A major lesson from Palau
Palau is unlike many other countries in that it actually recognizes what it has i.e.: world class dive sites and instead of ruining and exploiting such a resource it embraces it and protects it.
I was particularly interested in how they were putting into practice their shark sanctuary policy (as unveiled to the world in September 2009) which banned the landing of sharks or shark fins by local or international vessels in Palauan waters. How is it policed? Does it work?
It is likely that to make such a bold statement as to declare your national waters a shark sanctuary you would have to be sure it would work, and of course it does.
Although in truth I believe if it was going to work anywhere it would be here due to a number of reasons; there was no existing international trade of shark meat or shark products, local fishermen avoid catching shark as they cannot sell it and Palauan’s do not eat it themselves.
Most of the islands are considered National Parks and so permits are required for visitors which are inspected by park rangers and finally the dive companies are savvy when it comes to issuing visitors with permits (it reflects badly on the company if their customers are not in possession of a valid permit and has consequences to boot) as well as their almost daily presence within their waters which must act as a strong deterrent to any international fishing vessels.
The ocean itself is also fundamental to the story of the creation of Palau (the country being born from a giant clam) as well as ocean practices such as fishing being featured in numerous folklore; being used to teach several morals and values.
For a country which only claimed independence in 1994 (having been owned/occupied by Spain, Germany, Japan and the United States). Palau stands in its own right as an example I wish we all could follow as a haven for sharks and other reef life. I must leave now, however I am keen to return especially during March time which is the Grey Reef Shark breeding season, which see’s specific dive sites teem with hundreds of shark’s (imagine that – perfection!).
So as I return to Manila for a final time, I can reflect on what an amazing time I have had both in the Philippines and Palau.
I would like to express my gratitude to Donsol Eco-Tour who enabled me to have some truly amazing encounters with Whale sharks which I will never forget, The TSRCP which gave me Thresher Sharks and so much more besides, Fish N’ Fins a super-duper dive experience in Palau and of course the guys at SSACN and SSTP who without which my computer illiterate self would never have been able to make this blog possible!
Finally thanks to all who kept up to date with this blog, I hope you found it informative and entertaining and I hope that in the future there will be plenty more like it!
Am I ready to go home for a while? Am I heck … bring on the next adventure!
Cheers to that!
Round and about Palau
Once we had done the majority of our dives we decided to rent a car for a couple of days and investigate some of the main land based attractions that Palau has on offer.
First on the list was the stone monolith’s on the Northern tip of Babeldaob (big island) in Ngarchelong. These huge stone pillars of volcanic rock have been dated to c.1000 BC, but no-one is sure of how they got there. They sort of look like supports for a large structure (maybe a large Bai – a men’s meeting house), as some are lined up with the tops carved out as though to support something resting on top.
However I prefer the explanation provided by the guy looking after the site – : “The stones were made from creatures that are half human and half spirit that only work at night, one time one of these creatures was outcast from the group and so in an act of revenge carved a coconut into the shape of a cockerel, this turned into a real cockerel and was made to crow during the night whilst the half human and half spirit creatures were working, this made the sun rise and when dawn broke early all the creatures turned to stone! ”
The stone monolith’s in Ngarchelong.
We learnt that there were other stone monoliths around Palau and some of these had faces carved into them, one of these was in Melekeok which was next on our list of places to visit, so off we headed back South down the east coast road.
The first thing that strikes you about Melekeok is the huge Capitol Building, it is unlike anything else in Palau and was built when Melekeok was confirmed as the capital of Palau. Some people think the building is too much, I thought it was ok, as to whether it has been worth the reported $44 million spent on its creation, is another matter. As we continued down into the village we found the stone monolith with a face carved into it, which now acts as a rather grand addition to the edge of someone’s driveway!
While in Melekeok we ate at one (situated to the right of the road which turns into the village – oh yes there are no road names in Palau!) of the two café’s available in the Palauan capital (we couldn’t find the second!). Where-upon we began chatting to a couple of guys in there about Captain Wilson – who was the first foreigner to ‘land’ in Palau, he was a British captain who ran aground near Ulong Channel in 1783, he rebuilt his ship in 3 months with the help of Koror’s High Chief Ibedul. As a mark of thanks Captain Wilson offered to take his son Prince Lebuu back to England for schooling, sadly a few months after his arrival he died of smallpox, his grave can still be found today and I am told a street was named after him, I must remember to have a look when I’m next in London.
