Snorkeling in Palau, Micronesia

We primarily came to Palau Micronesia to snorkel and to experience some beautiful water scenery. We took two all-day kayaking and snorkeling tours by Sam’s Tours. These took us through, around and under two of ecologically richest stretches of the 200+-island Rock Island chain of uninhabited islets. These tours focused on different bays within the protected, inner reef, an area that is filled with beautiful coral and that serves as a nursery for all types of baby fish—fish that are too small and inexperienced to survive the rigors of the outer reef. Although we were again without the services of our underwater camera, we hope to supplement these blogs with picture from a new friend how accompanied us on both our snorkel trips. These trips focused on two of the inner reefs most colorful and populated bays: Risong and Nikko.

Risong Bay

The bay is studded with hundreds of small, steep, mushroom-shaped coral walls (caused by their lower levels being eroded by millennia of exposure to water)  that are studded with tunnels. When the tides allow, kayaks (but not motor boats) can access isolated lakes and bays that serve as nurseries for baby fish, sharks, sting rays and eagle rays.

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We kayaked through much of this area, under the coral overhangs, through tunnels and into secluded brackish and salt water lakes to a number of snorkeling spots, where we slipped off our kayaks to explore a number of different ecosystems. Here are some of the  highlights:

  • A channel, along the ends of a coral ledge where we saw the results of two recent (2012 and 2013) typhoons that devastated much of the coral in open water. While there were still some lovely old stands and much evidence of new growth, we also saw many mid-sized fish and a few larger sightings. We were, for example, almost run over by a mid-size (about 6.5-7 feet) grey-tip reef sharp and we passed over two green sea turtles, one a relatively young male and the other an older, much larger female.
  • Shipwreck Bay, a small bay in which we kayaked over the remains of a Japanese supply ship (which supplied and transported soldiers among its outposts) which was scuttled rather than having it fall into Allied hands, under its root-bound limestone overhangs and through its mangrove –lined channels. This small, shallow bay is the birthing grounds and nursery in which baby (roughly from 6-18-inch) graytip and blacktip reef sharks practice their hunting skills before moving onto the less forgiving reef. It is also home to thousands of small sardines on which the sharks and trevally feed.
  • Kingfish Lake is another virtually landlocked, 70 foot-deep lake that in and of itself, would have made the day memorable. Although we were chagrinned about the closure of Jellyfish Lake, we had no idea that we would visit another enclosed lake in which hundreds, if not thousands, of stingless jellyfish live. They are amazing animals, primitive with no brain of central nervous system, but still able to survive for millions of years. They are amazing to watch, literally a bowl-shaped, virtually colorless blob of jelly that derives color only from the algae that live within it. Those that we saw, caressed and otherwise fondled ranged from about three or four inches (generally those that were near the surface), to about eight to ten inches) those for which we free dove to about 15 feet. Colors ranged from almost transparent to golden brown with touches of blue with white dots. The texture is amazing, from the jelly-like mantle to the feather-like texture of its gastrovascular tract and its short, stingless tentacles. And to ensure that the jellies weren’t lonely, a handful of baby squid were also scuttling through the lake.

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A truly memorable experience that almost got better with our next stop.

  • Mandarin Fish Lake is an incredible, shallow (generally between three and 15 feet), clear limestone-lined saltwater lake whose bottom is filled with virtually every type and color of hard coral imaginable, from massive brain and robust elkhorn coral, through delicate leaf and almost translucent lettuce coral. And if this weren’t enough, the entry to the lake is essentially guarded by about a dozen stands of beautiful red and pink fan coral, waving us on to enter into an underwater garden that is not only lush with coral, but teaming with hundreds of species of small, delicate, beautiful tropical fish. While I can’t and won’t even try to begin to name all of the amazing fish, a few particularly colorful, particularly unusual fish including the horned blue devils, the flamboyantly colorful Pajama Cardinal Fish and the tiny, multi-colored Mandarin Fish after which the lake was named merit particularly mention.

And this does not even begin to mention the black horn-bodied sea cucumbers and the bright blue sea stars that litter the floors of the bay and the lakes, nor the many types of sea anemone, the lighting fast, feathery-textured feather anemone or the giant tridaena clams, with their technicolor lips. Many, for example, are deep, almost florescent shades of blues and purples. Then today, the most amazing we have seen, vivid green, red and gold!

