On my second day I was signed up for a snorkeling tour in the Rock Islands including a visit to Jellyfish Lake. I was just a tad apprehensive about the jellyfish bit, but had no time to think on it. Best for me not to think too much. The first stop was at a Japanese Zero, submerged where it crashed in WWII, just 10 feet beneath the surface. At first we just stopped to look at it, but one of the guests asked if we could snorkel there and after just a few seconds of hesitation, and a quick scan at the sea, our guide said “Sure, why not?” The others quickly threw on their fins and masks and jumped in. I was a bit slower – I am always hesitant before jumping in the sea. But once I was in, it was, of course, really cool. And it was my first chance to test out the underwater camera a friend from work had loaned me.
We continued on to an area called Rainbow Reef for snorkeling – and it was stunning, like swimming in an aquarium. Then on to the “milky way” where the limestone mud just a few feet below the surface of the water is supposed to have therapeutic properties. We all slathered up and then washed it off with a dip in the crystal clear waters. Then it was on to Jellyfish lake.
Many, many thousands of moons ago, Jellyfish Lake was open to the ocean. Over time it became closed off and a species of jellyfish became enclosed and isolated inside the lake. With no predators, over time, they evolved to no longer have a sting. Our boat docks at Eil Malk island and we walk up a small staircase trail and then down again to a dock jutting out into the saltwater lake. “Ok,” our guide says, “go ahead and get in and swim out in that direction and we will swim with the jellyfish.” Right. I stare at the water. I am not the only one of the group just staring at the murky green water, where underneath the surface teem millions of rumored-to-be-sting-free jellyfish. Oh, and possibly a crocodile. Thanks Tour Guide for that wonderful story about the crocodile sightings here at the lake. I jump in and start swimming.
Perhaps ten or fifteen feet in I see my first jellyfish and my instinct is to jerk back and dart in another direction. I swim around it. But then I see two. And then five. And then more and more and more. No turning back now. I reach out and touch one. Nothing. It feels like thick, flexible latex. It slides benignly along my hand and away. I am giddy. All of us are giddy. We swim among them. Through the swarm. It is amazing. I completely, well almost completely, forget there might be a crocodile lurking in the depths ready to take me down. After half an hour or more we swim back to the entrance point and return to our boat. Once settled and ready to move on to our lunch area, we spot a moon jellyfish floating in the water. I want now to reach out and touch it and it takes a moment to realize we are back in the real world where jellyfish are not our friends.
It was lunch time and we headed out once again in the boat. Our stop was a small, flat, palm covered islet. From the small beach, the drop off is steep and quick. Maybe 30 to 50 feet deep within 10 feet of the shore. Several beginner scuba diving classes were in progress when we arrived. After lunch I ventured into the water. This was a big deal. Our guide had called it Shark Island or something like that. If you know me at all, you know that I have an irrational fear of sharks and the ocean. I know it is irrational but I have the fear all the same. When I was five years old my parents took me (and my younger siblings) to see the movie Jaws. Apparently I had been hounding my mother for weeks on end to see it. So she did, and I had nightmares for weeks, maybe months afterwards. [I used to think my mother was half crazy to do this but now that I have a 4 ½ year old child myself, I completely get it]. It complicates matters that I wear glasses and once they are off, as they are for snorkeling, I cannot see all that well.
So there I am in the water, halfheartedly paddling about, trying very hard to appear at ease, while pushing back the scenes running through my head of my impeding loss of life and limb by shark attack. And there below me I spot a circle of divers practicing some basic scuba lessons. And off to the side is a circle of black tip reef sharks doing what appears to be staring at the divers. I felt a flutter in my chest. I might have peed myself. Wait, it is the ocean, I did pee myself. I felt terribly brave and slightly panicked at the same time. But I stayed put. I willed myself to stay put and watch them. I took pictures with the underwater camera a colleague had loaned me. I had just seen sting-less jellyfish and touched them and now here I was in the water within quick swimming distance of some sharks and I was relatively, surprisingly calm. Would wonders never cease?
On my third day in Palau, I joined a full day WWII tour to Peleliu island, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War, resulting in the largest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in US history. It was here that 1000s of marines were met with an entrenched Japanese force of nearly 11,000, all on an island only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide. Over two months of fighting resulted in 40% of the 28,000 marines killed or wounded. Although I am not a WWII buff I am very interested in history and before my trip I had watched the miniseries “The Pacific” and read the autobiography Hemlet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, one of the true characters from the documentary who had served and was wounded on Peleliu.
