FOUR Koror, Palau
By one of those happy geological co-incidences, 35 million or so years ago the Pacific tectonic plate collided with, and was driven under, the Philippine tectonic plate.
The resulting volcanic activity created the 300 islands of the Palau Archipelago. Add a smattering of porous limestone, ideal for caverns and fissures, and you have all the ingredients for an array of undersea environments.
Throw in clear waters, sweeping currents and some ferocious battles between the Americans and Japanese in World War Two that littered the seabed with wrecks, and one could easily be convinced that Palau was created entirely for divers.
Palau has it all - wrecks of boats and aircraft large and small, world-class drop-offs, caverns and cave systems honeycombing the islands, busy reefs and patrolling pelagics.
We have travelled halfway across the world to be here, to share famed dive locations with 1500 species of fish and 700 species of coral. We are not in the mood to be disappointed!
We are met at the airport by Tony Campbell, marketing director for Sams Tours, Palaus most established dive operation. Tony briefs us on the islands as we drive to the hotel.
Palau only has a population of 12,000, and a fine tradition of caring for its reefs and fishing grounds, he says. There is an ancient taboo, called bul, that ensures that certain fishing areas are not overfished, and that spawning grounds are protected.
These traditions are now being reinforced on a more formal basis by the Koror State Rangers, and our diversity of marine life can match anything on Earth.
Palau was hit hard by the El NiÃ¢â‚¬â€œo in 1998, losing great tracts of hard coral, yet through the energetic input of locals and various specialists from around the world, the reefs are recovering fast. Marine life still swarms over these reefs, and Tonys introduction is no idle boast.
Of the hundreds of dive sites, three in particular appeal to the team. The first is Jellyfish Lake, a biological phenomenon that is a must-see for any visitor. The second is Chandelier Cave, a system meandering into the heart of the islands, notable in that it can be explored by relatively inexperienced divers.
The last, and by no means least, is Blue Corner. A shelf of coral and limestone jutting into the dark abyss of the ocean trench to the west of the islands, it offers a ringside place at the marine bonanza represented by a strong upwelling current. Hook on, settle down, and enjoy the best seat in the diving house.
Sadly, the Full Circle weather system, having periodically bucketed on us in Africa, immediately finds us in Palau, and gleefully hurls stair-rods of rain on all and sundry for our first couple of days. Undaunted, the staff of Sams Tours, ably led by the ridiculously capable Kendyll and the laconic, moustachioed Matt Young, throw themselves into the watery breach and set about salvaging our schedule.
Added to this is a blonde dynamo called Kevin Davidson, small, insane and clad in hideous Hawaiian shorts and a hat that clashes with everything on the island.
Kevin is perhaps the best underwater photographer with whom I have worked. He can also fix anything and everything, and proceeds single-handedly to salvage various moist, bent and broken things for the expedition. Quite a team they have at Sams Tours.
One of Palaus great strengths as a dive location proves to be our salvation. Short of a typhoon, there are no weather conditions that can stop diving completely. Invariably there is a gem of a dive tucked away in the lee of a rock island or some reef sheltered by a shoulder of a cliff.
Kendyll and Matts solution is the world-famous drop-off at Ngmelis Wall - a particular favourite of a certain Jacques Cousteau.
Ngmelis Wall could be described as a fairly typical Palauan drop-off. Festooned by a riot of sea fans and soft corals, the diver hardly knows where to turn, with nudibranchs and morays to one side of the wall, and grey reef sharks, trevallies and eagle rays cruising in the blue to the other.
Having drifted past the wall for two dives on the first day, the team is suitably enthusiastic, as befits experienced divers in the presence of truly great diving. A stunning dive - one of the finest many of us have ever experienced - and yet the team is preoccupied by Blue Corner. Can it live up to our over-hyped expectations On day two, we find out.
In breathless anticipation, we listen to Kevins briefing as we shelter in a tranquil cove before heading into the open ocean towards the entry point. I have, sadly, urinated in my wetsuit a number of times during my diving career. It is unusual, however, for me to do so during the brief leading to the dive.
