04/13/2009, Ulong Island
It was better on the west side of Ulong last night than the night before, but still not flat like a great anchorage. So after an enjoyable but bumpy stay we headed for the secluded lagoons inside the walls of the rocky island.
Hideko and I got up at 7AM to scout out the entrance to the lagoons. High tide was at about 9AM. We found a north and south way in but the south way was wider and had a bit more water. After surveying the area we made a quick run back to the boat and raised the anchor. Whistler was right behind us as we headed around to the lagoon entrance.
Ulong island is really three islands. The western most part is divided from the rest by a straight through channel that almost dries at low tide. The middle part looks like part of the eastern island but there are actually three interconnected lagoons that exit to the north and the south dividing the isles. There are of course many little isolated rock islets here and there in the mix.
We came over the bar at the south entrance to the first lagoon and had 11 feet or so of water. We draw 4.5 and the tide was 6 feet so we can just get out on a 0 tide.
The anchorage is fantastic. We chose the first lagoon because is has large areas of 30 feet sandy bottom, great holding and plenty of room for two or even three boats. The next lagoon is deeper and lined with coral. Might be ok to anchor in the middle but the bar at the entrance to lagoon two is shallower and there's a little less breeze in there. The third lagoon entrance is too shallow for us, you might have 1-2 feet of water at low tide there. Exiting the north side requires transiting lagoon two and exiting the shallowest of the bars with maybe 7 feet of water in a 6 foot tide.
So it is lagoon one for us, and we are very happy to be here. It is beautiful. Sheer limestone cliffs covered in vegetation and lime green water.
Pepe continued working hard on his open water certification today. We completed more knowledge reviews, confined water dives and even got in his first Open Water Dive. We went out to Ulong channel at 4PM, just as the tide began to come in. It was an hour long dinghy ride and we had four divers (Hideko, Miki, Pepe and I) so we weren't up on a plane.
After searching around a bit and getting a hint from some fishermen, we tied up to one of the moorings in the Ulong channel. The current was ripping. Hideko and Miki decided to run surface support while Pepe and I did a drift dive and Eric and Julie did a dive under the boats. It was a great dive and Pepe did great. We saw many of the famous grouper that come to the channel to spawn in May/June. The coral in the channel is also fantastic.
Twenty minutes after hitting the water Pepe and I had drifted a good half nautical mile. Hideko and Miki came to pick us up and we headed home. Eric and Julie checked in on the VHF and followed us in. A wonderful day in paradise.
04/12/2009, South Palau
The forecast has turned out to be fairly accurate. The man said mostly cloudy with scattered showers and that is just what we have had. It is also hot. It is amazing what a few degrees of latitude will do for your ambient temperature. In Yap we had nice sleeping temperatures but just a few degrees south in Palau it is a bit on the hot side. We are also having a dearth of wind which doesn't help.
Anchorage Report: This is not the best anchorage. The visibility in the lagoon is not good enough to see the bottom at 40 feet. The anchorage area here is pretty much 40 to 60 feet. There are some 30 foot spots but they are probably coral heads. Vis being what it is you have a hard time guaranteeing a sand hook up. We definitely head the sound of chain on coral last night as the wind and current shifted the boat into various postures through 360 degrees.
A mild, but sometimes annoying swell gets into this anchorage, bending around Ulong from the wind driven east. Fortunately, most of the time, the wind bends around the steep walls of the west side of the island, leaving you facing south, and facing the small swell. That said you will spend a fair amount of time facing other directions, and beam onto the swell, if the wind is light or squalls are about.
The anchorage is very pretty, facing the nicest beach on Ulong. A crescent shape is formed by the island and the reefs extending to the west from the south and north ends of the anchorage. These reefs require you to enter the anchorage from the west, standing well off of the island if you come in from the north or south side.
During a spring tide you will have over 6 feet of tidal range. At low tide the reef fringing the island will almost dry, making it tricky to dinghy ashore. At high tide during a spring tide, much of the sandy beach will be underwater, leaving a tree lined waterfront. The island is uninhabited but many of the local dive shops use the beach here for lunch breaks.
In summary, in settled conditions this is a fine place to stop. Otherwise the far more protected, but intricate, anchorages on the south side of the island may be more appropriate.
We spent most of the day working on Pepe's Open Water certification. He is going full bore through the curriculum and is on track to finish by Wednesday (4.5 days, not bad!). The genset is getting a lot of work, filling tanks, playing open water videos in Spanish, making espresso to keep us all going, etceteras.
The diving here in the anchorage is not great. There is not enough current from the sea reaching us to make things too clear but it is workable as the tide nears its high. The shallow sandy area near the beach is good for confined water skills at mid tide and up. Ulong channel is close by so we hope to get out there for a dive or two before we move on.
The Swingin' on a Star crew took a dinghy tour of Ulong in the late afternoon. It is a lovely set of rock island with interesting caves, coves and channels to explore. We even found Yapese stone money on one of the beaches.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.