Beyond Imagination: Palau
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013
esides my fingers, I could hardly see anything in the murky, emerald water, but I swam on into the darkness, armed with nothing more than my snorkeling mask and fins.
My group of friends had plunged in earlier, leaving me slightly nervous and lonely in this jade green water world. Like a haunting chant, the words of the park ranger echoed in my head, “There was a crocodile here in the lake last week.” I fought hard to resist the temptation of thrashing in the water and shouting SOS for the park ranger to come save me in his reassuring, shiny kayak.
But something distracted me: an orange-beige jellyfish emerged out of nowhere, like a ghostly umbrella opening and shutting in a gentle, pulsing rhythm. I swam gently around it, dodging it by just a few inches.
Soon another jellyfish appeared, this time even bigger than before.
And then another came, and another.
All of a sudden, hundreds of translucent jellyfish surrounded me, pulsating unanimously in a hypnotic rhythm. I stayed still to observe the creatures as they bobbed gracefully up and down, their translucent skin glowing under the sunlight and their short curly tentacles sashaying in the water. With slight hesitation, I stretched my hands out to touch them; surprisingly, one of them glided gently into my cupped hands.
Entranced by the graceful movements of the underwater ballerinas before me, I watched in bewilderment, mind and body relaxing into a hypnotized trance.
Thankfully, these weren’t your average jellyfish. The thousands of jellyfish that inhabit Palau’s 12,000-year-old Jellyfish Lake are virtually ‘stingless.’
According to experts, changes in the sea level millions of years ago formed these marine enclaves, which are cut off from the ocean. Over time, the stranded jellyfish lost their stings due to the lack of predators and eventually evolved into today’s one-of-a-kind species.
This natural phenomenon has put Palau, what was otherwise a remote, forgotten island in the North Pacific, on the map. Since Jellyfish Lake came under the spotlight a decade ago, a small trickle of scuba diving enthusiasts and Taiwanese tourists started streaming in to its shores. Beyond these clusters of travelers, though, Palau remains quiet and undisturbed by mass tourism.
As part of the larger island group of Micronesia, Palau’s population of around 21,000 is spread out over 200 odd islands, also known as the Black Islands (for its population of short-statue Negrito or Pygmy people who originally settled here). Remote and far-flung, these islands are now home to castaway beaches, pristine coral reefs, crocodile-infested swamps, and virgin jungles where remnants of war are still buried.
Located in the westernmost corner of the Pacific Ocean, Palau shares maritime boundaries with Indonesia and the Philippines – both of which are countries popular with shoestring backpackers – yet it feels a world away. Perhaps because of its remote location ( 950 miles from the closest mainland of the Philippines) Palau remains off the tourist grid and its name continues to stay unknown to even the most curious of travelers.
That morning, I’d experienced one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife phenomena practically alone. There were no queues, no turnstiles, not even a souvenir stall – just me, the park ranger, and thousands of jellyfish.
The next morning, we continued our explorations of the Rock Islands, this time aboard a kayak. I had just been warned about Palau’s saltwater crocodile population, and yet there I was, sitting on a kayak that could be overturned by the mere flick of a scaly tail.
Along with my fellow travel mates, I was led into the mangrove swamps by our guide from IMPAC Tours, Roderick. Sporting a tan and a well-built frame, the young and enthusiastic Palauan obviously spends most of his time outdoors. “Most Palauans are either fishermen or outdoor guides like myself,” he shared. “We’re islanders, and we are always in the sea.”
Despite his obvious love for his heritage, his accent is indubitably American. Like many fellow Palauans, he moved to Hawaii for his studies and lived there for three years before returning home to Palau, because, as he explained, “I just love it here.”
When asked if he’s had any encounters with crocodiles, he said, “I’ve heard plenty of crocodile stories, but I haven’t seen any.” According to records, the Indo-Pacific crocodile species found here is considered extremely dangerous, but thankfully there has only been one fatal human attack in Palau, back in the 1960s.
The chirping of birds and buzzing of insects distracted me as we glided through a glassy lagoon so still and clear that it reflected the clouds in the sky seamlessly. I watched the shadow of my kayak skimming the surface of the spearmint blue water, with pearly white sand gliding by just a few meters below. Around us, craggy rock cliffs rose fiercely from the water, bringing with them a dense jungle of bushy trees, colorful shrubs and dangling vines.
We were drifting through the Rock Islands of Palau – where over 400 limestone pinnacles stand, sheltering the last untouched forests of the Pacific. Due to hundreds of years of wave erosion, the limestone rock islands have taken on distinctive mushroom-like silhouettes. From the air, they look like green blobs of bubble gum in a sea of blue, but from the sea, they reveal a baffling network of caves, lakes, archways and tunnels.
With Roderick in the lead, we spent the afternoon paddling in and out of narrow waterways that spilled out into vast lakes, past one jungle-capped island after another. We watched schools of mangrove fish swimming beneath us and fruit bats fluttering overhead – both of which would be served later on our plates at dinner. Unknowingly, the idea of crocodiles emerging from the water soon faded away into the distance.
A Step Back in Time
Wherever you go in Palau, there’s a slow and laidback vibe, and peace reigns – but it hasn’t always been this way.
