Palau = World-Class Adrenaline Diving
If you are a scuba diver intent on experiencing world-class diving, you should definitely add Palau to your bucket list. It’s action-packed, adrenaline inducing diving – with sharks, manta rays, Hawksbill & Green sea turtles and more!
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2012 and comprised of 250+ islands in the western Pacific, its closest neighbors are Guam and the Philippines.
Interestingly, it’s also home to cool WWII wrecks, since some significant battles took place in Palau. Jake Seaplane and the Iro Maru shipwreck are a few of my favorites. The Japanese Navy plane crashed as a result of engine trouble after take-off. And, Iro Maru sank after a submarine’s torpedo hit her engine room.
Recommended for experienced divers only
Since currents here are no joke and can be absolutely ripping, it’s best suited for experienced/advanced divers. Given that many of the dives and wrecks are at deeper depths, having your Advanced Open Water (AOW) certification is helpful. AOW allows you to dive to 100 feet, whereas Open Water recreational limits are 60 feet.
Additionally, accumulating 50-100 dives in Hawaii, Cozumel, the Caribbean, and/or Thailand will allow you to perfect key skills.
Ensuring you are comfortable with the following will prepare you for Palau and improve your diving confidence:
- Controlling your buoyancy
- Inflating/deflating your Buoyancy Compensator Device (BCD)
- Deploying a Safety Marker Buoy (SMB)
- Swimming against current
- Back-rolling into the water
During my first visit to Palau in 2008, with only 60 dives and zero current experience, I had the beejezus scared out of me at Blue Corner and New Drop Off.
On this trip, New Drop Off treated us to a down current and then a ripping current that switched directions, making for an exhilarating dive. Did you know that watching which way the fish are facing will tell you which direction the current is coming from? Seeing pyramid butterfly fish suddenly face upward alerted me to the fact I was about to encounter a down current.
In this short video below, you can tell those hooked in next to me are facing into a strong current as their bubbles are flowing behind them horizontally. With no current, bubbles usually travel vertically.
While I loved the adrenaline rush at these action-packed dives sites, I feared (and rightly so) the strong currents might rip my mask and regulator off. Using my right hand to secure them both to my face anytime I pivoted my head was my insurance against this scenario.
Returning this time with 300+ dives and heavy current diving experience from trips to the Maldives, Indonesia, and Philippines, I was much more confident and comfortable. This allowed me to enjoy the dives even more this trip.
Credit Palau’s government for its biodiversity
Palau’s remarkable biodiversity is a direct result of its leadership’s vision.
Recognizing the need to protect its underwater riches, Palau named the “70 Islands” as a Wildlife Preserve in 1956. And, in 2015, Palau designated 193,000 square miles as a National Marine Sanctuary. This reserve, larger than the state of California, is now the sixth largest in the world!
Sharks are the stars in Palau
Look forward to seeing 25-60 sharks during one dive in Palau! Blacktip, whitetip, silvertip, and grey sharks are plentiful and cruise Palau’s walls and corners. This spectacle is attributable to the fact that Palau recognizes the sharks’ importance to the ecosystem and created the world’s first shark and ray sanctuary in 2009. The President has been quoted saying “a shark is worth $1.9M USD in tourism over its life span”.
Sadly, other countries don’t have the same protections for sharks. The shark fin trade has decimated shark populations worldwide, resulting in population declines of 90-99%. As we’ve dove around the world the past 10 years, we’ve noticed precipitous declines. We are often lucky to see 10 sharks in a week.
CONSERVATION TIP: When traveling in Asia, don’t consume shark fin soup as this contributes to the shark fin trade.
Blue Corner – the greatest underwater show on Earth
Blue Corner attracts huge numbers of sharks surfing the current and patrolling the plateau. Tidal shifts at this site, which juts into the ocean like an elbow, bring in the action and incredible visibility. Having had the privilege to dive it four times now, it ranks as one of my top 5 favorite dive sites in the world.
Hook in and hang like Superman in the current
After drifting along the wall, your dive guide will signal you to ready your reef hook, kick over the top of the plateau, and hook into dead coral at the corner’s edge.
TIP: Be careful not to swim in front of other divers who are hooked in and scare the sharks away or you will be guaranteed a universally known hand signal demonstrating that people are angry with you.
After hooking in and inflating your BCD with a small burst of air, you’ll float effortlessly in place above the coral, thereby minimizing any chances of damaging the coral or scraping yourself. Hanging in place like Superman and marveling at the sharks and jack fish surfing the current is an experience like no other.
You should hope for ripping currents as this will multiply the action exponentially. Large aggregations of sharks, jacks, barracuda and beautiful schools of fish are pretty much guaranteed. Strong currents allow sharks to rest and ride the current. Watching as they pivot their streamlined bodies to face the current head-on and maximize flow into their gills is mesmerizing.
After unhooking, you’ll drift over the plateau and various encounters will emblazon in your memory why this dive site is so unique. As two green sea turtles were swimming in front of us and foraging for food, we had three eagle rays glide in from the right.
We then came across two Bumphead Parrotfish chomping on the coral, a huge Napolean Wrasse swimming in the distance and a massive yellow striped barracuda flitting past.
Take advantage of liveaboard diving in Palau
Liveaboard dive boats are floating hotels with 12-24 divers with the mantra “Eat, Sleep and Dive.” You dive directly from the large boat or a smaller “chase” boat for 7-10 days. If given the option, we almost always opt for liveaboards. Why you ask?
