A diver explores one of the many caverns at Palau’s Virgin Blue Hole
It’s true, oceans do indeed connect us. “Read this pledge and sign,” said the immigration officer, his friendly, bright eyes beaming as he stamped our passports. The stamp read: Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.
Committing to this pledge allowed us to enter the Republic of Palau, a tiny cluster of 300 pristine limestone and volcanic islands that find comfort in the shimmering sapphire waters of the Western Pacific - around 1,000 miles to the east of the Philippines.
Generations of Palauans firmly believe in the saying: “We did not inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.” Conservation is therefore a way of life, one that stems from a deep respect and commitment to protect their island home and waters. The pledge we made signified we were in for something very special—and we had not even left the airport.
A manta ray glides by at Palau’s famous German Channel
Peering out over the calm expanse of blue, we could immediately envision our next 10 days diving here. After all, everything we will encounter undersea on this trip is only possible because of the commitment and resolve of Palauans to preserve and protect what deservedly should be protected.
For thousands of years, Palauans have strived to maintain a balance with the sea by practicing “bul,” a traditional method of marine ecosystem conservation where they temporarily close areas to fishing in order to allow local marine life to regenerate. This responsibility is passed down, imparting conservation values and behaviors onto future generations.
The age-old practice has become the backbone for a network of marine protected areas (MPAs). In 2009, then-President Johnson Toribiong declared the world’s first-ever shark sanctuary, protecting over 135 Western Pacific shark species. In 2015, Palau’s congress followed suit by passing legislation that would ultimately safeguard a whopping 80 percent of the waters here, an area almost the size of France, and the largest percentage of protected marine territory of any nation. This 183,000-square-mile area is a total “no-go” to commercial fishing, mining and oil exploration. The remaining 20 percent is designated for fishing by the local community to maintain their traditional ways of life.
An anemone on the verdant grassy lawn of Dexter’s Wall
For the next 10 days, we will be on-board Master Liveaboards’ Palau Siren, under the expert guidance of Richard Barnden of Unique Ocean Expeditions. Launched in 2012, the 131-foot Palau Siren is a traditional Indonesian phinisi built on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Welcoming a maximum of 16 guests in eight comfortable cabins, it has everything for an extended dive trip to Palau. Offering four dives daily with their team of experienced guides, the vessel has a large dive deck with individual setup stations, storage and an entry platform and skiffs at the port side. Guests enjoy a spacious outdoor dining area, sun deck and saloon to relax; and photographers are well catered for with camera stations complete with numerous charging points and storage areas.
Not only will we delve into the diversity of Palau’s world-class dive sites, but we will witness one of nature’s most incredible events: the mass spawning aggregation of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum). This is the largest-known aggregation of its kind in the world, and an event only possible due to the strict protections Palau has in place for this species. But before that, let’s introduce the best of Palau diving.
Master Liveaboards’ stunning traditional phinisi, Palau Siren
Palau’s Top Dives
As soon as we enter the blue, it becomes plainly obviously that pelagics are in far more abundance here than anywhere else we have experienced. At Blue Corner, a large buttress that reaches out to the open ocean, numerous turtles, fish, and shark species materialize from the cobalt expanse. Gray and whitetip reef sharks patrol the drop-off, while clouds of bigeye jacks, spanish mackerel, and clusters of yellowfin barracuda and midnight snapper move effortlessly through nutrient-dense waters.
A burly Napoleon wrasse insistently commands our attention. Like a long lost friend, he approaches with confidence and a “Hey, look at me!” attitude. It was as if he was looking into a mirror and admiring how incredibly beautiful he was. We soon realize that we are not the only ones he is courting. He begins to stake out his territory, fiercely chasing off intruding males as a nearby female makes herself known. His face turns bright blue—a color she seems to finds attractive. They snuggle close and synchronize the release of their eggs and sperm. Today, he is the King in a Kingdom of Fishes.
