UTILLA, THE BAY ISLANDS OF HONDURAS 02/2011
PADI OPEN WATER – This must be the cheapest – and one of the best places in the world – to get diving certificates. Utilla is a dusty little town whose sole purpose is diving. There are 14 dive shops here all competing for business. My company was Utilla Dive Center that for US$300, in addition to the open water course, I had 3 free nights accommodation, free breakfasts, two free dives after and got a T-shirt. The instructors were all top-notch from Denmark, the US, England and Trinidad/Tobago. Unable to swim, it was a real test doing the necessary 200m swim.
TAGNAGA, COLUMBIA 21/11/2011
#8. Latravisia Cpaso del Angel.
These two dives were disappointing – a sketchy guide and dead coral with few fish.
ANDAMAN ISLANDS, INDIA 17-18/12/2012
Scuba Schools International (SSI) Advanced – Andaman Bubbles Dive Center, Havelock Island.
#9. Bayview, Havelock.
#10. Pilot Reef, Havelock.
#11. Dixon Pinnacle. Wall dive with gorgeous pinnacle with good coral. Napoleon Wrasse.
#12. Dixon Pinnacle. Schools blue stripe snapper, Napoleon Wrasse, barracuda.
#13. Muck dive.
#14. Pinnacle, S Ari Atoll. Poor coral and few fish. Worst possible guide who was always 20m behind and paid no attention to me except on ascent.
Murgae Archipelago, Myanmar. Live aboard with 16 dives.
PERHENTIAN ISLANDS, MALAYSIA 20-21/04/2013
#15. Sugar Wreck. Giant pufferfish, blue streaked angelfish, lionfish, boxfish, barracuda
#16. Temple. Long fin bannerfish, six barr wrasse, blue barred and red lipped parrotfish, garfish, white eye moray, window grouper, blue lined grouper, harlequin grouper, titan triggerfish
MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO, South MYANMAR 26-30/11/2013
5-day Live Aboard with A-One Diving, Ranong Thailand. Guides generally poor – we dove too deep too often. Many fisherman, nets strewn across reefs, dynamite fishing, all big fish gone, no sharks or mantas.
#16. Secret Island. Poor visibility and coral, hawksbill turtles.
#17. Kyat Mauk. Night dive.
#18. Kyat Mauk Pinnacle. Nice soft corals and sea fans, spotfin lionfish, spotted moray.
#19. Western Rocky. Cave that went though the island. Many dead fish littering bottom from dynamite fishing. Giant moray, spotted moray.
#20. Fan Forest Pinnacle. Giant and spotted morays.
#21. Paradise Rock. Many stars, crown of thorns, oriental sweetlips
#22. Pink Canyon. Octopus, ribbon eel black phase, pipefish, vermicular coral cod, mante shrimp.
#23. Yellow Rock, North Rock
#24. South Twin. Sea snakes, good soft and hard corals and fans, blue anemone fish.
#25. Unnamed pinnacle.
#26. Unnamed. Batfish, blue lined rock cod, cuttlefish (3 copulating – males fringed with blue) checkered snapper, blue ringed angelfish, spine cheek anenomefish.
#27. Kylin Phila. Juvenile blackbelt hogfish (black with large white blotches)
#28. High Rock. Spectacular anemone and variety anemone fish (pink, tomato, and western), schools snapper, common lionfish,
APO ISLAND, PHILIPPINES 9/2/2014
#29. Cogon. Long drift dive. Huge school bigeye trevally (jacks), banded sea snake, gobi, regal angelfish.
#30. Lagahan. Flying gunnard, snake eels, squid, eastern clownfish, longnose hawkfish.
#31. Chapel. Leaf scorpion fish, banded sea snakes, white eyed eel.
SABAH, MALAYSIA 20-22/2/14
Day 1 – Mabul
#32. Pardise I,II – broad club cuttlefish, reef scorpion fish, flathead crocodile fish, octopus, yellow fin trevally, schooling batfish.
#33. Pana/Lobster Wall – crocodile fish, turtles, nudibranch, firedart gobies, spotted lionfish, morays, hairy hermit crab, blue spotted ray.
#34. Water Bungalow.
Day 2 – Sipadan Island – one of the top 5 places in the world to dive.
#35. Barracuda Point – large school barracuda, white tipped reef sharks, Napoleon wrasse.
#36. South Point – coral +++, white tipped reef sharks.