Nikko Bay

This limestone cliff-sheltered cave and tunnel-studded bay encloses a number of first-growth coral gardens that combine a total of 65 different species of coral. The bay also houses some historic sites including a 2.500 year-old chief’s burying grounds and a number of Japanese WW II sites and artifacts.

We began our Nikko Bay experience with another channel drift snorkel, this time along the wall of:

  • Lolita’s Channel is a study on contrasts. Depending where you are along the wall, it can look like an underwater version of the gentle, rolling green hills of Vermont, the rugged Western Face of the Sierras, or off the edge of the wall, as barren, almost lifeless version of Death Valley.

From there we snorkeled, in pouring rain, to two historic caves:

  • Tarzan’s Cave, a dry cave that takes you to the center of a small island whose roof has collapses, with roots from the hilltop’s trees (perhaps 30 feet above), fall down the canyon walls in search of water. The center of the island cave was the burial site for the chief and family of the Koror tribe. The chief’s bones, which were excavated in an archeological dig, are now at the Smithsonian, where they have been carbon-dated to about 2,500 years ago and DNA-tested to confirm his ancestry to Southern Taiwan, the origin of the Micronesian peoples.
  • Skylight Cave, a kayak-accessible water-filled cave with a very different history. It was established as a Japanese lookout post in the early 1930’s, to keep a watch for what they thought may be an American attack. While that attack never came, the cave continued in use through the war in the 1940’s. Circling around that and neighboring islets, we saw and visited a couple of concrete bunkers and pill boxes the Japanese built atop these islets.

Due to the continuing rain, we decided to forgo further kayaking in favor of more snorkeling, where rain has little effect except for blocking the sun and reducing the saturation of the colors of the coral. Or actually, since all coral is ivory white, the color of the color of the Zooxanthellae algae that lives synergistically on the coral, photosynthesizing the nutrients picked up by the coral and bringing life to both organisms. In fact, when the coral is stressed, it expels the algae (reverting to its original ivory-white color). If the coral does not regain health, and attract new algae, it will die.

We explored the coral of two aptly named Nikko Bay Gardens;

  • Lettuce Coral Wall, in which all colors of lettuce coral lined the walls of this small, but deep lagoon. Although lettuce was the most prominent of the corals, it had many others, of varying colors—muted under the rainy skies, but lovely nonetheless. It was also loaded with beautifully colored round mushroom (aka, razor) coral which are lined with deep grooves that radiate from the center. While pretty in even this “sleeping” state, our guide showed the way the coral looks at night (or in this instance, heavily cloudy skies; it is covered with hundreds of finger-like tentacles that wave in the current, Each tentacle topped with a sticky white patch that catches nutrients. This lagoon was interesting for other reasons. Although patches of water were warm, others were extremely cold at the surface. But when we dove down, as little as a couple of feet, all the water was warm. The mixture of these very different temperature and density waters caused pockets near the surface to be so convoluted that it appeared that you were looking through you were looking through very out of focus glasses. But again, dive down a couple feet and all was crystal clear.

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  • Rembrandt’s Cove, named after the colors of artist’s favorite palette, is loaded with lettuce, brain, elk horn and pencil coral in subdued shades of virtually every color. There are two exceptions to this color palette: The pencil coral, in one separate patch of the cove, is mostly bleached; then there are the large numbers of black coral, which appears as long (often six to ten foot), thin (perhaps ½-inch diameter) white strings. Black coral appearing white. The reason, as we learned, is that the thin (perhaps ¼-inch) black coral interior (which are used in jewelry, and in China, crushed as an aphrodisiac) is surrounded by a fluffy, white coating. This coral also has another use: since it generally grows at a consistent rate of about 1.2 centimeter per year it is also used as rough guideline for determining the age of the reef. This cove also had other treats. It contained a number of different types of sea sponges: especially orange, which we saw on a number of reefs, but also black and purple, which were very pretty and quite unusual. Then there were the large number of sea ferns—feathery clumps that sway gently in the water and are sticky (due to thousands of tiny tips) that trap nutrients. Some were black with green stripes, others were primarily emerald green. These feather ferns, as our guide, explained, are actually members of the starfish family and like starfish, can relocate to more promising feeding locations on tiny tentacles.

