There is no doubt in my mind after having spent the last 10 days exploring the archipelago of Palau that this region will be the benchmark for every stop we make. I don’t know what I expected of Palau, but every expectation has been shattered. Well, I did expect a bit more wind but you can’t have everything.
To get here Jody and I sailed nearly 1500 miles from Pohnpei on a relatively benign but wholly unpleasant passage. Sole decided to take a much-deserved break staying with friends in Pohnpei and would join us by way of air travel; and Pia has unfortunately left the expedition and will be greatly missed. Doing a long passage with two people isn’t uncommon or even difficult except from a sleep standpoint but this one was like a summer trip across a continent on a bus with no air conditioning. Hot and uncomfortable and it just kept going.
We did make one quick stop at the north end of Truk lagoon to repair a wayward halyard (note to self: if we ever cross Micronesia again- there’s some incredible surf potential up there), but otherwise we spent most of the 8 days sailing under gennaker, avoiding squalls, sweating by day, cat napping by night, trying to get the most speed we could out of light conditions. As forecasted we made Palau just in time, with a scant 36 hours to get Discovery ready for the first Palau journey which this log will now document.
Last season one of the greatest runs of the Polynesia season we had was Hao Atoll to Fakarava in the Tuamotus. I’ve spoken about it excitedly to anyone who would listen since, and because it was such a success decided to put the same group back together this year in Palau. Owners Martin Jackson and his girlfriend Lena from Singapore, Shane Patton and his wife Briana from Seattle, and the immutable and statistically proficient Iain Henderson and his cousin Charles from the UK.
On the Hao Atoll trip we scratched out barely two days of kiting with meager wind but enjoyed our surroundings (many of them shark-filled) and company so much it hardly mattered. In Palau the wind didn’t even make an appearance more than a whiffle in 10 days. It’s early in the season for the trades to die, but as in Hao we found it only fleetingly disappointing. And that’s because there is plenty here to hold your attention. The anchorages alone are simply ridiculous. Mesmerizing green waters meet towering limestone cliffs that somehow support impenetrable, dense flora. Hundreds of small mushroom islands, inhabited by only birds, crocodiles, insects and rats are thrown around in random fashion like a giant had thrown great handfuls of giant-sized furry marbles. The waters themselves harbor more species of fish and coral than the Great Barrier reef and the Caribbean combined. In fact we are near what marine biologists call ground zero- the beginning of it all.
Iain joked that if you were an explorer and came across Palau after many weeks lost at sea the excitement of finding land would turn to horror when the discovery was also made shortly thereafter that just finding a place to stand would require hours with a machete. But you would not be in want of fresh water (it rains here from what we can tell quite a bit) nor something to eat. Much of the area is protected, and one group called the “70 islands” has been totally off-limits except by helicopter since 1956, preserving the wonders that thrive above and below the water from man’s inevitable impact. This has of course allowed the fish and coral within the barrier reef that protects most of Palau to remain mostly intact. Not so unfortunately for the waters beyond the reefs. 80% of the world’s annual tuna harvest comes from the triangle between Japan, Palau and Papau New Guinea. With rampant corruption and regulations simply ignored or officials paid to look the other way we’re told the tuna and other pelagics caught each year are smaller and smaller, in less numbers. Palau relies heavily on foreign aid. What will happen to the country if the aid runs out and they’ve sold off their only viable resource?
Palau’s other industry is tourism. Scuba divers flock from around the world to dive the famous “Blue Corner” and “Blue Holes”, among many others- wall dives where you can expect to see massive schools of big stuff like Napoleon Wrasse and Barracuda to micro stuff like crystal shrimp and sea horses. Manta Rays visit cleaning stations, many different types of sharks cruise the perimeters. On our first night, a night so black not even a star was visible we noticed the Phosphorescence was going crazy. In all my years at sea I’ve only seen it a handful of times so well and it held everyone rapt for hours. Swimming through the blackness, watching the millions of green lights bounce off your arms and feet is a sci-fi-like wonder both for the swimmer and those looking down on them from the decks of Discovery.
