The Secret of the South Pacific: A Guide to Palau
Among accomplished scuba divers, this 200-island archipelago halfway between New Guinea and the Phillipines is widely known as the sport's ultimate wet-dream destination. But sea kayakers also embrace aquatic fantasies, and Palau's little-known Rock Islands are a paddler's paradise: a mélange of uninhabited, mushroom-shaped limestone islands riddled with sea caves, tunnels, lakes, and hidden beaches, all protected by a barrier reef just offshore. And of course most of that remarkable underwater world1,500 species of fish, four times the coral diversity of the Caribbean, huge reef wallswaits to be explored with just a quick donning of mask and fins and a flop overboard.
The Rock Islands are part of Palau, an independent island nation of the Caroline group. They run about forty miles southwest from the Palauan capitol of Koror to the island of Peleliu, famed as the site of a vicious World War II battle. Literally five minutes after launching your kayak in Koror, you can be paddling through the uninhabited wilderness of Nikko Bay, the Rock Islands' northernmost extent. You can then paddle their entire length, beach to beach, with no crossing of more than about two hours. It's possible to paddle happily for days without going more than a few hundred yards from shore.
Made of limestone and swathed in thick vegetation, the islands jut steeply out of the water, their shorelines undercut by the moving waves and the biological erosion of tiny sea creatures called chitons. The undercutting has carved the smaller islands into giant limestone mushrooms, and about 99 percent of the coastline has been eroded into precarious ledges, making landing virtually impossible (unless you're a 5.12 rock climber with great overhang moves). Fortunately, the other one percent consists of beautiful beaches, ideal for camping. (Many are off-limits, however; check with the Palau Visitors Authority.) The islands themselves are so steep and densely vegetated that in most cases they're virtually impenetrable.
The Rock Islands feature a number of kayak-accessible sea caves. Cathedral Cave is about thirty-five feet high and home to the Vanikoro swiftlet, the world's only species of echo-locating bird. The islands are also sprinkled with saltwater "lakes" connected to the sea by subterranean tunnels. One of them, Disney Lake, is accessible by kayak through a tunnel that is partially exposed at extremely low tide. (Claustrophobes beware; the ceiling is so low that you'll have to lie back on your rear deck and pull yourself along hand-over-hand.) Long Lake is a mirror-smooth wildlife-rich inlet reached via a channel through a mangrove swamp just wide and deep enough for a kayak. Jellyfish Lake, accessible by a ten-minute hike, is home to some 1.2 million stingless jellyfish, among which snorkelers can drift, like astronauts space-walking in a vast galaxy of globular stars.
Other good snorkling spots include Turtle Cove, where, a hundred yards offshore, waste-deep water drops into 1,000-foot reef wall; and Garemediu Reef, where a ditched Japanese Zero fighter plane lies submerged in six feet of water.
Other World War II relics sprinkle the Rock Islands landscape, but in many cases you'll need a local guide to find them. On the island of Peliliu, where 11,000 Japanese and 1,500 Americans died in a bloody (and largely pointless) two-month-long battle, a number of tanks and planes are easy to find.
Koror is a two-hour jet flight from Guam (which is itself eight hours from Honolulu). Because of the huge distances, schlepping a Klepper or Feathercraft folding boat is a major logistical chore. Another big strike against the take-along kayak is that with all the visual enticement just below the surface, you'll constantly want to get in and out of your craft to swim and snorkel in the 85-degree water. For that kind of duty, a sit-on-top boat is preferable.
State-of-the-art Perception sit-on-tops are available for rent in Koror from Planet Blue Sea Kayak Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 011-680-488-1062. $35/day single, $55 double.) Planet Blue also supplies all gear and maps, and can make resupply drops. The lack of fresh water and restrictions on beach camping in the 1997 Rock Island Use Act can make for complex logistics on multi-day trips, so be sure to consult with Planet Blue proprietor Ron Leidich, who has superb local connections.
The company also runs guided day and overnight kayaking trips, and Leidich can usually get his customers into places that are legally closed to independent kayakers. Planet Blue also operates multi-day "turnkey" kayak trips in the Rock Islands for two U.S. outfitters, Wilderness Travel (www.wildernesstravel.com; 800-368-2794) and Kayak Connection (831-724-5692).
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication