Palau, Micronesia; December 21-30, 2011

Although Tim has been plenty busy with both underwater and topside photography, his photos aren't ready yet; all photos in this travelog are Jennifer's.

Checking in for our flights from Honolulu to Palau (via Guam) was a bit complicated due to the not-yet-complete merger of Continental and United airlines, and the fact that our 10-leg ticket spans the two airlines in a non-standard way. So we weren't too concerned when the gate agent called Alex back. We should have been.

As it turns out, Alex's passport expires in three months, and Palau is one of the many countries that require six months of passport validity for entry. (Jennifer, who is in charge of such things in our family, takes full responsibility for this significant oversight.) The unhelpful Honolulu gate agent staunchly refused to even let Alex fly as far as Guam, despite the fact that Guam is part of the USA. We were extremely persistent, eventually escalating two levels to a very helpful super-supervisor, who allowed all of of us to fly to Guam but put Alex's ongoing check-in to Palau on hold.

In Guam Alex was handed a boarding pass -- we assumed the Honolulu super-supervisor had pulled some strings; quiet high-fives, disaster alleviated. Unfortunately, when passports were checked as we boarded the plane, the expiration issue was noticed anew, and Alex was pulled out of the line. (It turns out airlines can incur a hefty fine for allowing passengers to board without proper documentation for the destination.) The gate agent in Guam was even more helpful than the super-supervisor in Honolulu, immediately trying to contact officials in Palau to get special permission, which would be the only way for Alex to enter the country. She even held the plane a few extra minutes in case she was able to reach someone; no luck. Alex remained in Guam as the rest of us flew on to Palau. (Independently, Jennifer's United premier status yielded a first-class upgrade on that flight, which Tim used; he declared flying alone in first class "weird.") The helpful Guam gate agent had Alex escorted through the by-then-closed customs area, set him up with a "distressed passenger rate" at the Airport Marriott, gave detailed instructions on who at the airline to call the next day, and put him first on the waiting list for the next evening's flight.

On the Palau front, Jennifer, Tim, and Emily overnighted in the planned hotel, did a bit of shopping in the town area, had an excellent Indian-food lunch, visited the immigration office to discover to their horror that the entire government was closed for four days due to the Christmas holidays, settled into the dive boat in the afternoon as planned, did an evening scuba dive by the dock to see mandarin fish as planned (photo 5), and spent a lot of time worrying about Alex's predicament.

Meanwhile, on the Guam front, Alex made numerous calls to the numbers the helpful gate agent had given him, with no forward progress. He too soon discovered that the Palau government was closed for four days. There was nobody who could help him. Eventually he had the resourceful idea of calling the Palauan Embassy in Guam. He reached "Jeff" who reiterated the closure, but then mentioned he could try giving a call to his friend the vice president of Palau (impressive at first, until one realizes that since the Republic of Palau has about 20,000 people, it's sort of analogous to being friends with the deputy mayor of a small town). The vice president was reached, he granted Alex special permission, the permission propagated through the necessary computer records, the waitlist for the flight cleared, and before we knew it Alex was strolling onto the dive boat, still well in advance of our originally-planned departure the next morning. Hurray!

But enough of our travel woes. All's well that ends well, so on to the diving.

Palau is one of the best-known dive destinations in the far western Pacific. Interestingly, a circle of less than 1500 miles in diameter contains our most recent four annual dive trips: Palau, eastern Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo, and the Philippines -- obviously a favorite part of the world for us these days. The islands of Palau are often considered part of Micronesia, although politically the Republic of Palau is distinct from the Federated States of Micronesia. Palau is popular with divers from all over the world, but especially Japan.

Most divers stay in a hotel on the main island and ride by speedboat through the Rock Islands daily for a couple of dives. Also popular are a handful of large liveaboards: 18-25 divers live on board for a week, anchored in the center of the best dive spots, diving by skiff 4-5 times each day. We went for a third, much less common, option. Two smaller boats, Eclipse and Safari, operate much like the large liveaboards but cater to 2-4 passengers. We chartered Safari for a week so we could do lots of diving in the best areas like on the large liveaboards, but have a more customized, personal experience. (Surprisingly, the total cost for the four of us was significantly less than going on even the least expensive of the large liveaboards.) We got exactly what we were hoping for.

Safari is a 36-foot powerboat (photos 1-3), nicely laid out with a comfortable master suite, a cabin with two small single beds, a galley, dining table, several small deck areas, and a purpose-built dive platform in the back making diving directly from the main boat a snap (photo 4). It even has air-conditioning. We had two crew: Jason the captain, and René who doubled as cook and dive guide. Both were exceptionally good at their jobs. Jason, an American who has built, lived on, and piloted boats a good part of his adult life, is friendly and competent -- expert not only at driving the boat, but also performing the unending repairs that are a guaranteed part of boat life. René is an outgoing German (with near-perfect English) who's lived in Palau for decades. While one might think a dive-guide/cook would be a compromise in one of those two capacities, René excelled at both. He runs a popular restaurant in Palau, and the food on board was truly gourmet. How René produced such meals while also planning and executing four long dives each day is anyone's guess, yet he never seemed in a rush. René was a fount of information as well as the boat jokester -- great company.

Finally the diving itself: Palau's claims to fame are excellent visibility, healthy reefs, vertical walls, plenty of fish life, and guaranteed frequent encounters with sharks. We had no shortage of any of these. We dove the most famous site, Blue Corner, three times. (In polls of the very best dive sites worldwide, Blue Corner often takes the prize; we won't argue.) Each time we had a healthy current sweeping the reef, which brings swarms of fish and a constant parade of sharks, many at arm's length (photo 6). A wonderful invention since the last time Alex & Jennifer came to Palau is the "reef hook" -- you clip your dive vest to a line and hook the other end under a rock. Instead of fighting the current, you simply fly on your line and watch the show (photo 7). At another well-known site, German Channel, we were visited over and over by giant, graceful manta rays doing their acrobatics (photo 8). Other sites yielded hard and soft corals of all varieties, fish small (photo 9) and large (photo 10), isolated and in schools (photo 11), turtles, eagle rays, stingrays, eels, sea snakes, you name it. While the unusual "macro" creatures weren't as numerous as other places we've dived, they were made up for by the good visibility and frequent company of the big stuff. No visit to Palau is complete without a snorkel in Jellyfish Lake, one of two lakes like it in the world -- chock full of non-stinging jellyfish (photo 12). We did 27 dives during our stay, plus the lake. Although Jennifer's photos give the overall flavor, the real fun will come when Tim's photos are ready.

Next: Flying within 24 hours of diving is not recommended (due to decompression concerns), so we'll spend one full day exploring the land-based attractions of Palau by rental car. Late night on New Year's Eve we'll fly to Guam (via Yap) and then, after a long layover in the Guam airport, on to Tokyo for one evening and morning of city-exploring before heading home.

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