04/11/2009, South Palau
We spent the morning fueling up the dink at Sam's and working on the internet. We paid bills and filed our taxed online and got other miscellaneous things done to prep for our Rock Island cruise. Dermot at Sam's helped us out tremendously with charts, anchorage tips and many other necessities.
At noon, Eric, Julie and Pepe headed out on Whistler. An hour later we followed. We had no problem staying in touch on VHF 69 (which is high power) but when you get too close to a rock island you lose touch with those on the far side. After exiting the pincers, the west pass into Malakal harbor which looks like a set of surgical pincers, we basically made a B line for the center of Ulong. We saw no depths less than 80 feet once on track. The Ocean Hunter (a live aboard dive boat here) was on our track a couple miles in front of us, which was reassuring.
There was no real wind. We had the sail bag open but never saw fit to put up the main. Instead we motored at 8 knots in the flat water for the hour to Ulong.
Whistler tried to get into two of the super protected anchorages tucked into the interior of the rock island maze that is Ulong. Unfortunately it was low tide and there was no water (6 inches reported by Eric) at the entrances. In the end we settled for the more open anchorage off the beach on the west side of Ulong.
The anchorage is workable but not perfect. See report tomorrow.
Once hooked up we set about getting Eric's new crew from Argentina, Pepe, certified as an Open Water diver. Everyone had a great time in the warm water of the anchorage.
Hideko and Miki spent the day running around town collecting groceries and the like. I spent most of the day on the Internet at Sam's. We are planning on heading out to the Rock Island tomorrow with the Whistler crew for a week of gunkholing, diving and relaxing (I know, our life is so hard as it is...).
In the late afternoon I hooked up with Nick, the Video guru here at Sam's. He is an impressive camera guy. I signed up for a polishing course to bring my not so impressive video chops up a few notches. We spent two hours working on basics in the class room while Hideko and Miki hit the local Thai Food restaurant. They said the Thai food was ok, so it was a good trade. With luck Nick will be able to meet us in the islands and do a couple of dives with me to finish up the training process.
For the past few days we had been working on arranging a Peleliu dive/tour. Sam's does the trip with an 8 person minimum due to the distance down to the south end of the lagoon. We had the right number of folks, then some would cancel, then we had enough again, then some would cancel. It was a struggle but in the end Sam's put a trip together for us with only 6 folks, which was very nice of them.
It was an intense day. We began the day early at Sam's for a great breakfast (they do breakfast right). Once fed we loaded on the boat with Jay, a US paramedic from Iraq we have become friends with, and a lovely Swiss couple who are currently living in Singapore. Our guide was Jade, a great guy who we had dove with before as well.
It was a grey day with drizzling rain and a chop on the windward side of the lagoon. We managed to stay behind the rock islands almost all the way o Peleliu though. Some had dropped out due to weather. I think that when diving, the currents, and thus visibility, are more important than the topside weather. You're going to be soaked anyway, so what's a little rain? Too much cloud cover does shut down the underwater visibility a bit though.
We arrived after an hour and 20 minute boat ride with a short detour to play with some acrobatic spinner dolphins. The south end of Peleliu is outside of the reef and ripping. We dove Peleliu Express first.
This dive is a kick. We didn't have amazing vis but it was a lot of fun. We all dropped in with the boat underway and then moved down along the wall. We did a drift run for a bit and then hooked in at the point. The current came in rushes and got strong enough to depress my purge button, so I had to cover my reg from time to time. If your mask is not on tight you could lose it if you look sideways. We saw the standard array of Palau fish, including a few grey sharks. The highlight was a big school of Giant Trevally at the end of the dive.
We broke for lunch in the small Peleliu harbor, originally manufactured by the Japanese early in the last century. Not everyone was feeling great after the slightly bumpy but long ride down and the fairly vigorous conditions at the drop site. After lunch a smaller group went out for dive two. Unfortunate since it was very mellow.
