GUAM Dec 15, 2014
From after a two-hour flight from Hong Kong, I transferred through Manila. Sitting next to me on the flight was a Filipino woman who worked as a domestic worker in Hong Kong for an Indian family. She cooked all the meals, did all the cleaning and was the primary care giver for their 3 year-old, working a 16-hour day, six days a week. She was paid HK$4,100/month (US$800) with 3 weeks paid holiday per year. This was considerably more than she could make back in the Philippines. She had worked in a garment factory for 16 years, then as a secretary for 6 years before becoming a domestic worker abroad. On her day off, Sunday, she made all the food for the day before she went out to the park to socialize with all the other Filipino domestic workers. Unmarried with no children, she was happy to be spending Christmas with her nephews and nieces in the Philippines.
The large plane was full, mostly with Filipino women. She guessed that 80% were domestic workers in Hong Kong. Most were probably married and their unemployed men were at home looking after the children (she called them “housebands”). The men on the flight were mainly transiting through Hong Kong from the Middle East. Ten million Filipinos work outside the country and contribute a significant proportion of the GNP of the Philippines.
I have never had such a thorough search as in the Manila airport on my way to Guam, an American possession. I bought water and pop after I went through security that could not be taken into the waiting room. My daypack was emptied completely. My flip-flops were inspected and bent every which way.
Manila was 26°C and humid, quite the change from chilly Hong Kong and China.
I then had a 5-hour flight from Manila to Guam, the common route that United flies to Palau (it was by far the cheapest flight there). Leaving at 22:55, I arrived in Guam at 04:45 and had a 15-hour layover. There was little choice in the flights but I was looking forward to see what Guam was all about. It also counts as a “country” in the Travelers Century Club.
Guam is located in the western Pacific about 900 miles north of the equator. It is the largest island in Micronesia. I landed at 5 and slept in the airport off and on till noon. As there was no luggage storage, I checked my pack at United and walked the 45 minutes to downtown Hagatna, the capital, read on the beach and then walked back. It was like small town America with palm trees.
History. The local culture is called Chamorro and the festivals still commemorate that heritage. First settled by the Spanish in 1668, it was transferred to the US after the Spanish-American war of 1898. Spanish traditions of christening parties, fandangos (weddings), novenas, funerals and death-anniversary rosaries remain an important part of the culture. Japan seized control on Dec 11, 1941. Chagui’an Massacre – 21 young Chamorro men were beheaded after carrying ammunition to the Japanese command post. Tinta and Faha Cave Massacre – On July 15 and 16th, 1944, the Japanese rounded up men and women, marched them to caves and tossed hand grenades in the caves, bayoneted the rest eventually killing 50. Fena Caves Massacre – On July 23, 1944, Japanese soldiers killed 30 young men and women with grenades and bayonets after raping many of the women. The entire population was moved to concentration camps in July 1944 and many died in the long march. The US Marines landed on July 21st 1944 and by August had retaken the island. July 21st is celebrated as Liberation Day and a carnival is held from June to mid August to celebrate Liberation.
Climate. Tropical with average yearly temperatures of 86°F. Evening temperatures rarely fall below 70°F and daily highs rarely exceed 90°F.
Languages. English and Chamorro. Efforts to keep the language alive continue in the schools.
Religion. Predominately Catholic. Santa Marian Damalen is the island’s patron saint and her day is celebrated on December 8th.
Time is 10 hours ahead of GMT.
Money. US dollar. Regular gas $3.98, diesel $4.27.
Known as the “America of Asia”, it is a frequent holiday destination for Japanese, Korean and the rest of Micronesia. There are regular flights from the Philippines, Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, the neighbors of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (Saipan, Tinian, Rota), Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia (Chuuk. Pohnpei, Yap, and Kosrae). The Guam Airport is huge with 18 gates, 3 levels and some good places to lie down in.
There are two strategic US bases – Naval Base Guam in Santa Rita and Andersen Air Force Base in Yigo. The military is the second largest contributor to the island’s GNP and 17,000 US Marines were relocated in 2014 from Okinawa, Japan.
WWII Sites. There are a dozen sites on the island pertaining to the war. War in the Pacific National Historic Park is the only facility in the US national park service dedicated to the Pacific Theater of WWII. Several of the sites consist of gun encasements, caves, Japanese tunnels, defensive guns and pillboxes. Apra Harbor has several warship wreck sites including a German boat from WWI along side a Japanese boat from WWII. South Pacific Memorial Park commemorates all those who died on Guam during WWII and was funded by a Japanese nonprofit group. Asan Bay Overlook provides the same views that the Japanese had of the US Marines landing in Guam (445 underwater relics).
