Family Diving

by Stuart Michele Westmorland

No PlayStation. No cable. No reality shows. Just a rope swing, some water, a native-style outrigger and the mind-boggling world of Palau. A family jaunts half-way around the globe for some local-style bonding and lands smack-dab in the middle of the adventure of a lifetime.

It’s surprising how well a 10-year-old can travel and adapt to time changes. Most children seem to have energy that runs like a light switch in the “on” position. It is important that parents be prepared, with adequate entertainment material for long flights. Most difficult for us was Jordan’s “off” position, when he crashed in the airport lounge in Guam during the last leg of travel. Waking him to board the plane entailed practically having to carry him and all the heavy photo gear, too.

Kids also seem to be more immune to jet lag than adults. It required only one good night’s sleep at the resort, and Jordan was up and out of his bed at the first sign of light in the morning. Every day, he would finish his breakfast in record time and bound to the beach. It was difficult to contain this package of energy, eagerly looking forward to the day’s adventure.

We felt comfortable with Jordan’s ability to swim and snorkel—something every parent would want to feel good about before embarking on outdoor aquatic adventures (or, in this case, casting their child off in an outrigger canoe). We knew this would be the experience of a lifetime for Jordan. How many kids go back to school after summer vacation and say that they did an outrigger adventure trip around the Rock Islands of Palau?

We explored paddling a 28-foot replica of a traditional Palauan war canoe called a Kabekel, following in the tradition of Micronesia’s legendary outrigger canoe seafarers. The eco-tour trips are designed for both experienced or inexperienced paddlers. The Kabekel has several other unique features: a rudder for maneuverability, wide, comfortable cushioned seats, and dry compartments for gear and cameras. They are amazingly stable. We could stand up inside the canoe and change places while underway.

Jordan and his new-found friends shared a canoe with our guide, Guy. The operators of the canoe trek, Fish ‘n Fins owners Navot Bornovski and Tova Har-El, had their two children come with us. Yarden (age 13) and Udi (age 10) were the perfect tour guides for Jordan. Both have lived in Palau for much of their young lives. Along with the fun of canoeing through mangroves and island channels, Jordan received a little history lesson. Even though, at 10 years old, Jordan really couldn’t grasp the horrendous nature of war, he learned that the Japanese controlled Palau during WWII. He investigated many of the different wrecks and caves. While snorkeling, he would dive down and look closely at Japanese reconnaissance planes. Since they are in shallow water, it made it very easy for the kids to search every inch of the rusting hulks. As beautiful as it is, the lagoon is a graveyard for a different kind of bird. These islands were a stronghold and strategic site for the Japanese in WWII. Several small warbirds, called “Jakes,” silently rest in the shallow waters of the lagoons. Only the propellers of these small reconnaissance aircraft peer from the surface of the water. To Jordan, they were, “Really cool!”

Lunch was prepared for us in the Palauan tradition and consisted of smoked fish, steamed chicken, tapioca and taro root, and refreshing pineapple, watermelon and papaya for a desert. Nothing is wrapped in plastic, only in banana leaves and cornhusks.

Our overnight, “Night Under the Stars Tour” paddling trip to Honeymoon Island, in the Rock Islands, was to the kids, like playing Survivor. But, their only chore was to enjoy the clear water surrounding their island playground and search for weird critters. And, they certainly did find some wonderful animals. A sizeable area of sand was full of little dens for Golden Gobies, with their partners, the blind shrimp, keeping pebbles from falling back into the openings. Anemones and clownfish, along with crabs and sea stars, held their interest for hours. During a break from the sun and water, the three kids discussed their encounters and laughed over the funny behavior of many
of the creatures. Of course, there were moments where they would try to scare each other with vivid descriptions of how the denizens of the deep would capture small children and drag them to sea.

With so many new things to discover, they entertained themselves until the sky and clouds turned a brilliant orange under the setting sun. Our camp was set up, and the fire glowed hot enough to cook our meal. Skewers of chicken and vegetables, Palauan spinach, rice and other delectable morsels composed our dinner. We toasted the successful day with coconut juice—the adults spiked theirs with a dose of cognac. We all gazed at the stars as they put on the perfect celestial show.
The combination of intense tropical sun, ample exercise and over-filled stomachs resulted in a very tired looking group. Settling down on our woven mattes, cushioned by the soft sand and under small half tents, we slept comfortably for the night in an amazingly mosquito-free environment.

Activities, other than of the water kind, are numerous in Palau. We took several hikes during our stay. A picnic lunch at Ngatpang Waterfall, after forging through the jungle, made for a delightful family outing. A bit of a challenge, we made our way down a somewhat slippery half-mile trail through a lush forest and down a steep set of stone stairs. Once at the falls, everyone cooled themselves in the freshwater stream and pool.

