Monday, February 27, 2012

Palau At Its Best

Aaaaand there's more. Because that's just how Palau is. In addition to its world class dive sites, Palau is also home to a unique species of jellyfish that live in a lake closed off to other sea life by the surrounding rock islands. Over the years, these jellies in famed Jellyfish Lake have lost their need and ability to sting. Which means, you can swim with them and even touch them. During our 20-minute stay in the lake, we learned that there are about 9 million of these jellyfish in this one lake, which is pretty unbelievable. Every day these jellyfish move from one side of the lake to the other, following the sun, making it the largest daily migration of any animal on earth.

Our first dive on our third day was my favorite of the 11 we did over the four days of diving. We started off at a dive site called Fairyland, named for its fanciful and vibrant corals that make you question if you have managed to dive straight out of reality. The water was so crystal clear, and there was so much to see! I think we saw a turtle in the first 60 seconds under water. Here are some of the things we saw:

Fairyland ended when a huge cliff emerged. We watched a couple of spotted eagle rays flutter around for a few minutes. Then the current picked up and took us on a crazy ride to a dive site called New Drop Off, which was our first experience on one of the many shark highways we witnessed. Sharks must constantly be moving forward for their entire lives in order to filter water through their gills and breathe. If they stop moving, they suffocate. The sharks have figured out that if they hang out in these high current areas, they can circle from one quick current back around to the next all day and conserve a ton of energy. At night they leave the convenience of the current rings and go out into the deep to hunt. But because Palau has these unique dropoffs that crash together at various points, it creates pockets where you are guaranteed to see a bunch of sharks. I had to choose between about 8 shark photos from this one dive. Oh, and there were a ton of fish. We could have hung out there forever!

Butterfly fish confetti

After an awesome day of diving, we got back to the dock at the dive shop and... went diving! We'd heard rumors that there was a surprising amount of things to see diving just below the pier where all the dive boats were moored. We strapped our tanks back on and jumped in to find this:

Absolutely gorgeous mandarin fish... it's mating season, so these things, which are usually hard to find hiding behind cracks in the rock, were all over the place.

A pipe fish... from the same family as the seahorse

With all we had seen and done so far, it was pretty incredible that our last day of diving was the most spectacular. That morning we set off on a very different kind of dive... to Chandelier Cave. 

 This was my first legit cave dive and it was pretty spectacular... there were four caverns to surface in. I'm not sure which had more amazing views... under water or above it.

 We swam out with our dive lights turned off, so we could see how giant the cave was... over 300m long swim and around 100 ft. deep in places. Pretty awesome experience!

 Our next dive was our first glimpse at Palau's most famous dive, Blue Corner, which I described a bit in my first Palau post. We actually did this dive twice from two different directions of the corner. Here are a couple more pictures:
On our last day, we approached Blue Corner from the Blue Holes, a series of four caverns 100+ ft deep
Found a disco clam on the walls of the Blue Holes
 Then onto Blue Corner, where, once again, it was fish and sharks everywhere!
 Oriental sweet lips
This Napoleon Wrasse was massive... and surprisingly very friendly. He hung out with our group for a while, just checking everyone out. Such a funny face. I can just imagine him saying, "Hey, guys..."

Much as we may have liked to, we couldn't stay in Palau diving forever. There had to be a last dive. For us, it was German Channel, another famous spot, known for the possibility of seeing the giant manta rays. We weren't guaranteed to, though, so I didn't get my hopes up. In fact, I was pretty content after we got to sneak up on this spotted eagle ray in the first 5 minutes of our dive.

So you can imagine our excitement when a few minutes later, a couple of manta made their way toward us! Yessss!
 We got to follow one of them down to what's called a "cleaning station," where other fish approach and eat the debris off the manta's underside. The manta circles around for a few minutes like a plane in a holding pattern. We were about 20 ft. away from this guy. Such an awesome beast to watch!
Under water shower
 The rest of the dive was great too... a fantastic current pulling us through the channel, plus lots of fish and plenty more sharks. Oh, and more manta. We ended up seeing EIGHT of them on our dive! We had to hand it to our awesome dive guide for setting us up for success on our last dive. He knew the tides and the currents and conditions that would be just right for spotting them. And he was spot on. If you ever head to Palau, head to Sam's Tours and ask for Kostas to be your guide. You will not be disappointed!

