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Reef Dives


Reef Dives

    This is the dive that everyone raves about! A point on the reef that juts out into deep water off the southwestern area of the Ngemelis Islands, Blue Corner is one of the world’s great dives. The reef top runs far out into the open Pacific, at a depth of approximately 30ft; sand gullies cut through the reef are resting places for sleeping whitetip sharks and stingrays. The reef then drops down to a large ledge in about 50ft sticking out into the deep, before plunging off into the depths. If the current is running fast and furious over the top of the point the fish action is as good as it gets anywhere in the world – particularly if the current is running from the East, over the top of Blue Corner and away to the West. It was because of the conditions at Blue Corner that local dive guides invented the "reef hook", a lanyard that loops round your BC cummerbund and hooks into a hole on the reef. For photographers the reef hook is an essential item of kit. Instead of having to wedge your body on the reef by the knee or holding on with one hand (making photography almost impossible!) the reef hook reduces damage to the reef to almost nothing (particularly if you are careful in the placement of the hook) and allows you to float above the reef (thus avoiding kicking it to death with your fins!) with both hands free for photography. And what is there to photograph? Well, if conditions are at their best then expect to see swirling vortices of barracuda & jacks, snapper & bass, huge Maori wrasse and dozens & dozens of whitetip & grey reef sharks. It is these apex predators for which people flock time and time again to Blue Corner. There is no greater thrill than to be hitched on the reef at Blue Corner while hordes of sharks swim past at arms length!

    Further west along the reef from Blue Corner can be found the Blue Holes. Clearly visible form the air these 4 holes open from the top of the reef into a great underwater cavern that again opens out on the reef wall into the surrounding ocean. On sunny days great shafts of light beam down through the upper openings, lighting up interior all the way to the bottom in 110ft, like a large cathedral. In inner walls are covered with a variety of cup & stylaster corals and huge whip corals sprout from the cavern roof. Look carefully and you will find gobies clinging to the whip corals.

    Ngemelis Wall lies on the western side of the main entrance to German Channel. A shallow coral ledge (so shallow it is exposed at low ride!) juts out from Ngemelis Island, at places only a few feet, in other a few hundred. In fact where the reef edge is close enough to the island it is possible to look up and see trees overhanging the water surface. This ledge then abruptly drops down, sheer, for about 1000ft. The surface of this coral rampart is covered with the most bewildering array of twirling tube sponges, fan corals, soft corals of every hue, barrel sponges, jutting plate corals and, like an old man’s beard, twisting corkscrew-like whip corals. Through this magic fairy garden swirl schools of pyramid butterfly fish, Moorish idols and anthias, chromis, angelfish and parrotfish. Closer inspection of the reef will allow you to discover wonderful anemones with resident clownfish, harlequin crabs and shrimps, long-nosed hawkfish on seafans, nudibranchs and flatworms, zigzag clams and brittle stars. Closer inspection still will afford you the opportunity to discover blennies hiding in their miniature coral caves, squat lobsters nestled in the Velcro-like arms of a featherstar and fire gobies gaurding their little patch of reef against all & sundry. This dive site is indeed a miracle of creation – the colours, textures & forms that can be seen on Ngemelis Wall are as good as anywhere!

    These dive sites are basically extensions of Ngemelis Wall, further to the south and further out towards the open ocean. I have seen large grey reef sharks at Big Drop-Off, and one of the Japanese divemasters on Sun Dancer when I first visited Palau was frightened out of the water by a large tiger shark at New Drop-Off. They are essentially coral walls that coem close to the surface and battered by strong currents. You’re liely to see almost anything there!

    With Ngemelis Island on the left and Ngedebus Island on the right, a large funnel like bay shrinks in size down to what is known as German Channel. Built by German phosphate miners in the early 20th Century as a quick route from the inner lagoon to the open sea, German Channel proper is a man-made cut through the reef that is now slowly shrinking in depth and width as coral growth encroaches on its original size. It is only at high tide that the large live-aboards can travel through German Channel, and even then with much precaution! It is not actually in German Channel that people dive, but at the entrance to the channel at an area usually known as German Channel Wall or Drop-Off. Here, some 200 yards from the entrance to the channel itself, the seafloor, at a depth of 50-60ft consists of a sandy substrate interspersed with large individual coral formations. The seafloor then drops away at an angle of about 40° into deep water from where Ngemelis Wall rises to the west. It is along the edge of the sandy slope that the best diving is had, again, particularly on an incoming tide. I have been engulfed by one of the biggest school of jacks I have ever seen at German Channel – thousands upon thousands sweeping in from the open sea, parting like the Red Sea to Moses as they reached me. But it is not schools of jacks that divers come to see at German Channel, but manta rays. In Micronesia only Yap’s Mil channel can claim to be a better location to see manta rays. On a good day German Channel can offer up just as many! These mantas are on a mission – to take the incoming tide through German Channel into the lagoon. In fact you can often see them delicately negotiating the man-made channel – the channel is, after all, not much wider than the mantas!! They swoop past you like stealth bombers in formation, their huge wings carrying them precisely past diver and coral. They often stop and interact with divers, allowing bubbles to tickle their underbellies. If you are moored at German Channel at night the lights on the back of the dive boat will attract tons of shrimp and small fish to the surface. Often mantas come in and feed on these vast swarms, coming right up to the boat with their cavernous mouths wide, engulfing fish and water in great gulps, spiraling away and before returning for more.

