Palau's Temple of Doom

Text and Photography by Casey Mahaney

After motioning for me to follow, my dive guide, Navot Bornovski, vanished underneath a dark overhang. In trying to catch up with him I quickly kicked my way down to 90 feet, folded up my camera strobe arm for maximum streamlining and then inched my way underneath a narrow rock formation. In the beam of my underwater light, I managed to catch a glimpse of Navot's fins disappearing through an ominous-looking hole. After hesitating for just a second or two, I penetrated the dark hole and cautiously negotiated my body through an extremely tight conduit: the Tunnel of Doom. Then, suddenly, the beam of my flashlight was nearly swallowed by the surrounding darkness, as a gigantic cavern opened up in front of me. 'You mean, you are looking for an adrenaline-pumping am-I-really-doing-this type of dive?' Navot had responded to my request for a different kind of dive. 'Well then, I have the perfect adventure for you!'

The whole idea had started when I reminisced with Navot about my first visit to Palau, now close to 20 years ago. At that time, I was kinda roughing it. 'The hotel was run down and the food marginal,' I pointed out. 'There were only a couple of very basic dive boats then, and by the time I got to the dive sites I was either drenched by tropical rains or burned to a crisp by the unforgiving sun. The conditions were more than rustic by today's standards, but I loved the adventure of it all.'

The legendary dive sites
No visit to Palau is complete without diving the fabled sites such as Blue Corner, Peleliu Corner and Big Drop-off, where brisk currents whisk divers past thick schools of fish, lush soft coral gardens and patrolling sharks. Particularly, Blue Corner cannot be over-dived. Here, one never knows what will swim by next. Barracudas, huge Napoleonfish, dozens of Grey Reef Sharks and even Sailfish have all been spotted at this special site. Then, there are the Blue Holes, where you drop in on the reef top and sink through a cylindrical tunnel down to 90 feet. And finally, Jellyfish Lake is a must. A short hike leads to a landlocked marine lake, which is home to millions of Mastigias Jellyfish, which, through the process of evolution, have lost the ability to sting. Visitors can snorkel unharmed through the pulsing mass of jellyfish, experiencing yet another of Palau's many wonders.
And now, engulfed in complete darkness, I wondered how adventurous I really was. A moment later I saw the flashing beacon that clearly marked the cavern's exit point and the beginning of a reference line that was permanently attached to the cavern's ceiling. With the help of Navot's light beam, the caverns revealed a great number of huge stalactites dripping from the high ceiling, enhancing the mysterious aura. The water was amazingly clear, and as long as we stayed off the silty bottom, there were literally no floating particles obstructing visibility.

As we progressed farther and farther into the cavern, my initial apprehension began to fade. But, just when I was beginning to actually relax, perhaps even venture off a little, Navot pointed his light at a turtle skeleton. Then another one. Continuing even farther into the eerie grotto we came across more and more turtle skeletons. My God, we were in a turtle tomb! In awe, I began furiously shooting photographs, while wondering what had prompted the turtles to pick this spot as their deathbed. On the way out, I encountered an unusual species of cardinal fish. Venturing just a few feet off to the side in order to pursue the small school, I suddenly realized I had gotten off the track and had lost Navot, the line and the flashing exit marker. It was at that point that I realized how the turtles had ended up here-they simply didn't find their way back to the entrance. Luckily, I had a great guide, who quickly found me and safely guided me back to the exit and then toward a sunlit surface that had never seemed so bright. Once safely back on the boat, I felt truly ecstatic about the dive in the Tunnel of Doom, appreciating not only the special experience, but also the knowledge that no matter how many times I return to Palau, there would be yet another adventure beckoning!