Landmarks: Two Lover’s Point has culture and breathtaking views from the 378-foot cliff top. Plaza de Espana in Hagatna was the home of the Spanish Governor. Santo Papa as Juan Pablo Dos Monument, near the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica in Hagatna commemorates the visit to Pope John Paul II in 1981 (the statue rotates once every 12 hours). Mount Santa Rosa is an extinct volcano and the highest point in Northern Guam. Sella Bay has sweeping views of the mountains of southern Guam. I Memorias Para I Lalahita was dedicated in 1971 to the Guam men who died in Vietnam.
Night Market at Chamorro Village. Held every Wednesday evening, it is designed to resemble a Spanish market.
Diving. With the richest coral reef marine environment of any US territory or state, Guam has diverse coral, marine life, visibility to 150 feet, war shipwrecks and relatively affordable prices.
There are two decompression chambers on the island. Most sites are in the south including the Blue Corner.
Cultural Village Gef Pa’go and Lina’La Chamorro Cultural Park in Tumon.
Golf. Seven golf courses.
Shopping. All purchases are tax-free.
Cuisine. A fusion of Asian, Spanish and Pacific Islands.
Hking. The Guam Boonie Stompers is a local hiking group with regular outings (meet Saturday mornings at 9 in the center court of Chamorro Village in Hagatna). Hikes through the hills, cliff walls and jungles are available. Upper and Lower Sigua Falls.
Others. Underwater tours on a 65-foot submarine, river-boat cruises on the Talofofo River, skydiving, parasailing and airplane tours of the island are all available.
PALAU Dec 15-24, 2014
After a 2 hour flight from Guam I was met at the airport by a fellow from Ocean Hunter (my dive boat) who was there to pick someone else up so got a free ride the 10 miles to my hotel. The DW Hotel was certainly the cheapest on the islands. I tried many search engines and Expedia had the rate at $65, 45 less than other web sites. There were no other hotels for less than $150. It is very nice but spartan and great value for Palau. The next morning after some simple shopping, I was picked up at the hotel by the dive company at noon, checked in, got all my dive equipment and boarded the Ocean Hunter III for a week of unadulterated luxury.
This will be my only real holiday in the six months of travel this year. It is my treat to myself. Again because my travel style is so intense, I rarely take a day off and frankly, I’m tired after 3 full months of hard travel.
In September 2013, Palau’s current President Tommy Remengesau announced his intention to protect 80 percent of Palau’s waters as a National Marine Sanctuary. Tourism is the major industry of Palau. The fact that a hundred thousand people come to this small island nation every year—mostly to dive and observe its underwater life—clearly indicates that there is demand for wild nature. President Remengesau recognized this and announced at the United Nations a year ago his intention to create a large marine reserve in Palau’s waters, aware that ecotourism—and not industrial fishing—is the future of this wonderful country.
The Ocean Hunter III is a luxury live-aboard dive boat. It was the boat used two months ago by the resident oceanographer from National Geographic, Enric Sala who maintains the website “Pristine Seas”. He wrote a post on the Blue Corner. There are only eight divers – a gay couple (women) from Switzerland, two brothers of Tunisian heritage born and raised in Brussels and a family (husband, wife and son) from Hong Kong (but educated in the States). The Swiss and Belgians are serious divers with their own equipment and cameras. The Hong Kong folks don’t dive much but have all the gear including cameras and a Go-Pro. This trip was the main destination for all of them and I was the only ‘backpacker’ on a longer trip.
We each have individual rooms with an en suite bathroom. The other amenities are a large covered sundeck with two jacuzzis, big dining room, lounge with TV and hundreds of DVDs and a large diving deck with tables for cameras, lots of seats, two outside showers and individual boxes for our dive gear. We don’t dive from this boat but use a large 14 seat dive boat with two 225 HP outboards so that we can reach the dive sites quickly through the often shallow, reef infested waters. The food is gourmet quality with Americano coffee and a large espresso machine. I am worried about gaining a lot of weight.
This is not a cheap “holiday” – US$3,500 for 33 dives over 7 days, US$130 equipment rental, $150 for diving permits, $75 hotel, and $650 flights from Hong Kong returning to Manila, Philippines. It took me a while to get my head around it. While I was making up my mind on the cheapest trip ($2,500) available last August, it booked out. As I really wanted to dive Palau and the best way to do it is on a live-aboard, I finally bit the bullet. If I were to do this again, I would try to book with the jobber – Fish ‘n Fins in Koror, not with Diversion Dive out of Australia. It might have been cheaper. It was sold as being so expensive as it offers 5 dives per day and 3 the first day. Five dives a day is an incredibly rigorous schedule with the last dive a night dive in order to get that many in. The first dive is at 7AM and the last at 7:30 PM so that we eat dinner at 9 at night if there is a fifth dive. Dive-eat-dive-dive-eat-dive-dive-eat.