In his unique style, Kevin makes it clear that conditions are marginal, mistakes and hesitation could lead to entering the spin cycle of the waves crashing on the reef crest, and fumble-fingered divers tinkering with mask straps on the surface will not be tolerated. Suitably hyped, we thunder around the headland towards Blue Corner.
The boat eventually slows in what is unmistakably open ocean. Kevin bellows instructions, and in quick time we exit the boat, turn turtle and fin towards the edge of the drop-off.
On arrival, I immediately see (or rather feel) why this area is so special. Barrelling over the reef lip are thousands of tons of seawater a second, underwater surf that rattles your mask, wobbles your regulator in gritted teeth, and buffets your flailing form.
The merits of reef hooks are much debated, but here they are simply essential. The alternative (which, sadly, we witness) is a group of divers hanging onto the coral itself, bicycling fins pounding the reef behind them.
Our group sways serenely above it all, attached by hooks to established anchor-points, and watches the big marine life of Palau sail past before us on a blue conveyor belt.
Everywhere I look there are sharks - grey reef sharks hanging effortlessly in the raging heart of the current, and whitetips contouring the reef edge, passing inches before the divers. Overhead is a stairway of blackstripe barracuda, in the middle distance a great silver cylinder of jack.
And then, joining the divers, a bruiser of a humphead Napoleon wrasse. Greeted with a friendly, regulator-distorted shriek from Kevin, it stays with us throughout the dive, wide-eyed divers stroking its glossy flanks.
All too soon its over and, loosening our hooks, we spiral off the edge of the reef for a safety stop in mid water. On returning to the still wildly bucking boat, I discover that post-Blue Corner divers have two volumes. These are stunned silence and very loud indeed.
Blue Corner has yet more to offer, and the next day the team is led into the Blue Holes on the side of the reef outcrop. Within this great cavern, hangar-like in its dimensions, is a dark secret.
Five of us on nitrox, we are led by Matt into the Temple of Doom. Crawl through a tiny entrance at the foot of the Blue Holes and you enter an inky cavern, the floor of which is the consistency of talcum powder. This is the final resting place of three turtles, their bones lying silent amid stalactite gravestones.
This is not to be the teams only experience of cave-diving. There are few locations in the world where a cave system can be explored in complete safety by non-specialists, and Chandelier Cave in Malakal Harbour is one of them. It consists of four sumps connected by passages running 100m into the island, and the cave entrance is metres from Sams Tours shop.
Natural light seeps through to every sump, and it is magical to drift through the maze of stalactites studded with reflective crystals, the light dancing in the beams of our torches.
On reaching the last sump, Kendyll instructs us to turn out our lights, and we drift back with the team-members ahead silhouetted in the blue haze of the cave entrance.
Five days of diving fly by, a blur of plunging drop-offs and ghostly wrecks. Our final day is a de-gassing tour of the archipelago, and a visit to Jellyfish Lake.
There are 70 marine lakes in Palau, all unique. Formed by sea water seeping through channels and cracks in the porous rock of a limestone basin, Jellyfish Lake is one of the most famous as the home of 20 million Mastigia jellyfish, a non-stinging species that gain most of their nutrients from a symbiotic relationship with single-celled algae in their tissues.
As I enter the lake, I try (and fail) to think of another place on Earth where one can encounter that many large animals in a single place. A short swim to the heart of the lake, and I am in jellyfish soup. Their gently pulsing forms surround me, their surprisingly solid mantles brushing every inch of my body.
Among the Mastigia is the occasional moon jellyfish, drifting through what is plainly jellyfish heaven. A bizarre experience in one of Natures greatest congregations of living things.
Walk through the tiny airport at Yap, and a small tanned youth will grin at you broadly and place a flower arrangement on your head. Go over to the smiling customs man, then hand your bags to the beaming porter before climbing into a bus driven by a chuckling driver. Yap probably has the strongest local culture anywhere in Micronesia, a predominant feature of which appears to be a singularly friendly approach to strange teams of divers.
The whole island is smiling and, after 10 minutes, so are you.
Our hosts are the Manta Ray Bay Hotel and the attached dive centre, Yap Divers. The operation was established in 1986 by Bill Acker, and rapidly became the worldwide Mecca for divers wanting to experience guaranteed encounters with mantas.
