Hundreds of sharks, scores of World War 2 wrecks, jawdropping underwater seascapes – everything about diving in Palau is epic. Tim Rock reflects on diving Palau for over three decades and why he keeps going back
Diving Palau – Dive Happy Episode 7 Show Notes
- Tim Rock and Simon Pridmore:
Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Palau and Yap
Buy online at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Blurb.com
- See Douglas Faulkner’s work on his official website
- See Kevin Davidson’s work on his official website
- See Tony Wu’s article on spawning bumphead parrot fish and his article on snapper spawning
- Buy Klaus Lindemann’s book on the history of Palau’s wrecks, Desecrate 1, on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
- Buy Klaus Lindemann’s book, Hailstorm Over Truk Lagoon, on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
Palau Resorts And Liveaboards Mentioned
Dive Happy Palau Trip Reports
- Palau Diving: Size Does Matter
- Palau Liveaboard Part 1
- Palau Liveaboard Part 2
- Palau Liveaboard Part 3
Diving Palau – Dive Happy Episode 7 Summary
The Smorgasbord of Diving that is Palau.
Palau offers just about everything that a diver can want. It’s got shipwrecks, deep drop offs, an immense variety of marine life, and a very rich culture. It is absolutely stunningly beautiful and provides easy, convenient access to incredible macro photography. Divers are able to just walk in off the docks and capture the most amazing macro scenery. The night dives are also fabulous with the big baskets stars coming out in the sky. Palau is the smorgasbord of diving; divers can pick what you want to do and spend a week doing only that.
Palau Has Maintained Its’ Greatness Through the Years.
When diving first started in Palau, divers had the opportunity to go out each day and find a new dive site by doing some diving in the rock islands. At that time there were maybe a dozen established dive sites, the big drop off, and a few shipwrecks. Today Palau is a highly developed dive industry. There are hundreds of divers visiting Palau each day during peak season. Despite it’s popularity, Palau still seems to have maintained its’ greatness. The marine life and the attractions are all still there, it is still just a really special place to go that is always exciting with a lot of high energy diving.
Blue Corner Dive Site Brings Tides of Change.
Blue Corner is an iconic dive site in Palau. It is a large plateau which has a big steep drop off all around it, creating a sloping wall on one side. Divers hover over it, and depending on the direction of the current, different kinds of fish are brought in every time the direction changes. Sometimes there are huge schools of barracuda that come in, and other times a resident school at Jacks, a big school of snappers, and there are also the great reef sharks who are always coursing around eagle rays. Again, depending on what the current is doing, divers either drift back in towards the reef or get carried out into the blue, both of which can produce exciting marine encounters.
The German Channel, Turned Home To Manta Rays.
In the early days, they did not actually dive the German Channel. It was considered a spillway to get to some of the better dives like Turtle Cove and Barnum Wall, as well as the Big Drop Off which was actually the popular one at the time. What’s known as the German Channel is actually something that was put in during the time when Palau was occupied by German. The occupants blew a narrow channel so boats could pass through and would not have to make the big passage around the reef, it’s a fairly shallow way from the inner lagoon to the outer lagoon. Manta rays are in the lagoon and sometimes when the tide changes, they come to feed on the nutrients that are brought in from the incoming tide.
The Island of Peleliu Brings a Rich History to Diving.
Palau is made up of 700 rock islands, and at the end of the rock islands. The island of Peleliu is a mostly flat with a limestone ridge in the middle, famous for being a World War II battle ground. It was the scene of a three month long battle and there was intense fighting there. It also is the home of some salt water crocodiles, which attracts many divers. It is a really beautiful, rugged island with no more than 800 or 900 people living on it, surrounded by open ocean all the way around. Peleliu features beautiful walls and some incredible drift dives that divers can do at a place like Yellow Wall, which is entirely covered in yellow soft corals and with beautiful arches that you can swim through that are just totally golden colored from the yellow soft corals.
The Full Moon Dive of Peleliu.
Peleliu continues to really produce a lot and now divers have discovered the full moon dive. At the full moon, snapper fish come out to spawn drawing all kinds of other fish in who feed on the spawn. Even bull sharks that normally live much deeper, will come up to the surface. Divers from around the world come up to see these immense bull sharks that cruise around, looking for some kind of action. This all takes place in the early morning. Divers go down the Peleliu in the dark and as the sun is coming up, all the actions starts taking place. It is a stunning dive. Recently they have also discovered a bumphead parrotfish that spawning dive. So the more they learn about the ocean, the more special it becomes, and Peleliu is one of the places where that is featured.
The Waters of Palau Are Abundant With Shipwrecks.