But it is a true rest. Diving is the ultimate low-energy sport – you try to expend as little effort as possible in order to conserve air – it is slow motion in action. And basically, even though you always have a buddy, you are alone in your own little world, seeing amazing things.
Eddy, our dive master is the consummate pro – he gives an excellent briefing on the dive and in the water is unbelievably attentive, always trying to give you the best experience. On most dive trips in this part of the world, the guides are local and dodgy as hell – don’t pay attention to you, take you repetitively too deep and make little effort to show you good stuff. Eddy is constantly adjusting your weights, fine-tuning the gear, and near if you have a problem.
I appreciate most of the readers of this will have no interest in the complete list of every dive, but divers might, and it is my record of the trip. If you don’t like, don’t read it.
Day 1. Around Koror. There are 15 WWII wrecks to visit in Palau. Almost all were sunk in one battle, Desecration One on March 30-31 1944.
#1 – Jake Seaplane. A WWII Japanese 3-passenger bomber (they threw the bombs out of the cockpit). One pontoon broken off. Few fish.
#2 – Helmet Wreck. Night dive. WWII Japanese cargo ship, with shells, rifles, big guns, helmets and all sorts of paraphernalia strewn all over the deck. We did not enter the ship. Not discovered till 1990, the name is not discernible.
Day 2. Ulong Island and Western Reefs – a long way from main islands on the western reef, the farthest-most point from the Palau Islands.
#3 – Siaes Tunnel. Dive 24m down a wall then through an enormous 60m long tunnel through the reef, exiting through the second large window. Big school of jacks at entrance. Many white tipped reef sharks.
I used my air very fast on this dive so was given a 100l tank for the rest of the trip. Caves make me claustrophobic and I think I hyperventilate. Everybody else is diving with Nitrox, a 30-31% oxygen mixture that gives them much longer down times (and costs $200 extra for the 7 days). And, unlike most of my previous dive experiences, every tank is full so that after entering, going down equilibrating my ears and reaching the ultimate dive depth (often 12-18m), I still have 200 bar pressure. For the rest of the trip, I have no difficulty getting past 50 minutes of down time. But my technique improves progressively as I try to copy Eddy as closely as possible – arms folded across my chest, and intermittent gentle, double leg kicks with a significant pause with my knees well flexed. I inhale as slowly as I can.
#4 – Ulong Channel. A long channel through the barrier reef with strong currents. Initially used a reef hook to just hang around and watch the action pass by – many sharks (grey, white tip reef, black tip reef), schools of yellowfin barracuda, bumphead wrasse. And then a long drift through the channel with many yellowmargin triggerfish (very aggressive fish that will bite if approach too close to their nests – Eddy called it a ‘war zone’). Enormous section of cabbage coral. Spectacular.
#5 – Siase Sand Bar. Lots of fish. Leaf scorpionfish x2. Every full moon, this place has thousands of bumphead parrotfish that come here to mate. It is quite the site.
#6 – Ulong Wall. Night dive. Schooling batfish, pipefish.
Day 3. Ngemelis Island Sites. On the far southwest of the country, these islands are on the edge of the western barrier reef. Here are some of the best-known dive sites in the country. Turtle Cove and Barnum’s Wall are actually in the Pleuliu Islands just SW of Ngemelis Island and also accessed via German Channel.
#7 – Turtle Wall. A continuation of Big Drop Off with all the same characteristics but frequent changes of current and we went up and down to drift with the changes. There were many turtles as this is located between two of Palau’s busiest dive sites, Big Drop Off and New Drop Off. The turtles are here as it is not so popular. This drop off is a sheer, 900-foot vertical wall running the whole length of Ngemelis Island. It starts in just a few feet of water, and it is possible to stand on the edge of the reef, take one giant stride and drop straight down to 900 feet. Many fish (butterflies, angel fish, Moorish idols, hawksbill turtles, white tip and nurse sharks), sea fans and colorful soft corals highlight the dive. At the top see many colorful reef fish.
