THE CURRENT WAS JUST A gentle push as we swam towards the small coral bommie known to be a regular cleaning station for mantas.
The channel was blown out of the coral by the Germans at the beginning of the 20th century, and provides the only access for ships entering the main lagoon. Now, the flow of water encouraged by its existence attracts masses of pelagic life, and the water above us was a bouillabaisse of fish.
Captain Kenneth was with us. While we kept low to the sand, he flashed around using his long fins to cover great distances, and was soon excitedly pointing as a big black manta passed far above us.
We waited patiently. Soon the beast was swimming slowly a few metres above the seabed directly towards me.
I held my breath and squeezed off a single shot at the last moment as it came up to me, then it was gone in the mist of plankton.
After 15 minutes or so, the other divers made their way up the channel to shallower waters. I stood my ground for a time but soon felt a bit lonely.
I let myself go with the gentle flow and soon could see the wraithlike figures of my companions, Kenneth hovering midwater above them.
Visibility was not ideal, thanks to the nutrients in the water, but soon he was spreading his arms wide, indicating that this was a big one.
I steered in the direction in which he was pointing to come face to face with an enormous white manta ray, as it materialised out of the gloom.
Again, I held my breath and hung motionless at the same depth in its path as the giant approached. At the last moment, I pressed the shutter release.
“Low Battery” came up on the viewfinder’s display. The camera refused to function and the ray ploughed into me, nearly knocking it from my hand.
I turned the camera off and on again. It now worked perfectly, but too late. It must have been something to do with the extreme humidity as I sealed it into its housing.
Looking despondently towards my fellow-divers, I made out the big black manta again, visiting a cleaning spot further across the channel unseen by the others.
I drifted over and ducked between two huge brain corals. The ray circled to make another pass.
By now the other divers had seen it, but they hadn’t seen me. They started making their way towards where it was circling. As the manta passed over me, I popped up and got two extreme wide-angle close-ups. Black mantas are notoriously difficult to photograph, but this one had all its features helpfully delineated by white edges.
The other divers later expressed surprise at seeing me there, and not a little envy. How did I know to be waiting in that position
That’s the thing about mantas. You have to guess where they will be and let them come to you. The successful manta photographer must be a patient ambush predator.

ULONG CHANNEL
Ulong Channel is much older and narrower than German Channel, with dense coral growth. The water pushes through here with far more urgency.
Again it was an inward flow, and we dived at dusk. Lots of little grey reef sharks hung around at the ocean entrance. When the flow is in the opposite direction, it brings plenty of unsuspecting victims to their hungry mouths. A couple of dogtooth tuna buzzed by along with some pompano jack, all hoping for easy pickings.
Again, I waited for my companions to lose patience and allow themselves to be swept away down the channel, while I hung on for a last attempt at a close-up of a shark. By now the water was losing its blueness, and everything was turning dusky grey.
As I began to scoot along effortlessly, I again wondered where the rest of the boat’s passengers were. I could see no lights. Finally I glimpsed some exhaled bubbles against the fading light from the surface. It was Jay, who had also been hanging back with his camera.
We zipped along on an accelerating flow, about 50m apart, past giant cabbage corals. Blueline snapper piled up in defensive heaps. Huge groups of bigeyes monitored us suspiciously.
The last time I dived this channel, the current had been flowing out and angry titan triggerfish constantly buzzed me as I shot through it, reminiscent of a Star Wars X-Wing ride.
It was a relief to be washed out into the ocean to meet the hungry sharks.
Palau was the first legal shark sanctuary, so there are plenty of grey reef sharks now but all quite young and rather small. Presumably their mums had suffered at the hands of the shark-fin soup industry, but the youngsters’ presence augurs well for the future.

BLUE HOLE & BLUE CORNER
It’s great to drop through a hole in the reef top and find yourself in a cathedral-sized cave. Swimming around, other divers look diminutive in comparison.
Once you’re done marvelling, it’s a bit of a swim along the reef wall, heavy with colourful coral growth, to Palau’s most famous dive site, Blue Corner.
This forms an underwater promontory of reef that juts out between the Pacific and the Philippine Sea. The water squeezing over it produces a ripping current at times, rather like the air passing over the wing of a plane. It’s what you need for a high-voltage dive.
We hook in at the top of the cliff. With a little air in the BC and the current-hook securely caught in the substrate, we can fly on the fast-moving water while sharks patrol up and
down in space, surfing on the flow.
Thousands of little redtooth triggerfish flutter like so many butterflies in the blue, while behind
us a couple of Napoleon wrasse that are obviously used to being fed by divers nudge our backs, seeking attention.
I find it interesting that they can differentiate between the Palauan divers and the rest of us, because these are the guys who are continually nagged for a hand-out.
Just as we’re getting a little bored with the repetitiveness of the multiple sharks’ routine, swimming up and looking at us with those unfeeling black eyes before drifting off again, a massive school of yellow-tail barracuda arrives and everyone breaks ranks, unhooking
and swimming up into the blue to get their photographs.
I manage to insert myself into the middle of these schooling fish, and they form a vortex of silver arrows around me. It doesn’t help my own photography apart from the close-ups, but it allows the others to get good shots of this slowly revolving mass of long slim bodies with a diver at its centre.
I should mention turtles at this point. Palau seems to be getting knee-deep in both hawksbill and green turtles.
There are 15 divers in our group, which can lead to dive-site congestion at times. However, when we come across a group of turtles there always seem to be enough to allow every underwater photographer to have one to him- or herself!