One of the favorite wrecks is one called Iro, a big upright, five hold freighter. It was struck by a torpedo at open sea and towed in to the anchorage where it sits now. It then sunk later while it was sitting at rest, while it was waiting for that part of the bow to be repaired. So divers can actually swim through that big hole in about a hundred feet and it’s all adorned with big trees and soft coral. Another beautiful shipwreck can be found in the clear water heading up north, past the bridge. Visibility is really prime for photography and there are always resident schools of barracuda swimming around. The Jake float plane is another site popular among divers. It makes for a great underwater photo prop, and it is not too far from the Palau Pacific Resort. The plane is still well intact, including the engine and the floats, the tail, and the wings.
Stewarding the Environment is Paramount to Palaun’s.
Palau is a hundred miles long and maybe 20 to 30 miles wide in some places for the entire archipelago with an absolutely immense inner lagoon that’s a breeding area for all kinds of fish and so it is not an easy place to patrol. The Palauan’s have taken this conservation and being stewards of their environment quite seriously and they’ve been very upfront of going to the United Nations and announcing what they do. They’ve hired more than a hundred game rangers and marine preserved rangers to make sure that everybody is following the rules. They promote and are very proud of their marine environment. They make sure that everything gets nipped in the bud and that their ocean stays as pretty as diverse as it is
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Diving Palau – Dive Happy Episode 7 Transcript
[0:00:06.7] CM: Hello and welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about the best places to go scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host Chris Mitchell and my guest for this episode is the eternally bubbly Tim Rock, veteran under water photographer and author of the Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Palau and Yap which was recently updated and republished in March 2016.
[0:00:28.1] TR: Hi Chris, glad to be back.
[0:00:30.4] CM: So Tim, you have a very long history with Palau because you’ve been diving there for over 34 years. Can you tell us a bit about why Palau has such an obvious hold on you and why you keep going back?
[0:00:45.4] TR: It’s kind of one of those places, first I lived in Guam so it’s close, it’s only two hours away. I like to take advantage of what most people in the world don’t have is the world’s best diving just really close by, but what Palau offers is just about everything that a diver can want. It’s got shipwrecks, it’s got deep drop offs, it’s got other big different kinds of fish action and the culture is very rich.
The place is absolutely stunningly beautiful and also there’s some nice macro photography that’s very convenient, you can just walk in off some dive shop’s docks and do your macro stuff and so the night dives are pretty cool, the big baskets stars coming out. Really Palau is kind of like the smorgasbord of diving, you can just pick what you want to do and spend a week doing that basically.
[0:01:45.6] CM: Right. When you first got there 34 years ago, Palau like you say is now like a universally famed destination but 34 years ago, was that the case?
[0:01:57.2] TR: No, it was just something that was just getting on the map and that was largely through the efforts of a guy named Douglas Faulkner who had been sent there by National Geographic to do a story on the diversity of the corals and he was so taken by what he saw that he kept on extending, asking National Geographic to extend his deadline, and extend his deadline and I don’t think he actually ever really finished the story when they wanted him to.
He wound up moving to Palau, having a boat shipped there and stay in there for absolutely years living in a little tin shack on Lebu road and going out and diving every day and exploring and taking pictures and he produced a couple of the first really in depth, hard cover coffee table type books about the pacific and about the oceans in Micronesia and seeing his work was part of what actually made me move from the United States and get a job in Guam so I could be close to Palau and be able to visit the place which I thought would probably be like easy to get to on the weekends and it actually was.
I made many good friends down there but it really wasn’t like what it is today, which is a highly developed dive industry. There were I’d say close to like two and a half dive shops. There was the Carp Dive Center and Francis Toribiong had just started Fish n Fins and then there was kind of a little part time operation by Bena Sakuma and that was pretty much it.
Every day you kind of went out and there were maybe a dozen established dive sites, the big drop off was the big popular place and they knew a shipwreck or two and that was pretty much it. They did some diving in the rock islands that were kind of drift dives and so every day you had the opportunity to go out and basically find a new dive site and Francis was really into that kind of thing.
He was just an absolute, wonderful guy to dive with, great personality and superb diver and that’s probably why he’s in the diving hall of fame right now is one that only three Micronesians that are actually in there. We’d go out, we’d look for new spots to jump in and sometimes he’d wait for us to show up and tell us that he and his dive guys had found a new spot and that’s kind of what happened with Blue Corner.
He said, “I’ve got to show you this place, we don’t quite understand it yet but it’s down from the blue holes and there’s a lot of sharks,” and he threw us in the water and sharks everywhere and he had a scooter and he’d go up and down. It was a big old thing that had something like five car batteries that ran the thing and he’d go up and down the Blue Corner with that and the sharks would hear the high pitched wale of the scooter and he’d have like a hundred sharks following behind him because they thought that maybe there was a wounded fish or something. They couldn’t figure out what he was and we’re all going, “Oh my god,” and then he’d turn around and go through all the sharks and it was pretty amazing really what we would do back then.
