In 2013, a total of 105,000 people visited the independent nation of Palau, making it one of the least visited countries in the world. But, of course, they couldn’t all have been scuba divers, so imagine how many of those travellers got to see its underwater world. That’s why I consider myself lucky because, in December 2014, I was one of the privileged few who got to explore Palau’s stunning blue realm.
Palau isn’t exactly easy to get to. First, I had to make my way to the Philippines from Singapore, and the transit in Manila alone was an absolute nightmare (fun fact: at the Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport, it can take hours to get from one terminal to another because of traffic—this is not an exaggeration, you’ve been warned).
Then, I flew to Koror in Palau with United Airlines from Manila, which only fly there twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. However, despite all the hassle, stress, and frustration, it was worth it because the diving was genuinely excellent.
So, because the trip was so jam-packed with action, I’m going to have to break it down for you guys. So, here are eight reasons to dive Palau.
1. Jellyfish Lake
A must-have on your itinerary is a visit to Jellyfish Lake. Although there’s no diving allowed at this world-famous attraction (which is a whopping 12,000 years old), you can spend hours snorkelling and freediving with millions of stingless jellyfish in this massive body of water. The experience is like nothing on earth, and there’s something about how they move that’s highly hypnotising.
Am I sure they don’t sting? Technically, they do, but because they’re in isolation and lack predators in the lake, they’ve lost their stinging abilities over the years (evolution, baby). In other words, it’s perfectly safe because their stings are so weak that you won’t feel a thing.
You won’t see a lot of jellyfish when you enter the water, so to swim with swarms of them, follow the sunlight, and you’ll find tons of them near the surface. Heads up: to prevent contamination of the lake, you will be told not to put on any sunblock before you enter the water. So, choose to either cover up or soak up the sun.
2. Chandelier Cave
The Chandelier Cave dive site is one of Palau’s most iconic underwater features, and honestly, it was one of my absolute favourites.
The cave comprises five separate chambers, four of which are filled with water and have air pockets. They’re all connected and can be entered, just that to get to the next one, you have to descend and surface again in each chamber.
It’s pretty damn cool, except it can be somewhat frightening if you’re claustrophobic or, like me, not very comfortable diving with little light (just a reminder to everyone, I’m not a big fan of night driving). By the way, a torch is necessary here.
The sight of the striking stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the cave was simply breathtaking. Studying the strange, intricate patterns of the limestone formations—was like being in a museum. This was one geography lesson I’ll never forget.
3. Big fish
Palau prides itself as the world’s first shark sanctuary, so it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll spot more than a couple of these apex predators during your dives, particularly at sites like German Channel and Blue Corner.
Other marine life you can expect to swim with include manta rays (German Channel’s your best bet), barracudas, turtles, and, my personal favourite, the humphead wrasse—who sometimes hover around you when you’re hooked onto the reef (with a reef hook, of course).
4. Solitude Liveaboards
This was my first time on a liveaboard (LOB), so I can’t tell you much if you were to ask me to make comparisons with other LOBs. But, what I can tell you is how impressed I was with the state of the vessel (organised and squeaky clean), the size of the cabins, the facilities (hello, hot tub!) and amenities available onboard (beats some land-based resorts I’ve stayed at), and best of all, the service.
Don’t even get me started on the food. While it was primarily Western with the occasional Asian-inspired creation, you can bet it was a top-notch grub. The desserts were killer, and it’s a fact that Solitude’s chef has a knack for all things sweet. I’m surprised I didn’t put on weight after this trip (it must’ve been all the current-fighting action and the dreadful wetsuit-donning process).
5. Spawning dives
Although the spawning dives aren’t part of Solitude’s itinerary, they are offered additional activity. Unique Dive Expeditions organise these memorable dives by Sam’s Tours, let you witness significant fish action you’ve only seen on National Geographic. To be very specific, you get in the water to see a massive fish orgy taking place, and the experience alone is nothing short of extraordinary.
There is a catch, though. To do this dive, you have to be qualified. Preferably, you have to have logged at least 200 dives or ensure you are highly comfortable diving in blue water (that means no walls, no reefs, nothing to help you orientate yourself, just you and the endless blue of the ocean).
Also, know that the spawning isn’t a daily or regular occurrence and may or may not happen, depending on the tide, phase of the moon, and season of the year. So before you decide, check the official website of Sam’s Tours for schedules and rates.
6. Milky Way
Like Jellyfish Lake, Milky Way has nothing to do with diving, but it must not be missed. The colour of the water in this large lagoon is Tiffany Blue; it’s just way too pretty. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the water’s slightly chalky. The reason it’s like that lies at the bottom of the lagoon, and no, it’s not sand; it’s white limestone mud.
And that’s the stuff you can slap on for some much-needed pampering—you know, a rejuvenating facial, an invigorating body scrub, all that jazz.
Some spas in Palau use this same white limestone mud in their treatments. Many believe the Milky Way’s creamy paste has healing and anti-aging properties, so don’t be shy; go ahead and cover yourself from head to toe if you like. After all, you’re getting it free while others have to fork out the cash at some chichi spa.
I don’t have high expectations for wreck diving, but the sunken structures in Palau are quite something. The Helmet (cargo ship) and the Iro (Japanese navy fleet oiler) were the two shipwrecks we did.
Their superstructures are still pretty much intact, making the wrecks even more magnificent to look at underwater. You can see stuff like gas masks and the ship’s stern gun—a little disturbing, but not as distressing as the fact that you have to be careful when exploring the wrecks; some of the ammunition lying around may be unstable and can go off upon impact.
Ships aside, I admit I was a little more fascinated with the Jake Seaplane wreck, even though its size pales compared to Palau’s massive sunken vessels. The WWII reconnaissance seaplane sits primarily upright, and if you get close, you can see the cockpit encrusted with coral. So, again, a little disturbing but intriguing nevertheless.