- Visit more dive sites and access remote areas since the boats often travel overnight
- Dive the premier locations during the best currents/tides and avoid the crowds
- Log more dives – typically 3-5 per day are offered
- Minimize dive transit time – 5-20 minutes vs 45-60 with day boats
- Indulge in relaxing onboard massages
I highly recommend liveaboard diving for Palau as it allows you to arrive at dive sites before 7AM to avoid the influx of day dive boats that congest the sites by 8:30AM. Notably, the popular dive sites (Blue Corner, German Channel, Ulong Channel, Siaes Corner) were substantially more crowded in March 2017 as compared to December 2008.
Titan Triggerfish are the bane of my existence
When diving in Palau, be on the lookout for aggressive Titan Triggerfish defending their nests. We encountered crazy ones on three different dives – the worst of which came at us with a vengeance as soon as we back-rolled in near Blue Corner.
They can be relentless, biting at your fins and legs with a razor-sharp beak. Tag teaming with the dive guide for 2+ minutes, wielding my GoPro stick and his pointer stick as swords, was necessary to defend my husband.
My unpleasant encounters with them in Palau, Thailand and the Maldives reinforces my desire to always wear a full wetsuit.
TIP: Make sure to swim away horizontally rather than vertically as their territories are cone-shaped and get wider as you go higher.
Revel at manta rays cleaning in German Channel
German Channel is another dive that leaves you awestruck. As you are descending to the cleaning stations, you’ll often encounter mantas at the surface and/or swimming through the channel.
Dropping down onto your knees on the sandy bottom and watching them circle and clean is enthralling. We had 6 on the cleaning station and two in the water column on our first dive, gliding between the stations. And, we had two on our second dive, with one cleaning for 30 minutes.
TIP: Be respectful of the mantas and others by not swimming over the cleaning rocks. And, don’t block the mantas’ paths as they glide away from the cleaning station.
If you are on a liveaboard, you might also get treated to mantas feeding and circling off the back of your boat at night as they are often attracted to the boat lights. We were lucky enough to have two different mantas visit our boat – one for 6 hours!
Ulong Channel and Siaes Corner won’t disappoint
At Ulong Channel, we enjoyed watching grey reef sharks chase jacks while yellow fin barracuda circled above. Once we unhooked, we sailed through the channel, admiring beautiful sea fans and one of the world’s largest lettuce coral gardens,
30 sharks, yellow striped Barracuda and three turtles made for a fun first dive at Siaes Corner. During our second dive there, we saw 60 white tip sharks schooling deeper.
And, I saw my first ever shark cleaning! Pivoting vertically, opening its mouth and flaring its gills seemed to give the cleaner fish the green light to proceed. Fascinating!
Kayak amongst the stunning Rock Island karsts
The incredible action underwater is rivaled by the spectacular above water scenery.
Multi-hued turquoise bays, vibrant green mushroom-shaped islands, and thousand-year-old rock graffiti ignite your imagination.
I highly recommend adding a day or two before your trip to kayak with Sam’s Tours and visit Nikko Bay or Risong Bay. Gliding and snorkeling your way through these beautiful nurseries and observing juvenile fish is awesome. And, enjoying your lunch on a pristine, secluded white sand beach is lovely.
The wonders that await you include: mandarin fish flitting between the finger coral, glimpsing a shy baby blacktip shark slink past, and laughing as a juvenile pufferfish figures out how to balance its bulbous body with its tiny fins.
Snorkel with stingless jellyfish in Palau’s Jellyfish Lake
Palau was previously home to a lake where 8 million stingless golden jellyfish (Mastigias papua) resided. While I admit I was initially suspect of this evolutionary phenomenon, it was an incredible sight to behold and experience. Pulsing and migrating through the water to photosynthesize the algae living within their bodies was meditative to watch.
Sadly, due to an El Nino driven drought, global warming, sunscreen and careless visitors’ handling and kicking, their numbers have declined to 600,000 as of March 2017. Tourists are not currently permitted to visit Jellyfish Lake.
Hopefully, the population will rebound like it did after a similar massive decline in the late 1990s. Jellyfish Lake will always be one of my fondest and most unique memories and definitely worth a visit (if it re-opens). The picture above and video below is from a much smaller jellyfish lake that we visited.
TIP: When you do visit, use “coral safe” sunscreen. Since the jellyfish are very delicate, don’t wear fins or handle the jellyfish.
- Airport: Koror (ROR)
- Flights: Given its remote location, it takes 18-24 hours to reach from the Western U.S. United Airlines has the most flights, routing Honolulu-Guam-Koror or Tokyo-Koror.
- Currency: US Dollar
- When to visit:
- High season: December-March, with February and March being the driest months.
- Low Season: May, June, September. The most rain and wind occurs during these months.
- Transitional Months: April, July, August, October, November. More rain and the sea might be more choppy.
- Departure Tax (as of April 2017): $20 + $30 green fee (funds Marine Protected Areas and a sewage and water fund)
- Favorite Dive Sites: Blue Corner, Siaes Corner, Ulong Channel, New Drop Off, Blue Holes, German Channel
- Dive Operator Options:
- Liveaboards: Siren, Aggressor, Ocean Hunter. I dove with Aggressor in December 2008 and Siren March 2017. Both were great operations. TIP: Ask the operator their Guest to Dive Guide ratio. I prefer 4:1 for both safety and fish identification reasons – even better when they have a slate!
- Day Boats: Sam’s, Fish ‘n Fins
- Temperature: 80-82° F(26-28° C) air and water temperature year-round means most people opt for a 3mm wetsuit. Since I get cold easily, I always opt for a 5mm.