Exploring Palau – Trip Report June 2019
This June, Jay went to Palau to do some scouting for our upcoming Ninja New Years Palau Trip. Sharks, mantas, wrecks, macro, & so much more! Here’s his trip report! And make sure to scroll down to the bottom for a special secret surprise announcement for Ninja New Years Palau!
Just the mention of Palau brings a smile to even the most seasoned divers. Look up any list of ‘Top dive sites in the world’ and you are sure to find Palau listed in it multiple times, with at least one of its world famous dive sites consistently ranked in the top 5 dives in the world. It’s a land famed for creating the first shark sanctuary on earth. But this isn’t just a shark diving mecca. The diversity of these tiny islands is remarkable. Hook in to a reef wall while schools of sharks dance in the current, or drift through gorgeous coral covered channels, or drop into one of the numerous blue holes reminiscent of ocean cenotes, snorkel amongst thousands of jellyfish who have evolved to not sting in one of the most unique dives on earth, explore historic World War II wrecks encrusted in hard corals, and even get out your torch and search coral filled gardens for incredible macro life. I was recently invited to go scout this little piece of heaven aboard the Siren liveaboard, and it did not disappoint! Here’s my trip report. And spoiler alert – I’m already counting down the days until we return for New Years in December!
Palau is an island nation made up of over 500 tiny islands located in the Micronesia area of the Pacific Ocean. Above water it is an exotic paradise filled with mushroom shaped limestone islands covered in dense jungle that look like they are floating on neon turquoise waters. These uninhabited islands are collectively known as the Rock Islands. One of my favorite parts of the trip was getting to cruise through them on our way from the Siren to the dive sites every dive. It made me feel like I was in some exotic version of Indiana Jones searching for lost jewels and forgotten civilizations. The skiff rides were always packed with surprises – we saw pods of dolphins, different species of sharks, turtles, and we hadn’t even gotten into the water yet.
Underwater has to have some of the most diverse variety of diving I’ve seen in any location. I could honestly write a 20 part article series just on the different dive sites we visited every day. There are incredible point dives, such as Blue Corner, where you just hook in and watch numerous grey reef and white tip sharks ride the currents around you. And of course we can’t forget the famous (and huge!) photobombing Napoleon Wrasse that also call these areas home. With names like Al and Sausage you can imagine the fun they are to dive with. They hop from one diver to the next to say hello…or just purposely photobombing your shark pics.
Mantas & Sharks at German Channel
Then there are the channel dives. Imagine dropping onto a wall and cruising along it as the current begins to pick up drawing you into a beautiful coral filled canyon. Sharks and colorful reef fish wiz by. Giant clams almost the size of a human make for an awesome quick stop before continuing down these hard coral covered channels before dropping you off into a shallow coral garden teeming with color and life. These channels are ancient remnants of rivers and lakes that have been filled by the rising ocean. One of the most famous channels here is German Channel. This man made channel isn’t really dived like a traditional channel, but instead we hang out at its entry where we have 2 cleaning stations. These cleaning stations are famous for manta and shark visits. We seen numerous mantas as they came in like underwater airplanes taking turns to hover over the cleaning station. Then once the mantas would leave the sharks would join in. They would turn somewhat vertical in the water and hover with their mouth wide open allowing the reefs dentists to do their work.
Coral Walls & A Shark Nursery!
The wall dives are gorgeous and completely covered in hard and soft coral. They make it difficult for a photo lover like me because you have a wealth of both macro and wide angle to shoot. Before every dive I was in a constant loop of ‘hmm do I shoot wide angle or switch to my macro lens…’ and I’m pretty sure the cruise director, Sebastian, was ready to strangle me by the end of the week from asking him so many questions! But he was always extremely helpful and filled with insight. On the walls we spotted lots of turtles, white tip sharks, schools of barracuda & jacks, bumphead parrotfish, grey reef sharks and so much more. But my favorite highlight of the week was when we found a grey reef shark nursery. Cruising below us over the white sand were over a hundred tiny shark pups with one large adult keeping watch.
Another highlight came on a dive at one of the most southern points in the itinerary – the Express. As you can probably guess, this site gets its name from the high speed currents that run through it. It’s an area known for big pelagics as well as bull sharks and more. But this day we hit the Express and it was in warp drive! The dive guides made the wise decision that it was unsafe to hook in and called the dive (we blew across the entire site in about 7 minutes). But as we made our way up into the blue to safety stop depth we were greeted by 2 incredible encounters – first a huge sailfish circling our group and then followed by a big oceanic black tip coming to see what all the commotion was about. Even ending a dive short in Palau was incredible!