Not many people think of snorkeling anywhere other than the colorful reefs, but the mangrove
habitat can produce some interesting treasures. The complex root systems are an important breeding ground and nursery for many species of fish and invertebrates. Mangrove trees
surround almost the entire coastline of the main island, Babeldaob, and can be found on most
other islands as well.

Guy did an admirable job of keeping us on track, and he spaced the hard-core paddling with a few swim and snorkel breaks. Several hours after leaving the dock, we entered Taoch Channel at the highest water level. The peacefulness surrounding us was pure magic. All were quiet, even the children, a rare event in our normal world. Only the calls of Micronesian pigeons, terns and sulphur-crested cockatoos filled the air.

One of the real unexpected bonuses of our Palau adventure was the opportunity to have Jordan certified for scuba diving. I had always been under the impression that this would be too time-consuming to ever seriously consider during a family vacation. However, not only were the training sessions fun for Jordan, but Guy worked the entire program to suit our schedule. Guy was able to transform complicated diving subjects, such as physics and dive medicine, into digestible information that even a preteen could swallow and absorb.

We decided to take a break from the paddling to enjoy the reason most people travel to Palau. Palau is notably one of the best places in the world for diving. What an incredible combination, to experience and enjoy canoeing the Rock Islands and dive the resplendent reefs. We joined a
Fish ‘n Fins group that would visit some of our favorite sites: Blue Corner, Big Dropoff and Chandelier Cave.

Blue Corner is one of those dives that, if timed correctly, always yields new surprises and guarantees a thrill a minute. Guy guided us in place and helped secure everyone’s reef hook just before the current started pumping. As the current accelerated, so did the marine action. Sharks dived in and out of thick schools of jacks, barracudas, tangs, Pyramid Butterflyfish and Blue Fusiliers. I quickly lost count of the number of sharks after 30. The sharks included Gray Reef,
Reef Whitetips and the occasional Silky.

Big Dropoff is a dive that requires an armada of camera gear to do it justice. It also happens to be Jacques Cousteau’s favorite in Palau. Large colorful seafans beg for wide-angle photos. The soft corals hide tiny crabs, and lovely purple-based anemones and anemonefish pose perfectly for macro camera equipment. The plunging wall starts just under the surface and bottoms somewhere, I am told, around 1,000 feet.

We finished the day off in style at one of the real gems of Palau. Chandelier Cave is safely accessed with a guide from a 10-foot wide opening just under the waterline. It has three separate chambers running several hundred yards into the rock, that allow divers to surface, remove their regulators and breathe fresh air. With the aid of a bright dive light, one is dazzled by the array of limestone shapes reflecting in crystal clear water. We placed some extra strobes with colored gels in various areas of the first cavern to create some of our favorite images of the trip.

One of the most outstanding benefits of making such a trip a “family affair” is the valuable exposure of our children to non-American foods, games, cultures and lifestyles. It was amazing to witness my son gobbling down food that, at home, would have made him turn up his nose. Visiting with children from other countries is a valuable experience far beyond measure.

BEST TIME TO VISIT:

Year-round, but the
rainy season is June
through August.

TOPSIDE CLIMATE:

Tropical, daytime
temperatures in the
80s°F; nights in
the 70s°F.



CONTACTS:

Palau Visitors Authority
www.visit-palau.com

Aggressor Fleet
(800)348-2628
www.aggressor.com

Big Blue Explorer
(877) 417-6160
www.palauscuba.com

Fish ‘n Fins
01 (680) 488-2637
www.fishnfins.com

Neco Marine
01 (680) 488-1755
www.seapalau.com

Palau Pacific Resort
(800) 327-8585
www.seapalau.com
WATER TEMPERATURE:

Mid-80s°F.

EXCHANGE RATE:

U.S. currency
is accepted.

TIME DIFFERENCE:

Eastern Standard
Time plus 14 hours.




Peter Hughes Divning
(800) 932-6237
www.peterhughes.com

Reef & Rainforest
(800) 794-9767
www.reefrainforest.com

Sam’s Tours
01 (680) 488-1062
www.samstours.com

Trip-n-Tour
(800) 348-0842
www.trip-n-tour.com

World of Diving
www.worldofdiving.com

It was such a pleasure to see the children engaged in simple outdoor activities. Sandwiched in-between the scuba classroom sessions, the boys entertained themselves for hours on end by jumping off the marina dock, snorkeling and swinging on makeshift ropes. Each night, Jordan would fall asleep by 9:00 pm, exhausted, and be up with sun at 6:00 am—quite the opposite to his schedule at home. I felt quite proud to see my son easily mix into ethnically diverse groups of children during our trip. These kind of simple, honest, friendly exchanges are the building blocks that help mold us all into better informed, world travelers, with a greater appreciation of what we have at home, but an equal respect for all that is gloriously different outside our American borders.

In addition to the warm friendships we renewed, the scenery and sights we enjoyed, the well-toned arms from a week of paddling, and no sign of another human or civilization as we serenely paddled for hours at a time was a summer adventure never to be forgotten.