[0:05:26.5] CM: Wow. So to actually be there as Blue Corner was discovered, that’s pretty incredible because now that’s considered — well that’s always in the sort of top 10 dive sites of the world, isn’t it?
[0:05:38.1] TR: Yes, what’s really great is it seems to have maintained its greatness even with the fact that now hundreds of divers a day visit it when it’s in the season there. The marine life and the attractions are all still there, it’s still just a really special place to go, very exciting with a lot of high energy diving.
[0:06:00.0] CM: Yeah, the blue corner is effectively, it’s a large plateau on the top of, which has got a big steep drop off all around it, that would be about right wouldn’t it?
[0:06:09.6] TR: Yes, I’d say so.
[0:06:11.2] CM: So that’s how the sharks come in?
[0:06:12.8] TR: You fly over it or kind of hover over it, it’s kind of a wall with a slope on one said on kind of the north west side and then it kind of comes out to a point which is where they get the corner part. Then tucks back in to kind of a little cover or a bay on the other side. So depending on what’s happening with the current, the current goes either east to west or west to east, depending on if it’s incoming or outgoing.
That brings a different kinds of fish in every time that happens, so sometimes a huge school of barracuda will come in, there is a resident school at Jacks, big school of snappers and there’s a great reef shark’s always coursing around eagle rays and just depending on what the current is doing, you either drift back in towards the reef or you kind of get carried out into the blue as you’re finishing your dive and both of those can produce really a lot of exciting marine encounters.
[0:07:10.8] CM: Sure, it’s kind of standard procedure Blue Corner now though. A group will go down and will basically just use reef hooks to hook in and essentially just bob around and wait to see the show that comes up. Is that how you like to dive it as well? Or do you prefer it to be mobile all the time and just go where the current takes you?
[0:07:29.3] TR: Yeah, I am more of a mobile current guy. Kevin Davidson who was a photographer with Sam’s for many years and now he’s a boat captain that actually travels around the world on a private yacht, but he’s the one that came up with the reef hook idea because people were hanging on and they were worried about coral breaking and that sort of thing.
So he decided to develop his hook and he tried it one day and hooked it on to his BC and found out that if you just slightly inflate your BC to make you just slightly positive and the hook is secured into a rock or a cranny on the reef that you can just kind of hang there and just watch the parade of fish go by because that’s really what happens once you get out to the corner, there’s just all kinds of — there’s predation going on, there’s fish schools swimming by, you just never know what’s going to happen.
So you can stay in that spot without having to grip the coral or hang on for dear life and just kind of let the ocean give you a kind of a free pass for effort and just watch what’s going on. Blue Corner is always interesting. Many years ago when I used to have a television show called Aqua Quest Micronesia. The crew went out there to shoot just one dive, one morning and the conditions were just so nice, it was calm and the water was super clear that we wound up staying the entire day and making four dives out there and at the end of the day, we started a group called BCA, which is Blue Corner Anonymous and it is for people who just can’t stop diving Blue Corner and I guess I’m in that category.
[0:09:21.4] CM: Right. But Blue Corner is not the only iconic dive site in Palau, German Channel is also one that comes up a lot of the time as well. Can you explain a bit more about what that is and why it’s so popular with divers?
[0:09:35.3] TR: Yeah, German Channel in the early days, they didn’t actually dive German Channel. It was just kind of considered a spillway to get to some of the better dives like Turtle Cove and Barnum Wall and also the Big Drop Off which was actually the popular one at the time and so what we started to do was look into the possibility of a drift dive and because we thought manta rays used to go in and out of the channel.
What’s known as the German Channel is actually something that was put in during the German time when Palau was occupied I think in more years. They blew kind of a narrow channel so boats could pass so they wouldn’t have to make the big passage around the reef, it’s a fairly shallow way from the inner lagoon to the outer lagoon and the manta rays are in the lagoon and sometimes when the tide changes, they come to feed on the nutrients that are brought in from the incoming tide.
So we used to think, “Well, maybe if we just drift down this channel, we’ll see sharks and manta rays,” and that was true. That worked out pretty well actually and then it opens up into some coral gardens and we start to think, “Well, maybe this is where the dive will end in the coral gardens, or else we can go from the coral gardens into the channel itself.” One time we got carried past the coral gardens and found out that there was like a manta cleaning station and kind of a drop off that drops off into a huge shelf that opens up into that entire bay area in between the Turtle Cove Island and over to Ngemelis where Big Drop Off is.
