Christmas in Palau
Christmas in Palau…
Reef sharks, mantas, Napoleon wrasse, big fish schools and jellyfish were what we were all hoping for and our trip aboard the Palau Siren delivered! Thomas & I had eagerly awaited our trip to Palau for the past 18 months so it was with utter excitement that we set off from Phuket on 14th December. Meeting up with some old friends along the way we spent a couple of days hanging out in Koror before the rest of our group were due to arrive and sneaking in a couple of extra dives in the morning with Sam’s Tours, just to get us started!
With hugs and hellos in Sam’s bar before boarding (yes already on the beers!) we set off for our 10-night adventure. Capt. Mike and the crew welcomed us all aboard and got us settled in to cabins with boat & safety briefings. Jonathan followed up the next morning with our first dive briefing for the trip….and then it was time for our check dive at Jake’s Seaplane. The site itself is quite small but it’s a great spot for u/w photographers and Chris was ready to take full advantage- for me with my love of macro the best thing was Jonathan’s find of a couple of nudibranchs on the mooring line- but that would be about it for macro during this trip! The stunning Chandelier Cave was next and for those not wishing to get into caves there was the option for a critter dive at Sam’s Wall where the divers could happily photograph the rather large and extrovert mandarin fish. After lunch we cruised to Ulong for an afternoon dive at Siaes Tunnel. The huge opening posed no problem for all the divers and was an easy and interesting swim through with soft corals adorning the ceiling, creating a picturesque frame to photograph into the blue. Here we had our first reef shark sightings as we emerged from the tunnel to drift gently along the reef wall. A night dive was offered, but with most of us preferring to sample the draft beers that the Palau Siren has on tap, only Chris took up the offer – this theme was to continue throughout the trip!
On the morning of day 3 we dived Shark City & Ulong Channel, seeing white tips, bumphead parrotfish, eagle rays, giant trevally, barracuda, hawksbill turtles and a several grey reef sharks up close – cheers to Penny & Julie for leaving me out in blue with them, I was starting to feel like bait! The dives were great but the wind & rain had picked up so our ride back to the mothership took longer than expected and due to the rough seas our planned afternoon dive at Siaes Corner was changed to a dive at Sandbar. However J5, our tender driver, didn’t get the update and we were all too busy chatting to notice he was already through the channel so off “Dinghy 1” went to Siaes Corner and what a superb dive it was (sorry “Dinghy 2”)! The current was perfect allowing us to drift slowly along the wall before “hooking in” at the corner and watching the grey reef sharks & white tips hanging there amidst the school of midnight snapper. After waltzing through the safety stop, we tried not to appear too happy when we returned to the Palau Siren but of course it was difficult. Night dive anyone??? Hmmm that’ll be Chris then!
Not wanting Dinghy 2 to miss out we returned the following morning to Siaes Corner for all to experience the snapper schools and shark display. Joining the mix were dogtooth tuna, trevally, Moorish idols and barracuda. Another superb dive and smiley faces all round. Jelly Fish Lake on Mercherchar Island was our next port of call. Capt. Mike rested at our safe anchorage spot and we boarded our tenders to the lake cruising through the limestone islands, despite the rain spirits were high and we were all looking forward to the unique experience of swimming amidst thousands of jellies without being stung. After a somewhat steep climb (yay they have put in steps!) we arrived at the platform and gently entered the lake with Jonathan leading us to the main congregation of jellies for the best photo ops. Apparently there are cardinal fish in there too but I was too in awe of the pulsating jellies to notice.
New Drop Off, one of the most popular sites in Palau, was the option for our afternoon dive. With an outgoing current the usual “hook in” spot wasn’t seeing much action so we turned our attention to the channel where many grey reef sharks & white tips were cruising about. Also to be seen were curious Napoleon wrasse and numerous hawksbill and green turtles.
Next morning we hit the ‘motherload” with an early morning dive at Blue Corner. Noted as one of the top dive sites of the World, the site certainly delivered on shark action. The moment we back-rolled into the water the first grey reefs & white tips could be spotted. Cruising along the wall to our “hook in” spot we could already see several sharks and the snappers, trevally & barracuda forming into schools. Once at the corner with reef hooks at the ready we all hooked in, inflated our BCDs and hung in the current to watch the show. How easy is that for a dive? You really have to do very little than hang about and have fun. But perhaps keep a watchful eye on anything dangling from your BCD. The Napoleon wrasse are very inquisitive, coming very close to divers and one cheeky chappy even tried to make off with Julie’s Nautilus Lifeline! Perhaps he was nervous of drifting away in the current?
