Palau Blue Heaven for Big Fish

From Microcosm Aquarium Explorer

Bull Palau Wiki.jpg

Bull shark and Pyramid Butterflyfish in Palau's protected waters. Wiki Commons Image

"This rich marine population is no accident, but the result of Palau’s history of conservation."

By CHRISTOPHER PALA

PALAU, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 500 miles east of the Philippines, is a diver’s dream, nowhere more so than at a piece of coral reef called Blue Corner. It’s a slope followed by a sharp drop-off, and it’s one of the most famous dive sites on the planet, the Via Veneto of the underwater world.

The current is strong, so you attach yourself to a line and hook and then attach the hook to a lump of dead coral, relax and watch. The first thing that overwhelms you is the sheer density of fish around you. Thousands of five-inch, deep blue and gray red-toothed triggerfish propel themselves by frantically waving their enormous dorsal and ventral fins, to comical effect.

Then you start to notice the big guys just outside the drop-off, like the model-thin white-tip sharks, the heftier gray reef sharks, both about five feet long, and the smaller black-tips. You’ll usually see one or two at any given moment, maybe 20 to 30 during a dive.

The white-tips seem utterly unafraid of people and swim right up to you before turning away at the last second. Then come — usually alone — the blue-green, five-foot Napoleon wrasses, decimated throughout the Pacific by the extraordinary prices paid by rich Chinese in Hong Kong for live ones (up to $10,000), but, like the sharks, protected in Palau.

More common, the silver, deadly looking barracudas, the Ferraris of the reefs, travel in schools during the day and hunt alone at night. Two-foot oval travellies, junior cousins of the tuna, are also capable of great speed, but at Blue Corner, they just cruise by in no great hurry.

Palau's unspoiled rock islands.

Amid all the heavy hitters — apex predators to marine biologists — are not only the triggerfish but also dense schools of slim fusiliers, nearly a foot long, their backs an intense shade of lemon yellow, and the four-inch queen fish, which have the color and intensity of a spark.

No-Fishing Zones Pay Off

This rich marine population is no accident, but the result of Palau’s history of conservation. Large swaths of the nation’s southern islands, called the Rock Islands, where most of the diving takes place, have been off-limits to commercial fishermen since 1997, and poachers are regularly sent to jail.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have greater varieties of fishes (3,000 versus 1,500 in Palau) and corals (700 versus 450), but a laissez-faire attitude and a population explosion in those places have left their reefs largely depleted of anything sizable. But in Palau, the big fish are still very much in evidence, and the government of President Tommy Remengesau Jr. is not only expanding its network of no-fishing areas, but has also challenged other island nations to do the same.

While the big fish are the big attraction, some of Palau’s 76 official diving spots offer extraordinary natural beauty.

Last March, a day after a dive at Blue Corner, I joined a group led by Fish and Fins, a local dive operation, to a spot a few hundred yards away called Blue Holes. The morning had been rainy, but the clouds parted serendipitously at noon just as we descended into a wide hole — one of four — that was 80 feet deep. The dancing shafts of sunlight shooting straight down through the perfectly clear water to the bottom were so beautiful that my throat tightened. It was hard not to think of a cathedral.

After swimming face up, peering in wonder at how far my column of bubbles stretched, I swam though a wide arch and saw a sign in Japanese that my guides told me memorialized the three Japanese divers who died in rough surf at the surface 15 years ago. Then we drifted past the crowds of fish and divers at Blue Corner, over some white-tip sharks sleeping on the bottom and climbed back into the boat.

Wreck Diving

Palau has some 20 commercially dived wrecks, mostly Japanese cargo ships sunk in March and July 1944, including a trawler nicknamed the George Bush because it was sunk by a torpedo launched by Ensign George H. W. Bush from his Avenger fighter plane. There are also wrecks of Japanese Zero fighter planes and a couple of American warplanes.

Diver photographs huge puffer on FishnFins trip to German Channel. Image by Norman Andy Lorch.

We did not dive to these, but our third outing was to Helmet Wreck, a 190-foot, unidentified Japanese cargo ship. It was carrying a load of helmets, airplane engines and depth charges, which look like small barrels, and other matériel.

The hatches are narrow, but we dived slowly into the black, murky holds, and I was startled when a school of tiny blue fish exploded into a burst of color in the beam of my flashlight. It has plenty of artifacts just lying there, but don’t think of removing one: a diver from a visiting yacht and a local American dive guide were jailed for stealing portholes and other objects from several wrecks.

Reaching the dive sites, past the Rock Islands, was a treat in itself. Covered in dense vegetation, they are made of limestone, which is coral that has been dead for hundreds of millions of years. The waves and worms have created overhangs where each island meets the sea, making the small ones look like bright green mushroom caps.

The 40- to 60-minute ride from Koror, the most populated town, is bumpy (Palauan boat drivers know only two speeds, flat out and stopped, and flat out is a hefty 40 miles an hour), but weaving in and out of this small sea of islands is well worth it.

VISITOR INFORMATION

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GETTING THERE

Travel to Micronesia is not cheap or particularly easy. Continental Airlines (www.continental.com) has a flight out of Newark that stops at Houston, Honolulu and then Guam before arriving in Koror, Palau, roughly 25 hours later. A round-trip ticket, for a mid-October departure, was recently running about $2,500.

DIVE OPERATORS

There are three major operators catering to Western tourists: Fish and Fins (680-488-2637, http://www.fishnfins.com); Sam’s Tours (680-488-7267, http://www.samstours.com) and Neco’s Marine (680-488-1755, http://www.necomarine.com). All charge around $120 to $150 a person for two dives, equipment rental included.

WHERE TO STAY

At the top end is the Palau Pacific Resort (680-488-2600, http://www.panpacific.com/Palau), with rates of $240 (Palau’s currency is the U.S. dollar) and up a night. It has a swimming pool, a spa and the only beach anywhere near the main town, Koror, a 10-minute ride away.

Downtown, the Penthouse, (680-488-1941, http://www.penthousepalau.com) is two stories high and has no penthouse. But rooms are $80 a night and it is close to lots of good restaurants, like two Japanese-style places, Fuji and Tototo, and an excellent take-out place called Yano’s, where you can try turtle meat, which is legal, and fruit bat, which is surprisingly tasty.

Above town is the charming Rose Garden Resort (680-488-7673; e-mail, rosegardenresort@palaunet.com), which has excellent food, a superb view and where rooms start at $130.


From The New York Times on the Web © The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission.