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Palau, 2006

Bill Utterback

As I dried my gear in Yap in anticipation of heading to Palau, I thought that I had experienced the highlight of my trip.  Little did I know, the diving in Palau had a lot more in store for me!

Going from Yap to Palau

It was midnight and a phone call from the front desk at the Manta Ray Bay Hotel woke me from my sleep.  It was time to get ready to head to the airport and start my trip to Palau.  It was a little weird waking up at midnight to get on an airplane but the only way to get to Palau was to backtrack to Guam and then head to Palau.  There are a few days each week that there is a flight straight to Palau but this wasn’t one of them.

I had noticed the Micronesia equivalent of the TSA in the Yap airport but I experienced it more firsthand once I got onboard.  They let all the passengers get onboard and then passengers like me on the left side of the plane were directed to retrieve our belongings from the overhead bins before deplaning and going to an area in the airport.  At that point, they searched the airplane.  After about 20 minutes, we reboarded the plane and headed to Guam on time about 3:15 a.m.

After arriving in Guam at 4:45 a.m., a quick transfer down the hill from the Guam airport got me to my day room at the Outrigger Ohana Oceanview.  I found it difficult to sleep but it provided me a chance to refresh myself for the rest of the trip.  I considered eating at the hotel but the menu for the only open restaurant was written in either Japanese or Chinese.  I could see by the pictures on the menu that the food wasn’t for me.  A quick transfer back to the Guam airport put me in touch with a McDonalds and I was ready for of my 6:50 p.m. flight. 

What? No Electricity?

My flight got into Palau by 8:00 p.m.  The driver that provided my transfer was an ex-patriot that had been on the island for a few years and, as he drove to my hotel, he explained the background of the signs prompting the recall of a prominent politician/radio personality and commented about other things of interest.  I was soon at the West Plaza by the Sea and led up to my room by the staff.  I wasn’t ready for what I found in my room…no electricity.  The hotel employee needed to turn the key in the wall to get electricity for my room.  That was a first for me!

First Impressions

The following morning when it was light, I learned that “By the Sea” actually means “by a muddy bay filled with water when the tide comes in.”  Like in Yap, the tide in Palau impacts many things other than diving. 

After a quick breakfast, I headed up the street to walk around the business area of Koror.  I found the short walk to the main road challenging due to the lack of sidewalks and potholes in the road large enough to lose the front end of a car.  I found it out of the ordinary that many people were walking with an unfolded umbrella with no rain in sight.  As the morning continued, it got warmer and I realized the shade provided by an umbrella would have been nice.  An internet café allowed me to catch up on e-mail and get cooled off before my walk back to the hotel.

My transfer to the Big Blue Explorer (BBE) was prompt and it allowed me to see parts of the island as we picked up other divers staying on the BBE for the week.  The van passed though a shipyard and stopped next to a large, rusty ship.  My first impression of the BBE was something along the lines of “What have you gotten yourself into Bill?”  I had seen pictures of the BBE and knew that it wasn’t a yacht-like boat.   The BBE had been refurbished and turned into a liveaboard.  As the week went along, I came to realize that the BBE provided me with everything that I would have wanted on a yacht-like boat. 

After leaving my belongings in my cabin, I walked over to Sam’s Tours to see what their operation was like.  I had seen many advertisements in periodicals and was curious to see it.  There appeared to be a lot of good-natured socializing going on.  The boats appear to be typical dive boats, their dive shop was well stocked, and they seemed to be a full service dive operator.  I was told that a typical boat ride was about an hour to the good dives sites so I was pretty confident that I had made the right decision in diving Palau from a liveaboard.

The Big Blue Explorer

Even though I had a cabin to myself, I felt a little claustrophobic that first night.  The cabins have air conditioning but the air was a little stale.  The next morning, I was told how to better set the controls and that wasn’t a problem the rest of the week.  The BBE headed out after spending the night in the shipyard. 

I appreciated the spaciousness the boat offered.  The open air dining area allowed us to enjoy the wonderful scenery.  The frequent, short rains were only minor inconveniences since the plastic screen kept the rain off us.  The water temperature in the hot tub wasn’t very warm so it was hardly used, even after night dives.  The entertainment area was popular at night as crew members joined the divers in watching the videos divers brought along.

A pre-recorded song using chimes was the signal that we were about to eat or go diving so we became quite familiar with the song.  A continental breakfast was followed by a dive, which was followed by breakfast.  The rest of the dives were scheduled between lunch, a snack, and dinner.  The food was typical of buffet food with soup, salad, potatoes or rice, a choice of meats, and a dessert to top off the meal.