The stone face of Melekeok.
We then headed back to Koror and to the Etpison museum which houses a fantastic collection of old photographs and maps of Palau, alongside money discs made from giant clams and money beads from around Oceania. That evening we ate at the ‘Suriyothai at Kaldos’ which provided me with the best Thai Red Curry I have ever tasted (I asked for extra hot) and a tankard of ‘Red Rooster – local beer’ which was as big as my head!
The following day we headed up the Western side of Babeldaob to Ngardmau falls, Palau’s largest waterfall. Here you hike downhill through the jungle and across a river, at one point following an old railway line dating from the Japanese occupation during the 1940’s, until you get to the falls, this takes around 25 minutes. Once at the falls you can go and stand underneath and get (painfully) pounded by the rapidly falling water, this provided a perfect way to cool down as well as a needlelike exfoliation for the skin!
Ngardmau falls – Ouch!
We then headed off in search of ‘Malsol’s tomb’ despite a good deal of searching in 40°C heat and taking our hire car to the max along the crazy tracks, we never did find the tomb… if anyone does please set my mind at ease and let me know where it is!?
End of the Rainbow
It would be fair to say I was in love with Palau before I had even left the Philippines, this had been born from various conversations I had had with diver’s around Malapascua Island who had previously been to Palau. As soon as you mention Palau you are greeted with a beaming smile and a glint in the eye, the sort of reaction anyone might give when they are remembering a place which not only met but exceeded their expectations and allowed them to fully indulge in their passion.
By the time I boarded the flight in Manila I was bordering on anxiety, had I put Palau up on an airy pedestal that just couldn’t be reached? During the flight I was put at ease somewhat when the immigration and customs declaration card was headed with the slogan “Welcome to Palau the end of the rainbow”, I mean as long as the pot of gold translated to bucket loads of sharks I would be happy! On arrival in Palau I was further reassured when the customs declaration guy waved me on telling me that I had come to the right place after reading that I was a Marine Biologist, and when I stepped outside of the airport there was an underwater mural complete with reef sharks adorning the walls of the airport.
But the point is I needn’t have worried, Palau is an incredible place; the people are so warm, friendly and helpful, the land is lush and the Sea’s, Oceans and Lagoons vary from turquoise to emerald green in colour and literally teem with life. For this reason alone the diving is sensational, but add to this the abundance of underground caves, channels, walls and wrecks and you have yourself a diving location which is phenomenal.
Big Drop Off
Gordon and I dived with Fish N’ Fins who I would recommend to anyone diving in Palau, during our stay we did 12 dives at the following sites; Big-Drop-Off (Ngemelis wall), Siaes Tunnel, Ulong Channel, Virgin Blue Hole, New-Drop-Off, Blue Holes, German Channel, Helmet Wreck, Chandelier Cave and of course the infamous Blue Corner (this we did 3 times). All dives were amazing and I could dive them all again for the rest of my life quite happily, but really we just scratched the surface as there are so many dive sites that you would need ideally a year or more to get a true feel for the diving available here.
The rumours are true !! – If you don’t want to see a shark while you dive here then you will have to dive with your eyes shut! My wishes came true with an abundance of grey reef sharks, white-tip reef sharks and black-tip reef sharks, however the pièce-de-résistance was a single mind blowing encounter at German Channel; best known for its Manta rays which come into the cleaning stations in the channel, shortly after decent we saw a manta ray cruise by and then we went to explore other areas of the site. I was about to turn away from one area when I felt an urgent prod from Gordon as I turned I could not believe my eyes – a lone female Great Hammerhead around 3m in length was passing by! Only 3 of us in the group saw her and I felt the need to confirm what I had seen continuously by making the hammer shape with my arms and head – I honestly thought at first that I was “Narked” or that I had finally succumbed to some sort of fantasy shark hallucinations! I later found out we were very lucky to see such a sight with large sharks such as the hammerheads or tiger sharks only seen about once every 6 months, so I thank my lucky shark stars!!!
Grey Reef sharks off Blue Corner
Whitetip reef sharks
Big fish freeway at Blue Corner