#8 – Turtle Cove. Drop through a big hole in the reef and exit out a cave then follow a 30m wall. Saw chromatis nudibranch, schools of black and midnight snapper, jacks, anthias and the usual butterfly fish and angelfish. Many surgeonfish, clown triggerfish and parrotfish on reef on top. Few turtles.
#9 – German Channel. East of Ngemelis Island, this channel was blasted by the Germans pre-WWI through the reef to facilitate shipping guano. This is the only channel funneling water between the ocean and lagoon so has very strong currents and is passed by dozens of boats daily. The channel itself is shallow and sandy with a fast current and does not offer any diving. Only the SW corner is used for diving and is known for its manta rays, schooling sharks and abundance of fish. The mantas congregate at a cleaning station, composed of a huge fish ball of wrasse, giant trevally, and unicorn fish. Sharks were swimming through the ball. There were 8 groups of divers (all but us day boats who had made the one hour trip out from Koror) and no mantas when we arrived. Often the mantas are first seen when you arrive but are scared away by divers. We dove around the channel seeing garden eels, a big grouper and many fish. When the dive was almost over, we turned around and a huge 3m manta swam in front of us. This showed the value of patience and luck.
#10 – Barnum’s Wall. Near Turtle Cove, this site has a plateau, corner and a sheer wall that drops a few hundred feet. With strong incoming currents, see schooling sharks, barracudas, snappers and jacks.
#11 – German Wall. The fifth dive of the day, it was on a moonless night. The Ocean Hunter III is parked inside the reef and we traverse German Channel in the fast dive boat to get to the outside for every dive of the day. It is narrow and I’m amazed that Ken, the boat captain, is confident about traversing it at night. A crewmember is on the bow with a strong light and indeed we hit the shallow reef once and need to be pulled off by one of the crew in the water. I don’t know how people could do five dives a day. But apparently some do it for six days and survive. I understand most are German and Israeli.
German Wall is a sheer, 900-foot vertical wall that runs the length of Ngelmis Island. We saw a barramundi (a large, white grouper with black spots), two puffer fish, some lionfish and a variety of other fish during the 50-minute dive.
Day 4 – We stay in the Ngemelis Island area to do some of the best dives in Palau and possibly the world. We travelled again through German Channel all day.
#12 – Blue Corner. On the NW end of Ngemelis Island, it is considered by some to be the single best dive in the world. It is an underwater promontory sticking out of the reef like a triangular terrace twenty meters deep. Precipitous walls surround the terrace, and thousands of fish congregate there, including barracuda, jacks and sharks as the strong ocean currents bring rich deep waters to hit the wall and rush to the surface, bringing up nutrients that fish schools appreciate. In fact it is home to some of the largest schools of fish in the world and one can see just about every kind of fish found in the tropical ocean. They come in very close, closer than you can imagine, allowing encounters that provide plenty of thrills and excitement.
The dive itself was nothing short of f**king amazing. With no wind and sunny skies, It was still a long ferry on flat water from where we were parked. Huge breaking surf pounded the shallow reef inside us. We descended immediately on hitting the water to avoid being carried too far by the current and swam aggressively to get down and stay on the outside of the reef. The surge swung us around and we were soon hooked on to a rock at 15m with the reef hooks, moving 20-30 feet back and forth. With our BFDs inflated to provide tension on the line we at times were floating high above the reef, the surge would relax and the hook was almost behind us, we kept tension on the line with one hand, then the surge would come on strong and we were back next to the reef with full tension on the line – it was like a midway ride. The surge cycles so that every fourth surge is much stronger.
The scene in front of us was almost unbelievable. With visibility of at least 60m, there was a sea of fish – 20 or so large grey sharks, 5 white tipped reef sharks up close, schools of Napoleon wrasse (one of the largest fish and endangered as it is a delicacy on the Hong Kong dinner table), large tuna sweeping the ocean hunting, big unicorn fish, butterflies, surgeonfish, needlefish – everything – and as promised often right in front of your face. The Napoleon wrasse mooch food and come within a foot so one gets very close to their lips, the most sought after delicacy, thought to have aphrodisiac qualities. After 30 minutes we unhooked and moved with the surging current through a big school of barracuda and more Napoleon wrasse. With a downtime of only 46 minutes, some were low on air from all the hyperventilation produced by panic. I found it very relaxing swaying with the surge but my air was low too from all the excitement. What a thrill.
#13 – Big Drop Off. On this 900 foot high wall, grey sharks cruised outside us and Napoleon wrasse were next to the wall. We examined the huge 3m diameter ball used to anchor the chains drawn across the channel tp prevent ship access during WWII.
