Monday, February 3, 2014

Best Scuba Diving in the World: Hands Down is Palau

If you Google "Best Scuba Diving in the World" you'll find tons of lists from Scuba Diving Magazine's Top 100 in 2013, DIVEin, and CNN Travel.  Palau is on all of these lists and the most famous of its dive sites is the "Blue Corner" which I dove 3 times and can vouch for it's place on the top of these lists.  It was the most breath-taking and exhilarating dive I've ever done with the sheer number of fish, turtles and sharks, amazing 50m+ visibility and very healthy coral!

Yet 9 out of 10 of my friends have never heard of Palau.  It's an island in Micronesia, not far from Guam, and as it's a US territory the currency is the US dollar and English is the primary language so it's a very easy place to travel to with a number of resorts.

Like many smaller countries around the world, Palau has had a tumultuous history with rule by Spain, Germany and Japan.  An interesting factoid is that Palau is the country with the largest Japanese speaking population outside of Japan.  Now it's known as the Republic of Palau with protection as a US territory.

I felt like I travelled to the end of the earth to arrive in Palau.  I actually flew over Palau on the 11 hour flight from Sydney to Incheon, South Korea, so had to backtrack 5 hours before arriving at a crazy 3 a.m. in the morning in Koror, Palau.  I strongly suspect the arrival/departure times into and out of Palau are a way to get tourists to pay an extra two night's accommodation as the departure time for my return flight from Palau left at 4 a.m.

My dear friends Venecia and Sam, however, had a lovely 4 hour direct flight from Taiwan!  While Venecia was in Sydney a few months ago, I hadn't seen them both together since my parents and I visited their home in Taiwan in Jan. 2012.  It was wonderful to catchup and spend time with them and I was happy it worked out that I was able to join their tour group in the evenings and our last day on the island together.

The Palau Royal Resort had the BEST location right across the street from Sam's Tours as well as two great local restaurants.  It had a great pool and cove.  But the best part of my stay is my upgrade from a standard ocean view room to a DELUX SUITE.  Luck was really on my side!

The best meal we had in Palau was at Carp Seafood Restaurant  just around the back of our hotel, the Palau Royal Resort.  We ordered all the native Palauan food.  We had oyster pancake, the best pan fried noodles, and the local fruit bat soup.  Yes, we were adventurous and ordered the fruit bat soup.  It had a terrible smell, I had a small sip of the soup and an even smaller taste of the bat.  Here's a photo:

Sam and Venecia also had a sampling, but overall our fruit bat soup went largely untouched.  Unlike a couple (who we think was Japanese) at a nearby table who ate EVERYTHING.  After they left the restaurant, their table remained uncleared so we nipped over and took the below photo. Can you believe they ate almost all that could be eaten of the bat and very neatly too!

Here we are after the Palauan warriors ceremony and dancing.

While Venecia and Sam were snorkeling during the day with their tour group, I scuba dived with Sam's Tours which is a fantastic operation that I highly recommend! I did 13 dives over the five days - all with Neil as guide and dive master.

While I've been diving since 1993, my first experience using a "reef hook" was in Palau.  In fact, the reef hook was developed in Palau to allow scuba divers to safely and effortlessly enjoy spending time gazing at the panorama of sea life at the Blue Corner without fighting the heavy currents and grabbing onto and damaging the coral.

What makes the Blue Corner so amazing? It's where thousands of fish go to feed and mate and brush up against the sharks to clean themselves.  The current is incredibly strong, so we hook on to the reef, inflate our BCDs and fly like a kite above the coral and just watch the wonders under the sea happening right in front of our eyes.

Dec. 20, 2013 - Dive #191
Blue Corner in Palau with 50 m visibility
52 minutes at max. 24.1 meters, average 15.3 meters
This was my first experience using a reef hook. The tricky part was entirely deflating my BCD and then unhooking.  All the air didn't come out of the BCE and I was a bit underweighted at 6 lbs, so got a bit bumped around, but after adding 2 lbs I was all good.

