By Joseph Tepper
I’ve never sky dived before. But with reef hook firmly clawed into a hunk of dead coral at Palau’s Blue Corner and the three-knot current trying to rip my mask away, it’s as close to parachuting as I’ll ever get.
And it’s a good thing my mask stays firmly in place so that I can watch the spectacle of this famous site fly by: Dozens of reef sharks drifting lethargically in toe behind scads of mackerel, giant napoleon wrasses trolling for a hard boiled egg snack, and the occasional ornate eagle ray all steal the show.
While the southeastern most tip of the archipelago known as Blue Corner is an underwater photographer’s dream by itself, there are countless other underwater snapshots to be had hiding in between Palau’s 250 rock islands: From WWII wrecks to deep sea nautalis and a lake filled with millions of stingless jellyfish.
With so much to see and photograph in the 200-square-mile archipelago, I boarded the Palau Siren as part of our series Sailing with Sirens on the Worldwide Dive and Sail Fleet.
Diving on the Palau Siren
With more than 250 islands splattered over 200 square miles, Palau is a destination built for the liveaboard lifestyle. Charting these waters in luxury, the 110-foot-long Palau siren is a floating luxury hotel, dive boat and photography studio wrapped in one.
On the Siren—it’s the little luxuries that never fail to amaze: Hot cocoa waiting on the dive deck to warm you up, a network packed with thousands of movies and TV shows or even a massage to relax your camera-holding weary arms.
For the dedicated underwater photographer, the dive deck is next to none—fit with your own private dive cubbie. All diving is done from a full-sized skiff, where your kit is kept the whole time. The only one treated better than the divers may be the cameras.
Underwater Photography at Blue Corner
Without a doubt, the superstar site of Palau is Blue Corner. Hook in for the ride of your life as sharks, schools of fish by the thousands and napoleon wrasse pass within feet of your dome port.
Situated at the southwest corner of the Palau archipelago, Blue Corner is a thrill ride for photographers, whether you’re wielding a full-frame SLR or GoPro. It’s position at the convergence of several currents and upwelling provides nutrients for an absolute explosion of life. With this comes raging and often unpredictable currents, Blue Corner is best dived (an certainly photographed) by using a reef hook.
Palau is home to the world’s first shark sanctuary, and boy are there a lot of our sharp toothed friends, especially at Blue Corner. On a good day (one with a lot of current) you are likely to see upwards of 30 grey reef and blacktip reef sharks. On a bad day, you might have to suffer with just a dozen or so.
Although there’s a plethora of sharks to be found on the Blue Corner and surrounding reefs, the encounters aren’t necessarily pulse pounding, or dome port bumping. The sharks tend to stay 8-10 feet away from the hooked in divers; and I found more success with my mid-range zoom lens (12-24 mm) than my fisheye lens.
While the sharks of Palau might have you reaching for a mid-range zoom, there’s another subject at Blue Corner that you can’t seem to get away from. Six-foot-long napoleon wrasses are definitely a subject for a fisheye lens or wide-angle wet lens for compact users. The trick is being able to light such a big subject at such a close distance. Two strobes are a must if you want even lighting.
In addition to big animals, Blue Corner is home to BIG schools of fish—bar jacks, triggerfish, even tuna. Most of the time, the schools of fish aren’t too weary of divers, meaning you can get right up and photograph them with a fisheye lens.
Photographing Palau’s Blue Holes
Once you’ve had enough of the non-stop photography action at Blue Corner, there’s a completely different, more calming experience to be had in one of Palau’s blue holes.
Perhaps the most famous of these sites is "Blue Holes," a series of three tunnels on the top of the shallow reef that open out into a 100-foot-tall cathedral of light tucked into the wall. The combination of the dark cave and tunnels leading to the surface creates gorgeous cathedral lighting.
It’s best to start out by turning off your strobes and shoot with just ambient light to get a feeling for the conditions. I made sure to descend into the hole first as to have a chance to photograph the silhouettes of the divers descending through the opening.