    This is one of the world’s great channel drift dives – a narrow passageway through the reef on the western side of the archipelago, it runs from the outer wall into the lagoon, some 500m in length. On the outer wall the entrance to Ulong Channel is marked by a large sand chute that spreads down from the top of the reef to about 130ft before plunging off into the abyss. Diving Ulong can only be done on an incoming tide; fresh clean water is pushed into the channel and you essentially hitch a ride and go with the flow. If the current is really ripping then you have almost no chance in back tracking if you see something of interest. The bottom of the channel, varying from 30-50ft in depth, is scoured clean of all but the hardiest of corals, but the flanks are covered with seafans and some soft corals. The larger seafans are an ideal resting-place for small fish; they sneak into the lee side of the fan to rest from the raging current. As you are sucked through the channel so are many fish, coming into the lagoon at the far end to feed (or be eaten!). You will often see whitetip sharks resting on the bottom, waiting for a tasty morsel to swim past! About half way the channel splits into two – the left hand route is the best, as a huge stand of green lettuce coral grows along the flank of this section; amongst the corals large anemones are home to clownfish and shrimps. The right hand route also has some good fan corals, but is not as good. After 20 minutes drifting down the channel it breaks out into the lagoon. Large coral formations grow up towards the surface from a sandy lagoon floor in about 50-60ft of water. Ambient light reflected off the sea floor makes natural light photography easy. This is one of the best bits of the dive. For here, waiting for all the fish to pass through the channel, can be found waiting grey reef sharks. They attack the schools of jacks and snapper and bass that have passed through unscathed through the channel; I have seen upward of 15 on one dive. This is one of my favorite dives in Palau, as it offers the exhilaration of a drift dive with good shark encounters and beautiful reef structures!

    Peleliu Cut is the most southerly point within the main island group of Palau. Only Anguar, 2 hours sail away is further south. Peleliu saw some of the most violent and bloody fighting of World War II, when American troops got bogged down in heavy fighting with Japanese in well defended positions. The reef her is very different to that found further along towards German Channel. The top and edge of the reef are scoured clean of almost any living coral; only that which can survive strong current and surge can enjoy these conditions! The top of the reef is in about 30ft of water, and drop almost vertically into the abyss. The wall is covered in wonderful soft corals and seafans, and corkscrew like whip corals. Near the southern tip of the reef the wall cuts back in towards the land, forming a funnel like structure that affords some protection from the currents and surge. At about 80ft can be found a large and magnificent anemone with resident clownfish. There are vast quantities of fish to be seen both on the top of the reef and along the wall itself. Lots of grey reef sharks cruise the open water, as do eagle rays and sometimes mantas. Orcas have also been seen here, but don’t expect to see them again! You will also see large congregations of jacks, batfish, snapper and such like.

    Located round the corner from Peleliu Cut on the eastern side of Peleliu Island, Yellow Wall is named after the profusion of yellow soft corals that grow on it. An attractive wall of hard corals interspersed with soft croals and sea fans that starts right at the surface, it drops off to a shelf at about 140ft that rounds out far into open water. The shelf is sand covered with stands of staghorn coral. Many sharks can be seen silhouetted against the sand bottom. A profusion of reef fish can be seen along the wall, including anthias, butterflyfish of varying species, angelfish etc.