That’s where we started seeing marlin and sail fish and the mantas come in the cleaning stations and a lot more turtles and then we found out that there was a spot there in that deeper water where the mantas fed in the shallows along with a whole bunch of fusiliers and snappers. Kind of like very dive and every time we tried something new over there, it just got better and better. Now it’s one of the showcase spots for Palau, I think that you pretty much have to dive Blue Corner and German Channel if you’re going to do the check list for “I Dive Palau” type thing.
[0:12:05.9] CM: Yeah, for sure, it’s almost kind of obviously nothing is guaranteed but it is almost kind of a guaranteed manta spotting dive site isn’t it? More is likely than not if you’re with a dive school that know what they’re doing, they’re going to put you in there at the time when the mantas are probably going to be around.
[0:12:21.4] TR: Yeah, that’s usually the hope and then the incoming tide brings other things in, reef sharks are quite common and there’s a lot of black tips in there, you can be like floating, doing your safety stop and then come up and look for the boat and you look over and a shark fin swims by. It’s like something out of one of those abandoned movies, you know? Survivor movies or something.
[0:12:49.6] CM: Yes, because that’s one of Palau’s…
[0:12:53.1] TR: But they’re not really interested in you Yeah, I was going to say, back in the old days, Peleliu corner was actually the big hot spot too and it’s always been a rather tricky dive and it’s a lot further away but it was my actual first dive in Palau and they threw us into the water, we drifted along the wall for about two minutes and then we absolutely got engulfed in the biggest school of fish I have ever seen before or since.
Maybe it was just because I was a new diver I thought it was big, but we were — you couldn’t see the sun. We were just engulfed and then sharks started coming in and out of the fish school and so the school would break up and we’d have sharks swimming right at us. By the time we saw soft corals and big sea fans and by the time we got out of the water we went, “Well, we’ve seen it all, we can get on the plane and go back now.”
It’s still one of the best dives I have ever done. That place continues to really produce a lot too, Peleliu, and now they’ve discovered, they call it “full moon dive” and at the full moon, the snapper come out to spawn I believe and because of that, all kinds of other fish show up to eat the spawn and then bull sharks, which normally lives much deeper, maybe 300 feet or show, they come up.
Divers come up to see this immense bull sharks that kind of cruise around, looking for some kind of action and this is all an early morning — you go down, actually you go down the Peleliu in the dark and as the sun is coming up, all this actions starts taking place and it’s a pretty stunning dive. They’ve got a couple like that now too, they also have a bumphead parrotfish that spawning dive. So the more they learn about the ocean, the more special that that becomes and Peleliu is one of the places where that’s featured.
[0:14:48.6] CM: Right. I think it was Tony Wu who took some really great photos of this spawning event, thinking that this is a couple of years ago? I don’t know if he was the first to do it but it’s the first place I saw it.
[0:14:59.2] TR: Yeah, Sam’s actually has a pair of guys and a pair of specialists, a biologist and a videographer, that had gotten some great shots. Tony, he just does wonderful work and he’s always so involved in the ocean and what’s going on with it and the work he does in Tonga with the humpback whales has just been stellar and yeah he was down there and really did bring home some beautiful shots that everyone went, “Wow, we’ve got to go try that dive.”
[0:15:29.0] CM: Yeah, as interesting as it about, Peleliu because Peleliu is a separate island. Palau is made up of about 500 islands right? Peleliu is one of them, one of the biggest ones.
[0:15:40.2] TR: I think there’s 700 rock islands but at the end of what they call the rock islands, there’s a big channel and then Peleliu is a mostly flat island but it has kind of a ridge in the middle, limestone ridge, big dragon back that goes along and it’s more kind of famous as a World War II battle ground. It was the scene of — it was supposed to be taken in two days and it took almost three months and there was intense fighting there.
It also is the home of some salt water crocodiles. So that always gets people’s attention too but it’s really kind of a beautiful, rugged island with I don’t think it has more than 800 or 900 people on it and then the southernmost island is just south of Peleliu. So it’s pretty much open ocean all the way around Peleliu.
[0:16:35.3] CM: Right.
[0:16:36.4] TR: Anguar is the southernmost one and it’s got pretty deep water around it and so people don’t dive Anguar so much but Peleliu has still some nice walls and some incredible drift dives that you can do at a place like Yellow Wall, which is just entirely covered in yellow soft corals and there’s beautiful arches that you can just swim through that are just totally golden colored from the yellow soft corals and then drift down to the Peleliu tip too.
[0:17:08.6] CM: Fantastic. There’s sort of a recurring word that comes up when describing Palau dive sites and that’s just big basically, or epic. It really is like being in a fish bowl and also the visibility tends to be so good most of the time so that you really can, for example on Blue Corner, you can see the plateau stretched out all around you for 30, 40 meters. Which kind of gives you the feeling of an underwater mountain range a lot of the time. Would you say that’s fair in terms of its sense of scope compared to other places to dive?
