What do you get when three of the planet’s ocean currents meet in one place? The “underwater Serengeti.”
More than 1,500 species of fish and 700 species of coral in one place who thrive in the nutrient-dense currents. Palau is one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions, including a plethora of plant and bird life above water. For history buffs, it saw a lot of action in WWII, so there are wrecks aplenty above and under the water.
This island nation in western Micronesia is a chain of more than 250 islands in the western Pacific, about 500 miles southeast of the Philippines. The country is a collection of islands that were originally atolls, and as a result they are rich in reefs and lagoons, and an excellent place to discover why it’s one of the world’s best places to dive.
Due to its currents, Palau is better suited for intermediate to advanced divers.
Palau is not your typical busy beachfront with tons of resorts and shops, but for those who love that, the diving more than makes up for it. The remoteness of the region makes it abundant in fish life and the entire nation is relatively unspoiled in regard to pollutants and urbanization.
Warm temperatures, great visibility and unsurpassed wildlife make Palau a “bucket list” destination.
Reefs, sharks, rays and large schools of fish mix with underwater caves and wrecks, making this one of the most appealing dive locations in the world. With so many choices of sites, it’s hard to choose a top five list, and any list is incomplete. Here is a sampling of what Palau has to offer:
Big schools of fish is what this site is all about. This corner reef plateau sits up against a large drop-off and offers big currents through the channel. The reef is interesting enough as a feature, the currents have created mounds and gorges in its surface, making for lots of great areas for shyer creatures to hide.
You use a reef hook and hook in for the show. Sea turtles, reef sharks, red-toothed triggerfish, barracuda, tuna, wahoo, groupers and trevallies glide by, and will switch sides of the corner depending on current direction. Reef fish like morays, wrasse and parrotfish are also very common. Mantas, eagle rays, hammerheads, whale sharks, sailfish and even whales occasionally join the parade.
This is a five-cave connected system, four of which are completely full of water. Once an open-air cavern, years of erosion to the limestone have allowed water to percolate down and fill the cave, and sea level rise after the melting of the last ice age’s glaciers filled the entrance with sea water.
Inside, you’ll find a collection of stalagmites and stalactites that shimmer like crystal, giving the caves their name. This is not a dive for the claustrophobic, and requires good light. Air pockets exist for surfacing, but mind the stalactites, they hurt if you ascend into them. The cave entrance is a great way to see the shy mandarin fish, and inside you’ll see cardinal and soldier fish, as well as small shrimp and crabs among the sponges on the walls.
This system offers a reef plateau, blue hole, and large sloping wall dive. Interesting features like arches and gorges are easy to find here, and offer good peek-a-boos of morays and other crevice dwellers. Sponges and anemone bedeck many surfaces, and come with their own host of tenants. Currents are strong at the corner, which offer great dives for large-fish lovers. Lots of large schools can be found here– big eyed jacks, snappers, butterfly and hawkfish, moorish idols and goatfish to name a few. Larger fish include grouper, reef sharks (white and grey), and of course lots of turtles.
This is a WWII wreck, nicknamed helmet wreck, but with no official name. It is believed that this was a ship confiscated by the Japanese in Southeast Asia, but it has not been confirmed. Inside, you’ll find helmets, gas masks and clothing items, a Kirin beer and sake collection, radial engines, brass lanterns and a cache of weapons and ammunition as well. Heavy black coral and cock’s comb oysters have merged with soft corals, and begun to overtake the ship, offering some peeks at smaller reef fish.
This challenging dive is an advanced skill-level trip, and offers sights from 15 to 80’. You enter the underwater caverns and tunnels by dropping down a 200’ vertical wall, and choosing one of the three openings. In addition to a beautiful rainbow of coral formations, you can also spot reef sharks and stingrays in here. This is a deeper dive, but one of the most unique and extraordinary sites in the islands.
This is a snorkel site, but it’s worth a visit – it’s a landlocked marine lake where sea water seeps in through fissures in the limestone but no marine life can get in or out. The lake is filled with nearly 2 million non-stinging jellyfish, making for an unparalleled snorkeling experience!
All international traffic goes through Palau International Airport. Hotels and resorts will arrange airport shuttle pickup, even if they’re on a different island. This might require trip by car, boat, float plane, or a combination.
Palau offers options from basic bungalows to more luxurious accommodations but this isn’t the Maldives with its plethora of jaw-dropping, private-island resorts. Many resorts offer dive packages, giving you opportunities between dives to explore old WWII artifacts, waterfalls, 4WD tours around the islands and more. If you’re just here to dive, consider a liveaboard.
When to Go: The question is when not to go. Palau is a year-round diving destination and liveaboards operate year-round. Air temps range from 70-85°F. November to May offer the very best conditions, with July through September a little rainier. Typhoons are possible June to December but not likely as Palau lies just out of the main typhoon path.
Average Surface Water Temps: 79-86°F
Visibility: Due to the nutrient-dense currents, visibility is often excellent, 120’ or more.
Image attribution: https://www.flickr.com/photos/luxtonnerre/