There are a few destinations that are on just about every scuba diver’s bucket list. Palau is one of those places. It was definitely on mine, and after many years of dreaming of it, I finally made it!
Palau, officially, the Republic of Palau (also historically known as Belau), is a remote group of roughly 340 limestone islands (of which only 9 are inhabited), located in the northern Pacific Ocean, southeast of the Philippines.
Getting to Palau is a bit, well, long. There are flights to Palau from Guam, Manila (Philippines), Seoul (South Korea), Taipei (Taiwan), Tokyo (Japan) and Yap (Federate States of Micronesia). But you’ve gotta get to one of those places first. From the east coast we flew about 17 hours to Taipei (there’ll be an upcoming post on surviving a long flight!). Then, it was about another four hours from Taipei to the most populated island of Koror where we were staying. And yeah, it was worth it……
Since tourism comprises more than half of Palau’s gross domestic product, with a big part of that coming from scuba diving, the country takes marine protection seriously. For visitors, the country imposes a “green fee”, included in the $50 per person departure tax that supports conservation efforts on the islands.
As I mentioned, Palau takes a pretty aggressive stance on its marine conservation efforts, as well as on commercial fishing, particularly since it has authority over 230,000 square miles or 200 nautical miles of ocean. For example, in 2006, Palau banned bottom trawling. Then, in 2009, Palau declared the world’s first shark sanctuary, prohibiting all shark fishing within its “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) - a sea zone approved by the United Nations Convention over which a country has special rights regarding the use of marine resources.
In order to further protect its EEZ, Palau declared the entire EEZ area a marine sanctuary in 2014, banning all large scale commercial fishing. Illegal fishing is dealt with in an especially dramatic way. Boats with illegal catch are seized along with the catch, and the catch is given to the public. The fishing companies are not only fined, but the boats are seized …. and set on fire! Yikes!
Here are a few more interesting things about Palau:
Palau’s total population is just over 21,000, with the most populous city of 14,000 being Koror. Palau’s capital of Ngerulmud has less than 400 people, making it the smallest capital in the world! If you compare Palau’s total land area of 177 square miles and population with a similarly sized U.S. city, say, San Jose, California – San Jose has the same land area, but 945,000 people!
Palau is frequently referred to as the "Rock Islands” since there are numerous limestone and coral “islands” that you see in the many of the photos.
For World War II buffs, Peleliu, one of the islands of Palau, was the site of a bloody battle, resulting in the highest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in American military history, but the battle also helped MacArthur recapture the Philippines.
Palau follows a matrilineal system, meaning an individual is considered to belong to the same line of descent as his or her mother. Property inheritance and titles are also through the mother’s lineage.
A bai (sounds like “buy”) is a traditional meeting house in Palau. It’s elaborately decorated with traditional designs and colors. Bais are still used as meeting places today.
Jellyfish Lake is one of about 70 saltwater lakes that were once connected to the ocean, but are now cut off. The lake contains stingless jellyfish and you used to be able to snorkel with them; however, after El Nino hit the region in 2016, the jellyfish population decreased significantly. As a result, all visits to the lake have stopped until the jellyfish population can recover.
Side note: El Nino also caused a drought in Palau. Consequently, water restrictions have been imposed.
What we did
We were there to dive and Palau is really diver-centric. So for non-divers, the choices of things to do are more limited. That said, we did a full day kayak tour with Sam's Tours around the “Rock Islands” which was incredible! The water was spectacularly clear and blue with insane visibility! There were huge caves to explore that could fit 20 kayaks easily! We saw otherworldly sea life, including neon blue star fish (for all you fish ID wonks like me, they’re called linckia laevigata)!
So, like I said, we were there to dive…. and we did A LOT! For the sake of non-divers reading, I’m not going to drone on about every dive site. I will say that it was crazy diving, in the best possible way. But, I wouldn’t recommend it for newly minted or inexperienced divers since the currents can be quite strong and unpredictable.
Most of the dives are drift dives, which means that you enter the water off the boat and let the current carry you. The boat picks you up at the end of the dive at a different location. Don’t worry, the boat captains are really experienced doing this, so there’s no fear of a being left behind, like in the movie, “Open Water”! Currents on some of the dives were really strong and it felt like you were being shot out of a cannon for the entire dive. On one or two occasions, I had to really work to maintain control. Still, the dives were spectacular!
Within those drift dives, a couple involved reef hooks. Started in Palau, reef hook diving entails tethering yourself to the reef with your hook (I know, sort of self explanatory, huh?). Reef hooks are used where the currents are quite strong and they allow you to hang out and enjoy rather than struggle against the current. We saw a TON of fish and sharks on those reef hook dives so it was totally worth the effort! Check out this infographic on reef hook diving from Palau Dive Adventures!
Our last dive of our trip was my favorite, but if you’re claustrophobic, this is not the dive for you. Chandelier Cave is a dive into a cave made up of five separate, but connected, chambers. The four we entered were underwater. The fifth involves taking off your dive gear and a bit of messy crawling through mud. No thanks. Each chamber has an air pocket where you can come out of the water and take a look at some fascinating stalactites (the ones hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones growing from the floor). You have to be careful coming up in the air pockets so you don’t get clocked in the head by a stalactite!
You enter the first chamber, with your flashlights on, at about 15 feet deep through a narrow 10 foot opening in the rock. It’s a bit unsettling at first because it’s completely dark, but then your eyes adjust. The bottom of the cave is sand and silt, so you have to be careful not to kick up the bottom and reduce your already limited visibility. But, if you look back towards the entrance, you can see the sunlight coming through the cave entrance. It’s eerie and cool at the same time! As you enter each subsequent chamber, the light gets farther and farther away. By the last chamber you have to pay attention as you exit (we exited with our flashlights off, creeping me out a bit) since it’s almost totally dark, and in a group of 8 or 10, it’s inevitable that the silt has gotten kicked up and your ability to see with the little light there is becomes further limited.
There are different stories of how Chandelier Cave was discovered. One account is that a local fisherman came across it one day. The story goes that he was trying to catch a fish and it disappeared into the cave so he followed it. Another version goes back to just after World War II when teams were looking for unexploded bombs and ammunition. Either way, it was really unique and I thought it was the “funnest” dive.
I had heard Palauans were nice, but they’re on a remote island where the primary industry is tourism, so they have to be nice, right? Wrong. They're just genuinely nice people who look out for each other, and visitors, too. You could tell that family is really important and that material things aren’t. It also seems as if they don't sweat the small stuff which I could probably learn from. Also, I never felt unsafe, confirmed by information on the U.S. State Department website stating that crime is relatively low, but that there's still a risk of coming across unexploded ordnance from World War II. After I read this, it sounded like the ordnance might be a bigger issue than actual crime in Palau!
So, one more dive destination checked off my bucket list! If Palau is on your list, I would totally recommend it!
That's the Palauan word for thanks and I have to give a big thanks Palau Dive Adventures for our fantastic week! They couldn’t have been more awesome! And another huge thank you to my friend Vicki at Vinocityevents.com who sent out my post while I was away, because while the diving was excellent in Palau, the internet service, meh, not so much. So make sure to check out her website to learn about all things wine!