[0:17:40.4] TR: Oh yeah. That’s what’s so special about it. Like at New Drop Off, there is like three points that go out like that and each point seems to have some different kind of marine life and then Blue Corner you can go from the holes all the way out to the point and there’s three different types of terrain there.
I guess one of my favorite pictures is speaking to Kevin Davidson is he actually put on some skis and got some ski poles and went to one of the sandy areas right at the drop off so it look like he was starting at the top of the mountain and skiing down and took some underwater pictures with ski equipment on. Did a little poster called “Ski Palau”. Also dit it with a mountain bike too. So yeah, your depiction of the place being kind of mountainous and beautiful under water is really true.
[0:18:31.4] CM: Okay, just jumping back to Peleliu. That was one of the things that, because it’s again sort of a standard in a liveaboard itinerary that you can go ashore on the island and it’s quite moving because there is, as you said, I was reading about it before, we were talking and Wikipedia describes it as “the bitterest battle of the war for the US marines” and there’s a very large war cemetery there and I seem to remember a museum and also there’s a crashed zero fighter in the forest that you can still go and see, is that correct?
[0:19:05.1] TR: No, I believe the crashed plane is down on Anguar.
[0:19:09.0] CM: Oh okay.
[0:19:09.7] TR: But yeah, there is an area of old amtracks and I was there one time when there was a drought and we were staying at a friend’s house and we were trying to get somebody to take us up into the jungle to see some of the battle areas. They said, “Oh no, we can’t do that because the drought has caused some fires and that’s creating explosions,” and we went, “Oh really? There’s that much ammunition and stuff still left over from the war?” And sure enough a couple of hours later, a wild fire started and the hills just erupted in all kinds of explosions and…
[0:19:48.2] CM: Oh man.
[0:19:51.0] TR: Because there’s still grenades and mortars and everything around there.
[0:19:52.8] CM: Sure. No one’s going to go and recover it.
[0:19:56.5] TR: So we went, “Yeah, I think maybe we better wait and the fire’s calm down before we go up into the hills.” A few years later I was working as a news man and they had the 40th anniversary of the battle of Peleliu and they brought the USS Peleliu to the island and they had three marines that had been in battle there, two of which were wounded and carried out. One army guy who was in charge of cleaning the island up after the island was taken and a navy guy who had worked on the ships off shore, and they all told us what the battle was like and they were tough hold, grizzled guys.
One guy really did look like John Wayne and he talked like John Wayne and smoke Marlboros like John Wayne and he’d gotten shut up pretty badly. It was very intense battles that the marines went through in order to get the island. Then afterwards, the Japanese had a huge series of caves on the island. The army had to go through with flame throwers and basically put the flame throwers into the cave, kind of suck out all of the oxygen and doing that an then sealed the cave and that basically killed the remaining troops that were hiding up in there.
They actually didn’t go into the caves to fight them because it was too dangerous, so they just opted for that option. It took until — the battles initially started in September ’44 and I think it was 1945, about April, when they said everything was secure and the army guy was saying that only his unit was left. They were within a few days of leaving the island, when they looked up and they saw what looked like a Palauan war canoe coming. They thought that that was really odd and then they took a closer look and it wasn’t islanders in the canoe.
What was in it was some Japanese and apparently the Japanese had been up in Coror and escaped there and found this canoe and thought that Anguar and Peleliu were still under Japanese control. When they closer they realize that there were Americans on the beach and so they jumped out of the canoe, fired a bunch of shots at the Americans and the Americans ran into the jungle and ducked and the Japanese ran the other way and ducked and ran off, and the Americans went, “Oh no, here we go again.” It took them two more weeks to hunt down that group and secure the island again.
[0:22:36.8] CM: Yeah, it’s just incredible, isn’t it? This was when you start to sort of learn a little bit about the history of the fight and that, particularly in this island, you’d sort of really start to understand just how intense the fighting was across the pacific and it was just every inch of ground was just fought over. Nothing was conceded easily.
[0:22:56.4] TR: Yeah, the sacrifices these guys made, I’m a Vietnam veteran and so I was asking them how long their tours were, not realizing that pretty much all of them had started at Guadalcanal and just kept on fighting until the war was over. They all looked at each other and they said, “You know, well our tours went until you got shot.” So the sacrifices that these men made, yeah, it’s really inspiring as an American to have seen how these people put their lives on the line pretty much daily for years at a time to try to end the war.
[0:23:35.4] CM: Absolutely. There’s another legacy of World War II in Palau, which for divers is, well, it’s basically made a mecca and that’s all of the World War II era shipwrecks around the area, which I believe you were involved in, again,the discovery of the direct to begin with?
