Palau During the Pandemic - A Trip Report

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Messages
2
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Location
Pennsylvania USA
# of dives
1000 - 2499
My wife and I recently returned from 2 weeks diving in Palau. We went with 7 others from our local dive shop and did a land-based stay with Sam’s Tours. The trip was …interesting… for a number of reasons, but all in all I’d say was well worth it.

We flew United from CLE-SFO-HNL-GUM-ROR, leaving Saturday morning Nov. 7 and arriving in Palau Monday morning shortly after midnight. I Really Hate long flights! Everyone in our group was vaxxed and had arranged at least 2 Covid tests in the 3 days before departure, not knowing how long it would take for results. Everyone passed! On arrival in Koror, before going through Customs and Immigration we had to show our vax cards and proof of Negative Covid test, the got swabbed and had to wait for the results of the arrival test before proceeding to Customs. You get a green wrist-band to show that you’re under ROM (Restriction of Movement) until Day 5 after arrival when you go to the Belau Hospital for another test. They use the Binax NOW rapid test unless you request a PCR test for travel on to Asia. We crashed at Palau Royal Resort. The ROM didn’t really affect us since the hotels and dive operations are all Covid Certified – we had the same staff and crew for everything, we just couldn’t attend large indoor gatherings until after the second test.

Monday late morning saw us checking in at Sam’s Tours. They were efficient and cordial, we were only the second group since Palau re-opened in October. There was one other boat that occasionally went out with day groups, and we saw the Palau Aggressor II and an occasional boat from Fish’n Fins but otherwise we had the ocean to ourselves. We did a nice wall dive Monday to get re-oriented with about an hour-long boat ride to get there. Here’s the rub: 3 days before we left for Palau, Ibedul Yutaka Miller Gibbons, the High Chief of Koror, passed away in Taiwan. All of Koror State was in mourning- he was well beloved and had held the office since 1988. All of the Koror parks and recreation facilities were closed because of this, so all of our dives had to be well south at Peleliu, and the signature sites- Blue Corner, Jelly Fish Lake, the Rock Islands, Helmet Wreck, etc. were off-limits. Our boat driver, Siksei, along with our dive guides Neil and Sean, went out of their way to make sure we still had the best experience. Although we couldn’t stop in the Rock Islands, we took slightly different routes most days and Sean pointed out WWII sites everywhere, from the Japanese Floatplane cave to a couple of Zero wrecks and lots of shore gun emplacements. He and Neil explained the Palauan traditional cave burial customs, flora and fauna and so on. These guys are extremely knowledgeable and very good at explaining things. Color us all VERY impressed! On Tuesday I loaded up 2 video cameras (a GoPro and a knockoff, so I could switch cameras between dives rather than batteries) and proceeded to get lots of memorable footage.

After 2 dives Thursday, we went for a half-day land tour of the Peleliu battle sites. That was very sobering and something that’ll stay with me forever. Friday was the Day 5 Covid test and getting our wrist bands cut off. Woo Hoo! Figure on an hour-long wait in line minimum for the tests, the med staff are very organized and efficient but there’s a lot of people going through it each time. We had the last test 3 days before departure to look forward to as well- although the US is now requiring it 1 day before- it shouldn’t affect travelers as much as the Hospital staff. We also took a day for a Cultural Tour of Palau and again, stayed mostly out of Koror state to see more WWII sites, the Capitol, a couple of Bai or Men’s Houses, traditional structures where the Palau women allow the Chiefs (men) to gather. Palau is traditionally a matriarchal society where the male chiefs are chosen by the women and only rule at their pleasure. We were lucky enough to get an impromptu tour of Biota, a tropical fish aquaculture operation where reef fish are hatched and raised to eliminate fish capture for the aquarium trade. These farm-raised tropicals have a much higher survival rate in aquariums than wild-caught display fish. They also raise hatchlings for Palauan subsistence fishing.



