With its incredible underwater life, mystical spawning events and a lake full of sting-free jellyfish, the remote archipelago of Palau is a diver’s paradise, writes Deborah Dickson-Smith.
Palau forms part of Micronesia, a group of islands sparsely scattered in the northern Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines and north of Indonesia. This tiny island nation is a world leader in marine conservation. In 2009, Palau established the world’s first shark sanctuary, protecting more than 135 shark species. Five years later, Palau declared 500,000 square kilometres – an area the size of France – a no-commercial-fishing zone and, in doing so, created the largest marine sanctuary in the world at that time.
Diving at Peleliu Point
Plunging into the blue just before dawn, I descend and swim madly to the reef below me. The current is strong – so strong I can barely turn my head. I find a handhold to steady myself and look out beyond the reef. The largest group of fish I’ve ever seen is ahead of me, swirling in a mating frenzy. A few opportunistic sharks circle this tornado of snapper, darting through it periodically to grab a snack or two. The spectacle I’m witnessing is a spawning event.
In the early mornings leading up to each full moon, thousands of red-spot snapper gather here at Palau’s Peleliu Point, migrating from surrounding areas to aggregate over this one particular reef. At the climax, as the tide turns, they rush up toward the surface releasing sperm and eggs in an explosive display. This is one of several incredible underwater events you can experience in Palau throughout the year. And one of the reasons scuba divers all over the world seek out this remote destination.
In the lead-up to both full and new moon periods, different species of fish gather in huge numbers to spawn on Palau’s reefs. Moorish idols aggregate and spawn through the months of December to late January, and bumphead parrot fish – the buffalo of the underwater world – spawn in spectacular fashion in the days leading up to each new moon. But these events are just the icing on the cake when it comes to marine encounters and underwater adventures in Palau – the reefs here are some of the healthiest in the world, thanks to many years of protection.
Sustainability in Palau
The people of Palau care about their marine environment because their culture and livelihood are closely linked to the sea. And they mean business. When you arrive in Palau, you are asked to sign a passport pledge to behave in an ecologically and culturally responsible way, for the sake of Palau’s children and future generations of Palauans. It’s all part of the country’s larger strategy to become the world’s first carbon-neutral tourist destination. Thanks to these conservation efforts, throughout the year divers can expect to see an abundance of marine life at sites such as Blue Holes and Blue Corner. These two sites are among the most celebrated in Palau, for good reason.
Blue Corner diving
Blue Corner is the kind of place where it’s possible to see just about anything. Situated on a current-swept corner of a steep drop-off, it’s a natural gathering point for all sorts of reef fish. There are dense schools of jacks, snapper and barracuda, and a healthy population of white-tip and grey reef sharks and giant Māori wrasse.
Nearby, Blue Holes is a large cavern with several entrances (holes), accessible from the shallow reef top as well as deeper points on the wall. The cavern is illuminated by shafts of sunlight from overhead, providing a magical, somewhat ethereal experience as you swim through.
German Channel is another of Palau’s iconic dive sites. The channel was cut through the reef during World War II, and now forms a massive funnel bringing powerful tides in and out of the lagoon. The channel’s wide opening is dotted with cleaning stations so you can expect to see plenty of big fish. Between December and March, manta rays are the highlight.
Another legacy of WWII are the wrecks scattered throughout the lagoons. Most are at an easily accessible depth for recreational divers. The limestone islands also conceal a few caverns, including the spectacular Chandelier Cave, a cavern with several ‘rooms’ connected by tunnels, some of which you can surface inside to see a ceiling adorned with stalactites.
Swim with sting-free jellyfish
Perhaps the most famous underwater feature in Palau is not actually in the sea – it’s a lake. Jellyfish Lake. Millions of years ago distant ancestors of these jellyfish were trapped after a submerged reef rose from the sea, creating a landlocked saltwater lake. Over the millennia, the jellyfish have lost the ability to sting, and swimming among them is yet another unique marine encounter you can experience while you are in Palau.
How to get to Palau
While this tiny Pacific nation is remote, it’s easier than ever to get to Palau from Australia. Air Niugini is flying from Brisbane to Koror every Tuesday afternoon. The flight is via Port Moresby and has a total travel time of around 8 hours and 50 minutes. Nauru Airlines‘ ‘Island Hopper’ 17-hour service departs Brisbane on Thursdays, flying to Palau via Nauru, Tarawa, Majuro and Pohnpei, with a weekly return flight operating on Sundays.
Where to stay in Palau
Palau’s underwater world can be explored from luxurious dive liveaboards such as the Black Pearl, a 45-metre superyacht dive boat that began running trips in Palau in 2019. The vessel has 14 spacious cabins, and on the main deck, a jacuzzi and well-appointed bar, with a mixologist on hand to serve you a cocktail as you soak away any aching dive muscles while the sun sets.
For a resort-based diving holiday, the Palau Royal Resort is conveniently located on the waterfront, within walking distance to dive centres including Fish ‘n Fins, Neco Marine and Sam’s Tours, all of which have spacious day boats to whisk you away to Palau’s best dive sites.