During the Second World War, Palau witnessed a few ferocious battles between the US and the Japanese, which wiped out many of its main settlements and sank over 40 Japanese fleets. The islands were first occupied by the Japanese in 1914, and then taken by the United States in 1944. Palau opted for independent status and became the Republic of Palau in 1981, relying on the United States for economic support.ut Only in 1994 did it gain its complete independence upon the signing of the Contract of Free Association with the United States.
Today, it’s very much its own country, but it still holds on to its distant past with the remnants of war.
On Babeldaob, its largest island, we fired up the engine of our ferocious little off-road ATV, roaring over wet and muddy hills before finding ourselves in front of a rusty WWII American tank. The martial relic lay covered in bronze rust, with a pile of old clam shells and cracked beer bottles by it door. The tank’s opening was completely crusted over and wouldn’t move an inch for us to slip through. I could only imagine the interior of the tank covered with scribbled messages from the soldiers to their families.
This isn’t just the only war relic left though, as our ATV guide Kent shared with us. “It’s just one of the many hundreds of tanks, fighter planes, and army cargo ships hidden within the jungles,” he explained.In fact, on neighboring Peleliu island, where a ferocious battle between the United States and Japan took place between September and November 1944, hundreds of wrecks still line the shoreline and dozens of tanks pepper the island. Considered one of the bloodiest battles during WWII, it killed over 15,000 men, nearly equaling Palau’s current population.
Beyond the crash course in Palau’s history, this ATV ride gave us a chance to explore the lush, mountainous jungles that sprawl across Babeldaob. In contrast to tourist-oriented Koror, Babeldaob is much less developed and gives a better snapshot of Palau’s past. Its east coast sparkles with long stretches of sandy beach, while the west coast has a largely mangrove-studded shoreline. The roads are dirt tracks, there are no traffic lights, and resort hotels are a world away.
“Ready?” My dive master boomed, as I strapped on my scuba gear.
With a big stride and a giant splash, we were under water, slowly making our descent into the endless blue. The reef wall plunged vertically below me for 600 feet (200 meters) or so, and we slowly made our way down the ominous abyss – to my right, a mountain of colorful corals bloomed, threaded with throngs of psychedelic fish swimming in it; on my left, an ethereal expanse of blue.
We were literally dangling over the Big Drop-Off, the most famous of 60 vertical drop-offs that plummet beneath Palau’s isles; Jacques Cousteau himself declared this the best wall-dive in the world.
Earlier that morning, we’d had a glimpse of it while snorkeling off the shallow reef: parties of angelfish swam amidst a lawn of sea anemones and throngs of pyramid butterfly fish hidden within the coral caves – but I was obsessed with the larger blurry shadows moving beneath me. To see the big fish face to face, I wanted to plunge deeper than my lung capacity allowed.
Now that we were almost 80 feet (25 meters) deep with our scuba gear, the stars of the show were making an appearance: first an enormous Harlequin sweet lips fish made a grand entrance, jiggling its thick pink lips and big eyes before us. Then a hawksbill turtle glided beside us, curiously checking us out. A school of barracuda fish formed a tornado around us at one point, initiating a brief panic attack. Even the massive Napoleon wrasse came out, wobbling like a drunken village chief.
We were dangling over the Big Drop-Off – Jacques Cousteau himself declared this the best wall-dive in the world.
For a view of even more illustrious underwater characters, we headed to the legendary Blue Corner for our next dive. Not for the faint of heart, this ridge jets out to the open ocean, dropping thousands of feet and exposing itself to strong and unpredictable currents – the exact conditions that attract sharks.
Our dive master from Fish ‘n Fins hooked us to the ridge with rope, and soon, underwater shady characters emerged one by one. I felt my heart pounding as I watched a white tip reef shark before me, slithering along the coral city like a stern crime fighter. Then a large gray reef shark took over the limelight, circling us with agility, acutely aware of his credentials in this bustling corner. I shuddered slightly, my arms and fins frozen as the creature shimmied in front of us, showing off its five-foot-long body and sharp dorsal fin. Then another glided by, and another.
It’s no surprise that Palau has a healthy shark population – this is, after all, the world’s first shark sanctuary. In 2009, the Palauan government banned all commercial shark fishing within its waters, which covers almost 600,000 square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. But it’s not just the sharks they’re safe-guarding: the Napoleon wrasse is among many other marine species that are strictly off limits to fishermen.
That night, we plunged into the Pacific Ocean one last time. There was complete darkness except for the dim light flickering from our torches. Dexter, our hunk of a Palauan divemaster from Sam’s Tours, had picked a special site for us to explore after dark: he named it “Dexter’s Site.” Just minutes after our descent, a gargantuan octopus drifted in, its tentacles unwinding in the navy blue water. Pink shrimps with sparkling eyes scurried across us on the sandy sea bed while a bright yellow flatworm wriggled in Dexter’s hands, dancing like an underwater butterfly.
Towards the end of the dive, Dexter signaled for us to switch off our flashlights. As the lights went off, we were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of tiny lime-green spots of bioluminescent plankton fluttering around us like bees in the pitch-black ocean.
I watched the sea light up, with child-like amazement just as I did while swimming in Jellyfish Lake and paddling around the Rock Islands. There was something surreal about the setting – like everywhere else in Palau. Perhaps it was the magic of the islads, but I left feeling like I’d found the child in me.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Summer 2013