In all we had 12 days of diving, some of the most memorable dives were at the edge of the German Channel just a few feet from the Koror state border. We were treated to Manta Ray flyovers on my birthday and large grey reef sharks “dancing” on their tails at a cleaning station. We asked to go back again and again. We made several dives at Peleliu Wall in different current conditions, one day they took us north of Koror state to Devilfish City where we had a hundred or so spinner dolphins playing in the boat wake and where we got to snorkel with a large group of mantas that may have been doing a courtship dance. Although all the boat rides were around an hour long, the seas were mostly flat and we enjoyed the rides. Between dives we had bento boxes for lunch and plenty of water, Tang, or lemonade. The last dive was at Peleliu Wall again and the highlight was hearing our boat approaching the wall – Siksei had brought another pod of dolphin back with him for us! The day before our flight home we went kayaking with Planet Blue Sea Kayak Tours, again not in Koror state but a short bus ride north to Airai. Ron and Macst were amazing! They had an incredible level of knowledge about the area, pointing out rare birds, bats, and plants. Ron explained his marine lake exploration project which is documenting unseen/untouched marine lakes on many of the uninhabited islands, to establish a baseline for future biological studies. We paddled around a few islands, snorkeled on a couple of very shallow “Jake” floatplane wrecks, and hiked to the Yap stone money quarry, even finding a piece of broken money off the trail. My backup 4k video camera finally flooded during the kayak tour but luckily, I didn’t lose any video.

Some of our favorite restaurants were Kramers, Elilai, the Dropoff and Taj. Breakfasts at Palau Royal were usually a buffet since a big contingent of US Marines were there for part of our stay.

The return flights were again an ordeal- we left Palau Monday the 22d at about 1:30 AM, changed planes in Guam and arrived in Honolulu the evening before we left. We cleared Immigration in Guam, the again in Hawaii along with Customs. The Honolulu airport was setup to prevent transiting passengers from getting mixed with those staying in Hawaii, but after 12 hours in the air and little sleep it was very confusing. We flew to Houston and changed planes for the flight to Cleveland with our longest layover at just under 3 hours. Wouldn’t you know it- after 2 weeks of diving and travel I put the key in the truck’s ignition only to hear (crickets…). Oh well, it was a trip of a lifetime and now I want to go back since Koror opened again for diving just after we left! As they say in Palau, Lak Molub!
 

poseident

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Late to comment, but glad to hear that Palau is still "able to please." I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time there in the 90's/00's but it sounds like things haven't changed too much. Those "were the best times of my life," for sure. It's good to know Ron's still doing his thing (you're right, he's a fantastic guide) and that German Channel is still the best "sleeper" dive there. How were the conditions of the corals when you were outside at Peleliu and around? My last dive there, I think in 2003, was right after a bleaching and it brought tears to my eyes. Luckily Palau seems to "bounce back" fairly rapidly when the temps return to normal.
 

k4kafka

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I would appreciate a newer comment on the conditions on Palau. Anyone…?
 
OP
S
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Location
Pennsylvania USA
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Late to comment, but glad to hear that Palau is still "able to please." I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time there in the 90's/00's but it sounds like things haven't changed too much. Those "were the best times of my life," for sure. It's good to know Ron's still doing his thing (you're right, he's a fantastic guide) and that German Channel is still the best "sleeper" dive there. How were the conditions of the corals when you were outside at Peleliu and around? My last dive there, I think in 2003, was right after a bleaching and it brought tears to my eyes. Luckily Palau seems to "bounce back" fairly rapidly when the temps return to normal.
Poseident- looking back at my videos, there's some hard coral degradation everywhere but nothing as bad as in the Caribbean. I understand that Autralian researchers are studying the Palaun coral for its apparent ability to recover from high temperature bleaching events and there is evidence that these corals are especially hardy. I was impressed with the reef health (at least until I looked at photos I took at Pennekamp in the late 70s that just drive home the fact that the oceans have suffered worldwide) - there was as much color and apparent growth as I've seen anywhere in a few years.
 

poseident

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@Sam - Thanks for the follow-up. That's great to hear. I think that Palau (and everywhere in the region) serve as a great microcosm for studying the larger issue of climate change impacts. It just takes a couple of degrees difference in the water temp to change the balance there. That kicks off the bleaching, which causes shifts in the microfauna, which shifts the megafauna, etc., etc. etc. They are indeed lucky in that recovery seems to happen quickly. We get to see that recovery because what we're talking about driving this cycle are short-term temperature changes in a specific area...and there has been sufficient temperature margin to allow things to be "back into the green" during the cycle back to cooler.

At some point, we'll exhaust that margin. I'm surprised, but happy to hear that we haven't yet.

Glad you enjoyed your time there.
 
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