All of these reefs, of course, had significant numbers of giant tridaena clams, with lips of fluorescent-like purple and blue, opening and closing as they intake nutrients and expel waste, and as water vibrations suggest potential danger. All of these protected “nursery” reefs also had small fish, including some that were quite pretty. The numbers, however, were much smaller than we had expected and most were of a species and size that we had seen before.

The Outer Reef

Then came what turned out to be the highlight of an already lovely day. While both our reef snorkeling days on Palau were inside the protected confines of the Rock Islands, our guide decided to take a detour on our return to the marina.

This stop was on a very shallow section of the outer reef named Short Drop Off. The outer reef is a very different ecosystem that the inner reef. While it has many of the same species of coral, it is dominated by others—especially table coral that grows on a pedestal that raises above other coral, and then forms a table-like structure that covers much of the lower coral and captures much of the sunlight that their algae require. This hospitable algae platform, combined with the bright sunlight tends to produce brighter colors. It was like an “underwater fireworks display”: an amazing range of coral species, one atop the other, with a full palette of dazzling colors. The table coral was among the most dazzling of all. Ranging from several inches to more than ten feet in diameter, of every imaginable color, topped with couple inch-high rounded “pegs”.Although it still has many of the same reef fish as are on the inner reef, they are generally larger fish that have graduated from the nursery. There were, of course, plenty of lovely parrot, butterfly, angel and sergeant fish, each of different species, different shapes and different combinations of colors. There were large, blue starfish, sea ferns, feather coral and all types of anemone. And there were two species (one all black, one grey with yellow splotches) of what were by far the largest sea cucumbers (each over two feet long) we have ever seen. And then there was the greatest prize of all: a four inch Anemone Clown fish (aka, Nemo fish) that was decked out in orange, blue and white (confirm colors) stripes and spots. And these are only the species that we could easily identify. For every one that we identified, there were three or four that we couldn’t.

Overall, one hell of a finale to our Pacific Island exploration tour and to about a month worth of snorkeling trips.

Rock Islands Sunset Kayak and Bioluminescent Bay Snorkeling Tour.

The evening tour, led Rock Island Tour Company, began on a kayak in where we paddled out through Rock Island bay, between two islands where we had an unobstructed view of what turned out to be a lovely sunset. We then paddled into a virtually secluded brackish lake, over some coral into a deeper lake that, like our previous day’s kayak excursion into Kingfish Lake, also contains stingless jellyfish. This trip, however, didn’t provide the opportunity to exit our kayaks and snorkel with the beautiful creatures: Just to view them from above.

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Once we had our fill of viewing jellies, we were off into another secluded bay, accessible via a small, almost indistinguishable entry, into a nearby bay where we boarded a waiting boat and had a small meal while waiting for the sky to darken. We admired the stars and the sliver of moon that provided just a bit of illumination: just enough so that we could kind of see what we were doing, but not enough to interfere with the highlight of the evening and the primary reason for the tour– a chance to snorkel in bioluminescent Malakal Bay. Bioluminescence is a process by which living organisms produce light via a chemical reaction. It is most commonly seen in fireflies and some organisms that live thousands of feet deep in the world’s oceans. A handful of surface marine organisms, such as jellyfish and some forms of algae and bacteria produce such light at various times in their lives, as during a bacteria-induced “red tide”. Malakal, however, is one of only seven year-round bioluminescent bays in the world. The white and green “sparkles” in this bay are produced by microorganisms known as Dinoflagelles as a defense mechanism to deter potential predators, such as fish that stir the waters as they swim by. Since these organisms sensing cells can’t differentiate between dangerous predators and curious humans, they put on free shows for kayakers, swimmers and snorkelers. It was amazing

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Every movement produced an underwater shower of short-persistence (roughly 2-5 seconds apiece), greenish-white sparks. The faster and more vigorously we moved our arms and our legs, the more sparkles they produced. It was rather like waving around sparklers on the Fourth of July. Then, for the coup de grace, we climbed back onto the boat and plunged into the water cannonball-style, producing a virtual explosion of sparks.

­What a great ending to our Palau visit.

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