Al, the alpha-male Napoleon wrasse that rules Blue Corner
A gray reef shark glides past the drop-off at Blue Corner
Ulong Channel and German Channel
At nearby Ulong Channel, love is also in the air, as up to 1,000 camouflage grouper emerge from the reef displaying strong intentions to mate. Large numbers of yellowmargin triggerfish are also here, looking to nest in the very same area. There is definitely a party brewing, but we’re just not quite sure when it’s getting started. Maybe the spawning event will happen tonight, or maybe tomorrow. We will never know.
Aptly named because of the German occupation of Palau from 1899 to 1914, at German Channel, the acrobats of the ocean appear right on cue. Nothing quite prepares you for the majesty of the manta ray, gracefully feeding on plankton at the surface. Regardless of how many times we’ve seen them, every encounter with these highly curious, sentient and social animals is always more breathtaking than the last.
A pair of mantas feeding in sync at German Channel
Big Blue Holes
If you’re a photographer or just love to explore, Palau’s many blue holes, caverns, caves and tunnels are incredibly ethereal. These huge geological structures offer the perfect backdrop of ambient light, combined with an intense “blue flame” that silhouettes your fellow divers. Many caverns are also adorned with stunning gorgonian fans and soft corals, providing the perfect photo frame for your dive buddy. Don’t miss Blue Holes, Virgin Blue Hole and Siaes Tunnel for the best photo opportunities. Be sure not to get seduced by the large school of jacks at the entrance to Siaes Tunnel who have a tendency to lure you deeper than your dive limit.
A silhouetted diver at Blue Holes
At Chandelier Cave, we find a system of five separate connecting cave chambers, four of which are filled with seawater, allowing us to surface and witness a stunning cathedral of stalactites and stalagmite formations. The caves were originally formed millions of years ago as rain water dissolved the limestone island. It was only once the sea level rose after the last ice age that the cave entrance was submerged and the caves filled with seawater to create an incredible dive experience. Photo opportunities here are in abundance, and the reflections are very alluring. In the shallow coral garden at the cave’s entrance, you can even spot mandarinfish.
The stunning stalactites of Chandelier Cave
Reefs of Wonder
There is no doubt that Palau’s superheroes are its pelagics, but we cannot overlook the impressive walls and coral gardens that dominate the substrate here. At Big Drop-Off, we find a spectacular deep wall covered in a labyrinth of soft corals and ancient sea fans the size of a small bus. Meanwhile at Dexter’s Wall, striking anemones bloom from what appears to be an impeccable grassy lawn.
Gorgeous pink whip coral extends from the substrate at Big Drop Off
Some of Blue Corner’s resident schooling fishes
The Dark Arts
At night, the sea reveals its cosmic beauty. Microscopic plankton fills the water column, as a plethora of otherworldly creatures assert their presence. Many are tiny and in their larval stages, luring us with their alien light displays. The migration of these strange critters from the twilight zone (mesopelagic layer) to shallower depths (epipelagic layer) is believed to be the largest migration of species anywhere on our planet, and incredibly, it happens here every single night of the year.
First started commercially in Hawaii more than 15 years ago, blackwater diving is fast becoming popular in Palau. The waters here provided a great opportunity for us to try our hand at the challenging dark art of blackwater photography. And we must say, capturing these cosmic critters on camera is indeed a challenge!
A hitchhiker clings to a tiny jelly during a blackwater dive at Turtle Cove
Now Let’s Talk About Sex
After seven days of diving the best of Palau, it was time to witness the “best of the best”—the largest spawning aggregation of bumphead parrotfish known to our planet. With over 20 years of experience guiding divers in Palau, Richard Barnden of Unique Ocean Expeditions has an unmatched knowledge of the very special spawning events that occur here, which are believed to be linked to the moon phase, temperature, and tides. Richard says: “February is without doubt the best time to see the world’s largest population of the world’s largest parrotfish as they spawn.”