RELICS OF THE PACIFIC WAR
After defeat in the Great War, the Germans left Palau and the Japanese replaced them as the colonising power.
Between then and the military action of WW2 they had time to build massive underground fortifications that led to the US misadventure in invading the island of Pelelui.
Pelelui, the only flat island in the archipelago, was where the Japanese had built an aircraft runway.
Whether it made any difference to US victory is still debated, but it saw some of the most savage fighting. The islands are still strewn with remnants of the defeated Japanese war machine, including tanks, guns and destroyed buildings, and not least under water.
The jungle has since grown back.
Operation Desecrate One was not unlike the more famous Hailstone attack at Truk Lagoon. A large fleet of Japanese support ships using Palau’s lagoon were caught by a US aircraft-carrier-launched assault and the lagoon is littered with the results of the chaos that ensued.
We dived the fleet oiler the Iro, which is completely enshrined in coral growth. It’s difficult to recognise the forward and aft-mounted heavy guns but they sit there, testimony to the fact that they never got off a shot.
Thousands of horse-eyed jacks inhabit the decks among the machinery used originally to manipulate the heavy fuel lines across to the ships the Iro serviced.
She had retired to Palau for repairs after being hit in the bow by a torpedo from the US submarine Tunny. It’s amazing that she made it back to port, such is the size of the hole.
However, a direct hit later from a bomb into her engine-room killed all those present and set her fatally on fire. She eventually settled on an even keel.
I made for the engine-room, where the not-so-big steam engine sits in a tangle of blasted metal walkways and pipework.
Another interesting if small wreck is that of the Jake seaplane that was sunk at its moorings and for years stayed almost intact.
Since I last dived it eight years previously, the bright red sponge covering has gone and its silvery aluminium now shows through.
The heavy engine had broken away from the front some years ago, but otherwise it looks almost ready to fly.
I managed to get into the water before the rest of our motley crew and got five minutes alone with the wreck before 14 other divers turned it to turmoil.

JELLYFISH LAKE
It’s a steep climb up the hill, and I regretted not wearing tough-soled boots as the endless flints and tree roots added extreme foot-pain to my heavy breathing.
Then it’s a climb down again to this unique land-locked, saltwater lake.
For eons it has existed without any contact with the sea beyond the island, except for whatever water has permeated the soft limestone rock. However, it’s full of life, presumably brought in via the feet, beaks and defecations of birds.
Archerfish hang around the tree roots at the lake’s margins, but the stars of the show are the millions of jellyfish that have evolved without predators, and have consequently lost
the ability to sting.
The water is as warm as bathwater.
No suit is needed. The jellyfish go deep at night but come up to the surface when the sun shines. They use the light for the photosynthesis of the plankton they carry, and on which they feed.
It takes a while to get used to the notion that these soft gelatinous creatures can be allowed to bump against your bare skin without ill-effect, but soon everyone is snorkelling carefully among them, so as not to damage them with a careless kick.
An hour or so is enough. Pictures are recorded, and then it’s the long climb up over the hill and back down to where the boat is waiting to take us back to our mothership.
Snorkelling among so many jellyfish is something of an alien experience.
Are these creatures from another world Yes. They’re from a one-off landlocked lake on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

CHANDELIER CAVE
Peter, a fellow-passenger, decided that Chandelier Cave was not a dive for him. It’s a real cave dive, and the entrance looks very dark and foreboding.
It isn’t. This cave has enormous caverns interlinked and without any constrictions, and in many places it’s not an overhead environment at all. In the three major chambers, divers can ascend into air spaces fed from above.
There are stalactites both above and below the surface, and the rock has the colour of a mixture of honey and toffee. It’s all very pretty. There is no need for a guideline. You can’t get lost, although it would be foolhardy to enter such a cave without reliable lighting and
a back-up light.
The water may be salty but it’s crystal-clear because there is no light to allow plankton to flourish. It’s about 15m deep to the bottom, but the interesting part is around the top few metres of water. There is no discernable current.
Unfortunately, with several people together in any confined space, the fin movements of each affects the others.
I tried to take some over/under pictures but I was being pushed around by this unwanted flow too much to achieve success. It was frustrating, but not dangerous. It would be better if
a photographer could get access to this site with only a buddy as a model.

OCEAN HUNTER III
You could dive all the sites of Palau from the shore using a fast day-boat, but the travelling time would limit you to a couple of dives a day. A liveaboard positioned on site gives you the opportunity to get into the water up to five times a day, including a night dive.
Ocean Hunter III is operated by Fish ’n Fins, a dive centre company run by Tova and Navot that goes back more than 25 years.
This 29m steel vessel makes an ideal diving base, because it has a large aft deck augmented by a covered area for camera preparation, complete with plenty of charging sockets, and a swim platform low to the water.
However, most runs to the dive sites are done in a comfortable launch powered by huge twin engines. Nitrox is supplied by a membrane system, and the boat is CCR-friendly.
Ocean Hunter III has ensuite air-conditioned accommodation composed of three standard and three deluxe cabins and two master staterooms for up to 16 passengers, two large saloons and an effective galley that turns out excellent and varied food. Mealtimes are never boring. The spacious sundeck has two Jacuzzis permanently filled.
The engines are amazingly quiet, especially when you consider the resonance of a steel hull, and everything ran exceedingly smoothly under the supervision of the Palauan and Filipino crew. This is one of the most immaculately clean liveaboards I have ever been on.
Senior dive guide Eddie showed both maturity and a great sense of humour. Passengers come from all over, including Europe, the USA and Australia.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly from Frankfurt or Vienna with China Airlines via Taipei
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION:Ocean Hunter III, www.oceanhunter.com, www.fishnfins.com
WHEN TO GO: Any time. The weather is tropical.
MONEY: US dollars. Major credit cards accepted.
HEALTH: There is no malaria in Palau but sunscreen is essential.
PRICES: Scuba Travel can arrange a nine-night trip including seven nights on Ocean Hunter III and flights for around £4195, www.scubatravel.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visit-palau.com