Paddling the Island on the Day After

Finding Edenic Solitude Along Palau's Tropical Shores
By Barbara Shaw
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The warm breeze swept a delicate floral scent through the cool and shadowed limestone sea cave. Drips pittered on the earth floor and tick-tocked into the water. Carried on a slow current, a floating leaf passed under the low stone arch where we paddled in.

Drawn by the light at the back of the cave, we climbed up on giant stones in the middle of the domed room. Opposite the entrance, we now stood high above the water, gazing out through a green tangle of jungle trees, vines, and ferns crowding the view of the bright equatorial sky. Off in the distance, a power boat buzzed over the still turquoise sea.

Kayaking Palau, a small republic in southwest Micronesia, we explored a number of such sea caves. One had served as a seaplane hangar during the Japanese occupation. In another, clicking bats grew irate when we invaded their dark and secret home. In a third, we found a rusted iron cannon.

The best kayaking in Palau is among the ancient coral formations uplifted from the sea bed south of the large island of Babeldaob. These small islets continue to rise slowly as the Pacific Plate slips under the Philippine Sea. Over the millennia, tides and storms have undercut and shaped them into wondrous forms. Known as the Rock Islands, or Chelbacheb ('EL-ba-'eb), in the Palauan language, they appear from the air like green pebbles scattered on the wide ocean. Down among them, deep bays, secret coves, curving arms of high overgrown land, and soft beaches of coral and sand await explorers.

The smallest of the Rock Islands appear to float like fantasy ships resting on the reef. The larger ones snake for miles among smaller outcroppings and sandy bays. Here endangered, meter-long sea turtles glide like ghosts below the boat. Though Palauans come to picnic, fish, and play every weekend, you can always find solitude out here, along with the suspicion that you've discovered Eden.

Indeed, wonderful life abounds throughout Palau, despite increasing environmental threats. On one island hike up a steep jungle track, in search of the mysterious Jellyfish Lake, we came across an immature tropical bird, wary as it watched us pass, unaccustomed to the noisy intrusion of hairless bipeds. Undisturbed, dozens of colorful bird species nest and play far from civilization, screaming warnings across the water and calling in sweet bell tones.

Later, as we slipped along the shore, something large and clumsy burst out of a tree, flapped in circles, then caught a branch with its feet and swung upside down. As it folded its wings, we recognized a fruitbat the size of a heron. Out on the reef, actual herons the color of rust stood still, beaks poised for spearing fish.

Below the salt, fish of more than 1,500 varieties dart and glide, tropical jewels featuring an infinite variety of dazzling patterns and colors. A few sharks and giant mantas cruise past. The luckiest among us may spot among the eel grass the rare dugong, an endangered sea mammal that is more closely related to elephants than seals.

Gliding close to shore in our kayaks, we peered down into gardens of brilliant corals, sponges, tube worms, anemones, and rose pink sea fans. We spotted all five varieties of local sea cucumber, a spineless sea urchin nearly as large as a football, and the hated crown of thorns starfish that devours coral. But what were those white meter long worm-like tubes that snaked from one vertical wall? Scanning for the hundreds of other spectacular invertebrates that rake, suck, siphon, scrape, filter, and sting their appropriate meals in this crystalline water, we'd often see creatures so alien to us that they might as well have come from some far away planet.

These underwater wonders have made Palau a dream destination for skin divers, and kayakers with a penchant for exploring below the surface can expect truly unsurpassed snorkeling along the many reefs and shadowy walls. For those who want to go deeper, professional local dive shops cater to the SCUBA crowd.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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