 Due to the dive rule that you cannot fly within 24 hours of diving, we spent our last day in Palau kayaking through the rock islands.
 We got to snorkel some of the clearest water I have ever seen. Check this out:
So clear!! Snorkeling here reminded me of when I got Lasik and could see everything perfectly all of a sudden :)
One last underwater creature shot... electric blue clam. 

And that's it! An incredible trip to Palau... memories that will last a lifetime... a honeymoon and vacation at its best. I hope you enjoyed the pictures and stories as much as I enjoyed sharing them. And if you ever get a chance to pass through this little paradise, don't think twice about it. There's nowhere quite like it anywhere else on earth. Lucky us to get to experience it together!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Showing Off Palau

Are you ready for more Palau pictures? I am! Our first dive on our very first day was to Palau's famous Oolong Channel, which our dive instructor Kostas briefed us was not the best dive you would do there, but perhaps the most important. He explained the underwater geography of how this unique site came to be. Millions of years ago it was a river of some sort, and the cliff on the other side of the channel was actually a waterfall. This channel is now a place where salt and fresh water mix, where wildlife hang out in mass quantities. Exhibit A, the giant fish ball:
My first blog giveaway: First person to accurately count the number of fish in this photo wins...

One of our first shark sightings. Had no idea at this point there would be 99+ others!

So much going on here!

This dogface puffer was actually taking a nap on the coral. 
I wish all the fish would take naps so we could get their pictures more easily.

Hawkbill turtle... the first of many. We stopped taking pictures after about the 5th one.

We had lunch on beautiful Oolong Island, where Survivor Palau was filmed a few years ago. If this doesn't feel like vacation, I don't know what does.

Baaaack to diving! We explored some of the outer reefs hoping to see more exotic shark species. We saw no bulls or hammerheads, but plenty of grays and white tips, and lots more awesome corals.

 Star burst

Hello jelly

So that was all day one. Not a bad first day, right?

Day two got off to a little slower start. Our guide took us by some of the World War II sites on our way to some of the northern dive sites in Palau. The Japanese owned these northern islands until the war's end. The Americans had control of the southern islands. Apparently Palau's waters are home to the most amount of undiscovered live ordnance still left from WWII in the world. EOD still has some work to do.

 Then one of our two boat motors broke down on our way to our first dive site. Since we were going to be the only dive boat in this part of Palau, our guide insisted on getting it fixed before we headed any further. They motored over to this seaplane wreck site for us to snorkel around on until the boat was fixed. So we got a bonus site out of the deal (plus a free dinner since it took a little longer to fix than they thought... thanks Sam's Tours!).

The first site we dove, West Passage, was known for its extremely vast and large collection of table corals. This one was about 10 ft. in diameter. This is one of the only places in the world where you can find table corals this massive. 
 And of course, where there is a reef in Palau, there are all sorts of awesome things growing on and around it to capture.

Our second dive featured this unique section of corals known as the Rose Garden. 

It also featured more sharks! This gray reef shark and his buddy hung around for a good five minutes so we could gawk at it.

The sun drifted away mid-afternoon. When that happens, the anemone close up to conserve heat and energy. When they close up, they expose their magnificent, bright colors. Hence the name magnificent anemone.

 And of course, there were tons and tons and tons of fish, all different shapes, colors and sizes.

Not a bad first 48 hours! Which means, yes, there are still 6 more dives' worth of pictures to go. 

Oh Palau... you little show off.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Honeymoon #6 - Escape to Palau

Many of you, by now, have heard the story of how Nick and I started the tradition of taking a honeymoon every year. The short recap is that three weeks before our wedding date, we found out Nick needed to report to BUD/S the week BEFORE our wedding instead of two weeks after, meaning our weeklong getaway in Mexico was canceled. This was my first Navy-responsible major change of plans, so I didn't yet know how to roll with it. In my frustration and disappointment, I decided that the only way we could make up for missing our honeymoon was to take a honeymoon every year for the rest of our lives. I have to thank the forces that be for mixing things up and, on occasion, creating a Plan B that has far surpassed my original expectations.