#14 – New Drop Off. Just north of the Blue Corner, but with smaller breaking waves, I actually think this site was better – fewer big grey sharks and tuna roaming the reef but an exponentially larger variety of fish – in fact, every fish in the ocean. We hooked onto the reef and were gently swayed around to watch the show. I asked Eddy to come beside me and pointed at fish as he told me their names – schools of black snapper, midnight snapper lifting their gill covers for the tiny cleaner wrasse to nibble away, yellow tail fusiliers, redtooth triggers, pyramid butterflies, Bluefin trevally, blue trevally, bluestripe snapper, yellowmargin triggers and on top of the reef some amazing large parrotfish (the most colorful fish in the ocean). Unbelievable. And the Swiss girls didn’t like it – they only like little fish!!! So they didn’t hook on and drifted with the current looking for those. Everyone has their own plan.
#15 – Ngemilis Wall. This is another part of the Big Drop Off/Turtle Wall complex on the north of Ngemilas island. Done at dusk, it was dark by the time we finished it. Nice sea fans and corals and the usual fish including a juvenile Napoleon wrasse (that looked totally different from the adult).
Day 5. We stayed in the same area to repeat some of the highlights of the previous day. There are at least 10 other dive boats in the area, most snorkelers and day trip boats from Koror with a 2-hour trip out and back to reach this area. There is only one other live aboard around.
#16 – Blue Corner. It was a totally different day – little current or surge, greatly reduced visibility so we couldn’t use the reef hoods and simply explored the plateau. Visited many times by the same Napoleon wrasse. Fewer sharks. Some clown anemones.
#17 – New Drop Off. Again with little current and surge, it was not as exciting and we did not use the reef hooks. Every day can be different. I spent the dive on the wall and then top of the plateau trying to identify all the many varieties of parrotfish. It gets complex as they have intermediate and juvenile phases that bear no resemblance to the adults. But they are gorgeous.
#18 – Blue Holes. North of Blue Corner, these are three holes just outside of the surf zone on top of the shallow reef. They open into a huge cave. It is probably the second most popular dive site in Palau. You can enter the cave through one of the holes or through a 15-foot high side hole which is what we did. A massive 145-foot window is at the bottom. At 25m on the north side of the cave is narrow entrance to a much larger cave called “the temple of doom” that requires special preparation and gear to enter.
The cave is quite stark with no coral. But we saw a large turtle eating coral, a Napoleon wrasse, three free-swimming Bleeker’s lion fish, neon clams (wedged into crevices pulsating with iridescent lights) and harlequin sweetlips being cleaned by tiny shrimp. After exiting the cave we traveled south along the wall towards Blue Corner and saw a bumphead parrotfish. Blue Corner was first discovered by the owner of Fish ‘n Fins as he explored past the Blue Holes.
#19 – Ngedbus Drop Off. Part of the northern Peleliu dive sites, this 300 foot wall has surge at the top with many redtooth triggerfish and bignose unicorn fish on the edge. Current changes markedly. Zebra shark, many kinds of angel fish, batfish.
Day 6. We stayed in the same area with sunny, windless weather. I have developed an ear canal infection so am trying alcohol to try to clear it and dry my ears out between dives. It hurts to chew and aches but does not affect sleep. I think it will not clear until I stop diving.
#20. Blue Corner. For the third time. Very similar to the first time but with a little less surge so we swayed gently back on forth on the end of our reef hooks to watch the show. I had time to really look at all the fish close to me. I enjoy trying to identify as many species as I can, as the following will attest. The grey reef sharks with one or two ramoras clamped onto their bellies, this time were right in front of us, almost touchable. White tipped reef sharks, tuna, bumphead parrotfish, pyramid butterflies, and red snappers mingled a little farther out. The same Napoleon wrasse continued mooching for food. He came so close I petted his soft, slightly slimy skin and then he really hung around. A huge parade of redtooth triggerfish moved by along with bignose unicornfish and many kinds of surgeonfish – pale-lipped, whitecheek, lined bristletooth –and lowerdown, half and half chromis (small fish with black forebody and white rearbody and tail) and in the anemone on the reef, two pink anemone fish (anemone fish or clown fish live in the stinging tentacles of large sea anemones, in small social groups with a single large dominant female, a smaller sexually active male and from 2-4 even smaller males and juveniles. With the loss of the female, the largest male will change sex and become the harem’s new matriarch).