[0:23:53.5] TR: Yeah, I was fortunate enough, Francis Toribiong and I, the guy that founded Fish ’n Fins had an interest in the wrecks and we’ve been diving a few of them. All of a sudden, Klaus Lindemann who wrote a Hailstorm over Truk Lagoon showed up in Palau and started talking to Francis and Francis said, “Tim, you’ve got to come down here, we need a photographer to document this. This guy is the one that actually knows his stuff.”
Other guys had shown up and claimed to be experts in Francis had tried to work with them and they really didn’t know what they were doing and then all of a sudden this guy shows up and he’s got a hail storm book and all this research from archives from Japan and just tons of knowledge and we went, “Wow, yeah we’ve got to work with Klaus. He’s the guy that knows it and he’s very dedicated to this,” and it formed an amazing friendship.
We’d go out for — Klaus worked in Jakarta for BASF and so he was able to get to Palau fairly easily, it was fairly close and he’d get a couple of weeks off and spend that time every day, we’d go out and dive four or five shipwrecks if we could and see with his research if we could find some new ones and it was kind of tricky because most of the ships were kind of in anchorages that are sitting back in the rock islands, they would sit back in there for camouflage and also for protection from waves.
Most of the ships sunk in the Rock Islands where the visibility isn’t so great. It wasn’t like you could swim or go along and see like the outline of a ship on the bottom or something like that. You actually had to take, what we had was a fish finder and if something kind of popped up red that kind of look like a fish school but it was in the Rock Islands, one of us would jump in or we had another guy named Ferman Gabriel that was with us.
He was a really good freediver and he’d go down and check it out and if it looked shallow enough and about 90% of the time, it turned out that within the Rock Islands, they’re like big rocks that are just totally covered in big patches and almost forests of black coral. These would show up red and look like a shipwreck. We started calling these things Ferman’s Phantoms because poor old Ferman would come back up and go, “Oh, no, not a wreck, black coral.”
So we did this for a few years, I shot a documentary about it and Klaus eventually came up with the book Desecrate 1, which documents all the wrecks and so he really put a lot of time and effort into it and we found probably a dozen new wrecks in that period but some of them were just absolutely stunning, they hadn’t been touched since the war. There’s one called the Chuyo, which is oddly enough, very close to the main channel that you go back through from diving every day and nobody even knew the thing was there.
We just happen to go over it and see a blip of red on our way back one night, heading back in from a day of diving and went, “What was that?” And turned around and went over it and went, “It really is a wreck,” and so Francis went down and he didn’t come up for a long time and we knew we had a shipwreck.
When you would go inside there, we went back like often to the officer’s quarters and Francis found just like a phonograph records just stacked up next to a phonograph just like the officer had walked out of the place and was going to come back and listen to a little music that night and it was kind of like that for quite a few of the wrecks, they really hadn’t been touched. So it was like going to an old house that had just been abandoned for some reason.
[0:27:48.6] CM: Wow. I have a copy of Desecrate 1, it’s a very large format paperback books, it had a lot of photos in there. Were you able to get shots of a lot of this stuff? Was the visibility good enough to capture the sense of intactness of the boats? The interiors? Or was it a bit too tricky visibility wise.
[0:28:06.7] TR: No, it was okay and actually, once you kind of got down on the wreck and especially on the side if you took a lot of them were very silty because they’re inside the Rock Islands so you had to really take care not to stir anything up. But if you kind of moved around in there like a ghost, you could get some very nice shots and this is back in the film days so I had an Nikonos 15 I think — 15mm lens and old blue strobe, I don’t remember the name of it.
That’s pretty much what we used to shoot back then and it was a very sharp lens. So yeah, we were able to get it — you couldn’t get a lot of the really cool overall shipwreck shots, you had to like decide whether you’re going to shoot the bow or the stern or somewhere in the middle. But a lot of the wrecks were really fascinating and over grown differently than Truk.
So maybe not overall quite as pretty because it didn’t have a lot of the soft corals, but a lot of different kinds of razor clams and oysters and big soft coral trees and some red gorgonians. In their own way, they’re really kind of pretty and have a really nice ecosystem. And actually, people don’t realize it but there’s more shipwrecks in Palau than there are in Truk, although a few of them were totally salvaged.
[0:29:36.0] CM: Right, I was just about to ask you, are there particular wrecks that you still like to go back to in Palau? Or are you kind of sort of, are you kind of over it because you’ve dived in a lot.
[0:29:45.9] TR: This February, I dived on one that they just found.
[0:29:51.1] CM: Awesome.