Shane even wrote a poem about it:
Starlight ember auras
Strange pixie dust at night
Glowing trails erratic
Fish frantic from some fright
The clouds took the stars from us
But they joined us in the sea
They danced; they played, they flirted
And filled us with youthful glee
The curse of Adam makes us toil
From paradise we were tossed
But when we look with eyes of children
The garden’s not all lost
A glimpse of heaven-
Surely this must be
Stars and Man in innocence
Making merry in the sea.
Each day some new wonder would present itself. We tore into the gifts like a child at Christmas. We swam with millions and millions of delicate stingless jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake; kayaked through a maze of islets you can’t believe exist; paddled the SUP’s across waters filled with turtles and rays; great schools of Needlefish; and dozens and dozens of other painted species most of us had never seen.
One day in search of some food I grabbed my speargun and made my way out to the outer reef, several hundred meters beyond an island where we were anchored in blue water. As the depths increased the corals were replaced with sand then blue and my surroundings got more and more eery. Several passing reef sharks heightened my senses further. Swimming in waters with no boundary is like wall diving with no wall. It’s a 3D world where your backside feels naked and exposed to whatever gray predators lurk. As much as I told it not to, my head turned into a spinning compass trying to see all that was hidden. I took a good breath hold and dove to about 30 feet before leveling off. Out of the corner of my eye a great shape came slowly into my vision and as much as I tried not to I couldn’t help but jump. The shape approached slowly and got quite close before I realized I needn’t have worried. It was a Dugong, maybe 8 feet long. A cousin of the Manatee and as gentle a giant as they come. The Dugong is endangered and found in increasingly few places in the world. Scientists think there are less than 200 in Palau waters and one of their breeding habitats is protected here. This one was just on a cruise, well outside the protected area and he (or she?) slowed to check me out.
They call the Dugong a sea cow, but I think that’s an unflattering comparison to the earth-bound version. It reminded me of the flying creature in The Never Ending Story, but with a huge mermaid-like tail. The Dugong circled me in slow arcs for nearly 10 minutes. As I surfaced he would surface, as I dived he would dive. Its face was precious and he seemed to be smiling. If I could have I would have given the great animal a hug but as sunset approached I suppose it was time for both of us to return home and our little dance came to an end.
Each night we hunkered down for a game of poker or dirty clubs before retiring early, exhausted from the discoveries of the day. I don’t think we traveled more than 30 miles total in 10 days, and saw a bare fraction of what’s on hand here in this wonderland. But each time we moved something a short distance away demanded investigation and we just never got very far.
The island where two Survivor series were filmed (I’ve now visited over half a dozen across the Pacific- both before and after they were filmed- Marquesas, Cooks, Fiji, Vanuatu…not sure that’s a good or bad thing) proved lush and in fact has one of the most spectacular beaches in Micronesia; the Milky Way was a huge pleaser except for a strange slime monster that scared everyone back into the boat (I remain skeptical of the monsters’ existence); Charles, who’s a bit of a history buff was thrilled to see a downed but mostly in-tact Zero mere feet below the surface…
One day we were slowed by a near-drowning of Martin who was serving his cards’ forfeit by being towed on the SUP. Jody was at the top of the mast, I was at the helm, Martin, no doubt in an effort to pass the time more interestingly had tied the tow line around his ankle. If this sounds silly you aren’t incorrect. Suddenly Martin tipped off the board and when I looked back I thought he was just holding on going for a body skurf, and didn’t immediately back off the engines. Luckily Jody had a better view from the top of the mast and could tell he was being dragged feet first through the water. She yelled to me to stop just as Martin’s head cleared the water for a desperate attempt to get a breath. It all ended just as quickly as it started and luckily only his ego and ankle were a bit torn up. A reminder that very bad things can happen in the most peaceful places.
As the end of our days drew nigh I realized we have nearly reached the middle of our journey on The Best Odyssey. 40 trips behind us, about that many to go. Other than the crossing from the Galapagos to the Gambiers, this was the first where the kites were never once used. But in the words of Iain, of course speaking in his own tongue of Iainese, it was still “bigger than Ben Hur.” Statistically speaking, of course.
“If you want to see what children can do, you must stop giving them things.” –Norman Douglas.