German Channel was next up and despite the low vis each group had some superb manta action. We explored the deeper cleaning station at 30m, finding a leaf fish, before ascending to 18m to the shallower bommies. It was here the mantas came in for a clean then proceeded to shallower water to begin feeding on the plankton. I guess there is some benefit to the lower visibility in that we were all able to enjoy the mantas in action. Volker was so enthralled he ‘forgot” about Maggie, his buddy, resulting in a not so friendly hand gesture from her once they were reunited. Poor Jonathan & Jason had a difficult time trying to keep our groups together, especially when one wayward diver liked to dingle off on her own (wonder who that could be????). The day ended with a dive at Big Drop Off, a steep wall dive with soft and hard corals. Grey reef sharks were seen patrolling and batfish cruised about, as for Thomas and I we had a relaxed “same ocean” dive “together” finding a couple of Chelidonura slugs and tube coral wentletraps (ok I know enough with the macro – back to the sharks!)
Keen for more big fish action we opted to spend the next few days revisiting Blue Corner, German Channel and New Drop Off along with exploring Blue Holes, Virgin Blue Holes and Turtle Cove. So for our Christmas eve we were wowed with awesome dives at Blue Corner, followed by a superb dive through Blue Holes where the cavern is enormous and a couple of openings to the reef filter enough light to explore the cave in full….some ‘naughty’ divers taking longer than others hmm hmmm Julie & James! But it was the dive at German Channel that pipped the post for the highlight of the day. Dropping in during the late afternoon meant the day boats were finishing up their dives & returning to Koror so we had the site to ourselves. Now it was time for the 8 mantas to put on a special show for us, looping in front of us, feeding, gliding, forming a line for their turn. For 1 hour we hung neutrally buoyant to watch the show, take photos and try not to be hit as the mantas swooped in very close by! It was simply a spectacular experience, sadly the other dives we made in the channel during the trip could not top it but we still had the memory to keep us smiling.
For our Christmas day treat we took the dinghies for a 2-tank excursion to Peleliu. Starting the day with a big breakfast we set off to dive Peleliu Cut, where the reef sharks were hanging out and the black & red snappers were getting ready to spawn on the full moon. After the dive we made a break on land with a short walk to one of the tanks left behind during WWII, also seeing up close evidence of damage to the flora from Typhoon Bopha. A quick snack and it was back to the diving. We dropped in once again on the corner but the visibility had dropped so calling the dive we ascending and turned to plan B….a dive at Peleliu Express. The eastern side of the island had seen the most damage from the Typhoon, however this was not evident on the dive. The hard coral wall descended steeply forming a shelf at 18m. Jonathan guided us along the wall, stopping to hook in to watch the sharks then releasing for a drift before hooking again. We “hopped” along the wall like this for the next 45minutes seeing white tips, grey reef sharks and many bumphead parrotfish.
For our final day of diving we dived again at New Drop Off, where Heinz was “buzzed” by an Oceanic Triggerfish much to the amusement of fellow divers before opting to dive the Iro Maru wreck close to Malakal Harbour. The tenders took us on a scenic cruise through the rock islands, stopping at “The Arch” for the all-important photo op, we could also see “Elephant Island” in the distance. Descending down the mooring line it was difficult to make out the wreckage in the low visibility but she is an impressive sight. Covered with bushes of black coral & sponges, the wreck provides an attraction for schooling fish that hang about over the holds. Some easy penetration was possible to see the engine and the shallower support frames are a good place to look for smaller critters – yay I found a nudibranch! The day ended with a sunset/ night dive at Sam’s Wall. For those who had dived Chandelier Cave at the beginning of the trip it was the final opportunity to see the “fat” mandarin fish, pipefish, crustaceans and spiny devilfish that hide amongst the cracks & crevices of the wall so not surprisingly we had the most takers for a night dive that we’d had all trip – 4!!
Returning to the Palau Siren, Rain greeted us with a warm towel whilst Clez had a cold beer at the ready – now that’s a good reason to make a night dive. Whilst the crew washed our gear it was time to ready ourselves for a final evening aboard. Andri & Serge’s BBQ surpassed expectation. Each meal had been superb during the trip but the steak was so perfectly cooked it was rude not to go back for more. We made it passed our 9.30pm curfew to bid farewell to Peter, who was flying early in the morning for another dive adventure in Truk, and to wish Penny a happy birthday but the sadness was already setting in for we would be disembarking the next day.
All that remains is for me to say what a fabulous trip we had and a very special Christmas get together. The crew were superb and looked after us all really well. Thanks to the Secret Santa for my new marmite utensils collection and Merkel lemon squeezer. Its been great to meet up with old friends and make some new ones and I look forward to seeing you again in Raja Ampat 2014!