Our second dive was along Peleliu Wall. This is a nice and easy dive dropping through a small hole down to the sheer wall on the leeward side of Peleliu. There was no real current, just lots of fish and coral. The wall is very interesting with lots of cracks and crevices. There are huge schools of Black Durgeon (aka. Niger Trigger Fish) and Snapper in the area. We saw turtles and sharks among other interesting critters.
We finished the day with a tour of Peleliu. There are many great sites to see on Peleliu including the White and Orange beaches where the Marines landed in WWII, rusting tanks and troop carriers, Japanese gun positions and, my favorite, the old eerie buildings buried in layers of recovering jungle. We also visited the museum. It is a modest place, appropriately housed inside a recovered WWII era concrete structure. The collection of items inside is impressive however. I could have spent two days reading all of the articles and old WWII printed material. We also stopped at an impressive hill top sporting a US memorial and a huge Japanese shrine, something rarely seen outside of Japan.
Our lovely guide, a Peleliu native, returned us to the harbor at the end of a wonderful day. We hunkered down for the long ride back to Malakal, with rain and dolphins breaking up the trip, happy to have had a great day regardless of the weather.
It was a rainy morning so we spent some time on the boat relaxing and organizing. I got our video footage from the dives we did a few days ago edited down to just the interesting footage (substantially less than the raw footage recorded). It made me appreciate the video pro at Sam's even more. He can just print his raw footage it is all so good. I hope to take a private lesson from him while we're here.
In the afternoon we grabbed a nice lunch at Sam's and then headed into town for a loosely organized independent tour. The key to our tour's success was Parker the cab driver (779-6174, [email protected]). Parker is a great guy, has a nice car and charges very fair rates.
We picked up our yacht cruising permit to gunkhole around in the rock islands for $40. Then headed to the Mariculture Center. The MC is a place that was set up to study various important marine species. It is not the best organized place I have ever been but it is interesting to see and only costs $2 to visit. Other than knowing where things were our tour guide was pretty out of touch. Fortunatly Parker was there to fill in a bit. With Parker's help we figured out what was going on for the most part.
The MC has various fish and some baby turtles in the indoor tanks. The more interesting bit to us was the Giant Clam cultivation area. Giant Clams used to be very numerous on Palau. Now days they are hard to come by in shallow waters where they can be easily harvested. The MC grows various varieties of the giant clam and some go back to the reef, while others go to clam farms that the Palauans keep near the villages. Just off the quay you can see some huge calms in the coral beds as much as one meter across.
Our next stop was the National Museum. This was another nice stop with lots of detailed information about the history of Palau. There were separate exhibits for the Spanish, German, Japanese and US eras.
Our final stop was at the Palau Pacific Resort for Internet and dinner. As far as I have seen this is the nicest resort on Palau. We watched a beautiful sunset while blogging and dining.
One of the nice things about the south part of Palau is that it consists of many small islands inside a protective reef system. You can dinghy a great many places through the myriad of limestone channels. There are Hurricane holes everywhere for those interested in looking. In fact it is the first place we've felt a little disadvantaged. Some of the little lagoons have plenty of depth but entrances so narrow that only a small mono hull can get in.
We edited together some video clips of our dives this morning. It is always fun to put together little mementos of the nice spots. I may try to edit one down for the web. Sony Vegas and our little Sony HandyCam are still working well for us.
We did some errands in town and ended up eating a late lunch at the Rock Island Café. I would rate the place a solid middle of the road. Not great but edible. If there's no where else open it will work.
Hideko found a laundry place just down from Sam's tours that is shockingly cheap and very good. So Hideko and Miki got hour long massages for $20 each while the laundry did itself for $8. Rough life.
We spent the evening mingling with our many new friends at Sam's tour's Bottom Time Bar and Grill. Mike on Lorax will be leaving soon for the Philippines, we hope to catch up with him there. Gar and Nicole on Dream Keeper are heading for Indonesia but will make their way to Malaysia and Singapore, so we hope to see them again as well.
Whistler moves up to a crew of three when Eric picks up his friend from Argentina in two days. We will head out for a cruise of the Rock Islands shortly thereafter.
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.