04/06/2009, Blue Corner
We were up early again today for another three tank dive trip. Today we were lucky enough to be heading for the signature Palau dive site, The Blue Corner. We were on a new boat that was also well set up with lots of room to gear up. We dove with Jade who is an informative and energetic dive guide.
After a 50 minute boat ride we arrived at our first dive site, The Blue Holes. There are three holes that lead down into some open caverns. Farther back is an enclosed chamber called the Temple of Doom. Some unlucky turtles made their way into the temple and couldn't find their way out for air, leaving behind their eerie skeletons.
The dive through the Blue Holes leads you out to the wall that runs up to the Blue Corner. This was our favorite dive so far. The wall is lush and dropping into the holes is a spectacular experience.
We dove the German Channel second. The German channel is a channel made during Palau's German administration era. It is a shallow but serviceable channel leading through the western reef. We waited for Mantas for a bit and then just wandered around the coral heads and walls of the channel. It is a nice dive with turtles and sharks, and would be awesome with a manta sighting.
We lunch at a magical place in the rock islands. It is a little sand spit running in between two islands with miles of shallow warm water on either side. Everyone enjoyed lunch and a nice swim.
Our third dive was the Blue Corner. This is billed as the signature Palau dive. Unfortunately for us it was not a good time for it when we were there. The Blue Corner is a dive best done when the current is running into the lagoon. This gives you the clear ocean water and lots of wildlife to look at. Our dive was low vis and shifting currents. Certainly an anticlimax, but all in all we had a wonderful day diving.
Palau certainly moved up the charts today but I think we need to catch the Blue Corner on a good day to give it the number one spot. Hideko and I still rate Cozumel and French Polynesia (particularly the Tuamotus) over Palau.
We had a long beautiful ride back to Sam's through the rock islands. Sam's provides hot showers for divers and cruisers and we all took advantage of the opportunity. Afterwards we went out to dinner at Kramer's and retired for a long and deep sleep.
04/05/2009, Ulong Channel
We went out for our first dives in Palau today. Sam's Tours is our shop of choice. We haven't tried anyone else here but Sam's is a good operation and we have no reason to look elsewhere.
The Sam's tours outfit has two docks and welcomes cruisers. Dinghies are best tied up at the end of the dock as the sides are frequently loading and unloading divers, snorkelers and kayakers. Sam's will have anywhere from three of eight boats out and about per day.
Ashore they have a nice bar and grill, a good dive shop with all of the basics, rinse stations with separate bins for wetsuits, cameras and other gear. They also have great storage and hanging facilities for your dive gear. There's a digital photo center and Nick the underwater video pro will video you or teach you how to video or take stills yourself. The only thing Sam's doesn't do is house you, thus, if you are on a yacht, it is a one stop shop.
Our dive boat was well set up and had two outboards with plenty of room to gear up. The trip to the dive sites is usually 30 minutes to an hour.
We did the Nautilus dive at Short Drop Off on the east side of the islands first. We had originally thought it was a dive in an area where you might see a Nautilus. As it turns out they trap them with chicken bait and bring them up for divers to see. We're not too keen on feeding, trapping or otherwise tampering with the wildlife. The Nautilus are not harmed directly but I wonder how being brought up from 1,000 feet into daylight affects them. Other species are often found dead in the trap. Our friend Margaret saw a free Nautilus in Vanuatu on a night dive and I would highly recommend taking this approach if you want to see one of these illusive fossils.
The Short Drop Off dive was a lot of fun and a nice introduction to Palau. It wasn't spectacular but it was good, with lots of coral and fish. I was pleased to see the amazing diversity of corals. This part of the pacific leads the world in species diversity, having perhaps 4 times the variety found in the Caribbean for instance.
Our second dive was on the West side of the islands. It was a good boat trip to the other side. The dive at Siaes Corner was great and many divers used reef hooks. The reef hook is basically a big metal hook on the end of some nylon with a clip that you hook on to your BC at the waist. This allows you to effortlessly float at the end of the line in the, sometimes substantial, current, watching the wildlife go by.
While I try not to be too negative, I'm a little down on the reef hook concept as well. There are just too many people diving here. If 20 divers hook in a day, in the same area, you are going to have a noticeable increase in pressure on the health of the reef. Careful experienced divers can probably leave a very small foot print, but unfortunately not all divers are so described.
After our second dive we motored over to a lovely rock island for a lunch break. The islands are spectacular and definitely do justice to the postcard. Traveling through the limestone towers is a highlight of the dive excursions. A kayak tour of the rock islands would be well worth the day spent.