#21. Clarence Wall. Turtles, turtles, turtles! Everywhere. This little visited wall must south of the Blue Corner is not visited by divers much and is completely covered with soft coral, a drab light brown color, that the turtles like to sleep under and rub their bellies on. We easily must have seen twenty hawksbills, some small and others giant over a meter long, many sleeping and many swimming coming in to land like a busy airport. The big ones had two or three shark suckers or remora cleaning their backs and deep Indian red moss covering their necks and posterior heads. There were also trumpet fish with enlarged tails, cornetfish, and snappers. I wonder if Clarence was a turtle (he was actually a boat driver who tried to cross the surf and capsized).
Eddy has a great sense of humor and is constantly writing jokes on his erasable etch ‘n sketch. I love it when he starts to laugh under his mask and regulator. When Evelyn exits a small care – “eclipse of the sun”. With all the turtles swimming overhead “coming in to land”.
#22. German Channel. Wow!!!!! Back to see the giant manta rays that we basically missed the first time through. After dropping down there were many sharks – greys and white tipped reef sharks but no mantas. Some interesting fish were juvenile black snappers with a distinctive black and white pattern and a leopard flounder (flat with eyes on same side, same color as the white sand). Then we see the gigantic fish ball – the cleaning station that congregates the mantas in the afternoon. We swam out into open water and the show started. First one, then five appeared. Then one started to feed above the fish ball, doing multiple back flips somersaulting repetitively with its cavernous mouth on the front wide open and a pair of moveable flaps extending from either side. They are blackish on top occasionally with pale or dark patches, white on the bottom, have a short tail and eyes that project laterally to the mouth and flaps. The estimate is that he was 6m from wing-tip to wing-tip. They swim gracefully like gigantic birds flapping their huge triangular side wings through an arc three meters high. Several times he came directly at me turning another somersault 20 feet away. I became engulfed in the fish ball and could see vague outlines of the manta. Then four appeared cartwheeling very close. Then the one exhibitionist started it all over again. They are primarily filter feeders, feeding on the copious plankton at the entrance to the channel. The water exits through the 10 large vents on the animal’s white belly. Eddy wrote on his etch ‘n sketch “Remote – Made in China”.
The fish ball/cleaning station looks like it has millions of fish – mostly bluestreak fusiliers but also many humpback unicorn fish (A large olive grey fish with a “hump-backed profile”. The males develop a long, narrow horn on their forehead, but females only have a slight bump), surgeon fish and runners. The ball is 60m long as it moves through the water and heads for the mantas when they appear. And to think that I was thinking of taking the day off because of my ear.
#23 – Ngemelis Coral Garden (Fairyland). On the west side of Ngemelis Island, 1 mile north of New Drop Off. We have now done nine of the ten dives around this island, not doing Virgin Blue Hole. This is a gentle coral slope that drops down to 60 feet, there is usually no current and is an easy dive for beginners. A dusk dive for us, it was on the boring side after our exciting day already today. There is a lot of hard coral. Eddy thinks that 80% if the coral in Palau is intact; the most damage has been done by a few typhoons that have hit the island in the last few years (previously, typhoons were rare in Palau). I asked why global warming has not caused the coral bleaching so prevalent everywhere else in the world and he thinks it is because of the currents that surround Palau. There is no fishing in south Palau.
Day 7. The big boat left at 6 AM to arrive at our first dive site of the day at 7 AM.
#24 – Jellyfish Lake. This is one of 70 marine lakes scattered throughout the limestone “Rock islands” in the southern part of the country. These islands are Unesco World Heritage listed. The lake is accessed by a quarter-mile trail that crosses a ridge separating the lake from the lagoon. It ends at a dock in the NW corner of the lake.
Marine lakes are connected to the ocean by channels and perforations in the limestone and thus the water is salty and the lake level varies with tides. The lake is 100 feet deep at its deepest point but plant and animal life exists only in the top 45 feet – the bottom 55 feet lacks oxygen and contains high levels of hydrogen sulfide (another reason to keep divers out). Bacteria break down dead material and consume all the oxygen and release the hydrogen sulfide. The high ridges around the lake prevent much wind effect on the lake plus its deepness prevents surface water from ever reaching the depths. Only the bacteria live there. Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that can be absorbed across our skin, reach the bloodstream and bind to hemoglobin preventing oxygen access to the hemoglobin and causing asphyxiation.
Scuba is not allowed as air bubbles exhaled by divers become trapped in tissue pockets of the jellyfish, air-lifting them and pinning them against the surface. The air bubbles eventually force their way through the delicate tissues leaving a nasty wound. Snorkeling only! The jellyfish are ~96% water and very delicate but appear robust. Do not remove them from the water as gravity stretches and tears them. Float serenely on the surface using slow, gentle fin kicks. Avoid quick actions of hands and feet. People with allergies to jellyfish should consider wearing protective clothing.
