Journal archives for March 2014

March 04, 2014

Palau

Yesterday I got back from a wonderful trip to Palau. This was another expedition organized by Josh & Liz of Undersea Productions. Eighteen of us from all over the world converged on this island nation between Guam and the Philippines for twelve days of diving aboard the Ocean Hunter III liveaboard.

I arrived in Palau a day early and got in some birding on my own. Managed to find a number of new birds, including the beautiful endemic Palau Fruit Dove. Palau was a Japanese possession until World War II, saw intense fighting, then a U.S. possession until their independence in the 1980s. They are still closely aligned with the U.S. and use our currency and postage. This makes logistics easy once you get there. It took me about 24 hours to travel Boston - Detroit - Tokyo - Palau. The airport is at Koror, the capital. This is the rainy season, and it did rain almost every day.

The Ocean Hunter III is fairly nice, with separate dining and lounge areas rather than a combined salon. Turns out when they have a full boat with 18 rather than 16 guests, they give up a crew cabin and some of the crew sleep on the floor. Food was all served buffet style and was very good. A cold breakfast at 6:15am with fruit and pastries. A hot breakfast after the first dive that always featured some type of eggs, bacon and sausage, and a starch. After the second dive came lunch which always included a green salad and a choice of other items. After the third dive came a snack which often included fruit smoothies and freshly baked brownies or other sweets. After the fourth dive the schedule differed from the typical liveaboard--if there was a night dive, it was before dinner, and dinner was delayed until around 8:00pm. Dinner usually started with a soup, then had a choice of items, nearly always including high quality sashimi, and a dessert as well. The ship did not have everything bolted down the way we usually see it. Turns out that they never take it outside the lagoon. The anchorage did move a few times, but we often had 15-20 minute trips in the tender to the actual dive sites on the outer reefs.

Palau's reefs are very healthy. And they have controlled commercial fishing pretty well, so there are plenty of large fish. We saw sharks on every dive--usually both white-tip and grey reef sharks. When we dived walls facing the open Pacific, it wasn't unusual to have 20-30 grey reef sharks circling right off the wall, along with dogtooth tuna and spanish mackerel, plus large schools of jacks. This makes for some pretty exciting action when a top predator like the tuna would suddenly make a pass at the medium-sized reef fish, immediately followed by the sharks and other predators looking to capitalize on the confusion. We were pretty much guaranteed this sort of action at Blue Corner, a famous site we dived several times. We usually dived there first or last, to avoid the day boats that made the long trip from Koror each day. Blue Corner also featured a couple of large Napoleon Wrasses (or Napoleon Harasses as we called them) who followed us around looking for handouts. Supposedly it's been ten years since they were regularly fed, but they still follow divers, getting right in your face.

Much of the diving was on walls. They have patches of soft coral, but not as much coverage as in Fiji. I spent a lot of time looking in small caves on these walls, and was rewarded with some rarely seen fish: both species of Wetmorella pygmy wrasse, a couple of Naia Pipefish, a Comet, and several Dottybacks (sorry Doug, I didn't manage to find a Dottysnout). The walls topped out anywhere from 50 to 5 feet deep depending on the site. Some of the reef tops were rich coral gardens, though many of the shallower ones were wiped clean by a typhoon last year. These were still interesting for their fish populations even without a lot of coral.

We did a few dives at German Channel where there are a couple of Manta Ray cleaning stations. And unlike other dive trips where we've been promised mantas that rarely show, we always saw them here, sometimes two or three at a time. We saw Blacktip Sharks and Lemon Sharks from the back of the ship in the evenings, and once had a Blacktip swim by us during a dive.

A site Palau is known for is Jellyfish Lake. It's a land-locked saltwater lake, filled with millions of jellyfish. They have lost their ability to sting, instead having symbiotic algae and needing only sunlight to live. The lake does exchange water with the ocean, very slowly through the limestone. There are only a few fish in there with the jellies. Getting there involves a steep hike up and back down a couple hundred feet, which is complicated by having to carry all of your snorkel gear, including camera. There is a dock and the end of the trail, and you swim from there towards the center of the lake, first seeing just a few individual jellies, but eventually getting to where they are so thick you see hundreds at once. And you can touch them. They are more substantial than I would have guessed, reminding me of some toys that I have seen that are soft rubber filled with water. We enjoyed the jellies so much we did that a second time. We were hoping for clear blue skies the second time for more dramatic photos, but once again it turned cloudy. And the second time there were several other groups there.

On two different days we went further south to Peleliu Island. The ship didn't move, so we had a long cruise in the tender, and did two dives there with the surface interval spent at a picnic area on the island. Being the obsessed naturalist that I am, I got in some birding there, and got a few more lifers. The diving at Peleliu was very good, with some different fish species than we saw closer to Koror. The walls and mid-depth coral garden were very healthy, but the shallows had been wiped out last year by a typhoon.

On two evenings we did twilight dives specifically to watch Mandarinfish. These flamboyant frog-faced fish are blue and maroon paisley, but a challenge to photograph. They spend their days hiding down in dense thickets of branching coral. At twilight every evening, they spawn. The fish move towards the top of the coral, males chase females, and eventually swim a few inches above the coral to spawn. But they don't do this until it is almost dark, and get shy when you put lights on them. Nevertheless, we did manage to see the fish, and some of us saw them spawn as well. Luckily this is all in shallow water, so we could make it a very long easy dive.

I logged about 410 fish species during the 12 days of diving, including 41 that I had never seen before. Some of my favorites from the 4600 pictures I took are at http://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/sets/72157641829987375/

Posted on March 04, 2014 03:16 by maractwin maractwin | 0 comments | Leave a comment

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