You get to select your lunch from a list of Bento Boxes and sandwiches. The list is good, the food is so so. The brownies are tasty though.
After lunch we went out for a third dive. Three dives out on the reef makes for a long day. The last dive at Ulong Channel was a relaxed one. This is a spot that Mantas frequent but we didn't see any. We did see white tipped reef sharks and grey sharks on every dive. Palau's reefs are loaded with fish as well. It is a beautiful place to dive. So far I can't give it the number one ranking but we are just getting started.
We ate dinner at the Bottom Time Bar and Grill at Sam's. The burgers are great and there's lots of onion rings, French fries and various other fried food to harden your arteries. All very tasty.
We headed back to the boat after dinner to get some rest before another day of diving tomorrow.
We visited the private Etpison Museum in Koror today. The museum has a nice collection of exhibits and a great gift shop. It has been very interesting to look through the museums here and combine that with the experiences we have had interacting with people. Palau is one of our favorite places in the Pacific islands and partly because of its people.
Palauans are kind but retiring, relaxed but responsive and very proud of their culture. They celebrate First Child Birth, Homebuilding, and Death, much like the rest of the world but they do it in a very Palauan way. It is a deep and intriguing culture.
Like many developing nations the cultural heritage stands in stark contrast to the modern governance and commercial pressures. The country is in some fairly concerning economic straights at present and they are now spending the principal in the trust set out by the US and other nations. Previously only the interest was spent but with the decline in returns globally and increased spending, the interest isn't enough.
Another problem is the fact that 62% of the population is employed by the government. Stop and think about that for a second. The government does not generate one cent in revenue through commerce, only internal/external taxes and foreign subsidies. This means that 62% of the population is basically on foreign welfare.
You could argue that Palau is owed compensation for the foreign war fought on its soil. WWII was over 60 years ago however, and the country has more infrastructure than they have ever had, all of the jungle has returned to Peleliu and other areas, there are money making WWII tourist sites everywhere, and there's the 700 million in the trust, not to mention millions in other aid and support from the US, Japan, Taiwan, the EU, the UN and other donors.
There's a sizable oil potential in Palau. The structure of the federal and state governments makes proceeding complex to say the least. There are 16 state governments and one national government plus a traditional chieftain government in Palau.
The traditional government was originally integrated with the elected government as a way to protect Palauan customs and heritage for the general populace. This traditional government has sadly been marginalized for the most part. That said there are still 17 government units, each with a legislature and executive branch, for a country smaller than the smallest state in the United States.
The story of Palau is similar to the stories of so many small island nations in the Pacific. They want to live in the way they have become accustomed under colonial rule but don't want to be under colonial rule. In an attempt to transition matters, the prior administrator typically infuses large (relatively) sums of capital to ease the evolution. This capital often breeds greed and corruption in a culture with no tools to deal with such a windfall.
Land ownership is also a big problem. Many islands had no concept of land ownership, or at least nothing like individual land ownership. The people of the clan own the land until a stronger clan takes it by force or coercion. The concept of selling land has create tremendous problems within nations and even families in the islands. In the end you have an interesting situation that requires much work to become sustainable and responsible.
Palau is not perfect but it is certainly an example for many other island nations from an infrastructure standpoint. Some of this has to do with the ratio of aid to population. Palau has received over 852 million USD in support since 1995. There are 20,000 people in Palau. That's over 42,600 per person.
It should be noted that only 14,000 of the residents are Palauan, the contribution is thus $4,285 per Palauan per year. Palauans have a different status than non Palauans. The minimum wage here is $2.50 per hour, but it only applies to Palauans. That means you can pay any of the more than 5,000 Philippinos here $150 a month, which is a common rate. The argument for this is that they are much better off than they would be in the slums of Manila. I can't disagree with that but the fabrication of different rules for different people has some unpleasant names.
Only Palauans can vote. Only Palauans can own property. Only Palauans can run businesses, though partnerships are allowed. Only those born of Palauans can be Palauan. One notable senator of Palauan and Chammoro (i.e. Marianas Islands) descent regularly demands eviction of non Palauans who get in his way.
The compact with the US specifies equal treatment both ways. Palauans can move to the US, buy a house, work anywhere and become citizens and vote if they like. Not so the other way around.
