Palau for Christmas you say?

We had not even been away on our summer holidays when one of the my friends asked “What you doing for Christmas”

“not much I said”

“fancy going away somewhere?”

“yes” was my answer, “Where”

“oh we’ll find a live aboard somewhere”, so he was tasked with finding an acceptable boat, I did not want to do Egypt again and it had to be as close to being over the Christmas break as possible

That is how we found ourselves scurrying to Terminal 2 at Heathrow to catch the first flight out of the day to Frankfurt, so we could just make the transfer to China airlines 13 hour flight to Taiwan where we had 7 hours to loiter around at the airport before catching the last 4 hour leg to Koror, the largest of the 200 plus islands that make up Palau.

So some quick geography, Palau is nearly as far south as you can go and still have the entire county in the northern hemisphere, you need to travel east, a long way east. Think Philippines and then keep going, is it worth the 18 hours of flying time to get there? Well we are going to find out.

We arrived early evening on the Saturday we had a twin room at the hotel Palasia booked for the night, as we could not board the boat until the Sunday 16:00 hrs, but the spare day was a precaution on such a complex journey, if the flights are delayed or cancelled and you miss the boat it gets very hard to meet up with it again. It also gave us a chance to try and get a good night’s sleep and relaxation before doing 25 dives in 6 days!

A couple of beers and some nibbles before we headed back to the room for a much welcomed sleep, then up for breakfast and a lazy day in Koror, We went for a walk and where wondering why all the locals were standing by the side of the road, holding plastic bags, it soon became evident the local tradition of a Christmas parade with lorries decked out as Christmas floats drove slowly past and threw small packets of sweets to those waiting. We caught a few and passed them on to the local kids, eventually it got round to time for the taxi to collect us from hotel and take us to the port to get on our home for the week, Rock Island Aggressor. Part of the Aggressor fleet of dive boats.

We met some of the other guests at the harbour and another couple who were on their repeat cycle of a two week trip, So a nice mix of Americans, Swiss, Japanese, Korean and English, Singles and couples, no big individual group. Mostly seasoned divers with just one having less than 50 dives under her belt.

We get the safety briefing out the way, build our kit up, and did the usual paperwork, some people producing loads of different quall cards, they only want the one, either your Nitrox cert or if on air your highest qualification card, so save weight and bulk, and stop showing off cause it will bite you later! no need to take your drysuit or deep dive specialty cards

First morning we are woken up at 06:00 with our pre ordered coffee and juice, make our way to the lounge for cold breakfast, and then order our hot breakfast, which changed daily. American based so pancakes, waffles, French toast, with bacon and eggs, but we find a secret supply of marmite which kept us happy for the week. Quick over view of how the diving worked and off we went to get changed for our first dive of the day. The diving rules where no more than an hour underwater and depth limit of 100ft (33Mtrs for us metric people) As we were diving on a Nitrox mix of 32% this all made absolute sense to me, although my buddy struggled to make the 1 hour, and the only times he got to it where when he borrowed some gas from someone else’s alternate source. Described by another diver “the ongoing antics of xxxxx comedic diving”

Sandy paradise was our first dive, a check out dive to get weights sorted and it had a feeding station at the outer fringe of it, A giant manta seen on the first dive of the trip, surely a great sign of things to come. So after our first dive which was for 45 minutes we were back on the skiff which is the smaller vessel that took us to the dive sites and back. Kit loaded back in its pre assigned bracket where it stayed all week, they just filled the cylinder up where they were and we had little alcoves underneath for masks, fins and weights.

Around 10 minutes later people started to pop up and they were swiftly collected, now the problem with this sort of diving is that as we all get in at the same time as each other and have a 1 hour dive time, nearly everyone arrives on the surface and wants picking up at the same time. So the queue for getting back on the skiff was quite long and quickly learnt that the best was to hang off a little bit till the crown dropped down, however the crew kept shouting at you to grab hold of the line that hung from the boat, Yep a great idea but with 18 people it usually meant the only bit of the line I could get to was high up and required me to reach at maximum arm extension, with a boat bobbing about and me being a short arse it pulled your arm out of its socket.

