airfare on China Airlines was about $800 cheaper than our airfares on United Airlines.) So for Palau, we were 10 strong.

In Palau, we had booked with the Palau Aggressor II. Since that doesn't board until Sunday afternoon, we stayed at the West Plaza By the Sea overnight, and had most of Sunday to walk around Palau before we needed to go to the boat (actually Koror, as that's the name of the city).

The last time I'd been to Palau was 2007 and although things were similar, it definitely had been built up in the last eight years. They still don't have a traffic light, however. One was installed years ago near the Palau Community College but the locals despised it so much it was first disconnected and then removed entirely.

We also had a heck of time finding a room. (Many thanks to Lisa Stierwalt of LiveAboard vacations for bailing us out.) Apparently, part of the problem here can be laid at the feet of China. Palau has apparently become a very popular destination for Chinese snorkelers to the point where there are four flights a day from China. In turn, these Chinese visitors tend to snap up many of the available rooms in Koror. So if you're planning a trip in the future, book your hotel room early so you have time to hunt if availability is limited.

A must-see stop when you're walking around Koror is the local jail. You don't have to commit a crime to get in as they have a "Prisoner's Gift Shop" that's open from 8AM-6PM every day. And this is where you go to see the largest collection of storyboards (traditional Palauan folkart) and you know they're authentic because they're all carved by the resident prisoners. You literally walk in a side door at the jail (when we went the first time, there was a guy shackled to a bench near the entrance), past a guard, and into a small air-conditioned room that houses everything.

When we visited (both times), we chatted with Roxy who was in charge of the room. She's 18 months into a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking but is hoping to have her sentence commented. In the meantime, can I interest you in a storyboard? They're all really interesting, the prices are negotiable (either by Roxy or the actual inmate carver who they go get), and even if you don't buy anything (I think we bought a total of five), it's something you must experience.

The Palau Aggressor II (henceforth called the PA2) is a lovely place to spend the week. It's a three-level catamaran that's 106 feet long and 30 feet wide, accommodating 18 passengers in 9 staterooms and a crew of 7. Each stateroom has a lower double and an upper single (so it can accommodate a couple of two individuals) with vanity and en-suite toilet and shower. All the rooms are on the main deck (along with the dive deck) but if you get #9, be aware that it opens directly on to the dive deck itself.

The second level has the main salon which also serves as bar and dining area (the galley, wheelhouse, and crew quarters are up here too) and this was the main social area after each dive. There are tables and chairs outside, stools built in around the rail, and plenty of room for everyone. The third level is the sun deck which is (ironically) 2/3 shaded and has some chaise lounges, tables and chairs, and two hammocks.

All the diving is done from the 35' skiff (the PA2.5) that's carried on the back of the PA2. It sits level with the dive deck and is lowered into the water and raised up through a hydraulic lift. All your major dive gear lives on the skiff for the entire week so when it's time to go, you put on wetsuit and booties, climb on board (everyone’s got an assigned station), the skiff is lowered, and off you go at up to 40mph (bring a jacket because it can get cold on those rides). The skiff is shaded but has open sides so, at the dive site, it's gear up and backroll in. When you're done, the skiff picks you up, you re-board via a ladder, and go back to your spot.

And the PA2.5 was really good about not only handing out towels on the skiff after every dive, but also bottles of water too. Everyone has a 10-ounce water bottle with their dive number (1-18) on it which is kept in a cooler up front. After every dive on the way back to the big ship you were offered a towel and water. It's a really great way to help keep people hydrated in the tropical environment.

Another nice post-dive touch was that when we got back to the main boat and the skiff was brought back up to deck level, there was always a crew person circulating the dive deck with a tray of assorted drinks: water, sodas, lemonade, and such during day dives, and fresh hot chocolate after night dives. Nice touch.

In fact, we can't say enough good things about the 7-person crew. Aggressor crews have always been at the top of their game but they've raised the bar even a bit more. You may recall that after our November trip aboard the Belize Sun Dancer, we raved about the helpfulness and attentiveness of the crew, and the PA2 crew gives them a run for their money. They're always trying to find a way to say "Yes" rather than explain why they can't do something you asked for.