Saie’s Tunnel also features significant coral growth, which when combined with the huge tunnel opening can make for a unique composition. Sitting at a bottom of 120 feet, photographing this tunnel is for the more advanced diver, especially when dealing with no-deco times and air consumption. But for the confident underwater photographer, it can produce some awesome results.
Photographing Jellyfish Lake
It’s unique opportunities that drag underwater photographers thousands of miles across the globe—and Jellyfish Lake is one of those. One of 70 marine lakes contained in Palau’s Rock Island, Jellyfish Lake is famous for its population of millions of stingless golden jellyfish. This is one of those encounters where photographers of all levels and abilities won’t want to get out of the water
For SLR shooters, make sure to trim down your setup as much as possible—there’s quite the steep hike up and down through the rainforest to get to the lake. Although they add a little bit of extra weight, having strobes can prove beneficial to creating contrast—and make sure to bring a wide-angle dome port for split shot opportunities.
Palau’s Other Wide-Angle Subjects
If you just do a land-based excursion for a day or two, you might be limited to just a couple of the key sites like Blue Corner and Blue Holes. But for the dedicated dome port-wielding diver, there’s much more to be had with the 35 dives provided on the Siren itinerary.
One photography highlight is the famous German Channel. Dug for WWI by occupying German forces, this channel is a true rarity in that it is both a Manta cleaning and feeding station.
Zoom along the Ulong channel in a 3-knot current, zipping by reef sharks, eagle rays and countless spawning grouper. Make sure to ask your dive guide where to find the world’s tallest collection of cabbage coral. Towering at over 20-feet tall, this is a must for your fisheye lens, as hundreds of squirrel fish seek refuge in the cracks.
Diving Ulong at night is just one of the reasons that there’s nothing quite like the liveaboard lifestyle. Unlike during the day when the sharks like to keep their distance, at night the big grey reefs use divers’ lights to hunt, coming within an arm’s reach.
When you can take your eye off the multitude of big animals, Palau offers some great coral photography opportunities. Many of the sites with soft coral, gorgonians and enormous sea fans are also current-free, the perfect chance to master your wide-angle settings.
Macro Photography in Palau
If you’re brave enough to set down your wide-angle setup for a dive or two, Palau also boasts some of the hottest macro critters. The big advantage of the Siren liveaboard lifestyle, is having access to some of the best macro sites for night dives. World-class wide-angle sites like Sand Bar, Big Dropoff and Ulong Channel transform at night into macro studios.
One of the best macro dive sites in Palau is actually right in the home port at “Sam’s Wall.” This super-shallow, muck style dive may be boring for the average diver, but not for a macro loving underwater photographer—there’s leaf scorpionfish, mating mandarin fish, pipefish, juvenile sweetlips and much, much more in just eight feet of water. Let’s just say I was a little bit late for dinner after spending nearly two hours on the site…
Wreck Photography in Palau
Palau features dozens of WWII wrecks—supply ships, sea planes and a sprinkling of Zero wrecks can be found in the inner lagoon of the Rock Islands. The biggest challenge when photographing the wrecks of Palau is dealing often-overwhelming amounts of backscatter. Because many of the wrecks lie in the inner lagoon, where visibility is limited to 50 feet or less, you’ll need to pay special attention to strobe placement.
In the cases of many of these wreck images, I wanted to rely less on artificial strobe light and more on natural light, slowing my shutter down to 1/50 of a second at f5.6. This way, you only need a kiss of strobe light (1/4 power or less) just to fill in some of the shadows.
Planning Your Trip To Palau
When to Go: Diving in Palau is year-round
What You’ll See: Lots of sharks, big schools of fish, pristine coral, WWII wrecks, Jellyfish Lake, Nautalis
What To Bring: For the more shy subjects at Blue Corner, a mid-range zoom is a must. Fisheye lenses are great for wrecks, big schools and the napoleon wrasse. Don’t leave your macro kit either!
Who to Dive With: Worldwide Dive and Sail offers 8 and 10-day itineraries from the luxurious Palau Siren.