A diver explores one of many many caverns at Palau’s Virgin Blue Gap
It’s true, oceans do certainly join us. “Learn this pledge and signal,” stated the immigration officer, his pleasant, vibrant eyes beaming as he stamped our passports. The stamp learn: Kids of Palau, I take this pledge, as your visitor, to protect and shield your stunning and distinctive island residence. I vow to tread flippantly, act kindly and discover mindfully. I shall not take what shouldn’t be given. I shall not hurt what doesn’t hurt me. The one footprints I shall go away are these that may 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 discover consolation within the shimmering sapphire waters of the Western Pacific – round 1,000 miles to the east of the Philippines.
Generations of Palauans firmly consider within the saying: “We didn’t inherit the Earth from our mother and father, we borrow it from our youngsters.” Conservation is subsequently a lifestyle, one which stems from a deep respect and dedication to guard their island residence and waters. The pledge we made signified we have been in for one thing very particular—and we had not even left the airport.
A manta ray glides by at Palau’s well-known German Channel
Peering out over the calm expanse of blue, we may instantly envision our subsequent 10 days diving right here. In any case, every little thing we’ll encounter undersea on this journey is simply potential due to the dedication and resolve of Palauans to protect and shield what deservedly ought to be protected.
For 1000’s of years, Palauans have strived to take care of a steadiness with the ocean by practising “bul,” a standard technique of marine ecosystem conservation the place they quickly shut areas to fishing as a way to permit native marine life to regenerate. This duty is handed down, imparting conservation values and behaviors onto future generations.
The age-old apply has change into the spine for a community of marine protected areas (MPAs). In 2009, then-President Johnson Toribiong declared the world’s first-ever shark sanctuary, defending over 135 Western Pacific shark species. In 2015, Palau’s congress adopted swimsuit by passing laws that may finally safeguard a whopping 80 p.c of the waters right here, an space virtually the dimensions of France, and the most important share of protected marine territory of any nation. This 183,000-square-mile space is a complete “no-go” to industrial fishing, mining and oil exploration. The remaining 20 p.c is designated for fishing by the area people to take care of their conventional methods of life.
An anemone on the verdant grassy garden of Dexter’s Wall
For the subsequent 10 days, we might be on-board Master Liveaboards’ Palau Siren, below the knowledgeable steering of Richard Barnden of Unique Ocean Expeditions. Launched in 2012, the 131-foot Palau Siren is a standard Indonesian phinisi constructed on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Welcoming a most of 16 company in eight comfy cabins, it has every little thing for an prolonged dive journey to Palau. Providing 4 dives each day with their staff of skilled guides, the vessel has a big dive deck with particular person setup stations, storage and an entry platform and skiffs on the port aspect. Friends take pleasure in a spacious out of doors eating space, solar deck and saloon to loosen up; and photographers are nicely catered for with digicam stations full with quite a few charging factors and storage areas.
Not solely will we delve into the variety of Palau’s world-class dive websites, however we’ll witness certainly one of nature’s most unbelievable occasions: the mass spawning aggregation of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum). That is the largest-known aggregation of its form on this planet, and an occasion solely potential as a result of strict protections Palau has in place for this species. However earlier than that, let’s introduce the most effective of Palau diving.
Grasp Liveaboards’ beautiful conventional phinisi, Palau Siren
Palau’s Prime Dives
As quickly as we enter the blue, it turns into plainly clearly that pelagics are in way more abundance right here than anyplace else now we have skilled. At Blue Nook, a big buttress that reaches out to the open ocean, quite a few turtles, fish, and shark species materialize from the cobalt expanse. Grey and whitetip reef sharks patrol the drop-off, whereas clouds of bigeye jacks, spanish mackerel, and clusters of yellowfin barracuda and midnight snapper transfer effortlessly by way of nutrient-dense waters.
A burly Napoleon wrasse insistently instructions our consideration. Like an extended misplaced buddy, he approaches with confidence and a “Hey, have a look at me!” angle. It was as if he was wanting right into a mirror and admiring how extremely stunning he was. We quickly understand that we aren’t the one ones he’s courting. He begins to stake out his territory, fiercely chasing off intruding males as a close-by feminine makes herself identified. His face turns vibrant blue—a shade she appears to finds engaging. They snuggle shut and synchronize the discharge of their eggs and sperm. Right now, he’s the King in a Kingdom of Fishes.
