I am sitting in the mouth of a deep, sandy channel facing the open sea. Sharks circle in front of me and black snapper coast out into the blue. All of a sudden a big school of scad races down the reef, immediately seizing the attention of the sharks. As I strain to see the action, the small fish swim madly to elude their predators. It is just another day at Ulong Channel where the drama of the sea plays out with the incoming tides. Beautiful and blue, these are the diverse waters of Palau.
I was in Palau, which is not far from my home in Guam, to work on some projects including updating my Palau & Yap diving guide book. I hadn’t been here for a while and was curious to see what was new and exciting in this visually stunning country in the equatorial northwest Pacific. Palau may be the best known and most popular diving destination in Micronesia. It is a vast, 100-mile long archipelago sitting in one of the richest locations in the ocean realm. Not only is the sea life abundant, the islands are home to exotic birds, wild monkeys and graceful flying foxes.
The geography also is greatly varied. It comprises high-forested islands, sparkling coral atolls and stunning rock islands surrounded by a fringing of coral reef. Palau offers superb diversity ranging from tiny dots of land to hulking Babeldaob, the second largest island in Micronesia. Once a well-kept secret by adventurous divers, Palau is now firmly established on the diving map as one of the most alluring and unique diving destinations.
Near the center of the Palau are the emerald, jungled Rock Islands. These magnificent mushroom-like formations provide a maze of splendid natural beauty and a protected haven for many rare forms of sea life. Palau’s waters support huge sea animals like the whale shark and the saltwater crocodile. It also hosts a wide spectrum of fish and coral life. With such diversity, virtually every dive promises something new and breathtaking.
The people of Palau are perhaps among the best traveled and most adventurous of any culture in the Pacific. Seeking education, employment and adventure, many Palauans live or have lived elsewhere in the world only to return for the betterment of their island home. Palauans are also curious about other cultures and accepting of visitors. They are generally incredibly quick to converse, joke and quip with visitors.
The first thing that struck me after not visiting for more than a year was the completion of a new central road in the main city of Koror. While traffic can still be heavy at times for a little island, it moves much better than in the past and there is plenty of room to walk around for visitors shopping or out to eat. Most tourists stay in and around Koror as it has numerous hotels and a great variety of restaurants including Western, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Palauan, Filipino, Indian, Japanese and more. One of my favorites is an authentic, delicious Italian gelato spot. The far end of the city area is developing with some upscale offerings complete with beaches, pools, small marinas and nice eateries that are not overpriced.
While most people come for the diving and snorkeling, the road up to the largest island of Babeldaob is a beautiful drive through tropical jungles and past rivers and overlooks. It is perfect for day trips and half-day trips. WWII remnants are being restored in some spots. Palau also has a site called Badrulchau, near the northernmost village of Ollei, with ancient stone monoliths dating back thousands of years. The grounds are well kept and the view leading down to the site is beautiful. Babeldaob also has a great waterfall hike.
The whole nation of Palau is a marine sanctuary. Thus, many people come to visit the ocean attractions. We used a great, personalized dive operation called Palau Escape—established by Palau diving pioneer Francis Toribiong—to take a snorkeling excursion that included the famed Soft Coral Arch, a shallow sunken shipwreck, a fish feeding site oddly named Cemetery and the famous Jellyfish Lake. The good news is that Jellyfish Lake is open again. A major drought hit Micronesia in 2017 and millions of jellyfish disappeared from the lake. But it has now made a full recovery and it is a real wonder to see the many golden jellies pulsing through the green, brackish water. The attraction has a good trail and convenient dock now, so accessing the lake is easy. A cadre of rangers oversees things to ensure the jellies thrive and visitors enjoy their otherworldly trip.
Palau is also not as crowded as it has been in the past due to politics. Many Chinese tours have pulled out of Palau due to the fact it is closely aligned with Taiwan. Some dive sites had no other boats but ours, others just a few. This is great as places like Blue Corner—the world famous point found by Toribiong—continues to showcase everything a diver wants to see. Barracuda schools, bigeye jack schools, snappers, sea turtles, Napoleon wrasse, bumphead parrotfish, great barracuda, lots of gray reef sharks and much more are seen on nearly every dive here. Combine a Blue Corner dive with the nearby Blue Holes and it is a special one-two combination.
I am happy to report Palau was alive and well during my recent adventures there. Still wild and beautiful and totally Mother Nature’s eye candy above and below.
- Getting There: Palau is serviced with direct international flights from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Manila. Many major airlines also fly from Guam.
- Money: U.S. dollar
- Electricity: 110V with the US flat prongs
- What to bring: Palau is tropical so wear light clothing and bring light rainwear. Swimwear is OK on boats and around the resorts. Shorts and shirts or skirts should be worn in general public.
- Tours: Sam’s Tours is quite famous in Palau for diving and kayaking excursions.
Palau Escape is a new, personalized service run by Joe Gugliamelli for diving pioneer Francis Toribiong.