Peering into Paradise - Page 2

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Paddling on, we soon arrived at the home of the bat-like birds, Cathedral Cave, which we entered through an opening the size of a barn door. The claustrophobe in me got a much sterner test a bit later in the day at Disney Lake, one of about 70 marine lakes in the Rock Islands which are connected to the sea by underground fissures and tunnels. (The "lakes" actually rise and fall with the tides.) Disney Lake, however, remains unique: at extremely low tide, the tunnel that connects it to the sea is partly exposed. With exquisite timing, we arrived at the tunnel to find about three feet of airspace above the waterline. Lying back with our heads resting on the rear decks of the kayaks, we carefully pulled ourselves hand-over-hand along the ceiling, which loomed just inches from our noses, toward the faint glimmer of light at the far end of the tunnel. Once in the lake, there was time for a quick circumnavigation by snorkel before we made our subterranean escape just as the tide began to turn.

That evening we paddled wearily into our first camp at Tiabakl Beach, a narrow swath of smooth white sand hemmed in by dense jungle. Thanks to a support boat and a camp crew of cheerful Palauans, our tents were already set up, and dinner was cooking. Served on a long table with real silverware, napkins, and wine, our evening repast consisted of rice, fruit, and fish speared earlier in the day by Chris, a Palauan who'd grown up exploring the Rock Islands, and whose primary duty during the trip was to catch dinner.
After a walk along the beach—don't trip over that F4U Corsair propeller sticking out of the sand—we turned into our large two-man tents.

And so it went, idyllic day after day. We worked our way down the Rock Island chain, paddling five or six miles a day (with an occasional shuttle assist from the support boat), snorkeling, exploring inland lakes and caves, poking around military relics from WW II, and camping on a stunning variety of beaches.

And, as Ron had promised, the snorkeling only got better.

At Turtle Cove, we swam out a few hundred feet in chest-deep water until the reef suddenly dropped off into a bottomless blue abyss festooned with coral and vast schools of multi-colored fish. At Blue Corner, a world-famous scuba spot about a half-mile from shore, we drifted with our kayaks in the strong current, gazing 40 feet down through ultra-clear water at sharks, sea turtles, and a massive manta ray that cruised the ocean floor like a stealth fighter.

Palau has a number of snorkeling attractions that can hardly be matched anywhere in the world. At Giant Clam Beach we saw dozens of the creatures up to four feet across and weighing 500 pounds, opening and closing in sudden, jerky motions. At Jellyfish Lake, we swam among thousands of drifting transparent jellyfish, stingless after millions of years in their unique predator-free environment. Ranging in size from grape to volleyball, they drifted surreally in the deep blue of the lake, like wandering planets in a vast blue universe. And at Garemediu Reef, we prowled over a Japanese Zero fighter plane, upright and intact in about six feet of water, that had ditched in the sea 56 years ago.

Many of the beaches where we camped were off-limits to the public. Ron, however, was able to finagle special permission for us through his contacts among the Palauan powers-that-be and a reservoir of good will earned by his years of tireless effort to protect the Palauan reefs and beaches. One of his ongoing efforts is to eradicate the pestilent crown-of-thorns starfish, which can ravage a reef if allowed a foothold. Ron has single-handedly killed hundreds of the starfish, and organized groups that have killed thousands more. (In fact, he pressed our kayaking group into an impromptu anti-crown-of-thorns snorkel patrol that netted a couple dozen of the nasty creatures.)

Leidich has also been known to clamber board Chinese long-line tuna boats that illegally fish for sharks, whose fins are highly prized in the Orient for soup. The sight of the shirtless Schwarzeneggeresque Leidich, brandishing a machete and screaming at the top of his lungs, invariably causes the crewmen to jabber in fear and flee below decks. Ron then tosses the sharkfins—which retail for about $200 a pound in Japan—overboard. "I'm trying to get across the idea that they shouldn't be doing this," says Leidich with a faint smile.

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