Scuba diving in Palau

I’m not back, but I’ve just completed a scuba trip to Palau. This one was planned and paid for originally for March of 2020, and postponed multiple times due to the pandemic. It was organized by Josh and Liz of Undersea Productions. Ultimately only 12 of the 16 of us made it, mainly due to airline problems with very limited flights at this point in the reopening. I was paranoid about getting all of my testing and documentation right, and got both a PCR test and a rapid test before leaving Boston.

On what was ultimately the fourth set of plane reservations I made, I traveled from Boston via Chicago, Honolulu, and Guam to Palau. The flight from Chicago left nearly an hour late, but they held the Guam flight for us since there were 27 people making that connection. During the layover in Guam I discovered that 9 people of our group were on the flight. On arrival in Palau, we were each given green wristbands and told to report to the hospital in 4 days for a followup COVID test. We were supposed to have limited contact with locals during those 4 days, but businesses that catered to tourists were given training and exempted from quarantine, and it wasn’t too limiting.

My travel and dive buddy Heidi was supposed to be on the trip, but dropped out because of a number of complications in her life right now, so I ended up with hotel rooms and a cabin on the boat to myself, a real luxury. We spent our first two nights at a hotel in town. On our free day I walked around, looking for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other wildlife. I found a number of them, but nothing new to me since I have been here before.

The next morning we should have boarded the Ocean Hunter III for 12 days of diving. But as we had learned just a day before starting this journey, it was still in the Philippines in dry dock. The dock kept pushing back the start date for the work, but finally started in what should have still been time. Then the main winch cable broke while re-floating the boat. So it wasn’t clear exactly when it would be available for us, as it is a couple of days of around-the-clock cruising from the Philippines to Palau once it was released, then they had to clean and provision it for us. So we started diving on day boats out of the dive shop that manages the liveaboard. The owner was really trying to do everything within her power to make this right. They moved us to the nicer hotel closest to the dive shop so we could walk between them (though they shuttled us in vans when it rained). They covered all of our meals and even alcohol during the days we were doing land-based diving. We were able to get in 3 dives a day that way, rather than the 4-5 that is usual on a liveaboard. Mid-way through out third day we did move onto the boat.

When we finally boarded and got the boat briefing, Josh told us that he had negotiated a non-typical schedule for us. Rather than 4-5 dives a day that are often limited to 45 minutes to an hour each to fit them all in, we would do longer dives, typically 75-80 minutes, leaving us with just 3 day dives and a dusk or night dive each day. My air consumption isn’t great, but they had a few 100 c.f. tanks, and with that, I was able to manage dive times along with everyone else. The membrane on the boat compressor wasn’t working, so they couldn’t make nitrox (a breathing mix for scuba with more oxygen than air, which allows longer bottom times) on board. Rather than make us dive on air, they shuttled tanks between the boat and the dive shop each day so we had enough. Apparently the scuba industry can’t get oxygen membranes right now because hospitals are snapping them all up to make oxygen for COVID patients.

The diving was good, but not as good as I remembered it from my last trip here 8 years ago. Reef fish were plentiful. Much of the coral was in good shape, though a few sites had cyclone damage in places. We did see large fish like Grey Reef Sharks, Napoleon Wrasses, and Bumphead Parrotfish most dives. But the sharks weren’t in the numbers they were on my last visit. Part of it was the luck of the currents: we did Blue Corner several times, one of the best sites of the area, and each time there wasn’t as much current as expected, so we didn’t just hook on to the reef and watch the show. A couple of times we encountered groups of juvenile reef sharks (don’t say “baby shark”) which were interesting.

A highlight for me was seeing spawning Bumphead Parrotfish. These are one of the larger fish on the reefs, at about 4 feet long each. We were up at dawn on the spring new moon for this annual event. We motored over to the site, then waited over an hour for the tides and parrotfish to be right before starting our dive. As we moved from the reef into blue water, I was excited to see a few hundred Bumpheads, more than I’ve ever seen before. They were just milling about at 60-100 feet deep. Finally they started, and groups of 5-10 fish with form a tight group and dart upwards, sometimes to within 20 feet of the surface. And this went on for perhaps half an hour. At some point I realized that there were now many more fish here, well over a thousand of them.