Dec. 20, 2013 - Dive #192
Blue Hole in Palau with 50 m visibility and 29Celcius
49 minutes at max 19.1 meters, average 11.6 meters
When a light's shined on a dancing crab you'll see this brilliant neon smile!  There was a small turtle at the start of the dive.  A fish is swimming upside down along the ceiling of the Blue Hole.  Neil pointed out a flabolina nudibranch, but unfortunately I didn't get a photo.

Dec. 20, 2013 - Snorkeling at Jelly Fish Lake
Over many, many years these jelly fish evolved to lose their ability to sting as they didn't have any predators. Now in this lake, there are hundreds of thousands of jelly fish.

Before we headed into Jelly Fish Lake, Neil told us, when we see 10-20 jelly fish, "don't stop, keep going", when you see a few hundred, "don't stop, keep going", when you see a few thousand, "then you're there".

It was hard not to pause and take a few photos when I saw the first dozen of jelly fish, but I was quickly able to grasp Neil's point.  We were wasting time at the edges when the thousands of jelly fish were swimming around in the sunny areas of the lake.

I dove under water with my snorkel and it was amazing to look around, above and under and just see thousands of tiny, small and medium-sized jelly fish.  There were so many they did bump against me and they felt like baby tushies.

Dec. 21, 2013 - Dive #193
German Channel in Palau with 25m visibility
56 minutes at 19.1 meters max, average 13.3 meters
We watched 5 sharks swim back and forth for several minutes while waiting to see if the manta rays would return, but unfortunately they did not.  So we continued swimming and saw a turtle at the end.

Dec. 21, 2013 - Dive #194
New Drop-off in Palau with 25m visibility
54 minutes at 20.6 meters max, average 12.2 meters
This was a drift dive. We dropped in along a wall with amazing, colorful soft coral.

Dec. 21, 2013 - Dive #195
Blue Corner in Palau with 25m visibility (cloudy)
51 minutes at 21 meters max, average 10.2 meters
We swam along in the blue for a while, then there was a wall of silver fish. At that point, Neil had us hook off.  As the last time he helped me, this was the first time I hooked off on my own.  The current was moving us fast and I was anxious I wouldn't find a place to hook off so I hooked on the very first place I could which ended up being on the wall versus up on the ledge.  So when I inflated my BCD, I felt enourmous pressure and current, plus I was worried that my hook would come loose and I'd be carried quickly away by the current.  It was like riding a roller coaster, but instead of feeling the wind flying by my ears, there was a rush of current.  I didn't feel comfortable, so when asked if I was OK, Neil helped me move my reef hook more in line with everyone else up on the ledge.  There was still immense current which was nerve-wracking and the current was still strong so I bounced around a bit, but I did still manage to enjoy the experience and sea life.

The most entertaining was watching this shark swimming back and forth chasing the tiniest yellow fish.  The shark was mesmerized by this tiny yellow fish and I was mesmerized watching it swim back and forth right in front of me following this bring yellow fish.

Dec. 22, 2013 - Dive #196
Ulong Channel in Palau with good visibility
49 minutes at 22.7 meters max, average 13.4 meters

Dec. 22, 2013 - Dive #197
Siaes Corner in Palau with good visibility and 28C
60 minutes (long safety stop) at 21.1 meters max, average 14.4 meters
Beautiful soft coral on the wall, amazing color and very healthy.

Dec. 22, 2013 - Dive #198
Sand Bar in Palau with good visibility at 28C
49 minutes at 21.9 meters max, average 12.5
I saw a green moray eel but my camera ran out of battery at the end.  There was also a small turtle, a leaf fish, a school of brown fish and a Desirable Flabolina which is a very small nudibranch. Neil also pointed out a sleeping shark that I video taped waking up, doing a swim around and then nestling back in the same spot.

Dec. 23, 2013 - Dive #199
Turtle Cove in Palau with 50 meters visibility and 28C on a sunny day
57 minutes at 23.5 meters max, average 14.2 meters
While the request was to go back to German Channel to see if we can see the manta rays, there were already 15 dive boats with divers in the water so we abandoned that idea and went instead to Turtle Cove.  The dive started with an immediate immersion into a wide hole into an opening and onto a wall on the right.  There was a blue fish that if a light was shone on it, a white square box that appears on its side.  It reminded me of the Salon Pas that my Dad puts on his sore shoulder or a smoker patch.  There was gorgeous soft coral on the wall.