Al, the alpha-male Napoleon wrasse that guidelines Blue Nook
A grey reef shark glides previous the drop-off at Blue Nook
Ulong Channel and German Channel
At close by Ulong Channel, love can also be within the air, as as much as 1,000 camouflage grouper emerge from the reef displaying sturdy intentions to mate. Massive numbers of yellowmargin triggerfish are additionally right here, trying to nest in the exact same space. There may be positively a celebration brewing, however we’re simply not fairly certain when it’s getting began. Perhaps the spawning occasion will occur tonight, or perhaps tomorrow. We are going to by no means know.
Aptly named due to the German occupation of Palau from 1899 to 1914, at German Channel, the acrobats of the ocean seem proper on cue. Nothing fairly prepares you for the majesty of the manta ray, gracefully feeding on plankton on the floor. No matter what number of occasions we’ve seen them, each encounter with these extremely curious, sentient and social animals is all the time extra breathtaking than the final.
A pair of mantas feeding in sync at German Channel
Huge Blue Holes
If you happen to’re a photographer or simply like to discover, Palau’s many blue holes, caverns, caves and tunnels are extremely ethereal. These big geological buildings provide the proper backdrop of ambient gentle, mixed with an intense “blue flame” that silhouettes your fellow divers. Many caverns are additionally adorned with beautiful gorgonian followers and comfortable corals, offering the proper picture body in your dive buddy. Don’t miss Blue Holes, Virgin Blue Gap and Siaes Tunnel for the most effective picture alternatives. Be certain to not get seduced by the massive faculty of jacks on the entrance to Siaes Tunnel who tend to lure you deeper than your dive restrict.
A silhouetted diver at Blue Holes
At Chandelier Cave, we discover a system of 5 separate connecting cave chambers, 4 of that are stuffed with seawater, permitting us to floor and witness a shocking cathedral of stalactites and stalagmite formations. The caves have been initially fashioned hundreds of thousands of years in the past as rain water dissolved the limestone island. It was solely as soon as the ocean degree rose after the final ice age that the cave entrance was submerged and the caves stuffed with seawater to create an unbelievable dive expertise. Picture alternatives listed here are in abundance, and the reflections are very alluring. Within the shallow coral backyard on the cave’s entrance, you possibly can even spot mandarinfish.
The beautiful stalactites of Chandelier Cave
Reefs of Surprise
There isn’t a doubt that Palau’s superheroes are its pelagics, however we can not overlook the spectacular partitions and coral gardens that dominate the substrate right here. At Huge Drop-Off, we discover a spectacular deep wall coated in a labyrinth of sentimental corals and historic sea followers the dimensions of a small bus. In the meantime at Dexter’s Wall, placing anemones bloom from what seems to be an impeccable grassy garden.
Beautiful pink whip coral extends from the substrate at Huge Drop Off
A few of Blue Nook’s resident education fishes
The Darkish Arts
At evening, the ocean reveals its cosmic magnificence. Microscopic plankton fills the water column, as a plethora of otherworldly creatures assert their presence. Many are tiny and of their larval phases, luring us with their alien gentle shows. The migration of those unusual critters from the twilight zone (mesopelagic layer) to shallower depths (epipelagic layer) is believed to be the most important migration of species anyplace on our planet, and extremely, it occurs right here each single evening of the yr.
First began commercially in Hawaii greater than 15 years in the past, blackwater diving is quick changing into standard in Palau. The waters right here offered an amazing alternative for us to attempt our hand on the difficult darkish artwork of blackwater pictures. And we should say, capturing these cosmic critters on digicam is certainly a problem!
A hitchhiker clings to a tiny jelly throughout a blackwater dive at Turtle Cove
Now Let’s Discuss About Intercourse
After seven days of diving the most effective of Palau, it was time to witness the “better of the most effective”—the most important spawning aggregation of bumphead parrotfish identified to our planet. With over 20 years of expertise guiding divers in Palau, Richard Barnden of Distinctive Ocean Expeditions has an unmatched data of the very particular spawning occasions that happen right here, that are believed to be linked to the moon section, temperature, and tides. Richard says: “February is doubtless the most effective time to see the world’s largest inhabitants of the world’s largest parrotfish as they spawn.”
