I HAD BOARDED THE BOUNCING BOAT after a long-haul flight and just three hours of sleep. Now I was hooked onto a reef wall at 20m with my hair being pulled back over my head and, despite being horizontal, I could feel my exhaust bubbles skimming my ankles!
In front of me and just 10m away was a group of 30 grey reef sharks, riding the upwelling current with considerably more grace than me.
Enthralled by the show in the foreground, most divers remained oblivious to the pack of whitetip sharks foraging among the rocks behind us.
I think I can safely say that the experience was worth missing a few hours sleep for...
Every year, from late February through to early April, hundreds of grey reef sharks gather in Palau to breed. Females scarred by the brutal attention of the males can be seen cruising the famous dive sights around this group of islands.
It was early March, and I was here at the invitation of Tova Harel Baranovski who, to raise awareness of the value of sharks to the local eco-system (and to the local economy), founded both the Micronesian Shark Foundation and Shark Week.
Tova and her husband Navot have run the Fish n Fins dive centre in Palau for more than 15 years. She had arranged for me to stay in the Palasia Hotel (its the only place Ive ever stayed where the lift carpet is changed daily to reflect the day of the week!) and, once installed in my room, I skimmed through the itinerary she had given me.
Like Tova and Navot, many of the dive sites we were to visit have been written about in DIVER before, but on this occasion the diving was to be just a part of the schedule. Some local and world-renowned experts, such as Dr Mark Meakin of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, had been invited both to dive with us and provide daily talks, giving the packed week a status far above that of a mere themed holiday.
The boat rides were full of interest - and some surprises. I guess I had been expecting mirror-calm waters similar to those I had experienced in the Maldives, but these were more challenging seas.
This made every trip quite exciting, but despite the bouncing and spray, I enjoyed the zig-zagging journeys, weaving between hundreds of limestone islands covered to every last centimetre in dense vegetation.
Many of these had been undercut by as much as 12m by the seas constant motion, making them look incredibly precarious and not unlike enormous heads of broccoli.
At more than 90 minutes, our trip out to Peleliu Cut on the seaward side of Peleliu Island was the longest and bumpiest boat ride of the week.
Signs were good, as we were escorted for the last leg by a school of small spinner dolphins that came so close to the bow it was possible to reach down and touch them.
On arrival we could tell that we were truly on the edge of the open ocean by the dramatic change in the water, transformed from the choppy waves of the past few days to a deep, wide swell.
We had to descend fast and in the right place for this dive, as the currents were ripping strongly. As soon as we reached the start of the wall just 18m down, reef hooks were out and secured, but it was worth it.
Clearly the sharks favour these conditions too. Up to 30 large grey reefs were close by at all times, riding the cold thermoclines being driven up the wall by the relentless Pacific current.

THE BEST PART OF THE DIVE - possibly of the whole trip - was yet to come. When we eventually let go and finned out into the blue, we became part of the flow, so all sense of physical movement ceased.
Then, turning to look back at the wall, we saw that it had suddenly transformed into a giant horizontal conveyer belt, decorated by darting sharks and tuna feeding on the many fish, all whizzing past at a rate of knots.
Moses, our aptly named boat-driver, looked visibly relieved to have recovered us all safely, probably because by the time this had been achieved, we were well out to sea away from the island.
Most days, we had our packed lunches provided by the dive centre on idyllic palm-tree-lined sandy beaches.
On this occasion, however, Moses guided our boat through the swells back to the island into an innocuous-looking jungle-covered channel.
This led into the heart of Peleliu itself, and a man-made lagoon totally cut off from the pummelling sea and even the noise of the surf. Given its incredible wartime history, it was both a fascinating and a disturbing place to be.
With an airstrip capable of handling B52 bombers, Peleliu was a wartime prize worth fighting for. Eight thousand US marines gave their lives to take this lump of rock back from the occupying Japanese. Everywhere I looked, I could see entire landing craft, artillery and other remnants of that time, still in the process of being absorbed by the jungle.
Its hard to believe that so much carnage took place in what is now such a peaceful location. During that conflict some 60 years earlier, a Jake seaplane had crash-landed just around the corner from the dive centre. Although Im sure this wasnt the pilots intention, it was very convenient for us!
The small craft was one of probably thousands of war-related wrecks in these waters and, lying in just 15m, it was a nice way to finish a long day. Although very small, its heritage rendered it well worth a visit. After inspecting it fully,
I turned my attention to what can only be described as the fields of fantastic soft corals surrounding it.