This carried over to the galley too. If you had some dietary needs or just weren't fond of something (for instance, I'm not a big fish eater), Chef Cameron Smay would make something else for you. Breakfasts were a combination of cooked-to-order and serve-yourself, lunches were all buffet-style, and dinners were plated and served to you at your seat by the crew. The food was excellent all the way around.

As mentioned, diving was done from the skiff and was fairly tightly scheduled. First dive was at 7:15AM, second at 10:30AM, third at 1:30PM, fourth at 4:30PM, and night dives (Tues-Wed-Thu) were at 7:15PM following dinner. If one dive got off a little late or ran long, other times were adjusted, but this was the goal and the nice thing was you knew ahead of time what the plan for the day was and could plan accordingly.

Dives were all guided, usually with one guide leading and one or even two bringing up the rear, but there was no requirement to stay with the guides. The only real restrictions Aggressor puts on you is a depth limit of 110 feet and a total bottom time (including safety stop) of one hour, both of which I thought were reasonable. Tanks are 80cf aluminums although there are two 100cf tanks that can be rented for an extra charge. Nitrox is 32-ish (it ranged from 29% to 34%) and is available for an extra $100/week. I'll again suggest that if you choose to dive nitrox, do what I do and set your computer at 28%. Not only does it account for any fluctuations in the percentage of the mix, but it also then gives you both longer no-deco times (over air) and still builds in a margin of safety since your computer limit is less than the limit of the actual gas you're breathing.

Palau is known for currents that can range from mild to raging and some dives are what are called "hook-in" dives. In these cases, you use a reef hook (large barb-less hook) that's attached to a line that's in turn attached to your BC. At the hook-in spot, you find a rock or dead spot on the reef, plant your hook, reel out your line, and then just hang as the currents wafts over you. (The Maldives, Papua New Guinea, and Tahiti are other spots were hooking-in is prevalent.) It's a great way to see reef activity in a current without getting blown away or tiring yourself out or using up all your air to hold position. At the end of the dive, you carefully unhook and drift off with the current.

Overall, the diving was good to occasionally excellent but also more crowded than I remember from either years ago. Again, this seems due to the Chinese influx. There were simply a LOT more day boats than I remember seeing in the past. When we were at Ulong Channel, I counted eight day boats, each with an average of 15 divers, sitting at the moorings diving or getting ready to dive. Add us in to the mix and that's 100 divers . . . on ONE site.

On the one hand, I can't honesty say I noticed any degradation in the reefs. On the other hand, you've got to assume that if there are significantly more people diving Palau, reef damage is bound to occur from the increased numbers.

The other problem is just the sheer number of divers. Most of the Chinese influx seems to be snorkelers so that's not much of an issue except at a place like Jellyfish Lake. But we definitely juggled our dive times &/or sites a bit to try to avoid a gaggle of other divers.

One place we couldn't avoid this was at the German Channel cleaning station. This was the second time we dove it as we'd gotten skunked the first time. And as we settled into position, I noticed a lot of fish about 50 feet downcurrent and behind our group so I decided to hang there instead of at the cleaning station. It was a fabulous decision on my part because I was in the middle of the afternoon bite, where EVERYONE is trying to feed before tucking in for the night so I had large schools of Bigeyes, Barracuda (both Sennet & Chevron), Black Snapper, Bigeye Jacks, and a huge school of some sort of baitfish (Fusiliers or Anchovies or something like that). If it was wonderful enough just seeing that, I also had two manta rays separately swim through the baitfish school and watched as the baitfish parted to let the manta through and then closed ranks once the big fish had passed.

The rest of the group didn't see any of this until the very last ten minutes of their dive when they joined me. The viz at German Channel is rarely (in my experience) spectacular and it was probably 50 feet or so on this day so they couldn't really see me and what I was watching.

Instead, they sat around the cleaning station in hopes that mantas would come in to be cleaned but what they got instead was (literally) a boatload of divers of unknown origin who dropped into the water, swam right through the cleaning station itself (which would have scared anything off), and then right through the middle of our group. Needless to say, our people were not pleased. The PA2 guys said they thought they knew who the other group was and would have a talk with them. Bad form on many levels.

But that was pretty much the only problem we had with other groups underwater. You certainly expect to see other divers at such hook-in places and major dive sites like Blue Corner and New Dropoff. But for the most part, we were able to plan it so that we had areas to ourselves or would drop in far enough behind other groups that they were always ahead of us (especially on a drift dive).

