The Secret of the South Pacific: A Guide to Palau

Skimming the Surface of Underwater Serengeti: Snorkeling Palau
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The effect is surreal, like an astronaut space-walking amid a universe of drifting stars.
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Palau, a 350-island archipelago halfway between the Philippines and New Guinea, is world-renowned as a scuba-diving destination. For non-divers, however, the good news is that many of Palau's myriad underwater attractions can also be sampled by snorkelers. An aquatic world ripe with diversity lies within ten feet of the surface, and the water is so clear that spots as deep as 50 feet can be clearly viewed from the surface.
The twin circumstance of Palau's unique limestone geology and its location at the confluence of three major ocean currents may make Palau's marine life diversity unmatched anywhere. With 70 saltwater lakes, protected marine bays, current-swept channels, sea grass beds, mangrove forests, and vertical outer reef walls, the variety of marine habitats is staggering. Palau boasts some 1,500 species of fish, including a full complement of cartoonish multi-colored small species, as well as larger pelagics, sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. There are also some 700 species of coral in Palau—four times the diversity of the Caribbean—including interlocking staghorn, huge tabletop, and brain corals, as well as soft corals of virtually every shape and color—not to mention the giant clams and incandescent blue starfish. Best of all, the Palauan marine ecosystem remains healthy—almost pristine—due to its remote location, small local human population, and (so far) modest tourist infiltration.

In some cases, however, human intrusion has actually added to the underwater landscape. Japanese and American forces battled here during World War II, and the wrecks of ships and planes scatter the ocean floor, some of them shallow enough for close inspection by snorkelers.
Among Palau's don't-miss snorkeling sites:
~Turtle Cove. From a sheltered beach, swim out a few hundred feet in chest-deep water until the bottom suddenly drops off into a blue abyss festooned with coral and vast schools of multi-colored fish. You could literally spend hours cruising the coral "clifftop," which stretches as far as any reasonable person would want to swim. A curious shark may approach you, but they are generally harmless.
~Ngemelis Wall, a couple of miles north of Turtle Cove along the same wall system, has a 1,000-foot drop off from knee-deep water. Among scuba divers it is generally considered the best wall dive in the world. Snorkelers can sample only the top of the wall, but even that blows away better than 90 percent of the world's scuba-diving sites.
~Blue Corner. Although 40 feet down, this intersection of two steep walls is still a pull for snorkelers, who can drift in the currents watching for sea turtles, sharks, and massive manta rays cruising the ocean floor below.
~Giant Clam Beach. True to its name, this shallow protected cove with swimming-pool calm water harbors several dozen giant clams up to four feet across and weighing up to 500 pounds. Watch carefully and you'll see them open and close in sudden, jerky motions.
~Jellyfish Lake. A saltwater lake connected to the ocean by underwater tunnels, this isolated ecosystem has evolved a unique species of jellyfish that, free from ocean-going predators, has lost the ability to sting. Snorkelers can swim (gently, please) among literally thousands of the drifting transparent creatures, which range in size from grape to volleyball. The effect is surreal, like an astronaut space walking amid a universe of drifting stars.
~Garemediu Reef, where a Japanese Zero fighter plane rests on the bottom, upright and intact, in about six feet of water. Snorkelers may prowl its every rivet, or even settle briefly into the cockpit for an imaginary underwater dogfight.
Practically Speaking
Koror, the capital city of Palau, is a two-hour jet flight from Guam, which is itself eight hours from Honolulu. Koror has a number of dive shops that let snorkelers hitch along on their dive boats for a reduced fee, or offer specific snorkeling-only expeditions. These typically cost $40-$50 per day. You may also have a boat drop you off at an isolated beach and pick you up later. Wilderness Travel (800-368-2794, www.wildernesstravel.com) runs an 11-day sea kayaking trip in Palau that includes snorkling at many of the spots mentioned above. Ron Leidich is the trip leader. Or try Sam's Tours (samstour@palaunet.com; 011-680-488-1471).
An intriguing alternative method for getting to prime snorkeling sites is a sit-on-top sea kayak rented from Planet Blue Sea Kayak Tours. (planet blue@palaunet.com, 011-680-488-1062) Proprietor Ron Leidich knows every snorkeling spot in Palau, and can suggest itineraries. Planet Blue also runs guided daily and overnight sea kayak trips that feature snorkeling.


David Noland is a full-time professional freelance writer specializing in adventure travel, sports, and science. His book, Travels Along the Edge , published in 1997 by Vintage Books, is now in its fourth printing.

Published: 7 Jun 2001 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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