#37. Drop Off. Scariest dive of my life. Went at end of day with just me and two guides. At 16m had a complete blockage of air (rust particles in tank) that happened when I was right next to guide. Buddy breathed to surface after rest stop. Once horizontal the blockage cleared. Large school bumphead parrot fish
Day 3 – Mabul, Kapalai
#38. Stingray City, Mabul – peacock mantis shrimp, boxer shrimp, morays.
#39. Kapalai – juvenile frogfish, boxer shrimp, leaf fish, nudibranchs (nembrotha, flaggelinas, chromoderis)
#40. Paradise II Mabul.
Seven days, 28 dives on the Ocean Hunter II, a live aboard with Fish and Fins out of Koror, Palau. Dive master was Eddie, a Filipino, the best.
The Ocean Hunter II was a luxury live-aboard dive boat. It was the boat used two months previously by the resident oceanographer from National Geographic, Enric Sala who maintains the website “Pristine Seas”. He wrote a post on the Blue Corner. There were only eight divers – 2 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. 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 few divers are able to keep up this rigorous schedule – we didn’t and only had 5 dives on one day.
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 were 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 stayed 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 to 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 snorkeling and diving. Most are Japanese.
FLORES and KOMODO ISLAND, INDONESIA 11,13,29/01/2015
The biggest island in the chain, it offers beaches, bay islands, exceptional diving and snorkeling near Labuan Bajo, an interior of perfectly shaped volcanoes, jungle, rice fields and the only access to Komodo National Park and its famous Komodo dragons. The Portuguese named it “Flowers” when they colonized it in the 16th century. Then name stuck as did Catholicism.
Labuan Bajo (pop 15,000)
This town has a particularly unattractive one-way main street separated from the harbor by shacks and a container port. The narrow strip of pavement is flanked by a strips of muddy dirt, an open sewer on one side, piles of dirt, ramshackle guesthouses, restaurants, shops and 32 dive shops.
Fees for visits to Komodo NP: 150,000Rp per visit, Dive permit 225,000Rp per visit, Rinca permit 50,000Rp per visit.
On our first day we took a tour that involved two dives and a visit to Rinca (cost 1,150,000Rp or US$93), one of the two main islands that form Komodo National Park.
#70 Wainilu – slope of coral debris leading down to dull brown soft corals was a mecca for “small things”: cuttlefish, a flying gunnard, tiny striped pipefish, lionfish, and the sweetest harlequin sweetlips (a tiny white fish with brown spots and lobed fins fluttering in a small coral patch).
Rinca is the best place to see komodo dragons as 20 or so animals congregate in the small national park headquarters. The rangers carry a forked stick they can use to fend off an attack from the scary-as-hell small dinosaurs. We saw dragons from baby 18 inch ones to monster 2m long ones. It was then a 1 hour walk past a nest and up a hill for panoramic views of the island. There are two and three-hour walks but I see little need for more than what we did. The rangers are a treasure-trove of information.
#72 name? many giant mantas.
TOGEAN ISLANDS, SULAWESI INDONESIA
With golden beaches, lagoons, lost coves and arguably the best diving in Sulawesi, the Togeans are difficult to get to but supposedly difficult to leave. It is possible to explore all three major reef systems: atoll, barrier and fringing. However I have heard that dynamite fishing has taken its toll on the fish and the diving is only mediocre. There are no big fish, always a marker of a healthy reef. In my determination to do the entire “travelers trail” from Makassa all the way to Manado, I will continue doing it the hard way.
Wakai is not a place to stay so arrange accommodation at any of the resorts listed in the travel facts section.
There are no flights to the Togeans. Ferries leave Ampana to Wakai every morning but Friday at 10am. Buy tickets on the boat. Ongoing ferries from Wakai to Gorontalo leave Monday and Thursdays at 4pm. So I took the ferry on Tuesday, stayed at Blue Marlin Dive Resort on Kadadiri Island and departed on Thursday.
Black Marlin Dive Resort is on Kadadiri Island and they will pick you up at the ferry dock in Wakai. A standard room with a bathroom was 200,000 per night with all meals included. The diving is reasonable at 28euros but everything else is expensive: a large Bingtang is 55,000, an orange juice that normally costs 7,000, is 15,000 and the food is mediocre at best. Water runs from 8-9 and 5-6 and the electricity is on from 5-11pm. The owner has the worst personality in the world and and is a real businessman.