We gear up in anticipation. The light is low and we wonder how well our cameras will perform in such low-light conditions. Richard checks the dive site. Bobbing up and down in the waves, he signals the boat captain to manoeuver into position. We descend. Large numbers of bumphead parrotfish begin to appear, arriving in from the shallows inside the lagoon where they have been sleeping. They school above the sandy bottom, moving about rapidly as if passing invitations to each other for the party that is about to start.
You can see the excitement building. There are more than 2,000 individuals now, and they are here for one thing: to dance the dance of love. Then, like a New Year’s Eve fireworks display, females rush upwards towards the surface in a cheek-to-cheek embrace with a group of males. In an explosion of white, her eggs and the male’s sperm are simultaneously released—their timing is pure perfection. A large bull shark glides past, within touching distance, looking for a feast. Capturing this special moment on camera is down to pure luck. You must be in the right place at exactly the right time.
A group of bumphead parrotfish cluster in anticipation to spawn
Females are outnumbered ten to one, so the chance of fertilization of her eggs is high—although the survival of her offspring is the opposite. This repeats over and over as hundreds of females spontaneously dash upwards in what is one of the most magical events we have ever witnessed. Within minutes, the sea is a cloud of white. The tide is now taking the fertilized eggs out on their journey to the open sea, where—if they’re lucky—the currents will deliver them back to the safety of the reef nursery in two months’ time as little bumpheads.
Richard tells us that little was known about the reproduction cycle of the bumphead parrotfish, and in fact, up until the last decade, there were few schools seen in Palau. The species is, however, now totally protected in Palau, and under Richard’s expert guidance, it is now possible to witness this spectacular event year-round.
As we leave Palau, we can't help but think that when conservation traditions of the past combine with exemplar protection rules of the present, amazing things can happen. The health and abundance of the marine ecosystem in Palau is a testament to the commitment of the Palauan people to live by a set of values and behaviors that put their natural environment first. They are truly a role model for us all to aspire to—and the reason diving here in Palau is so incredible.
A female bumphead parrotfish surrounded by males makes a rapid ascent to spawn, creating a cloud of white
Planning Your Trip to Palau
How to Get There: The Republic of Palau lies in the Western Pacific Ocean, nearly 1,000 miles east of the Philippines. Access to diving here is from the capital of Koror, a four-hour flight from Taiwan or a thee-hour flight from the Philippine capital of Manila. Koror’s International Airport is serviced by United Airlines and China Airlines.
Who to Dive with: Although there are land-based operators in Koror, due to the distance to many of Palau’s popular dive sites, the best way to dive Palau is by liveaboard. A top choice is the Palau Siren, a long-established part of the Master Liveaboards fleet.
When to Go: Master Liveaboards operates the Palau Siren year-round with specialized trips in collaboration with Richard Barnden of Unique Ocean Expeditions to witness the spawning of the bumphead parrotfish and the spawning of the red snapper, both of which occur each month in Palau.
Diving: Water temperatures are warm, ranging from 81–86°F (27–30°C) so a 3mm wetsuit is sufficient. During the months of January and February, it is possible to have cold thermoclines, which can cause sea temperatures to drop to 65–7°0F (23–26°C). Visibility is often endless and can reach up to 100 feet (30 meters) on good weather days. With the energetic currents of the Pacific Ocean sweeping through Palau, most of the dive sites are recommended for experienced divers only. The use of a reef hook can be necessary on several dive sites at the outer walls of the barrier reef, including the world-famous Blue Corner.
The Palau Siren at home in its sapphire waters
About the Authors: Based in Melbourne, Australia, Anita Verde and Peter Marshall have a passion for the planet’s wild places, and through their images and narratives hope to inspire better appreciation and protection of the natural world. When they are not underwater or in the mountains, they also work professionally as strategic consultants, advising governments and industry on sustainable destination planning and development, investment attraction, government relations, brand strategy and marketing. www.summitstoseasphotography.com
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