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  • Until today I have led a life fairly free of fear.

    As far as I knew, a slight unpleasant emotion caused by heights was my only phobia. And, since I’ve never had the desire to throw myself off cliffs or out of airplanes, I’ve somehow managed to avoid the issue of facing fear for most of my life. I certainly didn’t expect to confront it while diving in the idyllic waters of Palau. But there it was, waiting for me.

    By Tally Pozzoli
    Photos by Lionel Pozzoli

    I discover that using a flashlight in crystal clear water, while surrounded by columns of stalactites and stalagmites, can be very mesmerizing.

    Water erosion gives small rock islands like this one their distinctive mushroom-like aeshetic.
    It began innocuously enough, with an intriguing statement from our divemaster: "I have a surprise for you." Later I will read a description in a book saying, “This can be a place of intense fascination or your worst nightmare.” Well, not knowing this, and the divemaster assuring me that we shall always be able to see the entrance, I follow him through a large opening like an excited young puppy. Though the entrance to the cave is wide and shallow, it becomes pitch black instantly. My initial thrill disappears immediately. I feel momentarily disoriented and feel sure I will turn and the entrance will be out of reach. For a brief moment I feel the claustrophobic shout of, I want out! emanating from my gut. But when I turn my light on, the feeling passes. I recover my senses as my light shines on nearby stalactite columns. Curiosity then takes over and I bravely penetrate deeper. When we surface in the first of four fresh air chambers, I realize why the cave was given its name-Chandelier Cave. The stalactites on the ceiling have taken the shape of a chandelier, and with sparkling mineral deposits, the ceiling looks as if it is covered with diamonds. Some stalactites have their tips partially submerged and, when close to the surface, looking at them creates a mirror effect, which forms an even more extraordinary environment. Exploring the other chambers, I find they are just as beautiful. I discover that using a flashlight in crystal clear water, while surrounded by columns of stalactites and stalagmites, can be very mesmerizing. And I learn one more important lesson-phobias are easy to get rid of if one really wants to.

    Patrolling Silvertip.

    Massive seafans
    adorn the wall
    at Blue Corner.
    Having made a full recovery and now eager for more, we head off to one of the most famous dive sites off Palau-The Blue Corner. And we have the site all to ourselves.

    As we put our heads in the water, a Hawksbill Turtle with a Batfish on its back and a large Napoleon Wrasse following close behind leave the reef and head off into the blue.

    We make our descent to 82 feet, traveling though a thick curtain of Pyramid Butterflyfish mixed with triggerfish. Between them, thousands of snappers, surgeonfish, different species of unicornfish, Blue Fusiliers and many more are all busy enjoying their beautiful existence. In the blue, many Silvertip Sharks and a few scattered Whitetips patrol up and down, while keeping a cautious distance from us. Although we were expecting to find total destruction after hearing rumors of El Nińo’s visit to Palau, we are taken by surprise when we finally notice the wall. It is covered with rich and healthy soft corals, massive stands of black coral and plenty of large seafans, offering the color and form that photographers dream about.

    Thanks to nitrox, we maximize our time on this amazing drop-off before returning slowly to the reef flat at 40 feet. Here, too, the abundance of fish is breathtaking. Sweetlips, groupers and large Napoleon Wrasses come for close, curious looks. Is it food they are after? I wonder. A school of about 40 Bar Jacks goes by, a few Bluefin Trevally are in a hurry to catch themselves breakfast, and just when it’s time for the safety stop, I notice a small school of barracuda. Since they are not too far, I go for a closer look and am delighted to find they are completely unafraid. Unfortunately, the computer is now screaming at me and only calms down as I join my buddies at 16 feet. Staying at that depth, we set out towards the boat when a huge black cloud appears in the blue. We extend our safety stop while we glide in and out of a giant mixed school of trusting Bigeye Trevally and barracuda.

    A coral head crowded with explosively-red Tridacna clams.
    In crystal clear, 85°F waters, we sample an amazing variety of different dive sites. From vertical drop-offs to coral gardens; from Manta Rays to giant Tridacna clams; blue holes, tunnels, drift dives, marine lakes and a generous selection of Japanese wrecks in-cluding aircraft-souvenirs of World War II-are all a treat. And then, of course, there are all those caves.

    As the few clouds in the sky begin to reflect pinks and oranges, and we are about to start with the dreaded job of packing our dive bags, the divemaster’s wife joins us and asks if we are interested in photographing some Man-darinfish. “Mandarinfish! You mean the colorful little Mandarin?” The one that took me years to accept that I shall probably never see? “Yep, that’s the one,” she replies, as we start to kit up for one last unforgettable dive. In the harbor, no less, in seven feet of water, directly under the boat!

    This is the way life is in Palau. You never need travel far to encounter the spectacular or rare. And more than that, you never need be afraid.

    Geography & History

    Palau, which is part of the western Caroline Islands, is the most western part of Micronesia and is 470 miles east of the Philippines. Palau’s islands run from north to south, creating a 125-mile-long archipelago. There are two different types of islands: the large islands, which are mainly composed of basalt and andesite, and the rock islands, Palau’s greatest fame, which are of limestone formation. The rock islands’ tops are wider than their bases, creating a mushroomed look, the result of water erosion. They are covered with thick jungle, home to exotic bird life and fruit bats. Among them, extremely hard to find but not impossible, are some real crocodiles! With more than 200 of these islands, they provide a maze of magnificent natural charm.

    Surrounding Palau, three ocean currents converge, spawning more than 1,500 species of fish and more than 700 species of corals, providing exciting encounters with myriad creatures from the smallest invertebrates to large pelagics. Besides coral reefs, underwater tunnels, caves, blue holes, drop-offs and exceptional drift dives, there are a large number of World War II wrecks. The outcome of a two-day American air strike in 1944, a major block of the Japanese fleet was sunk. Japan seized the Palau islands from the Germans in the first World War, but they were captured by the U.S. in World War II and became part of its Trust Territory.

    Jellyfish Lake & El Nino

    Yes, the lake has been affected, but contrary to rumors, the jellyfish are not all dead. There are still plenty of jellies in the lake, only in smaller numbers than before, and the place is still worth a visit. There are two types of jellyfish in the lake-the moon jellyfish, Aurelia Aurita, and the Mastigias jellyfish. While the first mentioned has not been affected at all, the second is now in what is called a Polyp dormant state. This means that it is only a matter of time before they come back. However, the big question that no one is quite sure about, is when.

    The Palau Connection
    Palau Visitors Authority
    (680) 488-2793

    Operators/ Live-Aboards
    Fish ‘N Fins Dive Shop
    (680) 488-2637

    Neco Marine
    (680) 488-1755

    Ocean Hunter
    (680) 488-2637

    Palau Aggressor II
    (800) 348-2628

    Palau Pacific Resort
    (680) 488-2600

    Sam’s Tours
    (680) 488-1062

    Sun Dancer II/Star Dancer
    (888) 800-DIVE

    Island Dreams
    (800) 346-6116

    Outrigger Hotels & Resorts
    (800) 688-7444

    Reef & Rainforest
    (800) 794-9767

    Trip N Tour
    (800) 348-0842

    Tropical Adventures
    (800) 710-8805

    World of Diving
    (800) GO-DIVING