The ferry to Gorontalo leaves on Mondays and Thursdays at 4pm. You can rent an AC cabin, AC business seat or sleep in economy with 2 tiers of mats on the second deck that has open sides that can be covered if it rains (72,000 with a mat called a tatami). Anyone could go into the AC Business and sleep on the floor. I chose the latter and slept alone on the open top deck with great views of all the stars. Although it is advertised to be a 13 hour trip, it took 11 1/2, and we arrived at 3:30am. Significantly, we crossed the equator on the way.
RAJA AMPATS, PAPUA INDONESIA 5-14/01/2015
This is an archipelago of approximately 1500 stunning, mostly uninhabited islands covering an area of 50,000 sq km off the NW coast of the Birds Eye Peninsula of Papua. Sorong is the closest city and airport. They straddle the equator and are known for some of the world’s richest and most diverse coral reefs. When coral is disappearing most everywhere else, here it is still 90-95% intact. More species of fish and coral inhabit the reefs surrounding Raja Ampat than anywhere else on earth. While the Caribbean has 70 species of coral and 5-700 types of fish, RA has 550 and 1200 respectively. The benchmark for excellent fish diversity on any given reef is 200 species or more and over half of Raja Ampat’s reefs support this number.
Raja Ampat means “Four Kings” signifying the four big islands: Waisco with the capital of the area – Waisai, Salawati, Batanta and Misool. The Islands appear to be in the middle of nowhere, mere dots of land widely separated by a sweeping expanse of ocean. Oceanic currents connect RA to other regions in ways not revealed on most maps. Within a vast area of the equatorial Pacific known as the Coral Triangle (which includes the Philippines, Borneo, eastern Indonesia and all the territory eastward of the Solomon Islands), Raja Ampat is the sweet spot.
Scientists believe the region functions like an incubator, or “species factory” which partially seeds the entire Coral Triangle. Almost all is a “no take” zone with no fishing. Besides coral and fish, there are also mollusks, shrimps, crabs and sponges galore. Raja Ampats sits at a confluence of currents somewhat determined by the way its land masses were created and shoved around during eons of tectonic plate movement. Other factors operate: the reefs here have thrived for millennia in a relatively stable climate. The channels are deep and the strong currents are constantly upwelling cold, nutrient rich water. This lessens warming of the water.
There is no large population of humans. More important is the mind-boggling range of ecosystems including calm bays, current-washed fringing reefs, blue abysses beyond deep reef walls, and mangrove forests. Despite the threat of nickel mining, illegal fishing and rising population, several decades of conservation work is countering with practical, science based plans to ensure that Raja Ampat will survive but also continue to flourish.
The entry fee is 1 millionRp ($80). Beside live aboards, there are many dive resorts and a few homestays.
I was able to book a 10-day live aboard dive trip to the Raja Ampats with Wicked Diving, based out of Thailand. Live- aboard trips are all expensive but the only reasonable way to experience an area. Being able to move long distances, diving from a boat allows exploration of large areas without having to take long shuttles every morning and evening. Many trips average in the $450-550 per day range and after spending so much to dive Palau, I wasn’t willing to spend that much. But Wicked Diving had one spot and were offering a 10% discount with free equipment rental for a total of $2385, less than half the price of the others. The dates were Feb 5-14 leaving from Sorong, Papua.
The boat was the Jaya built 12 years ago on Sulawesi. It is a typical two-masted Indonesian coastal ship converted into a dive boat with cabins. Compared to the luxurious Ocean Hunter II in Palau, it is rustic and basic but still comfortable. The 10 other divers are from England (most living as expats in Dubai and Hong Kong), America, Germany and Switzerland. They were not the moneyed people like in Palau but younger and more interesting.
Wicked Diving is the most culturally and environmentally conscious dive company in the area. 2% of all fees contribute to environmental protection, involvement of schools, active beach cleanups and training of the locals to become dive guides. Fish is not part of the meal plan as there is no sustainable fishery in Papua. Our 4 guides are American, Dutch, French and Indonesian. The company is professional and rigorous about ensuring credentials and possession of proper dive insurance.
The Jaya also does the ultimate dive trip in the world. Over 19 days, the trip starts in the Raja Ampats, passes Ambon and the Bandas, crosses the Banda Sea to Wetar and Alor and then follows the north coast of Flores all the way to Labuan Bajo and Komodo National Park for three days of diving. Then they turn around and come back to RA. It is a reward to the best guides and employees.
#1 – Dayang. Used as a “check dive”, there was supposed to be little current but the last half ended being a fast drift dive. Besides wonderful multihued coral, there was a big school of giant bumphead parrotfish.
