Palau, April 2022 Trip Report
by Lee Goldman
The reefs and Rock Islands of Palau were as pretty as I have ever seen them. It was also as rainy as I have ever seen them, but that did not stop our group of 11 snorkelers from experiencing all that Palau has to offer. Our tour started onboard the Rock Island Aggressor, where we spent the first six of our 12-day tour snorkeling famous sections of Palau’s barrier reef. Places like Ngedebus Coral Gardens, Turtle Cove, German Channel, Blue Holes, and Big Drop-off gave us the chance to appreciate two things; the depth on the ocean side of a well-formed barrier reef and, the diversity and abundance of marine life that can be found along the edges of barrier reefs.
Palau is well-known for its diversity of butterflyfish and after our first day of snorkeling we saw 20 species, well over half the total known species from Palau! With a pleasant drift along Big Drop-off we snorkeled over shallow, healthy reef flats on our right and 300-ft drop-offs to our left. Not only did we have a parade of tropical fish in all directions, including the ever-present schools of pyramid butterflyfishes and red-tooth triggerfishes, but we also saw all three common species of shark (blacktip, whitetip, and gray reef), a giant Napoleon wrasse, and too many hawksbill turtles to count. On one of our snorkels, we had two small lemon sharks swim by us a couple of times! It was cool to see them after not seeing them for well over a dozen years.
Our last stop along the barrier reef was to the west and a place called Ulong Island. A significant channel carved into the western-facing barrier reef, Ulong Channel still has some of the most luxurious stands of blue (photographs as purple) staghorn corals in all the western Pacific. Visibility was easily 80 feet and with a very welcome bit of sunshine, we could easily see across the channel to see dense schools of black snapper and horse-eye jacks hover effortlessly in the gentle current, and to the bottom where groupers were marking their territories amongst the sand/rubble substrate. Along the shallow edges, colorful corals make-up nearly 100% of the surface, each with its own assemblage of tropical fish that dwell amongst the branches.
Moving inside the lagoon, our first stop was an early morning visit to Jellyfish Lake. I was a bit concerned about the experience given the amount of rain we’ve been having and continued to have, but it was as magical of an experience as it always was. The lack of sun caused a more uniform distribution in the brighter sections of the lake and the mesmerizing movements of the moon and golden jellies captured our attention for well over two hours. We spent our final morning with the Aggressor exploring some of the shallow coral gardens around German Lighthouse. In the evening, we had a fantastic dinner at Kraemer’s Café, the food is so good there…
The second phase of the tour took place from the more-than-comfortable accommodations at Palau Pacific Resort. From the resort, we easily accessed the Rock Island playgrounds in Nikko and Risong Bay, as well as snorkeling sites near Giant Clam City and the Milky Way. Nikko Bay is full of spectacular examples of both natural and World War II history. Caves, some we hike in, some we snorkel in and some we see by boat exist in the network of limestone islands and one in particular is a perfect collapsed cave, large enough to have a fully developed jungle where sunshine reaches the floor. There are also several Japanese soldier encampments still hidden amongst the dense jungle, and for the few of us that hiked on the sharp limestone rocks, we got to see up close and personal.
The snorkeling, however, is really what it’s all about and we got to explore several different types of lagoon habitats including marine lakes, shallow coral gardens, narrow passages, hidden bays, protected and sheltered reefs. Places like Cemetary reef (which I timed to have all to us) and Soft Coral Arch are as pretty as ever. Actually, I think Cemetary Reef was the best I have ever seen it. Mandarinfish Lake was very productive, I guess I do owe something to the ever-present rain/clouds. Mandarinfish prefer to come out at sunset, thus the cloudy days ‘tricked’ the mandarifish to coming out early. We saw them on just about every snorkel site within Nikko and Risong Bay! Other snorkels included fringing reefs emanating from limestone islands, shallow shipwrecks, and a snorkel through a 20-ft tunnel into a remarkable and colorful marine lake.
Palau is an amazing destination, and we cannot wait to re-visit the wonderful Rock Islands in 2024. Our new approach will be back-to-back charters of the Rock Island Aggressor, but for a single group of guests staying for the entire 13-days.