A tender was used to take us to the dive sites since none of the diving was done directly off the BBE.  After we set up our gear on the first day, the crew carried our tank/BCDs/regs on and off the tender all week.  The crew filled the tanks while they were on the tender using several long whips.  There were several showerheads on the dive deck for a quick rinse and the first ones to get to them after a dive had warm water.  Gear was hung on the water pipes on both sides of the boat so we all had plenty of room.  Rinse buckets for cameras were available on the dive deck and the camera room provided more than enough space for the photographers among the 8 divers on the boat. 


A short ride to the dive site and a backroll put us in the water.  A checkout dive to 80 feet should have tipped off me that I was in store for some deep dives.  We were told on several occasions that we needed to be at least 110-120 feet deep in our morning dives to be sure we didn’t create reverse profiles for ourselves.  Typical depths through the day went from the +100 foot depths in the mornings to 60-100 feet in the afternoon and 40-60 feet at night. 

 The water temperature was around 83 degrees with the visibility 50-70 feet.  Most of the divers on the trip were experienced and had little trouble with air consumption so after 50-60 minutes the DM signaled us and inflated his surface marker buoy to end the dive.  Doing 27 dives in 5 day meant a lot of nitrogen loading and I couldn’t imagine diving Palau on a liveaboard without the use of nitrox.  Our DMs provided detailed briefings and led the dives.  The photographers among us appreciated their willingness to point things out.  The current was a little challenging as it changed directions in the middle of several occasions.

I was within arms reach of sharks, mantas, lionfish, schools of fish, and saw so many different nudibranchs and anonomefish that I had a hard time focusing on what I wanted to take a picture of...I had so much indecision.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop seeing so many of the things that I've always wanted to see.  There were so many fish and so little time.

Memorable Diving

Feeling out of control is never a real comfortable feeling underwater.  We had several dives in Palau’s channels that were dug years ago and the diving these channels was a real thrill.  We’d orient ourselves to the direction the current flowed through the channels and get ready to fly.  Strong finning allowed us to move a few feet laterally but there was no way to do much more than steer ourselves.  I had never seen so many large groupers than what I saw in Ulong Channel with 3 and 4 footers being the standard size with quite a few much larger.  We were told that they were gathering, getting ready to mate.

“With or without current?” should have been the question we were asked before diving the Blue Corner.  We were introduced to a reef hook before we entered Ulong Channel.  The DMs had us practice our techniques in getting the hook/cord out and reaching ahead to hook on some dead coral in anticipation of diving the Blue Corner.  At the Blue Corner, the water blasts against the side of the wall, rushes up toward the surface, and barrels over the plateau creating a thrill ride.  Or at least, that’s what we were told.  Our first and second dives on Blue Corner were without much current.  We saw white tip sharks resting in the sand, green morays free swimming, and leaf scorpionfish swaying on the plateau.  The resident Neopeolon Wrasse that eats hard boiled eggs didn’t seem to mind.  The schools of barrracuda, jacks, and snappers were there but not the current we had expected.  There was a lot of speculation both times we got back on the tender about the cause of the missing current.

We were given an opportunity to dive the Blue Corner one last time before we left and we were hopeful that we would have an opportunity to dive this site with current.  We weren’t disappointed.  As we got out the hook several feet below the plateau, the upswell jetted us upward and we quickly reached to hook ourselves.  Once hooked, all we needed to do was to make the cord taunt by inflating our BCDs and allow the current bring the action to us.  The circling schools of jacks and barracuda appeared to be more responsive to the movement of the sharks gliding down the side of the reef only to circle back to the beginning and enjoy another free ride down the face of the wall.  After several minutes, we pulled ourselves hand over hand down the cord to unhook.  We quickly put away the hook/cord in an effort not to get accidentally hooked as we drifted over the reef.  The current moved us a quarter to half mile off the reef into the blue water by the time we finished our surface interval.

All our night dives were done on walls by descending to around 60 feet and then moving up the wall to 30 feet.  This was a new experience for me as my previous night dives had always been on top of shallow reefs.  Good buoyancy skills were a must since it was easy to drop 10-15 feet as you focused on the action on the wall.  Having lionfish crawl a few feet above me as the coral extended away from the wall and seeing all the tiny red eyes of the shrimp all were a little unnerving at first. 