As everyone is getting back on the skiff they pass cameras, fins, videos etc. up on board and I did struggle with sitting there not helping which is mine and xxxxx natural inclination, but the dive guides kept telling us not to (legal stuff I suspect)

So all on board we make our way back to the mother ship, enroute we are given a hot towel (Airline style) and a piece of orange. The hot towel was a great idea, as most of you will know, most dives have the unattractive look of noses running when we get out. I have got to work on getting these onto club trips.

Back at the main boat we all disembark, grabbing a drink on the way, rinse off camera kit, maybe a quick shower on deck, dry off with warm dry towel and then quick change into dry clothes so we can grab a hot drink and a snack from the lounge area. Now Aggressor advertise 5 dives a day, which is a lot, so we didn’t get long between dives, I never did 5 a day as I like to relax a bit as well as dive, but the daily time table always went something like this

06:00 Wake up, Continental breakfast, order taken for hot breakfast which was then served to you at table

07:00 First dive

8:45 ish return from first dive, get dry snack and drink (tea / Coffee / Juice) available all day

10:00 Second dive

11:45 ish return from second dive, dry and change for lunch

12:00 Hot 2 course lunch

13:00 Third dive of the day

14:45 Return from third dive, quick dry, savoury snack and drink

16:15 Fourth dive

18:00 return from fourth dive, quick change for evening meal

19:00 Evening 3 course meal, sometimes buffet style, sometimes table service

20:00 Fifth and final dive of the day (night dive limited to 45 minutes)

21:30 Return from fifth dive

A schedule for the younger diver I thought!

I will not run through all the dives we did, but we had a great mixture of Wall dives, proper full on drift dives and a few dives where you had to take your reef hook as we would swim to (or drift into) a plateau where the currents where very very strong, we would hook in and let our lines run out about 2 metres, a little bit of positive buoyancy that pulled the lines taught and lifted you off the coral and you watched the sharks or mantas patrol in front of you, seemingly with no effort at all, whilst we were hanging on for grim death, on one dive like this, I was shielding my regulator with my hand to stop the purge valve from being pushed in and it constantly purging. On another my line was too short and I was being tossed about like a salad in a cement mixer, not very comfy and I actually just unclipped and ascended early on that one.

German Channel, Blue Corner, Turtle Cove, Blue Holes to name but a few

Blue Holes was an interesting one, shallow entry into a swim though that bought you out into the mouth of a submerged cavern at around 25 metres, a high ceiling and a wide open exit made it really safe, but alas it also made it very busy. Not much life in there other than humans posing for photographers. Not being the most photogenic of divers I just stayed back and watched.

I saw a buddy pair feverishly writing on their respective waterproof notebooks, they must of each written an essay each, still no idea what they were talking about. People pushing and shoving for photo poses, and weirdest of all a young, tall Chinese girl in her swimming costume and above the knee stockings!, I had to blink twice and later confirmed with one of the dive guides that I had seen what I thought I had seen…. I had, he said with a smile.

We swam out of the cavern mouth and kept the wall on our left, going with the gentle current along a stunning wall, covered with colour, healthy hard and soft corals, and Hawksbill turtles munching away on the coral, as they ignored us over dinner. Eventually this bought us to Blue hole, where we finished with a strong drift, I just crossed my legs and hung in the water as we swooped along the beautiful coral surface. Some say it is like flying, I don’t know, Old fashioned sailing would be a better description, you are at the mercy of the current (wind) and you can make subtle changes by positioning your fins (sails) but the feeling was beautiful and relaxing.

German Channel was another fast drift and of course there was our second visit to Sandy Paradise. Timed specifically to watch the monthly mass spawning of the hump head parrotfish. Every new moon, early morning there would be thousands of them, the females swimming up and an orgy of males swimming as fast as they could to fertilise the eggs. It was spectacular to watch, funny in some ways, and then a bit sad as you watched the other fish coming in to feed off the eggs, then the bigger predators coming in to feed off them. A vicious cycle of nature, which we called fish porn!