An hour speedboat trip from Koror brought us to the shores of Peleliu, the southernmost of Palau’s main islands. It looked like any other tropical island with palm trees and a short sandy beach. Like any other place in history that has seen atrocities, I felt strange standing there looking at the beautiful sea and sky and greenery and trying, completely in vain, to imagine the horror that both sides faced and wrought upon one another. The divers in the group headed off for their morning dive, which just left me and a family of 3 for the full land tour. We walked with our guide through the small town, investigated several caves (one with a large spider that I might never get over), to the old airfield, through the jungle to see rusted out tanks, downed planes, armaments, and gutted bunkers and buildings. We lunched and the divers returned to join the second half of the tour including a hike up Bloody Nose Ridge and to the small, but informative museum. Our hike up Umurbrogol Mountain or Bloody Nose Ridge, a 300 foot high peak, took maybe 30 minutes. During the US offensive, military leaders planned on 72 hours to take the ridge, but instead it took 73 days. It was a sobering day but well worth the trip.
My fourth day was a lazy no-tour day. I got a lift down to the town center for a visit to the Palau Aquarium. I love aquariums and I try to visit them wherever I can. It was a nice little place, part of a larger coral reef research center, but after actually snorkeling around the actual reefs of Palau, the aquarium could not hold a candle to the real thing. I then walked over to the Koror Prison, an important stop on any tourist to-do list of Palau. Unlike my visit to the Women’s Prison in Chiang Mai I was not here to see a specific prisoner but to call on the prison workshop where you can browse the beautifully wood-carved storyboards made by the prisoners as part of a rehabilitation program that benefits them and their families. I hemmed and hawed between two particular storyboards while chatting with the carvers before deciding to purchase one depicting the legend of the fish-bearing breadfruit tree. From the prison I meandered through some neighborhoods before getting lunch and then visiting the pleasant Belau (as Palau is sometimes spelled) National Museum.
Pouring rain that looked like it would not end but suddenly did, almost sunk my kayaking and snorkeling tour on day five. Four people cancelled. Luckily one other person had not as the tour company required a minimum of two. My tour companion was an American working on a US naval vessel who just wanted a quiet day of swimming and boating in the Rock Islands. We stopped first for snorkeling above a reef and then at a partial cave, more an opening in one of the smaller islets. At another location we picked up the kayaks to begin our trip along the mile-long Long Lake, a saltwater lake surrounded by mangrove forests. It was quiet and relaxing.
Rain the next morning nearly washed out another tour but again the skies cleared just in time. This time it would be just me. I agreed to pay extra for a solo land tour of Babeldaob, the country’s largest island, and the largest island in Micronesia (other than Guam). Despite its size, only about 30% of Palau’s 18,000 residents live there, and is one of the least developed islands in the Pacific Ocean. Babeldaob. It is a mouthful but it sounds exotic. Unlike the other islands of Palau, which are limestone, Babeldaob is volcanic. It is hilly and still very much covered in foliage. Here in 2006, Palau established its new capital of Ngerulmud, moving it from the most populous town of Koror. Though the capital is the only settlement to have its own zip code (the country is serviced by the US postal system), and it has a few capital-looking buildings, it does not have the feel of a bustling capital city.
My tour took in the capital, ruined Japanese WWII sites, the mysterious stone monoliths at Badrulchau dating back to 161 A.D. (sort of like Palau’s version of Stonehenge), waterfalls, and traditional Palauan meeting structures, it was my conversation with my young tour guide as we drove around the island that stuck most in my mind. “A” spends most of her time leading scuba dive tours. Her father, also a scuba dive tour leader and instructor, worried about his daughter spending too much time underwater and the toll it might take on her body. He wanted her to find another job. So “A” did go the United States for college. Palau, with its small population, only has a community college but no four year institutions. But there are special considerations and scholarships for Palauans to attend university in the US. Many go to Hawaii, but not all. “A” went to the mainland, but quickly became homesick and after a year or so called it quits and returned home where she returned to the job she loves, much to her father’s consternation.
On my final day, I was picked up once again by representatives of Sam’s Tour, the company with which I had taken every single one of my tours. My flight to Manila, like the one I arrived on, would depart in darkness, after the sun had set. I would spend the day at the Sam’s Tour headquarters – where they have their dive shop, gift shop, bar and restaurant facing the marina with beautiful views of the water. I arranged one final tour – a helicopter flight over the Rock Islands. I was joined on the tour by two 20-something Japanese girls whom the pilot inexplicably assumed were my daughters. Seeing the islands from the air was breathtaking. And it was a great end to having experienced Palau from land, sea, and air. I spent the rest of my trip awaiting transfer to the airport, sitting in the bar, nursing beverages, as I looked out at the water.