WASHINGTON, November 2, 2012 — When Palau is mentioned in conversation, the first questions generally asked are “Where is Palau?” and “How far is that?”
The questions are understandable; the country consists of an isolated cluster of small islands huddled together over 500 miles from the nearest major land mass. Still, Palau routinely ranks among the top dive spots in the world. Throngs of mask-wearing and tank-toting tourists from all over the globe make it their destination each year and discover its treasures.
So, why would a non-diver spend more than 20 hours traveling to one of the world’s most pristine dive destinations?
Because Palau is packed with adventure above and below the water, its thick jungle hillsides are full of history from a terrible and bloody war, wildlife is beautiful and bountiful, and because an ancient and mysterious archeological site is awaiting exploration.
Palau is a perfect slice of the Micronesian region of the South Pacific and an excellent place to get very, very far away.
If you are not dive-certified, and enjoy the simplicity of snorkeling, then Palau has plenty to offer. Sam’s Tours and Fish N Fins are the two top-rated dive and snorkel shops in the islands. Either of these professional outfitters can supply pristine underwater bliss in no time.
Taking a boat from the capital city of Koror, snorkelers can visit Clam City, where giant clams the size of a sofa rest motionless on the sandy ocean bottom.
A great spot to skim the surface in search of fish is The Big Drop Off, aptly named since the ocean floor dramatically drops off a short distance from the shore of a small island. This is the spot to see colorful clown fish, parrot fish, graceful angelfish, and the majestic black tip shark. Swimming with the powerful predators, known more for their teeth than their beauty, is an honor and a privilege. Palauans are proud to be the purveyors of a world-renowned shark sanctuary set up in 2001 to protect all species of shark from over-fishing.
The most rewarding of all the snorkeling locales in Palau is Jellyfish Lake. This inland lake was formed thousands of years ago when ocean levels dropped. A group of bright orange bulbous jellies were cut off from the ocean and thrived in secluded saltwater isolation. With no natural predators in the lake, they have de-evolved their stinging capability, which makes for a pain-free, safe swim. They have also multiplied and dominate the lake’s ecosystem. Gliding through thousands of these brightly colored gelatinous creatures can be a spine-tingling and incredibly spiritual encounter.
Palau’s huge northern island, Babeldaob, is mostly undeveloped. Although it is home to the new capital building, little else has sprung up there. The Japanese used this island as a lookout point and constructed a lighthouse there during the WW II. The island is covered in steep hilly terrain, and a maze of secondary dirt roads criss-crossing the jungle interior - creating the perfect playground for off-road adventure.
Book a guided ATV excursion from Fish N Fins to get some help exploring these rutted and muddy trails. Guides can reveal points of interest along the way, such as rusted-out WWII tanks or ancient artillery guns, and they can help find remote hilltops from which the splendor of the neighboring islands, encircled by aquamarine waters, can be enjoyed.
Palau garners attention mostly for its sharks and the colorful fish that reside in its coral reefs, but there are other intriguing waterborne creatures swimming in and around the islands that deserve a second look.
Dolphins are commonly sighted swimming along with dive and fishing boats alike. These friendly mammals are not just found in the open water, but are kept domestically at Dolphin Pacific. The facility focuses on environmental education, but most visitors are keen on getting an up-close and personal experience with the dolphins, and they certainly get that.
Dolphin Pacific has several programs that provide opportunities to pet the dolphins, swim with them, and even do a free dive with one of the charming marine mammals.
To observe a more dangerous swimmer, sign up for the Jungle River Boat Cruise on Babeldaob. Saltwater crocodiles patrol the waters of the island’s short, but picturesque, waterways. These predators grow to lengths of over ten feet and can crush a 2x4 with their jaws, not to mention a leg bone. The tour guides have trained them to approach the boats and snatch an uncooked chicken from the line of a fishing pole.
Easter Island is not the only place to see huge creepy stone faces. Palau has its own, although much smaller, and more crudely carved. The monoliths, found on Babeldaob, are rough stone carvings that range from waist high to over six feet tall.
Palauan oral history tells of a group of demi-gods that descended from the heavens and began to build a home on the island. They were building at night and would leave before dawn every morning. One of the group was mischievous and decided to play a prank. He set a coconut husk on fire and threw it into the middle of the construction; it transformed into a crowing rooster, sending all the other demi-gods fleeing for fear that morning had come. The fright turned some to stone, and their faces can still be seen scattered around the site today.
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