Magnificent Blue Holes
Another one of my favorite highlights of the trip were diving in the beautiful blue holes found around the islands. These reminded me of the famed cenotes you find in Mexico but with a cooler twist. We’d drop in to shallow water and make our way down into the big holes mesmerized by the light rays bouncing off the cave walls. But then as you approach the bottom it begins to get dark until your eyes adjust and you see a giant blue window leading out. As you cross through these huge windows the floor drops from below you displaying a gorgeous wall covered in corals and life. Back inside the blue hole, you can find all sorts of awesome little macro critters like nudibranchs, shrimps, and electric clams as well as schools of jacks.
On top of all of this you have an area filled with historically significant wrecks from World War 2. The history nerd in me loved learning about the important battles that took place here and how they affected the war. One of my favorites was diving the Iro, a 143m (473 ft) long japanese oiler that was hit with a torpedo creating a massive hole in her bow. She was still able to stay afloat and make her way all the way to Palau. Then during Operation Desecrate One she was hit with multiple bombs and somehow still stayed afloat for days before finally sinking. She rests upright with her forward and aft guns still intact and covered in corals. This massive wreck was gorgeous to dive!
One of my favorite experiences of the trip was visiting Jellyfish Lake. This very unique marine lake is home to thousands of Golden Jellyfish and Moon Jellyfish. The beautiful Golden Jellyfish have evolved to not have stinging tentacles since they do not need to hunt. Instead they have developed a symbiotic relationship with algae to gather their nutrition from photosynthesis. I could have spent the entire day in the lake watching the jellies as they make their daily migration across the lake following the sun. It was almost therapeutic watching them slowly moving around – and of course really silly watching them bounce off the camera and themselves and then back up before trying again. This was hands down one of my favorite parts of the entire trip! Jellyfish lake has just reopened after being closed for a few years, and our guides were telling us that the population now is even larger than before it closed to the public years ago.
On the last dive of the trip we went to check out something different – Chandelier Cave. To be honest, at first I wasn’t really excited and even thought about skipping the dive. But wow was I happy I didn’t. We start this dive on a very shallow reef and then enter a big hole into Chandelier Cave. Inside you find these massive almost cathedral like chambers filled with stalagtites. But what makes it unique is there are big pockets of air above the water where you can surface and see the unique rock formations coming from the ceiling down into the water below. As you shine your light across them they almost sparkle due to the crystal formations on the rocks. There are 4 big chambers to check out here and each one was awesome! After exiting the cave there is a very shallow coral garden filled with Mandarin Fish. I honestly have never seen so many Mandarin fish in one dive. Since I decided to shoot wide angle for the cave, I wasn’t able to get any photos of the tiny ninjas so instead I spent my time finding them for the other divers. In the course of about 25 minutes I had found 15 of them. No where else in the world have I ever seen so many of these incredibly beautiful fish.
The Palau Siren & Her Crew
The crew of the Siren was incredible! Anne, Roxy, Sebastian, Angelo, Sergei, and the entire rest of the team made our week unforgettable. The ship itself is gorgeous! She is a traditional wooden Phinisi ship built by the world renowned phinisi builders in Makasar, Indonesia. The tradition of building these incredible ships here goes back generations. The rooms are spacious and feel more like hotel rooms than a liveaboard. The covered dining area is outdoors so you can take in the gorgeous views at every meal. Her dive deck is beyond spacious and she boasts an awesome indoor camera area for photographer, a beautiful (and huge) salon, 2 sundecks, and so much more. But the one thing that surprised me the most was how quiet she is. Normally wooden ships creak and moan constantly as they move in the sea, but not the Palau Siren. To a point where I had to ask the captain if she was really a wooden ship – in which he just laughed and said he guesses I’ve never been on a real phinisi before. The Palau Siren was recently rated as one of the top 5 most beautiful lux liveaboards in the world and I can definitely confirm that after this trip! I could go on and on, but I think it’s better to just say you should really get out to Palau and experience it for yourself.
Secret Ninja New Years Surprises
Dive Ninjas is heading back this December for a very special Ninja New Year’s trip to Palau onboard the Palau Siren! Imagine yourself spending New Years Eve under the stars in this exoitc paradise and taking in all the incredible diving Palau has to offer! Plus we have some surprises up our sleeves for this trip. I’m only allowed to mention one right now – and that is that Richard Barnden, co-founder of Unique Dive Expeditions in Palau and 2019 World Underwater Photographer of the Year is going to be joining us to teach us a bit about what makes this area so special. Richard has been working in Palau for over 15 years and is considered one of the world experts on the area! There are a few spots still available on the ship but make sure you act fast! And to sweeten the deal, Dive Ninjas is offering a special $500 discount on the trip right now! Click here to learn more and sign up today!