Over the course of the week, we got in 24 dives. (Audrey Anderson made every one of them was given an "Iron Diver" award at the end of the trip.) We started out on the Helmet Wreck followed by the Iro (they've both good "checkout" spots for the PA2 to get an idea of diving skill levels) and the Iro was the best viz I've ever seen on it. It also had a small school of eight Longfinned Spadefish hanging the front of the boat and I loved sitting there shooting them.

With the exception of the two wreck dives (which are fairly inshore), we saw sharks on every dive. This is especially good news when you realize that Palau declared itself a Shark Sanctuary in 2001 so hopefully this is having some positive effect. Palau is also in the process of ending all commercial fishing contracts in effect for their waters and becoming a total marine sanctuary. As Palau President Thomas Remengesau Jr. put it, "We feel that a live tuna or shark is worth a thousand times more than a dead fish." Diving tourism is estimated at $85 million (USD) annually in Palau so it's a resource they really want to protect.

Throughout the week we saw just about every fish you'd expect to see plus some Cuttlefish and a lot of turtles, mostly Hawksbills. I think my favorite was our dive at Blue Corner. The current was fairly mild so I didn't bother to hook in but moseyed about taking pictures of the divers. As I reached the end of the hook-in line, a small group of Bluestripe Snappers (which are stunningly yellow with thin blue horizontal stripes) surrounded me and apparently adopted me as their leader because wherever I went, they hung with me. Maybe it had something to do with my yellow fins.

We were also able to make it over to Peleliu and dove Peleliu Express (current was mild so not all that impressive) as well as Orange Beach and Barracks Point, both of which we liked a lot. A number of us skipped the second dive (Peleliu Cut) to take a land tour of Peleliu with Tangie, the tour guide who's a local treasure. As you may know, Peleliu was a major battle for US forces in World War II and we saw landing sites, the Japanese airstrip, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and the 1,000-man cave where Japanese forces dug in after the battle was over.

There's also a small museum that Tangie helps run but I think most moving, at least for me, was seeing some of the monuments and shrines to those lost in the battle, both American and Japanese, including one that listed the eight Congressional Medal of Honor recipients from that battle, five of whom died on Peleliu. Very moving, especially in light of the idyllic nature of the island now.

I never look forward to the end of a trip but on this one, the last day is also one of my favorite experiences: Jellyfish Lake.

This is a land-locked salt-water lake inhabited by millions of fist-sized jellyfish. They spend the day following the sun around which allows the symbiotic algae inside them to flourish. You arrive by skiff at a small dock in a cove, then do a 10-minute hike up and over a large hill (there are now cement stairs most of the way - that's an improvement over eight years ago), and you come to a floating dock. Eight years ago, it was a 20'x20' square. Now there are multiple pontoons that have been added to accommodate the increased traffic flow. We were very fortunate (and the PA2 crew planned wisely) in that we were the first ones there that day and entered the water at 8AM.

Jellyfish Lake is strictly a snorkel-only area so you don mask and fins at the dock, slide into the water, and head into the sunny areas in pursuit of jellies. They're not hard to find. You see onesies and twosies right away, then small clusters, then more and more, until finally you're immersed in jellyfish. They all on the move, pulsing and throbbing, and going about their business.

Although it seems to me that in years past they've been thicker and more plentiful, it's still an amazing experience. And the jellies don't really have any predators in the lake, except for some anemones that line the shaded shoreline, so as long as they stay in the sun, they're OK.

You can get an idea of what it's like from the short video I put together that's on our website.

We spent an hour here and then made the trek back up and over the hill. The skiff took us on a high-speed tour through the Rock Islands and back to the main boat. A few people who were not flying that evening did one final dive at Chandelier Caves but most of us skipped that one and turned the PA2 into the largest clothesline in the world as we washed and hung out dive gear. That evening we headed back to the Koror airport for our midnight flight to Yap, then Guam, then Honolulu, and then Los Angeles, arriving at 5AM. It's a long journey but worth it.

Both Yap and Palau have unique sights to see and offer great diving opportunities. If you can take two weeks off, it's a great idea to do them in tandem as we did, with a full week in each place. We'll definitely be making plans to go back again and we invite you to check out the videos and still pictures posted on the Reef Seekers website so you'll feel the tug of attraction too.


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