[0:29:52.6] TR: I’d like to go back and have another look at that one again. But yeah, it’s been 72 years underwater and I think Noah was doing a survey and then one of the fellas from the PICRC from the marine research center in Palau told Francis that he’d seen this and I think both of them at one time went out to take a look at the wreck. So maybe by the time I got on it there had been four or five people on the wreck but that was about it.
But it was a little coastal freighter and it’s all overgrown with the sea fans and it sits in the northern part of Palau off of Babelthuap in one of the channels. It’s fairly well broken up in the middle so you can see the damage and then little bit deeper than most wrecks but I featured that in the updated version of the Diving Guide. It was called a Patrol Boat CH 36 and what was interesting about that was that a producer from a television station in Japan did a little bit of research when he heard initially about the finding of this wreck and he was able to find one of the sons of the ship’s captain.
The ship’s captain was a guy named, a 37 year old Aigie Kato and he and three other officers died, there was a total crew of 11 and he’d never really known the demise of his father and now he was of course in his 60’s. So he went out to the wreck site, lady named Yoko Hikeshide went down on the wreck and placed and offering for him on the wreck and took a line down and tied it to it and he was holding the line so when she had it tied to the wreck then she tugged on it and he could feel that he was touching the grave site of his father. It was kind of a special moment not too long after the finding of that wreck that he was able to actually find out the final resting place of his father and give tribute to it.
[0:32:03.0] CM: Yeah, that’s great they managed to be able to do that. With the wrecks, is there any, like a sort of top three that you would recommend to someone to come in to Palau that they should see or?
[0:32:14.1] TR: I’ve always liked, there’s a wreck called Iro, it’s a big upright freighter, five hold freighter. The last time I was on it, which isn’t too long ago, it had a big school of the big eyed jacks on it too which was a new development. It’s got some very odd king pose and they’re all adorned and coral is upright, you can get inside the engine room and look at it. It’s got a big crescent out of the bow and I think a lot of people assume that that is where it was hit but it was actually struck by a torpedo at open sea and towed in to the anchorage where it sits now.
Then it sunk later and when while it was sitting at rest, while it was waiting for that part of the bow to be repaired so you can actually swim through that big hole in about a hundred feet and it’s all adorned and big trees and soft coral and then the bow gun is still intact and all covered in corals so it’s very beautiful, lots of small fish around it and you can just go into the bridge and look at the stuff that’s still left inside the bridge too. That’s one that most divers appreciate.
It’s not overly deep and maybe 30 meters, a hundred feet or so at the very deepest part. And then there’s another one out in clear water that’s a really pretty shipwreck that’s kind of heading up north past the bridge and I like that one too because it’s all the tissue maroon, it’s in Clearwater and sits on a side and so visibility is really prime for photography. There’s always a resident school of barracuda swimming around, it’s got really nice coral and it’s just kind of a fun dive and usually don’t encounter bad visibility out there or many currents. So it’s an easy dive for most folks and it too is only about 25 meters, 70, 80 feet, something like that.
Those are a couple, and then there’s a thing called the Jake float plane which everybody gets a kick out of. It makes for a great underwater photo prop, it’s not too far from the Palau pacific resort, so it’s a really short boat ride from the dive shop and there’s coral kind of around it, after you get tired of taking pictures of the plane, there’s still some nice coral gardens that you can go look at. The plane’s still pretty much intact with an engine and the float hanging on one side and tail, the wings, everything. It makes a really nice prop for underwater photography.
[0:34:54.0] CM: Yeah, that sounds fantastic. Just to sort of wrap up, the other thing that is great about Palau like you were saying earlier about Blue Corner and how it’s still kind of as good as it always has been here throughout all the three decades plus that you’ve been going back there. Palau, I think it was about five years ago now, declared themselves as the whole country is a shark sanctuary, didn’t they? Where they basically put protection for the sharks. Do you think that’s been working? Have you seen the shark population being increased or?
[0:35:24.5] TR: Well, I believe it has, yeah. I believe there really wasn’t much fishing in and around the reefs but I believe they decided to designate that just to protect the northern and that doesn’t see so many dive boats and has had a problem with foreign vessels coming in and poaching. So just declaring the whole area a sanctuary has really helped and they’ve done other things too.
There’s a traditional way of doing conservation called “bul”. It comes from the traditional chiefs who still have a very heavy hand in the law making there. A chief will put a “bul” on some place like in German Channel or there’s another one of the channels that is quite popular and there are grouper spawning areas and so what that does, what that protects is all the groupers that are in the area, nobody can go fishing there and Palau has been really good about getting rangers to come out and — Ulong Channel. Sorry, that’s the one I’m thinking off.
[0:36:40.3] CM: Ah yes, that’s right.
