Palau: One of the great undersea wonders of the world |

Palau: One of the great undersea wonders of the world

Rick Swart
Nevada Appeal News Service
Rick Swart/Nevada Appeal News Service Divemaster Daniel Paulo, of Koror, Palau, goes for a dip in Jellyfish Lake, where the jellyfish have lost their ability to sting.

PALAU, Micronesia – The moment you step onto a 29-foot pangas here and begin the fast boat ride through the narrow channels separating Micronesia’s 300 Rock Islands, you know you are somewhere special.

The emerald green water gives way to turquoise and then to azure blue as the depth goes from a few feet to more than 3,000 feet on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Apart from the notoriety it received two years ago as the location of the “Survivor” television series, Palau is virtually unknown to the general public in the U.S.

Palau is a speck in the middle of the ocean two hours west of Guam, two hours east of the Philippines and north of Papua New Guinea.

Its isolation is one of the reasons it is the next thing to Mecca in the scuba-diving community, which considers it one of the great undersea wonders of the world.

Comprised of 300 islands at the confluence of the Pacific and Philippine Sea, Palau has one of the healthiest reef systems on the planet. It is also home to Jellyfish Lake, one of the great underwater wonders of the world – the only place on earth where human beings can interact with millions of saltwater jellyfish that over thousands of years have lost their ability to sting because they had no natural predators.

This stellar reputation is why Berkley White, owner of Backscatter Photo in Monterey, Calif., staged the 2006 “Digital Shootout” in Palau this year. White and his team at Backscatter are some of the world’s leading authorities on underwater photography using digital cameras. In previous years, the shootout has drawn hundreds of underwater photographers to such venues as Bonaire, Fiji and Indonesia to hone their skills and pick up on the latest tips and tricks of their discipline.

International crowd

The logistics of putting on a major photo shoot in one of the most remote regions of the world were extraordinarily challenging.

To start with, participants came from all over the world, including Great Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland, Finland and the United States, which complicated communications, itineraries and equipment needs.

Just getting to Palau is a challenge. For most West Coast travelers, the journey involves at least 14 hours in the air, starting in Los Angeles, with stopovers and plane changes in Honolulu, Guam and the island of Yap, before touching down in Koror, the capital of Palau.

Melika Batley from London, winner of the best of show award with a photo of a diver and a stingray, said the event gives her a chance to break away from her all-consuming job as a lawyer for a bank in the United Kingdom.

“I work so hard that when I leave to relax, I need something where I can get completely absorbed,” said Batley, who attended the shootout two years ago when it was held in Fiji.

In addition to world-class diving, the shootout offers afternoon workshops on the art of composition, focus and exposure, split images, printing and editing with Photoshop taught by skilled instructors hand-picked by White and his staff. Daily slide shows and Web casts include critiques of photos taken each morning, leading up to the selection of the winning entries on the last day of the shootout.

Those who endure the long trip are rewarded with a diverse underwater experience. Colorful corals peacefully coexist with sharks, stingrays and other large animals. On the other end of the scale are tiny clownfish, longnose hawkfish and Palau’s signature mandarin fish, which are popular subjects for macro photographers.

“Palau has a great combination of healthy schools of fish and a great reef system, which is rare these days,” said White, who worked as a marine biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game before starting Backscatter 11 years ago. For many divers, Palau is the first big jump into the great unknown of the Pacific when they’re ready to go beyond resort diving in tourist traps. The Digital Shootout, which in past years has been featured in Scuba Diving magazine, helps to focus world attention on the chosen destinations. The Palau Visitors Authority hotly pursued this year’s event.

Besides its spectacular marine life, Palau is also rich in World War II relics. Some of the great battles of the Pacific were fought in and around Palau, where the Japanese Navy staged Pacific operations until it was decimated by U.S. forces. As a result, Palauan waters are littered with sunken Japanese supply ships, aircraft, artillery, ammo and other memorabilia, which makes for good wreck diving.

Flying at Blue Corner

The map at Sam’s Tours, one of the leading dive boat companies in Palau, lists 25 dive sites in the Rock Islands. Divers are whisked to these sites on a 55-minute boat ride.

The most famous dive site in Palau is one the locals call Blue Corner, which scuba magazines consistently rank as one of the top dive sites in the world. Blue Corner is a wall that falls off forever to the ocean floor. Swift currents, which can change direction in the blink of an eye, produce all kinds of action, including shark and manta fly-bys, giant swirls of jack tuna, barracuda and crocodile fish.

The swift currents gave rise to a uniquely Palauan dive technique known as “flying.” In this technique, divers tether themselves to the wall with piece of nylon rope attached to a large hook, which allows them to stay put without getting swept away with the current. Then they just “fly” hooked in one place and wait for the action to unfold in front of them. Some people joke that the practice is like trolling for sharks, using divers as bait.

Blue Corner is the epitome of what divers are looking for when they come to Micronesia.

While Palau’s isolation has been instrumental in preserving the unspoiled environment, some people worry that as Palau is discovered this Third World country of only 20,000 people will be hard-pressed to resist development pressures.

“The Palauan people have done a fantastic job of taking care of their reefs, and hopefully they can maintain that,” said White.

For Palau, the future rests in the hands of people like Jake Oiterong, 28, a sixth-generation Palauan who works as a dive boat captain. Though Oiterong hasn’t seen much of the developed world – he once visited the densely populated island of Guam.

“That’s as far away as I need to go to know what we have here,” said Oiterong, who has taken it upon himself to learn everything he can about Palauan culture, history, geography and marine biology, which he enthusiastically shares with his customers.

“I just try to give people a little more information so they appreciate what we have here is one of the last pristine marine environments in the world,” he said.

• Editor’s note: Rick Swart is publisher of the Lahontan Valley News in Fallon.