    Hike high into the hills of Eil Malk Island and down the other side you will come to a land locked saltwater lake surrounded by mangroves. Here Mastigias and to a lesser degree Aurelia aurita jellyfish have made their home in there tens of hundreds of thousands. Land locked since the sea levels lowered after the last ice age (Or, as some people would suggest, after the island was pushed up out of the sea by volcanic activity. I prefer the former theory!), they have now lost their ability to sting and present no threat to humans, though it must be said that the feeling as they bump against your skin takes a little while to get used to! The jellyfish survive by feeding off the algae that live within their own bodies. The algae capture the sun’s energy through photosynthesis and turn it into food for the jellyfish. This is a symbiotic relationship whereby both parties benefit, so to do their part the jellyfish follow the path of the sun across the sky each day, tracking it’s path to maximize the energy that can be produced by their algae. Spending the daylight hours on the surface, the jellyfish then sink to the middle depths of the lake where a layer of nitrogen-rich water can be found; here the algae can absorb the nitrogen that they require to sustain life. Ironically this same layer is severely lacking in oxygen and laced with high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide that would cause intense irritation to us humans! Jellyfish lake is a snorkel by virtue of the fact that you cannot dive below about 40ft and that lugging your dive gear up and over the hill is a task one would not wish on your worst enemy! As you snorkel out across the lake you start seeing the odd jellyfish here and there, and then slowly your vision is filled with hundreds and thousands of wobbly blobs of jelly flobbering about in the water! Once you have got used to the idea of swimming in jelly it is a highly rewarding experience.

    Saies Tunnel is one of Palau’s most spectacular dives - a gaping mouth like hole in the side of the reef opens into a huge cavern with a sand covered floor. Often sleeping whitetips can be seen relaxing at the back of the cavern. The roof and walls of the cavern are covered in a variety of cup corals, stylasters and hydroids. Numerous invertebrates can be observed on close inspection. Once you have entered the main cavern and swum into the interior you can turn to the left and find a smaller exit hole on the opposite side of the reef; a small "window" can be seen half way along the tunnel. Both entrance and exit holes are "softened" by a huge variety of seafans and soft corals. For photographers they make for excellent opportunities – divers swimming on the seaward side silhouetted against the open ocean, framed by a wreath of fan corals on all four sides. The bottom of Saies Tunnel is deep – about 130ft – so time spent in the interior is short, but upon exiting there are rewarding opportunities along the reef itself – wonderful hard corals, sea fans and schooling fish.

    For the macro photographer this is a spectacular dive indeed. A small bay located on the northern pincer at the western opening to Malakal Harbour has a shallow sandy bottom with interspersed coral heads. The reef then tumbles out of the bay along the edge of Arakebesang Island in both directions. You never need to go deeper than about 40ft on this dive, and it is best done at night; in fact during the day it is a decidedly uninteresting location! But at night billions upon billions of feather stars ooze out of the pillar corals and from under ledges to feed on the plankton in the water. I have seen Mandarin fish, sleeping boxfish, dozens of species of flatworms and nudibranchs, crustaceans (including what I have called a kamikaze shrimp due to his habit of attacking the front of my camera port without a care in the world!) brittlestars, pencil urchins, boxer shrimps, gobies, blennies, the lot. And because this is such a shallow dive and the conditions are so easy you can spend hours and hours down there!

    Hmmmm…. I have dived this site twice and I think I only saw 1 shark!



At the end of the war Palau actually had more wrecks than Truk Lagoon - over 60, excluding small landing craft etc. Many of them are now not worth diving simply because they have been heavily salvaged over the proceeding years as they were in shallow sheltered waters, and all that remains are debris fields of twisted metal. But having said that there are some spectacular wrecks to be found in Palau, many of them rarely dived simply because most people who come to Palau to dive the reefs and with the pelagic species for which the country is so famous. In fact the first time I visited Palau we only dived two wrecks, the Iro & Teshio Maru. As a consequence of this I arranged a special wreck diving trip aboard Sun Dancer in March 1999. On this trip we also dived the Amatsu Maru - the Black Coral Wreck - Sata, Unidentified Maru #4 (which some believe is the Bichu Maru but is locally known as the Whiteface Wreck) and Buoy #6 Wreck.

  • IRO
    The Iro is perhaps the most famous wreck in Palau and is a "classic" war wreck in every sense of the word. 470ft long and weighing 14,050 tons, Iro was one of a fleet of 10 Shiretoko class freighters (her sistership Sata is ironically resting only a few hundred yards away across Palau's Western Lagoon). She sank on 31 March 1944 and rests upright on a silt and sand bottom 130ft blow the surface. On a good day you can see the topmost portions of the wreck from a boat, and once you enter the water you can clearly see her magnificent kingposts dropping down away towards the deck in 90ft of water. Her kingposts are festooned in zigzag clams, soft corals and other invertebrae. From the deck these magnificent structures with their crossbraces make fantastic natural light photographic images. Forward on the bow is a spectacular 5½ " gun on a large circular mounting; both the barrel and armoured shield are covered in black coral trees. The deck is covered in the remains of clams that have died and been forced off the superstructure above. Here I found cavorting nudibranchs and giant mushroom corals playing host to a variety of crustacea, fish and brittlestars. The main bridge superstructure sits aft of the forward kingpost and the main forward cargo hold. Here can be found black coral trees, lionfish and numerous anemones, including their attractive greenish bubble anemones,home to one of the most attractive anemone, the tomato clownfish. You can enter the bridge, though the telegraph and all the instrumentation has long since been stripped out. From the bridge superstructure you can access companionways on the starboard side can be accessed, off which crews quarters can be seen. Towards the stern we found an old gas mask. At the stern an identical gun to that at the bow can be seen. When the visibility is good (and sometimes it isn't!) she is one of the world's great shipwrecks.