We did three dives specifically to see Manta Rays. There’s a well-known Manta cleaning station at German Channel. Twice we went there to see them being cleaned, where we formed a circle around the cleaning station at 60 feet and got to watch for a long time. Sometimes they would circle overhead, coming quite close. We planned to watch Mantas feeding in late afternoon in the same area, but couldn’t find any Mantas that dive, though we later learned from the skiff driver than four of them were circling the boat for much of the time we were in the water.

Other large animals encountered included Eagle Rays on several dives, sometimes feeding in the sand or cruising by. Large stingrays were seen several times. I saw two Nurse Sharks, a new species for me, one tucked into the reef sleeping, the other resting in the open on the sand. I also finally saw a Leopard Shark, though it was cruising 50 feet below us so not a great view. Turtles were plentiful, both Hawksbill and Greens, seen on more than half the dives. One memorable dive had ten of them! Only a few large groupers were seen.

Cephalopods were well represented. A saw 6-8 of the common Day Octopus, though most were shy and would hide in a crevice and warily watch us rather than moving about. We found a Wunderpus in the sand under one of the shipwrecks. A few smaller octopodes were seen as well, including a tiny juvenile that stuck to me during a night dive. And on the last day dive of the trip, we finally saw a Broadclub Cuttlefish who hung around for everyone to get a good look.

I spent a lot of time looking at and identifying the smaller reef fish. While the colorful Anthias are not as plentiful here as some other places, there are some spectacular examples like Princess, Bartlett’s and Randall’s that are nice to see. And I puzzled through the many damselfishes and wrasses that many people overlook. A rare one that was nice to see in numbers was the Big-lip Damselfish who is drab brown with comically large lips that look like it’s kissing the coral as it feeds.

I also lucked into a nice selection of tiny gobies. As my eyesight has worsened with age, I now wear glasses all the time and dive with a prescription mask. There are dozens of goby species less than an inch long, which I can’t see well enough under water to identify. So I shoot pictures of them and figure them out later, never sure what I’ve seen until after the dive.

One morning we visited Jellyfish Lake, a saltwater lake on an island filled with millions of non-stinging jellyfish. It’s a really interesting place to snorkel. Scuba is not allowed in the lake, as the deeper parts are dangerously acidic. Another atypical outing was a dive at Chandelier Cave which has various places where you can pop up to look at caverns filled with stalactites. Being the fish geek that I am, I enjoyed the silty bay outside the cave for the fish it had more than the formations in the cave.

We had hoped to get in a number of dives at Peleliu, the southern-most island which has slightly different topology and fishes. We moved down there one day, but the water was too rough. A few people were seasick and things were falling over, so after just one dive we moved back to more protected waters. There was a tropical storm a thousand miles north of us, and this was definitely affecting conditions where we were.

I took about 3000 photos in Palau, logging 487 species of fish, including seven new ones! A few of my favorite photos from the trip are at
https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72177720298040329 And I am gradually adding many here on iNat.

I'm writing this in Hawaii, where I'm visiting before going to Fiji for another postponed dive trip.
    -Mark

Posted by maractwin maractwin, April 16, 2022 20:24

Comments

Wow, what a cool write-up!! Sounds so wonderful and interesting!! And the photos are super amazing!! I am still in Bangkok doing some photographic work in the protected areas around here, and am still planning on getting to Fiji soon, so still hoping to coincide and meet up.

Did you get the famous endemic Fruit-Dove there??

Safe journeys
Kevin

Posted by birdexplorers 8 months ago (Flag)

I didn't see the fruit dove on this trip, but did find it last time I was there.

Posted by maractwin 8 months ago (Flag)

Super cool to see your photos. Definitely making me wish to go traveling again. Got a trip to Indonesia planned in the fall, Aloor and Kamodo. Can't wait. Some good friends are going to Fiji on a live-aboard snorkel sail next week. Hope you all get to see lots of sea critters. Can't wait for your photos!

Posted by petdoc 8 months ago (Flag)

Thanks for these notes! I had been wondering about the practical details of international travel. Glad your trip was good despite the hang-ups. That Fantail Stingray is pretty spectacular. When I was there in March 2020 there were a lot of reef sharks at Blue Corner, so hopefully it was just unlucky conditions and not a real decline.

Fewer dives for longer times sounds heavenly to me, I really dislike being herded around with a time limit. Have you encountered that kind of schedule anywhere else?

Posted by sea-kangaroo 7 months ago (Flag)

This was the first time we had this sort of schedule. I imagine that the crew wouldn't mind, but if there are any guests with poor air consumption, they aren't going to be happy with this.

Posted by maractwin 7 months ago (Flag)

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