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Palauís Electrifying, Chest Pounding, Full-On Drift Diving

By: John Chandler

Date Posted: 2000-11-23

When avid divers gather, discussing recent adventures into the deep blue, the mention of diving in Palau usually gets significant and almost immediate attention. Because Palau has been the benchmark for divers to infer quality I want to compare the quality of diving we enjoy here on Okinawa with the supremacy that diving in Palau has enjoyed for decades. The island republic of Palau, its magnificent reefs and challenging drift driving are not that distant from Okinawa. Located just west of the Philippines and south of Guam you will find that Palau is the home to several of the flagships in the modern live aboard fleets of dive boat operations. I was most interested in the effects of El Nino, and the global warming of the seas with its attendant effects of coral bleaching, may have had in Palau and compare that with our reefs in their present condition. Has coral bleaching had a serious effect on the quality of the reef and channel diving that has made Palau the king of recreational diving?

I took a week this summer and explored the reefs, walls and caves of Palau to get a first hand look at what has been reported about Palau and her reefs. Until this summer I had not dove these much-vaunted reefs, however, I have spent more than 15 years diving the Middle and Western Pacific. From Okinawa to Hawaii, all across Micronesia and Guam, where I have recently roamed, I find that coral bleaching and the algal infestation that follows has not spared the reefs on Palau. Coral bleaching and algae growth on the coral heads hit the famous sites of Ulong and German Channel hard. Not unlike the damage that we have witnessed at Maeda Point and all the dive sites at Onna these sites were hit but it seems there is a rebound.

Now for the good news. On Palau, where currents sweep clean water and its nutrition across coral formations in enormous quantities every minute of the day, it appears that coral growth has begun its natural rebound and regrowth. In both German and Ulong Channels where that has been significant bleaching most avid photographers and amateur coral observers alike agree corals there seem to be regenerating. The plankton that attracts Manta Rays to German Channel is carried on the same currents that are conveying the new coral polyps that are colonizing on the dead coral substrate described as one of the natural wonders of our underwater world. Large, if not huge, stands of lettuce and plate corals still decorate the passes in Ulong Channel and remain unaffected by coral bleaching. Acres of stag horn coral, all intertwined and sturdy are growing like vines that are now anchored to the dead coral beds in the waters the dive site known as Shark City. Things may not look as good as they did several years ago but the good news is that it appears to be springtime on the reef and after two or three years of death and dying it is exciting to report that even the amateur diver can see new corals growing on the dead structures of the reef's recent past.

While bleaching has had damaging effects at Palau the wall diving at Blue Corner, Big Drop Off, and Peleliu Corner remain impressive sites. The bleaching has not touched these sites. The bad news here is the plateaus on these walls where divers "hook in" to watch aquarium-like fish reviews are now bare limestone rock, totally devoid of any soft coral or sea fan. Divers that do not hook in have actually rubbed these plateaus raw. The walls remain great but it is disheartening to see divers without buoyancy control, which only comes with good training and practice, slam into the plateaus like fighter aircraft hitting deck of an aircraft carrier. What nature has not disturbed on Palau divers have. Here on Okinawa we should learn from this ECO-Tourism damage. Because the pressure on our precious reefs brought on by global warming is bad enough we as divers have to be especially careful not to exacerbate the damage with our own carelessness. More divers are certified every week and will get to enjoy the natural wonders of our world class reefs we have be to more careful than they were on Palau. LOOK BUT DON'T TOUCH. PLEASE!

On Palau the wall diving remains the show. Palau is still home to the absolute electrifying, hard throbbing, and chest pounding full-on drift diving into and around the numerous Points, Cuts, and Pockets that it has long been known for. After these high voltage dives the relaxing strolls down Ulong and German Channels watching Manta Rays dance across acres of hard and soft corals or glide in and among clouds of Jacks remains awesome. It is exciting but do not discount the wonders of our own walls here on Okinawa. Onna, Seragaki, Manza and Maeda Point are still great sites and remember all you have to do is drive your car to those sites. (Airfare to Palau is about $1,200). I thoroughly enjoyed Palau but I now can better compare what our own backyard knows as the "king" and once again I must tell you that it is great to be home on Okinawa.

Hopefully, we will all do our part to help nature keep Okinawa in the court of the king by keeping our beaches clean and protect our reefs with better buoyancy control. See ya at the beach (or maybe on a plane to Palau). To see more photos from my summer sojourn to Palau please log on my website at www.jwchandler.com

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