    Located just inside the enveloping pincers of Malakal Harbour's western entrance, the Amatsu Maru is, at 502ft, the longest wreck in Palau, though not the heaviest. She was a tanker, providing fuel for supply & warships alike. Her life was short; she was sunk by panes from the USS Enterprise during Operation Desecrate 1 on 30 March 1944, only 4 months after coming into active service. She lies in 130ft of water perfectly upright. Her lines are uncluttered - bridge superstructure jut forward of midships and a smoke stack at the stern, which has collapsed onto its side. You can enter the bridge area through the roof in about 65ft of water. Fire consumed most of the wooden roof, and any left over has since rotted away. The telegraph and other instrumentation has been removed by salvagers. On the deck below the wheelhouse can be fond the communications area, where radio equipment and electrical panels can be clearly seen, though covered with a fine coating of sponges and corals. In the same area can be found the urinals and a safe. The stern of the vessel is severely damaged by explosions. Her huge 4-blade propellor is still extant, though Japanese salvage workers attempted to remove it. The Amatsu Maru's other name, the Black Coral Wreck, is, I think, fairly self-explanatory. The entire outside of the ship is covered in black coral trees, from her superstructure to the elevated catwalks and pipe bridges that run the length of the ship. Being within the enclosed harbour she never has fantastic visibility, but her size and the profusion of coral growth and interesting ship material on her make her well worth the visit!

    This wreck is one of the few that is to be found outside the scattered islands of Palau, and away from the poorer visibility of those areas. Having been attacked by airplanes she as either taking evasive action and hit a reef or was again attacked and subsequently sank on her starboard side on a reef area in about 80ft of water southwest of the main shipping channel. While an impressive 320ft long she only weighed 2850 tons, but as she lies in an area of open sea with usually exceptional visibility large portions of her hulk can be viewed at a time. And being on her side allows you to inspect both the underside of the keel but also the deck and superstructure. The wreck is covered in a variety of soft corals, staghorn and plate corals, sponges and clams. A giant puffer fish can nearly always be seen; this is quite clearly home. Large schools of glassfish also make their home in the wreck

    It was not until my second trip to Palau that I had the opportunity to dive the Zeke seaplane just round the corner from the Palau Pacific Resort. Sitting on a slightly shelving section of coral reef in about 50ft of water this Zeke is almost intact except for the starboard wing, which has come away and is resting on the reef next to the plane. The plane is lying slightly on her starboard side (hence the broken wing) but this allows you to access the underside of the port wing and see the port float. The whole wing is covered in black coral trees and soft corals. You can also see the engine with the propeller still attached, and look in the cockpit at all the instrumentation. This is a really superb plane wreck and it is amazing that it is not dived more often. But then again, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing after all!

    The question still remains – is this the Bichu Maru?! There is still much confusion as to which ship is which in Palau; is the Iro the Sata or is the Sata the Iro? The Bichu Maru it may not be, but the Whiteface Wreck is so named because she lies close to the shoreline near Urukthapal Island where a pale section of rock is exposed to the elements. Visibility is never that good on the Bichu Maru; so close as she is to the shore, in an area with little movement of fresh tidal water, and lying on a silty bottom, the best I got was about 60ft, the worst about 20ft. She lies on her port side at about 60° at a depth of 90-100ft and her wooden decking has long since rotted away, exposing the steel framework beneath. This allows you to swim almost the entire length of the interior of the wreck and always be able to see through the ribs of the deck to the open water outside. This does make for excellent photo opportunities! The wreck has a wealth of critters on it, including mating nudibranchs, and on the hull, numerous anemones and clownfish. The hull is pitted with small holes in which can be found little gobies of every description. The bnow has no gun but there are some large anchor winches, and her anchors are still intact. The large holds only contain silt, so it would seem she was not carrying any cargo when she sank. The bridge is on 3 levels, and the telegraph and rudder stand are still intact, though damaged. This would suggest the Bichu Maru was not salvaged after the war.



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