Several of our dives were by the island of Peleliu.  We were given the chance to tour the island and see the remains of the WWII US assault on the Japanese holding the island but several of us declined and went diving instead.  As I listened to them tell about their tour, I realized that I might have made a mistake in not taking the tour.  At the area called Peleliu Express we saw a hemocline where the Pacific Ocean and Philippine Sea met.  I had seen many thermoclines in my freshwater diving but this was quite a site as contents of the two bodies of water mixed.

On the way back from the dive site named the Big Wall, we were treated to an interesting sight.  We had been told that we might see a pod of dolphins, “spinner dolphins” they called them, and that we’d stay for a bit if they wanted to play with us.  I’d seen dolphins play in a boat’s wake but the spinner dolphins were a real treat.  They swim within arms reach in the wake of our tender and then dive underwater to seconds later leap in the air while doing 360s and 720s.  We were discouraged from jumping in the water with them since they leave as quick as they appear.  We were entertained for the better part of 10 minutes by these dolphins as the tender repeatedly circled the pod.

I had seen Jellyfish Lake in an IMAX movie and I wasn’t disappointed experiencing it firsthand.  Our tender took us to a dock in a lagoon and we walked up a hill with our fins, mask, snorkel, and camera in hand.  A thick rope had been stretched the length of the hill to help visitors keep their balance.  An equally challenging walk down the hill led us to a dock.  A short snorkel swim after a giant stride off the dock put us in the lake area.  We saw more jellyfish the farther out we swam.  A quick count at 3-4 feet deep revealed that there were about 20 jellyfish within arms reach.  I was lathered in jellyfish on a dive down to 14 feet.

Mandarianfish Lake was available to dive just before dusk on the last day.  This lake was more lagoon-like as it was closed all around except by a 20 feet opening.  The DM gave each of us a coral head to study and then pointed the Mandarainfish in coral.  These colorful 1-4 inch long fish chased each other around on the inside of the coral in anticipation of the mating.  After watching them chase each other for 30-40 minutes, I had enough and left before mating began.

Ending the Week

The only unpleasant weather we had started the last night on the BBE.  A typhoon in Indonesia that was headed toward the Philippines caused it to rain and did it rain!  The BBE anchored in the bay began to rock and it didn’t quit.  I pitied the people that were susceptible to seasickness as I was sure they were suffering.  After breakfast the following morning, we were transported to land with the rain blowing sideways.  Several divers were transported to the Palau Pacific Resort and I was taken back to the West Plaza by the Sea.  The West Plaza wasn’t using the front door due to towels they had stuck under the door to keep the rainwater out.  Unlike the room I had on my arrival, there were fleas in this room that I had to deal with as things dried.  I concluded this might be one drawback to having the electricity turned off when the rooms weren’t being used.  It was questionable whether my flight would be able to get to Palau and leave on time until mid-afternoon when the rain finally quit. 

Smooth Sailing Getting Home

I was impressed with my experience at the Palau airport!  It was so easy to get checked in and through the line of baggage searchers.  The line moved quickly since they had each passenger’s seat assignment and luggage tickets already printed out so all I did was show the person at the entrance my passport and head to the counter.  They double-checked things and I was ready to leave. 

I sat on the right side of the plane on the way from Palau to Yap to Guam so I had a chance to stay onboard and watch the Micronesia TSA lift seat cushions and rummage through magazines on the left side of the airplane.  We were directed to remove our belongings from the overhead bins and move to the left side of the plane.  Once again, there was rummaging going on before we were allowed to go back to our assigned seats.  The left side passengers got back on the plan and we headed to Guam. 

Despite having to get my luggage, go through customs, and check it several times, the trip back to Cedar Rapids was uneventful.  Flights were on time if a bit not early and my luggage arrived intact.  Leaving Palau at 1:00 a.m. and getting in at 2:00 p.m. that same day, I was glad that I had chosen to fly into Cedar Rapids and not be left with a four-hour drive to get home from O’Hare.

Many people have asked me if I’d go back.  While I had an incredible experience, I’ve told people that I would not.  I loved the diving.  The corals, fans, and sponges were beautiful.  Wide angle?  Macro?  They had all a photographer could want.  Want something big?  Something small?  You could get it on every dive.  So, why wouldn’t I?  Giving it second thought, yes, I guess would go back but this trip opened my eyes to what the Pacific has to offer and I want to see more of it.  I’d love to go back but not before I travel to the other areas I’ve always wanted to dive.