Diving With Sharks in Palau
Palau is one of those places that you only hear about in wacky travel magazines or on mass emails that you get from that hippy guy/ girl you hung out with that one time in college. It’s a place that exists in the real world, but that no one you take seriously ever goes to. For instance me.
If you check out a classroom globe sometime, Palau is a set of islands to the East of The Philippines. By “group is islands” I really mean “a few specks of land in the middle of ocean.” Its many islands only make up 43 square kilometers in total size and are home to only 20,000 people. It’s so remote that two seasons of Survivor have been filmed there. There isn’t a whole lot to Palau and the only reason you’d ever want to go to Palau would be for the amazing diving.
Back in February I somehow ended up in Palau with a tour group from my local dive shop for a week of diving. I don’t know why I decided to max out my credit card on such a venture, but I think it had something to do with people showing me photos of massive schools of sharks. To get to Palau our group traveled from Fukuyama to Okayama, then caught a flight to Guam. After a lunch at the Guam Airport Burger King we caught another flight to the main island of Palau, Koror.
For me the best part about Palau was that it reminded me of what I always had dreamed Hawaii to be. Everyone spoke English or Japanese, was wearing sandals, and the grocery store sold large amounts of root beer. Coming from Japan I felt like I was in a weird world that was part Japanese and part American, which says more about Palau’s history than my drinking of too many root beers. Over the years Palau was controlled by many groups, the Spanish, the Germans, and in most recent history the Japanese and the United States. Still today many older natives of Palau speak fluent Japanese; and while being an independent nation, Palau and the United States hold special diplomatic relations. But besides these most dry and interesting points the island of Koror was really just a small beach town of 12,000 people and a launching pad to the smaller islands.
Most visitors to Palau head off to one of the many smaller islands for easier access to the many spectacular dive points. The geographic regions that make Palau so remote also make it an impressive dive location. More or less Palau is a mid-ocean feeding point for large schools of fish with massive 300-meter wall faces and impressive amounts of coral. Diving is such an important tourist draw for Palau that the country has imposed strict fishing laws as to not harm the local stock. Daily my group saw sharks, manta rays, and massive schools of feeding fish. It was like being in a National Geographic movie, except much more wet.
Besides being impressed with the big fish in the water I was always on the lookout for really small and weird things that lived on the rock walls. At every turn I found weird crabs and shrimps, and an ever-impressive variety of colorful sea slugs. Even with the high volume of divers in the area we never felt crowded or found the dive sights in bad shape. Palau is a rare diving jewel in the world, a place that’s not been spoiled by too many holiday travelers or nearby beach parties.
One of the weirdest things to do in Palau has nothing to do with the ocean and everything to do with a lake. Palau is special in the world in that it has several salt water lakes on its islands that are home to non-stinging jelly fish. A long time ago these jellyfish got trapped in these salt lakes when ocean levels dropped. Eventually they lost their ability to sting and spend their days eating green algae and amusing tourists. For a small fee you can snorkel in one of the lakes and be surrounded by millions of grapefruit sized jellyfish. If you don’t believe me look it up on youtube. It’s really weird and really fun.
After a week of diving in Palau I really did not want to return to Japan. Life really doesn’t get better than that. I almost stayed behind until my tour group reminded me that I had already maxed out my credit card and that the hotel was hiring. If I had the money I’d go diving in Palau again in a heartbeat, but sadly my plan of marrying a rich doctor hasn’t really worked out yet. Oh well.