#2 – Sea Bat Ridge. A “secret” dive site visited only by Wicked, it is a place that giant mantas are often seen. We watched one huge almost totally black manta for about 10 minutes. If you are quiet and stay on the bottom, they often show curiosity. This one came within 3’ of me. Huge lobster. Pygmy seahorse.
#3 – Fisherman’s island, an exploratory dive to somewhere Wicked has never been to before. We were 3 hours into a 13- hour journey to Misool and this was on the way. Isolated away from other islands, the hope was that there would be sharks. And it did not disappoint as we saw 5 kinds of sharks: white tip, black tip, silver tip, walking and a big grey. Plus an unusual shrimp, baby lobster, schooling banner fish and batfish, and an amazing variety of coral of every color and variety.
We didn’t dive from the Jaya but from a small rubber dinghy or a wood boat. Both were tippy so everyone back rolls in at the same time. I am diving in a group with the American, the Swiss and Nico, the French guide. He is very attentive and I loved our first three dives.
We motored south all night arriving in the Misool Island area, in the south west part of the Raja Ampats at 4am. This is the most popular part of RA with one resort and many visiting live aboards.
Day 2 – Misool Islands. The southeast area has most of the dive sites with many small rocky islands. Most are karst with fantastically eroded features and cliffs.
#4 – Razorback Ridge. A big wall, we started at 29m and crisscrossed up across the wall seeing many nudibranch, bumphead parrotfish.
#5 – Andiamo. These were a series of pinnacles with the most fantastic display of sea fans: huge and every color of the rainbow. Soft corals. Octopus, Spanish mackerel.
#6 – The Candy Store. Two small rocky outcrops form walls with sea fans. Scorpion fish perfectly camouflaged on coral.
#7 – Yillit. A night dive and number 4 today. Not much to see: a dresser crab, hermit crab, juvenile lion fish.
There is only one 15l tank on board and Nick, a 6’6”, 265lb guy who uses more air than me gets it. I always have a hard time using air and had 15l tanks in Palau allowing me to stay down for 50 minutes or more. But here with 12l tanks filled to 215 barr, I am getting 50-60 minutes on every dive because Nico is very good at the end, doesn’t demand the 3 minute rest stop at 50 barr, we continue to explore the reef above 6m and I just about always surface with around 20 barr. But my diving is also slowly improving – better buoyancy control, I am moving less and less, no arms, less more efficient kicking and slowing my breathing to the bare minimum. This last dive was #70 lifetime.
Day 3. We are going to the best of Misool today but compete for access with the big resort down here and all the other boats.
#8 – Boo Rock. Very special with oodles of fish of great variety including many red-toothed trigger fish. Blotched fantail ray: we watched it laying on the bottom then gliding by with the current. Emperor shrimp on a big sea cucumber.
#9 – Shadow Reef. Holy Cow!! This is one of the top dive sites in the universe. A giant manta circled overhead above a cleaning station, sharks, all kinds of big silver fish I didn’t recognize that were trevallies: orange-spotted, giant, bluefin, and bigeye, napoleon wrasse, snappers, barracuda and then a wall of fish with literally hundreds of species – little stuff at your feet and the whole range between you and the big fish. On the way back, we saw a wobbegong shark, a shark you would not recognize as one with a large, flat head.
#10 – Nudie Rock. The variety and color of the soft coral in the Raja Ampats is truly amazing. Spanish mackerel + the usual fish.
This is a very professional operation. A check is done before each dive by one of the guides – the direction of the current and other conditions are assessed. There is nothing more frustrating than being dropped at the wrong end of the reef and have to fight current to see anything. The briefing is well done. The guides are attentive.
#11 – 4 Kings. Several pinnacles. School of 30 giant trevally, bluefin trevally, yellow spotted trevally, leaf fish, great barracuda. Some giant sea fans. Big variety of fish, corals and seafans.
#12 – Neptune’s Sea Fan. A big wall trough a channel with some current and a lot of sand. Our worst dive so far. Tiny yellow boxfish.
#13 – Whale Rock. Next to Nudie Rock. Baby midnight snapper: it is amazing how different the juvenile form of some fish differ so much from the adult. The juveniles are black with a white line and white spots and very distinctive. Ringed pipe fish. Dark form of saddleback anemonefish (black and white with cream mouth). Clownfish are one of the neatest fish. Same as “Nemo”, they live in anemones. The large one is female and rest (much smaller) are male. When the female dies, one hermaphroditic male changes into a female. Great corals on top.
#14 – Shadow Reef. Our second visit to the best site in the Misool Island area.