Dec. 23, 2013 - Dive #200
Dexter's Wall in Palau with heavy rain and 28C
59 minutes at 19.4 meters max, average 10 meters
This was a "live drop" where immediately upon back flipping into the water we were told to go down.  It was a bit intimidating as it was really pouring down hard with rain and they were yelling "go down, go down" as the boat and other divers were flying by and you couldn't see any of the divers in the water below.  But upon persevering and going down further, I finally saw Neil, Don and the other divers.  There was a meadow under ground with lots of grass/soft coral where everywhere you looked there were hawksbill and green turtles.  At the end of the dive there was a giant Napoleon wrasse holding its ground versus a shark.

Dec. 23, 2013 - Dive #201
Blue Corner in Palau with 30 meter visibility at 28C
53 minutes at 20.8 meters max at 13.1 meter average
This was my third time diving Blue Corner. When we first hooked on the current was so weak we unhooked, swam through the channel and I strategically hooked on as close to the ledge as possible.  With the pull of the current and these black fish flying all around, it felt a bit like a 3-D scene from Harry Potter.

Dec. 24, 2013 - Dive #202
The Macro Wall right in front of Sam's Tours in Palau at dusk with poor visibility at 29C
25 minutes at 3.5 meters max, average 1.9 meters
On all the previous dives I had yet to see the famous Mandarin Fish.  I was told there were plenty to be found along the wall outside Sam's Tours. So I grabbed a tank and at about 5:30 p.m. did a quick dive.  I wish I'd had my dive light but I did get a few videos of the very shy Mandarin Fish which had great green and orange color patterns.  I also saw a rock fish and a weird stripped snake with what looks like a red bulls target on the end of the tail.

On my land day (there's no diving the day before flying), I did a cultural tour of the North Island to visit Palau's largest waterfall - the Ngardmau Waterfall.  I stood under the pounding waterfalls and it was like a super strong massage on the back of my neck and back.  It was a hot sunny day so we were rewarded with a rainbow!  It was a good hike to the waterfalls and an even more exhausting hike back up.

We also stopped and saw an ancient Palauan hut where the chieftains met and Palau's version of Stonehedge called Northern Ngarchelong.  Our guide is super knowledgable about plant life of Palau and I learned a lot about the fruits and plants.  We wrapped up by visiting the capitol of the Republic of Palau which was a significant investment by the Government.

For my last evening in Palau (Christmas Day), I had reserved a special dinner at the Palau Pacific Resort. It was at a restaurant right on the beach at this remote resort. It was the same resort that Linda W. who joined me on the Ngardmau Waterfall day trip was staying at with her family.  And because she mentioned seeing Republican Presidential Nominee John McCain at breakfast, when I was seated at dinner and looked up at the next table I realized why the man sitting across from me looked so familiar.  I was seated at the table next to John McCain and his family.

There was music and dancing entertainment and as you watch the video you'll see John McCain and his family in the background.

How cute is this pineapple, hard to believe that there's just one growing per plant!

After the hike down to the waterfall it was wonderfully refreshing to stand under the very strong and chilling pressure of the Ngardmau Waterfall.

A rainbow appears at the base of the Nhardmau Waterfall.

The Badrulechau is an impressive site with two rows of ancient stone colonnades and a plaza of carved stone face monoliths. This one has what appears to be a wide eye a smile!

The beautiful lush vegetation of Palau and the crystal clear blue water and reef off the shore.

Sunset at Palau Pacific Resort on the evening of Christmas Day.

Linda Wulf was staying at the Palau Pacific Resort where I had dinner on Christmas Day, she and I did the cultural and waterfall tour earlier that day.

Palau's local beer, was not bad, but not a fave.


  1. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing. I lived in Palau for 2 years and have been back to visit a few times after that and now I'm afraid I have an expensive addiction of going there. The BEST place on Earth.

  2. Palau is definitely a great place to dive just like PNG. It is one of the best dive destination. I love both of thee dive sites.