The lake contains the golden jellyfish (Mastigias sp.) in great abundance with 5+ million animals throughout the lake but aggregated along the edges of the shade of the mangrove trees. By avoiding shade and migrating, they overnight in the western basin and on sunny days, they begin a migration at first light to reach the furthest illuminated edges of the eastern basin by midmorning, return to the western basin by midafternoon and complete the one kilometer cycle. The dark edges contain a predatory anemone that preys on the jellyfish. The jellyfish also have a symbiotic algae living in their tissues that needs sunlight to photosynthesize sugars that they share with the jellyfish. The jellyfish provide the algae with a safe haven, a mobile home that keeps them in the sun, and a convenient source of essential nutrients in the form of metabolic wastes. The jellyfish supplement the diet of sugars with minute animals in the open water of the lake by using their stinging nematocysts to capture them.
They do sting destroying the most persistent myth about these jellyfish: that they are stingless. But the sting of the golden jellyfish is undetectable except on sensitive tissue like the lips, and no cause for concern.
The lake is also home to one million plus moon jellyfish (Aurelia sp.) who spend most daylight hours in the deeper parts of the lake feasting on the same small animals that supplement the diet of the golden jellyfish.
There are also a colorful montage of sponges, sea squirts, mussels, anemones and algae living on the extended roots of the mangroves and getting some sun through the mangrove branches. A small fish called gobies make their home amongst these organisms and cardinal fish lurk in the open water just beyond.
Kingfishers sit on the mangroves and trace cordlike paths between branches. Pied cormorants periodically take to the water to hunt small prey. Tailed tropicbirds and fairy terns fly over the lake intermittently plunge in for the loosely schooled silver side fish that dart among the jellies. Even fruit bats fly.
There are at least eight other lakes in Palau that contain the golden jellyfish and/or moon jellyfish, but they are all closed to tourism. Kakaban, Indonesia also has a lake with golden jellyfish.
Reproduction: The medusa stage is either male sperm producers or female egg producers. Fertilization produces a small, swimming larva, which mature over several days and attach themselves to a rock or other inanimate object. They transform into a non-motile, long-lived polyp with a tentacle surrounded mouth and supportive stalk that lives its entire cycle attached to that rock. The polyp uses its tentacles to capture and ingest small animals. Polyps can also produce eggs and sperm and thus larvae or new medusa by physically transforming its mouth and tentacle end into a baby medusa, then regrow a new mouth and tentacle system.
The bell diameter of a golden medusa grows about 1cm/week taking about 2-3 months to reach sexual maturity (a bell diameter of about 7cms). An individual lives about 6-12 months before dying.
My experience: The permit for Jellyfish Lake is US$100. We motored north in the Ocean Hunter for almost an hour though a maze of small green pimple-like islands to a lagoon. Then the dive boat took us to a dock for the short walk up and over the ridge to another dock in the lake. With snorkeling gear, I swam to a dock about 3/4s of the way across the fairly large lake. It was warm salt water and very pleasant. With no jellyfish at the beginning, they progressively increased to a maximum past the dock. The top 20 or so feet of water had jellyfish distributed evenly but the top foot or so had none. They are orange with a large pulsing medusa, some white stalks and then 8 individual fronds of compact tentacles with tiny nematocysts on the end. Occasionally you felt a very slight sting but it was nothing to worry about. Past the dock the number was amazing with a jellyfish every 6-12 inches. I then swam back to our group, went to the shore and basically swam the entire circumference of the lake. The shadows had no jellyfish but in the light there was a wall of them. The prettiest pictures would have been next to the wall of jellyfish with mangrove roots and trunks and beams of light. Small cardinal fish were common. I saw no birds. There were a few magenta sponges and white anemones with very thin tentacles on the mangrove trunks under water. In the north side of the lake there were many more small jellyfish down to a centimeter across. As I approached the west end, the jellyfish progressively thinned out till there were none.
After breakfast, we continued north cruising a serpentine path through the maze of green island domes. Just above the water, the islands were undercut 3 meters. Small karst walls broke the monotony. We passed a tiny island that was only an arch.
#25 – Iro. Six miles from Koror, this Japanese cargo freighter is resting upright in 40m of water with the deck at 27m. At 470 feet long, it is the most popular wreck dive in Palau. There were large guns at each end and massive superstructures. Small giant clams and coral covered everything.