Dive Buddies for Life!!
With that first honeymoon postponed, Nick tossed out the idea of us getting SCUBA certified and going to dive somewhere together. I didn't know anything about diving and had never even considered whether it's something I wanted to do or not. But I ran with the idea and set up certification courses for us... in San Diego... in February. It was exactly six years ago this past weekend when we finished our open water course (in 55 degree water, I might add!), and left for Miami for a cruise to dive in Panama and Belize, the first of now half a dozen memorable and very different honeymoons together.

The reason I mention this backstory is because it was exactly six years ago during that first dive course that Nick and I heard about this island nation called Palau. Our dive instructors in San Diego said amazing things about it. There were incredible pictures in our course book and on posters from this place, which was touted to be some of the best diving on the planet. Two years later when I went to visit Nick in Guam, we learned that Palau was somewhere very close to here. So when we got orders to move to Guam, Palau was the #1 destination on both of our lists that we absolutely had to make it to before moving back to the States.

All this to say, Palau, for us, is one of those once-in-a-lifetime type destinations, like Tahiti or Bora Bora are for others. The fact that it was only a two-hour flight each way (about halfway between Guam and The Philippines) made it almost too easy to get to. And given how good we've heard the diving is there, it's one of the reasons we pushed it back until later in our Guam stay... because we've heard that once you dive Palau, diving everywhere else is effectively ruined.

All I can say is that after 11 dives, I am absolutely floored by the amount of things we saw, the size of sea life, and the diversity of living creatures that call these reefs their home. And while I am excited to share the pictures with you, even Nick's amazing talent for underwater photography simply does not do this place justice. There is no way to properly capture the vastness of what you see under water here.  I feel the need to disclose that as I proceed with my humble yet notably inadequate attempt. For example, the photo on my right shows a gray and blue wall of blah. Actually, it is a vertical cliff packed with more colors than I know the names of.

On your right - human-size sea fan! 
I will describe a few of the sites in greater detail later on, but one worth mentioning to get started is Blue Corner, one of Palau's most famous dive sites. Imagine a 150-foot (or taller? I have no idea how big it is) wall that is covered in a football field of diverse corals, with tropical fish of every color combination swarming around. That's on your right. On your left are swarms of thousands of yellow, black and white butterfly fish, schools of jacks and reef fish.... all giving way to the highway of gray and white tip reef sharks, one after the next, passing you by like a car passing a road bike. We easily saw over 100 sharks during the course of our stay.

On your left... one of dozens of gray reef sharks that pass by on shark I-10
And if all that weren't enough to impress, then the wall turns a 90 degree angle corner and keeps going as far as the eye can see up, down, and forward in the other direction. So much to see on your right... on your left... above you... below you... I often caught myself not knowing where to focus because it was all so interesting... so amazing. And yet, all this sea life, all these divers exploring there every day, and each site was remarkably pristine. Palau as a nation has done an incredible job of creating these underwater sanctuaries, preserving this sea life for all to enjoy, protecting the reef ecosystems from overfishing, poaching, and the often destructive impact of human visitors. For example, in Guam, it is pretty neat if you see four or five of these Christmas tree worms (left) on a coral face the size of a poster board. Here we have a dozen or more within one square foot, and many of them are color combinations we have never seen before. Kinda like going to an ice cream shop that has four flavors for your whole life, and then switching to one that has 50. The visual beauty was, in a word, stunning.

Here's a little preview of some of the things we did and saw:

Cloud of fish at Oolong Channel

Swimming with 9 million jellyfish

Incredible diversity of hard and soft corals

Anemone magnificence!

Diving through a cave the size of a football field

Kayaking through the rock islands (Palau is also amazing above water!)

And one of the highlights of my six years as a diver... sharing the ocean with mantas.

After half a dozen years of hearing about this place, it is so satisfying to have now seen it with our own eyes and taken away our own experiences from this underwater fantasy land. I look forward to sharing more stories and pictures with you over the next few days. I hate that our time there is over already, but I am looking forward to reliving all the magic again here. And believe me... I mean magic!