So like everywhere there are problems. That said, Palau is a breath of fresh air compared to Chuuk, PNG or the Solomon Islands. The government has real problems but it is far more responsible than some of its neighbors. Tourism is strong but under control and aware of the importance of the preservation of the natural resources. The country has managed to arrange good roads and bridges through the USA and Japan in exchange for permission to house military in a crisis, and as a token of peace and friendship, respectively. Violent crime is almost unheard of.
Everyone uses cars and outboards as opposed to feet and paddles, not sure if this is a good thing but it is certainly a status symbol. All of the Palauans have power, phone, internet and cable TV in their homes as well.
So when you are in Palau you will not see Urbanity but there's enough to keep you grounded in the modern world and the natural world at the same time. It is a fantastically beautiful place that still feels like a distant corner of the USA.
For more on the soon to expire compact see:
We did an island tour with Malahi from Sam's Tours today. Sam's likes you to sign up a day before doing dives or tours, mostly so that they can get your lunch order put in (I think Rock Island Café supplies all of the lunches). The tour was fantastic and I'm really glad we chose the organized route.
Many folks don't want to pay the $95 per person cruiser rate for the whole day tour. I think it was a bargain. The fee covers your $5 entrance fee to the waterfall park, the $5 fee for the stone statue park at million dollar point, lunch, and an air conditioned SUV with a driver/tour guide.
Our guide, Malahi, was fantastic. She is a native Palauan and really knew a lot about the culture and history of the places we visited. She was constantly giving us interesting information about the flora and fauna as well. Her commentary alone made the tour infinitely more meaningful.
We visited the only operable Bai (men's house where the chiefs meet) left in Palau, we saw all of the villages (also known as states) on Babledaub, we took in many beautiful vistas, saw the huge Japanese guns from WWII that guard the west pass, visited Japanese war memorials and an old 1930s Japanese cannery, we saw the gaudy new capital building, traveled the new round the island road and crossed the Japan Palau friendship bridge, we looked around the extensive mangrove forests, examined the ancient stone statues and pillars in the extreme north of the island, and we hiked deep into a valley to stand under a refreshing waterfall.
Our tour was scheduled to run from 8:30 to 4PM. We got back at 7PM. It was a great but tiring day. All slept well back aboard Swingin' on a Star.
We ran errands today. It took a fair amount of hoofing about to get passport photos, copies of paperwork and what not to get our Philippine passport processing started. You can visit the Philippines via yacht for 21 days without pretext but if you want to stay longer (and it is a big place) you need a visa. A 3 month single entry visa is $30, a 6 month multi entry is $60 and a one year multi entry is $90. We applied for three 3 month visas. They said that we could return in three business days to pick them up.
We have been getting to know lots of new folks over at Sam's. Today we met MArtin, Uli and Jurgeon (Sp?) from German at the bar. They are out for the diving and great to talk with.
In the evening we all went out to eat at Taj, an Indian restaurant run by Robert, a guy we had met at Kramer's a couple of nights ago. What a treat! Taj has a great atmosphere and even better food. Don't miss the Butter Chicken! We will be back.
We woke up to rain, and plenty off it, today. It was one of those on again off again rainy days. The rain was heavy when it was on though and it wasn't off for long in between. Our dink ended up almost totally swamped by 4PM when the rain settled.
After bailing out the floating bathtub we took a quick ride through the islands. Palau is a beautiful place. In the main islands we have found mostly limestone rock island style coastline with mangrove mixed in. There are some beaches here and there but most look to be artificially created or maintained and right in front of the big hotels. I have seen some nice stretches out in the outer islands though.
We ate dinner with Whistler and Lorax at the Dockside Restaurant. They have decent internet there which we took advantage of as well. It was interesting driving the dink back through all of the rocks and reefs at night. The tide is about 5 feet right now and we returned at high tide, so there were no big challenges other than remembering the way.
03/31/2009, Sam's tours
We took the dinghy out for some more exploring this morning. We found a cut through to the Koror side of the islands which was a nice addition. This allowed us to visit the Aquarium and the Dockside Restaurant by boat. The aquarium is worth a visit.
We went over to Sam's to socialize in the late afternoon, and to stir up some dinner. We were pleased to discover that the island has its own brewery. The Red Roster brewery has a nice amber and Sam's sells it on tap. After enjoying some fresh brew at Sam's we joined up with Lorax, Wakamizu and Whistler for $4.50 spaghetti (Tuesday night special) at Kramer's. Kramer's, named after one of the original Palau expats, is a great local spot for pasta and just hanging out. It was a fun evening.