#26 – Chuyo Maru. Only 1 mile from Koror, the Chuyo Maru is a WWII Japanese tanker that was bombed during operation Descecrate One on March 31 1944. Maru indicates it was a civilian ship brought into military use. The 87m long coastal freighter rests upright in 40m of water with the deck at 30m. It is nicknamed the “lionfish wreck” for the large number of lionfish that reside in and on the wreck. Things to see are an anchor winch, 2 anchors (one from a Palauan fishing boat), the bridge brass compass and telegraph and the stern gun with ammunition boxes and depth charges. We didn’t penetrate the ship. I saw several cardinal fish, two hawk fish, one lion fish and Angelina Jolie (a harlequin sweetlips – one of Eddy’s jokes).
#27 – Chandelier Cave. One mile from Koror, this is a cave system with five chambers, each of which can be entered. Four of the chambers are water filled, each with an air pocket and the fifth is completely above water. We entered the cave through the 3m diameter opening and it was very dark. Between each cave is an underwater swim and then one long swim out at the end. The stalactites and stalagmites resemble glittering chandeliers. There were some very long soda straws, some two feet long, draperies, and several pure white lines of small draperies. Most of the formations were unusually white indicating few impurities in the calcium carbonate.
Outside the cave is an area known for its mandarin fish. These small 6cm long fish have brilliant markings – orange with an ornate pattern of dark-edged green and blue bands and spots and a few yellow line markings on the lower head. They live on shallow protected lagoons in coral rubble and come out of hiking at dusk to spawn. I saw two together.
Helicopter flights are available for $2,000/hour over all the famous sites. Seems kind of extravagant to me but I have flown in helicopters so many times, it is not a great thrill. I was talking to a young woman at the coffee shop in Koror who works for a company that offers camping trips to the Rock Islands where Jellyfish Lake is. The deluxe trip was $650/day! and the less deluxe $255, and they don’t even dive. Again some people have too much money. Most tourists to Palau stay in Koror and take day trips snorkelling and diving. Most are Japanese.
Summary of Palau. This country is all about diving with some of the world’s best dive sites – Blue Corner, German Channel for giant manta rays, New Drop Off and Ulong Channel. Coral is 80% intact. A variety of sharks and Napoleon wrasse are seen on almost every dive. And Ocean Hunter III is a superior luxury live-aboard with excellent food, staff, and Eddy who in my limited experience is the best dive guide anywhere.
We docked at the Fish ‘n Fins dock in Koror for the night, had breakfast, took group pictures, then were released. I paid Fish ‘n Fins for equipment rental ($308), light rental ($112 and they did not give me the light), Jellyfish Lake ($100+2 permit processing), reef hook purchase ($27.95), and alcohol and pop during the week (zero) for a total of $549.95. The water bottle was free, and I mooched free wi-fi in the dive shop and a post card. Add to this $3595 for the dive trip, $640 flight, $79 hotel, $22 dive t-shirt, $50 airport departure tax, tip and miscellaneous $35 so the grand total for one week of diving in Palau came to US$4,970.95, over $5,000 with the tip, that I thought it would cost. Clearly the most expensive travel week of my life. But I need to treat myself once in a while.
My flight to Manila via Guam left at 03:05 on the morning of the 24th so I had all day to kill in Koror (using the Internet at the Coffee Berry with great smoothies and sandwiches). Using air when diving usually requires at least 24 hours (Nitrox requires about 16 hours on average) to fly safely because of all the nitrogen that gets dissolved in your blood and aircraft cabins are low pressure. Fish ‘n Fins gave me a lift to the airport at 19:30, I bought some time in the airport lounge and had a snooze. The flight to Manila did not connect in Guam – my luggage got on the plane but I didn’t because of the American BS of having to clear customs and immigration. I will never fly with United again. So then it got crazy as I missed my flight to Jakarta in the evening and my hostel reservation. But United gave me a $188 hotel room in Guam for the day, $14 in meal vouchers and looked after transportation to and from the hotel. I spent some time with the very pleasant Belgian fellows from the dive trip. The flight to Manila left at 20:55 so I lost the flight to Jakarta and booked a new one on Jetstar leaving at 10:40 on Christmas day via Singapore (United’s mistake cost me $306). United had given me vouchers for taxi, food and a hotel in Manila, but the taxi would not accept the vouchers and wanted $40 for the taxi ride, so I slept on the floor in the airport along with a lot of Filipinos. I arrived in Jakarta at 8PM and caught the bus and a taxi to my hostel. What a way to spend Xmas Day.
MERRY CHRISTMAS and HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone. All the best.