We gear up in anticipation. The sunshine is low and we marvel how nicely our cameras will carry out in such low-light circumstances. Richard checks the dive website. Arising and down within the waves, he indicators the boat captain to manoeuver into place. We descend. Massive numbers of bumphead parrotfish start to look, arriving in from the shallows contained in the lagoon the place they’ve been sleeping. They faculty above the sandy backside, shifting about quickly as if passing invites to one another for the get together that’s about to begin.
You possibly can see the joy constructing. There are greater than 2,000 people now, and they’re right here for one factor: to bop the dance of affection. Then, like a New 12 months’s Eve fireworks show, females rush upwards in the direction of the floor in a cheek-to-cheek embrace with a bunch of males. In an explosion of white, her eggs and the male’s sperm are concurrently launched—their timing is pure perfection. A big bull shark glides previous, inside touching distance, on the lookout for a feast. Capturing this particular second on digicam is all the way down to pure luck. You have to be in the precise place at precisely the precise time.
A bunch of bumphead parrotfish cluster in anticipation to spawn
Females are outnumbered ten to 1, so the prospect of fertilization of her eggs is excessive—though the survival of her offspring is the alternative. This repeats again and again as tons of of females spontaneously sprint upwards in what is likely one of the most magical occasions now we have ever witnessed. Inside minutes, the ocean is a cloud of white. The tide is now taking the fertilized eggs out on their journey to the open sea, the place—in the event that they’re fortunate—the currents will ship them again to the protection of the reef nursery in two months’ time as little bumpheads.
Richard tells us that little was identified in regards to the copy cycle of the bumphead parrotfish, and in reality, up till the final decade, there have been few colleges seen in Palau. The species is, nonetheless, now completely protected in Palau, and below Richard’s knowledgeable steering, it’s now potential to witness this spectacular occasion year-round.
As we go away Palau, we will not assist however suppose that when conservation traditions of the previous mix with exemplar safety guidelines of the current, wonderful issues can occur. The well being and abundance of the marine ecosystem in Palau is a testomony to the dedication of the Palauan folks to reside by a set of values and behaviors that put their pure atmosphere first. They’re actually a task mannequin for us all to aspire to—and the explanation diving right here in Palau is so unbelievable.
A feminine bumphead parrotfish surrounded by males makes a speedy ascent to spawn, making a cloud of white
Planning Your Journey to Palau
Easy methods to Get There: The Republic of Palau lies within the Western Pacific Ocean, almost 1,000 miles east of the Philippines. Entry to diving right 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 Worldwide Airport is serviced by United Airways and China Airways.
Who to Dive with: Though there are land-based operators in Koror, as a result of distance to a lot of Palau’s standard dive websites, one of the simplest ways to dive Palau is by liveaboard. A best choice is the Palau Siren, a long-established a part of the Master Liveaboards fleet.
When to Go: Grasp Liveaboards operates the Palau Siren year-round with specialised journeys in collaboration with Richard Barnden of Unique Ocean Expeditions to witness the spawning of the bumphead parrotfish and the spawning of the purple snapper, each of which happen every month in Palau.
Diving: Water temperatures are heat, starting from 81–86°F (27–30°C) so a 3mm wetsuit is ample. Through the months of January and February, it’s potential to have chilly thermoclines, which may trigger sea temperatures to drop to 65–7°0F (23–26°C). Visibility is usually limitless and might attain as much as 100 ft (30 meters) on good climate days. With the energetic currents of the Pacific Ocean sweeping by way of Palau, a lot of the dive websites are beneficial for knowledgeable divers solely. The usage of a reef hook will be needed on a number of dive websites on the outer partitions of the barrier reef, together with the world-famous Blue Nook.
The Palau Siren at residence in its sapphire waters
In regards to the Authors: Primarily based in Melbourne, Australia, Anita Verde and Peter Marshall have a ardour for the planet’s wild locations, and thru their photos and narratives hope to encourage higher appreciation and safety of the pure world. When they aren’t underwater or within the mountains, additionally they work professionally as strategic consultants, advising governments and trade on sustainable vacation spot planning and growth, funding attraction, authorities relations, model technique and advertising. www.summitstoseasphotography.com