EVEN THE SHORT ASCENT had surprises to offer. Just below the surface, I discovered a family of young cuttlefish trying to blend into the line. Unfortunately for them, the blue of the polypropylene rope was just outside their spectrum.
Leading underwater videographer of National Geographic and BBC fame Mark Thorpe accompanied us on some dives. Currently living in Palau, Mark looks like a rock-band roadie on holiday.
On one occasion we were screaming through Ulong Channel, with the full force of an incoming tide behind us. Mark appeared quite used to the three-way battle for control between him, the current and his bulky HID camera.
From baby whitetip sharks to some of the biggest clams I have ever seen, the channel was packed with life, but it was as it finally widened into the lagoon and the flow eased that the most spectacular sight materialised.
In only 8m of water, a massive baitball of big-eyed scad swirled as a group of grey reef sharks took turns diving though it, transforming the glittering sphere into a silent silver explosion.
Having someone who can bring a presentation alive with real-life experiences and stories is hard to beat, and the person to do this was Australian Rodney Fox, who gave one of the
nightly talks.
I can only describe Rodney as a cross between the late Steve Irwin and the grand-dad from the Werthers Original ads. A former abalone fisherman, he conveys the impression that he considers everything in life a great adventure.
This perspective was almost certainly gained when in his youth he was famously attacked, and scarred, by a great white shark. It was an assault of such magnitude that it should have proved fatal, but instead set him on the path of passion for shark protection.

ALTHOUGH OUR ITINERARY was very much focused on watching sharks in all their glory, we also had time to fit in some of Palaus other monuments to diving, one of which isnt even a dive but a unique snorkelling experience.
Land-locked for thousands of years, Jellyfish Lake came to be an ideal environment for strange creatures that thrive on the high nitrogen concentrations and lack of predators. In some parts of the lake you cant stretch your arms without touching one.
Luckily, the lack of natural predators has caused these ethereal balls of jelly to dispense with their natural sting altogether, making it possible to mingle with them in complete safety.
Its not a spectacularly exciting experience, but its too unusual to miss.
With an entrance at just 8m and a maximum depth of 12m (if you want to be in the silt), Chandelier Cave is a naturally formed sea cave featuring magnificent stalactites. It is split into four chambers, the last more than 100m from the entrance, but divers can surface in each of these to admire the stalactites.
In chamber three, its even possible to climb out, squeeze through a hole and admire a dry chamber, but the uneven jagged surface made this treacherous.
The last of our non-shark sites was another war wreck. Built in 1922, the Iro has been reported on in divEr before (Kapow! Palau, October 2004) by John Bantin, who met the octogenarian Japanese engineer who had been the sole surviving member of the crew.
The 14,000 ton Shiretiko-class tanker was sunk by mines during WW2 while at anchor here. So protected is this natural harbour that the wreck remains in excellent condition. Its two 80mm guns; one mounted on the bow and one on the stern, are still in place. It was the only time on the trip that we had to venture past 20m, and at 32m I would have liked to use a twin-set and deco gas to spend a good hour poking about in the engine-room and various compartments.
As it was, we had time only for a 25-minute whistlestop tour, but it was a great way to finish our diving here, with yet another aspect of the variety Palau has to offer the diver.

THE WEEK FINISHED WITH A FEAST at the dive-centre bar; every local delicacy was laid on, including suckling pig. A video of the weeks activities assembled by Mark underlined just how much we had done and seen in a few short days.
I felt rather ashamed to have thought that Shark Week would simply be a themed holiday. After all the nightly lectures outlining the work of the Shark Foundation, I realised that the cost of its activities could never be recouped simply by filling a boat with punters.
These activities range from monitoring illegal finning in the area to shark-tagging and tracking and lobbying - its a very serious undertaking.
Getting to Palau was not easy and involved several flights. If youre considering it, I suggest you make it a two-week expedition.
If I was to make the trip again I would be sorely tempted to stay on one of Fish n Fins liveaboards, specifically the larger of its vessels, Ocean Hunter II, which has just been refitted.
There are other places in the world to see sharks, but the diving in Palau is unusually diverse. For true shark enthusiasts who want that bit extra, Palau's Shark Week is a must.


Opening
Opening night of Shark Week.
World
World War Two relics are everywhere.
Jellyfish
Jellyfish Lake.
Rodney
Rodney Fox, once a shark victim, now an inspiring shark advocate.
Divernet
Chris Boardman is a former World and Olympic cycling champion and has worn the yellow leaders jersey of the Tour de France on three occasions. Still the holder of two world records, Chris is now retired from pro-sport and is both Director of Coaching and Director of R&D for the British Olympic Cycling Team, cycling at present being the most successful British Olympic sport.

FACTFILE

FLIGHTS: Chris Boardman flew from Manchester via Dubai to Manila with Emirates, and then on to Koror in Palau.
DIVING: Fish n Fins, www.fishnfins.com
ACCOMMODATION: Palasia Hotel, www.palasia-hotel.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but its wettest July-October.
PRICES: The rate for Shark Week 2008 is $1150 for seven nights at the West Plaza Hotel (two sharing), five days diving, transfers, seminars and lectures, event DVD, gala dinner etc. Scheduled return flights to Palau start from around £1400. Contact Fish n Fins.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visit-palau.com