There were not mantas or big sharks, but an amazing array of fish: trevellys of all kinds, groupers, napolean wrasse, yellow fin barracudas, moray eels and everything else – another “wall” of fish.
#15 – Goa Farondi. A cave that we came up into with air and several light shafts, then a big wall with some nudibranchs, good coral and a moderate amount of fish.
The plan was to go to a cave with 5,000 year old cave paintings but the seas were too rough and it required a long detour. So we entered a lagoon and snorkeled around.
We then had a long over night motor back to the north of Raja Ampats. This was restocking day where all supplies were replenished at Wasai.
#16 – Manta Sands. We sat for a long time waiting for the mantas but none came. So used little air and set personal record for a dive. Starting at 190 bar, I lasted 68 minutes with a depth of 29m. Robust ghost pipefish.
#17 – Fish Magic. A series of pinnacles, visability was poor. Saw several giant lobsters, a wobbegong shark, nudibranchs and the usual fish.
Instead of a third dive, we visited Saonek, a small island that used to be the capital of Raja Ampat. It was a typical tiny Indonesian Muslim town with lots of kids. They have built a new Mosque that is simply gorgeous.
Day 7. Back in the north of Raja Ampat, we are in Dampier Strait, a big wide body of water. I have developed another ear canal infection but have it under control just using alcohol.
#18 – Mioskon. Amazing dive with great variety of fish: several blue-spot mask-rays, tasselled wobbegong sharks (these are the most amazing sharks – big leopard spotted flat blobs hiding in the back of recesses rarely moving and ready to pounce on anything that comes near), scorpionfish (another amazing large fish with superb camouflage sitting on the bottom; has poisonous spines, winglike pectoral spines), giant clam 1m across, morays, schools of blue-lined snapper, five-lined snapper.
#19 – Blue Magic. Another amazing dive with even more diversity than the last: huge Spanish mackerel, tuna, grey sharks, black tipped reef sharks, mangrove whip ray, yellowfin barracuda, groupers, octopus, crocodile fish, scorpionfish and everything else.
#20 – Friwinbonda. A big wall. Not so good.
#21 – Friwinbonda. Night dive. Walking shark, crocodile fish, blue-spotted stingway, large hermit crab, oranutang crab (amazing long blue hairs) and marble shrimp.
Day 8. Our last day of diving. Still in Dampier Strait. A great week with good company, good food, a great guide, spectacular diving in one of the best dive areas of the world. I have finally been able to dive a normal time having conquered my heavy air use. It only took 86 dives to get there (I am a slow learner in my old age). I look forward to doing the “expedition” trip offered by Wicked Diving on the Jaya that travels over three weeks between Komodo National Park and the Raja Ampats in the future.
#22 – Mike’s Point. A tiny limestone outcrop in the middle of the strait, this is one of the most popular dives in RA. There are two massive overhangs where all the fish are swimming upside down on the roof. Walking shark. As we shallowed up at the end of the dive, we came upon one of the #1 critters on everybody’s dive list, the blue ring octopus. Thumb sized when fully grown, it is one of the most poisonous animals on the planet with enough venom to kill 30 people. The poison is a product of symbiotic bacteria secreted by saliva, but hardly a danger as it is used to subdue prey rather than for aggression. And why be aggressive when pulsating rings clearly warn predators of your lethal nature? I was able to observe all its behaviors as it gripped onto a rock with all its tiny tentacles, pulsate blue and then turn brown/blue, retract its arms and swim. It is rare: this was Tom’s first sighting after 700 dives and Nico’s second after 3500 dives. It is a solitary hunter with its arms widely flared and motionless before it pounces, feeding on tiny crustaceans and shrimp. It then immobilizes its victim with poisonous saliva from its beak. The much larger female kills the male after mating, a prolonged 2-hour coupling. The female broods about 50 eggs that weeks later are expelled as larvae.
At the end of the dive, we moved though gorgeous coral gardens on top of the reef.
#23 – Cape Kri. Another amazing variety with many big schooling fish: banner fish, emperors, snappers. Lots of current so quite challenging. Coral.
#24 – Sardine Reef. A submerged plateau. Another amazing dive with mammoth variety of fish: many black tipped reef sharks, wobbegong shark.
Day 9. Waugei Island. Up at 5am to visit the island to see the endemic Red Bird of Paradise: orange red with a yellow beak, head and shoulders and 2 thin drooping tail feathers. Also some hornbills. Hot and humid. 2 other groups there. The motored back to Wasai to get the ferry to Sorong at 11am (this is the Saturday sailing time; 9 and 2 other days of the week).