By Sharon Spence Lieb
Why is Palau considered one of the world’s best dive and snorkel destinations? Most folks wonder where it is, and for good reason: from the UK, it involves over 20 flying hours to Micronesia. Palau is an archipelago of more than 586 islands, with a population around 20,000. In the westernmost corner of Micronesia, Palau is located four hundred miles north of the Equator, east of the Philippines, in the stunning turquoise Pacific Ocean. Plan on staying at least a week, two weeks even better.
Palau has many excellent dive operators, like Splash Dive Center, Palau Diving Center, Sam’s Tours Dive Shop, and Fish ‘N Fins. Their expert guides are helpful, and will escort you to amazing underwater adventures with some of Palau’s 1,450 species of fish and 500 species of coral.
Donning my snorkel/mask/flippers, I encounter a four-foot silvery black tipped reef shark, who gives me the eye, then flashes away into the depths. A limey/pink parrotfish arrives, inviting me for sea tea in his coral castle, then introduces me to his pals, a school of rainbowy butterflyfish.
Our boat cruises to several popular dive sites, but my favorite is aptly named “The Big Deep”. Hopping off the boat, we snorkelers stand on the sand in four feet of clear sea. Face down, I stare at clams the size of my dining room table, and brain corals the size of my car. Corals, sea fans, and reef fish are rainbows of raspberry, gold, emerald, and lavender. I swim into thick schools of fish, trying to wrap my arms around them- they’re just out of reach. A short swim floats me to the reef’s edge, which drops down hundreds of feet. I hang happily over the abyss, a happy underwater Space Girl. Big fish cruise below, and I’m jealous of what my diver pals are seeing. Probably giant manta rays, which grow to fifteen feet and weigh 3000 pounds. Or graceful hawks-bill turtles, navigating thousands of miles. Is that a school of sharks I see, patrolling the depths?
Surrounded with such beauty, I’m euphoric. Why must I remain a landlocked human, when the sea is so alive and dramatic? Could I become my authentic Mermaid self, here in Palau? Opalescent bubbles from the diver’s air tanks float upward, popping all over my body. Palau, Champagne Underwater, I laugh out loud.
KAYAKING THE ROCK ISLANDS
The islands of Palau boast the most diverse species of flora and fauna found anywhere in Micronesia. The Rock Islands are limestone, ancient relics of coral reefs that surfaced to form Palau’s southern lagoon. Kayaking around these 250-300 lushly forested Islands is an up close way to see many plants, birds, and shallow marine creatures.
“We have 163 plant species, 23 endemic orchids, and 46 species of reptiles,” our guide Jayden Tuelbang explains, as we paddle along the limestone cliffs. “Not to mention 153 species of birds.”
Peering into the clear sea, huge bronze basket corals and mammoth clams impress us. Delicate pink sea fans look like Bolshoi Ballerina tutus. Paddling quietly, we embrace the silence. A soft bell chime pierces the air.
“That’s our Palau Bush Warbler,” smiles Jayden. “She’s calling for her mate.”
I’m wishing my mate was here too, to share this magnificence.
A baby black tipped reef shark streaks past my kayak, darting for safety into the mangrove grasses. One foot long, he’s perfectly beautiful, waiting to join his pals in the Pacific Ocean.
I have to admit, I’m not the biggest jellyfish fan. When they line our beaches for miles, sting like bingo and are unsightly and awful — I’m usually discouraged from swimming (and even going near the beach). So when I hear one of Palau’s most fascinating nature encounters is swimming with “friendly jellyfish,” my initial response is: you all have fun, I’m going for cappuccino!
But I’ve flown so far, why not take a look? First there’s a steep up and down hike on a rocky tree limbed trail. Nice workout. Then a peaceful lake filled with snorkelers. Hmm, how dangerous could it be?
I nervously hold hands with my pals Yuri and Emma Krasov, and off we swim into the warm murky lake. A few hand sized jellys waft past us. Then dozens. I grab Emma’s shoulder, don’t panic Sharon. Emma is petting the jellyfish like they’re puppies.
She gently pushes one towards my hand. I give it a tap. Feels like jelly, soft, rubbery jelly.
In the middle of this warm lake, we’re guests at a jellyfish party. I feel them bobbing all around me and think, ok, everyone stay calm and just enjoy this Twilight Zone moment. I wonder-do they have brains? Are they happy we are here visiting or are they waiting for us to leave? Surely they have a busy day, sunning, swimming and snacking. Unless you speak jellyfish, all your communication must be telepathic.
Later we learn that when Jellyfish Lake was sealed off from the ocean, the moon and golden jellyfish living here lost their ability to sting. They now live on algae, and spend their day bobbing to the surface, following the sun.
Sounds good to me.
CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL
For mesmerising adventures above and below the Pacific Ocean, Palau Micronesia is truly the “8th Natural Wonder of the World.” If you’re curious and open to magnificence, you’ll be awed by this special place.
For information on Palau, visit: Visit-palau.com