Lots and lots of White tip sharks, most of them juveniles, but some parents, Silver tips, black tips, mantas, a sting ray, Octopus, Turtles,Tuna, Napolean Wrasse, Titan Triggerfish, smaller trigger fish, a few Lion fish and the odd nemo, sorry Clarkes Anemone fish and loads and loads of others. Quite surprised the amount of Juvenile fish around, including a huge number of barracuda, patrolling the reef, just waiting their turn to attack something smaller

One of our last dives was Chandelier cave, as you can guess it was a cave system, a small one with 4 distinct air pockets that you could surface in. The entrance to the cave was very shallow and ran down a bank to around 15 mtrs, I took a bearing and marked it on my compass, only person that did for some reason! Once inside you could not see the light from the entrance due to the slope, so it does properly qualify as a cave rather than a cavern. Inside it was murky but quite a wide opening with stalgtites dropping down in irregular forms, some just the wrong height to bang you head on! We were the second group in so the viz has had been eroded a bit, but it was quite easy to find the first airspace by torch light. All surfaced and had a look at the salt and rock formations, then the guide set off for the second air pocket, we followed and at this point it went a bit wrong.

Some of the divers followed a bit too close and also had little experience with torches, my own buddies torch was a very wide beam and was on his camera, he blinded me a few times, I told my buddy it was a problem and he switched it to red light which helped tremendously the poor dive guide was getting it from all sides. Not being helped by the fact he was told to turn left on exiting the first airpocket, being blinded by torch beams, he got disoriented and panicked.

It was one of those moments we all have every so often he bolted back to the first air pocket, any instructor, would of recognised the look of distress on his face. He then said he could not see due to the torches and could we all stay in the pocket whilst he went to find the second one. Most did, I dropped down, my buddy stayed mid water, knowing where the direction the exit was I kept the guide and my buddy in view, sort of like the middle man.

The guide could not find the second chamber and was getting more and more in a tiz, so I swam to him, crossed my arms in the sign to stop and then pointed to the exit, He agreed and we killed the dive and made our way out safely. Our guide promptly found the other dive guide from the first group who took us (some of us) back and straight to the second chamber (turn right, not left) Now I am not a qualified cave diver, and this was quite a shallow dive so we had plenty of gas so there was no real reason to get stressed but the guide did, partly through pressure on his own expectations to suceed, panic is easily come by and it goes to show that things can all go wrong very very quickly and if you are operating in an overhead environment you need to make additional precautions. A nice dive that became needlessly over exciting.

We finished our week on the boat and on the Saturday night where kicked off to eat on land, most of us took advantage to use the free Wi-Fi and download a weeks’ worth of junk and Facebook stuff, also a few drinks where had, we had stopped diving, so why not its Christmas after all.

Back on big boat for 21:00 hrs for packing and sleep. Wake up at 07:00 on the Sunday… a lie in, what a luxury. Then taken ashore for a taxi back to our Palasia hotel for the night. Now whilst on board and settling our bills, I tried to book a light aircraft flight over the islands, alas they were full, but we left our name and hotel in case of cancellations. Lucky for us there was, so after a quick snooze and some lunch a car came to take us to the airport where we chose our plane (doors or no doors) $10 extra for the lack of doors!!! We chose no doors and walked out with confidence to our waiting Cessna 172. Buddy sits in the back (does not like heights) I sit in the passenger seat, but they give me a wheel and rudder pedals to play with, Buddy threatens me with death if I even think of playing with them. Pilot does quick safety check and start the engine, trundle down the run way, and we swoop into the clear sky. Oh blimey, the view from up there was astonishing, 200 islands in perfectly sculpted and then strewn with luscious green foliage. We flew along a lot of our dive route, with the pilot pointing out German channel, which now so obviously was man made, Jelly Fish Lake, surround by those same vibrant green trees, Blue Hole, Udong Channel, some wealthy persons private yacht. Crystal blue water and fine white sand surrounding the islands marvellous and an unexpected highlight of the trip. I would love to show some photos but they are still in my GoPro, which is in my luggage which was misplaced by the airline. I am hoping to get it back, but a slightly spoiled ending to a great trip

Would I go again, Yes, but it is a long way to go and there are places I have not been yet

Was it worth the money, Yes, no argument it was, I would do flights a bit better, but we were pushed for time when arranging.

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