[0:36:41.7] TR: Ulong is one of the major channels for the grouper spawning. So if they do a traditional bul there then it goes into effect and they’ve done that a lot all over the entire archipelago. I’m not sure if people realize Palau’s immensity but it’s a hundred miles long and maybe 20 to 30 miles wide in some places for the entire archipelago with an absolutely immense inner lagoon that’s a breeding area for all kinds of fish and so it is not an easy place to patrol.
The Palauan’s have taken this conservation and their environment, being stewards of their environment quite seriously and they’ve been very upfront of going to the United Nations and announcing what they do. They’ve hired more than a hundred game rangers and marine preserved rangers to make sure that everybody’s playing by the rules. Compare that to some place like where I live here in Guam, we’ve only got four rangers for five marine preserves, we don’t take it too seriously.
But Palau is all in and what’s really wonderful about it is it seems the great majority of the population there is all in too. They promote and are very proud of their marine environment. If something goes wrong with it, they’d get upset and you go down and visit Palau and say, how is it going? They’ll go, I think there’s sewage going in and they’ve really got a crackdown on this or that. The kind of environmental conversations that you don’t’ find most places. They make sure that everything gets nipped in the bud and that their ocean stays as pretty as diverse as it is.
[0:38:29.1] CM: That’s very progressive and obviously for Palau, the tourism industry is very important, this is a kind of a virtual circle because it’s going to attract more tourists I would assume.
[0:38:38.1] TR: It really is and sat down and made a conscious decision about this. They said, “Well, should we embrace fishing, is this something that’s going to help our people and help our economy? I know it’s part of our background and all that.” So they really looked at the numbers and they looked at the sustainability and they decided, “Well commercial fishing really isn’t something that has a long term place in Palau.” So there’s no commercial fishing within the Palaun waters now too, about a year or so ago. They are all in on the tourism and protecting their environment and having people come see what a fantastic place they have.
[0:39:21.6] TR: Sure. The other thing as well is that Palau is essentially sort of just below the Philippines and just above Indonesia. Given that it’s — I’m reading here from Wikipedia, Palau is a presidential republic in free association with the United States. Is it easy to get to Palau from the States? Can you get a direct flight into Palau or do you still have to via Manila? It kind of depends on where you’re coming from but I think if you come from Europe, you fly from Manila.
Palau is getting more and more flights in. It used to be people had to fly from the states to Hawaii, Guam and then down to Palau. Now you can fly Tokyo, Palau direct. There is a lot of direct flights and a lot of airlines that are flying in also the same with Taiwan, you can fly in to Taiwan and fly direct to Palau now. I think they’ve started some Singapore flights and Manila always had quite a few flights and it’s in pretty short hop over from Manila to Palau, it’s less than an hour I think or a little over an hour.
It’s easy to get there and Palau really is part of the coral triangle being situated where it is and so that’s why it has such a great diversity on the reefs and you know, most people just hope that El Nino kind of bypasses the area, taken a couple of hits and that’s of course our big worry and all of this area.
[0:40:45.1] CM: Well yeah, absolutely.
[0:40:46.1] Tr: ‘Cause it’s taken a couple of hits, and that’s of course our big worry in all of this are. Other than that, it’s easy to get to and Palau has many options now where you can stay anywhere from like a bed and breakfast, like Mrs. Pine Tree’s Guest House, which is a nice little bed and breakfast. All the way up to fancy place like Palau Pacific Resort, which has its own little personal bungalows going right out onto the sea and making you one with the ocean.
People like movie stars stay in those things, people like me stay in the B&B’s. But it’s really — and there’s wonderful restaurants and so overall, Palau is just a great place to visit, it’s not only the diving but there’s some really nice cuisine. Don’t miss the Indian restaurant downtown, the Taj and really some wonderful people there too. Palauan’s are pretty open, the people, as opposed to some of the other folks on Micronesia are a little bit shy but not Palauan’s that used to having a good time and telling a joke so you’ll always enjoy your stay with the Palauan’s.
[0:42:02.5] CM: Fantastic. Tim, thank you so much for talking to us about Palau and you’re making me want to go back already.
[0:42:09.4] TR: I think you need to Chris, you need to book that ticket.
[0:42:12.3] CM: All right, thank you very much mate.
[0:42:14.2] TR: Thank you very much Chris.
[0:42:17.9] CM: Thanks for listening to the Dive Happy Podcast. For show notes about this episode including maps of where we’re talking about, travel tips, links to the liveaboards, resorts, books etcetera that we mentioned, and other good stuff, please visit divehappy.com/podcast.
If you want to get in touch, send me an e-mail, email@example.com. If you want to know when the podcast comes out, you can sign up to the Dive Happy mailing list on the website or follow on Twitter @divehappy. Until next time, dive safe, and dive happy. Cheers.
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