There are about 80 islands, only 21 of which are inhabited. The whole archipelago sprawls over an area the size of Europe, yet has a population of only 8000.
The remoteness of the islands and the sparsity of the population makes Yap one of the last bastions for true Micronesian culture, unsullied by outside influences.
The main congregation of islands, where the dive operation is based, has 90 miles of coral reefs and walls, among which nestle 50 established dive sites and countless unexplored nooks and crannies.
The shallow waters over these reefs are traditional fishing grounds owned by individuals or villages, and are jealously guarded. It is only Bills experience in these islands, and his special relationship with the islanders, that allows him (and of course his clients) access to a mouth-watering series of pristine sites - home to the 800 species of fish and 150 species of corals.
Happily, 80% of the reefs remain unexplored, magical secrets concealed in local by-laws and customs that prevent access by outsiders.
What makes the islands particularly irresistible are two large channels called OKeefes Passage and the Valley of the Rays. Here lurk the mantas, gliding with the changing tides and visiting cleaning stations, the location of which has not changed for thousands of years.
Our first appointment with the mantas of Yap occurs in the Valley of the Rays. This channel connects the mangroves and open sea, and has several prominent isolated coral bommies that are the perfect rendezvous points for the rays on their commute to and from the blue ocean at the reefs edge.
Enter the water, wait by a cleaning station, and sooner or later a manta will swing by.
All splendid in theory. When we motor into the channel, however, I cant help noticing that the mooring buoy is trailing a foaming wake as the outgoing tide thunders past the boat. Our skipper Alex is nonplussed, peering briefly at the maelstrom, smiling broadly, then launching into his brief: Okay people, we have five rules when diving with the mantas. No touching, stay on the bottom, no chasing, no climbing on the cleaning station, and please avoid blowing bubbles onto their bellies if possible.
I notice that he neglects to mention the no drifting into the middle of the Pacific Ocean rule, but remain silent.
Swim across the channel, stay with me, and when were in the lee of the cleaning stations, we wait. He beams, squares his considerable shoulders at his dive kit, and we spring into life.
The impression of a snorting current from the surface is not, sadly, misleading in the slightest. On entering the water, I am immediately on an undersea treadmill, legs pumping furiously, pressure gauge falling like the altimeter of a crashing aircraft.
After quickly exchanging OK signals with my wide-eyed buddy, we head towards the nearest station, a reassuringly solid shape in the middle distance. On reaching it, we swing into the lee, a pocket of calm in the eye of a watery gale.
Huddled together like troops in ambush, we peer up at the edge of the coral several feet above us, and await the arrival of the star guest.
Twenty minutes later we are still there, video lenses and camera lights pointed up like a row of ack-ack guns, but no dark shadows sweeping overhead. And then, the excited tapping of Alex on his tank attracts our attention. Following his outstretched arm, I see a gigantic shape soaring in the dense thermals of the current.
One, then two, then three effortlessly graceful flaps of those gigantic wings, a soaring bank past a row of upturned faces and popping flashguns, and the manta is at the station directly above us. I can almost hear the throb of Vickers engines.
These cleaning stations are like garages on the dual carriageway of the current. The manta hovers briefly over the station, and at once several cleaner wrasse emerge from the coral resplendent in their company uniforms, and set to work.
Parasites are picked from a gleaming white underbelly, gill-slits distended to allow access, and one of natures more extraordinary symbiotic relationships is taking place before our eyes.
All is going smoothly until a false cleaner wrasse darts up from cover and nips the manta. As if waking from a reverie, there is a twitch of the broad body, an imperceptible lift of a wing, and the manta takes flight. Soaring directly over our heads, she disappears back into the main current and is gone.
The mantas are undoubtedly Yaps main drawing card, and the thrill of seeing one (or several) in the water is worth the considerable trip to get to the island. The next day were back, manta junkies waiting trembling and wide-eyed for our next fix.
The tide is slightly higher in the channel for this dive, and the visibility has improved considerably. This gives us the opportunity to see the run-in of not one but two mantas, in stately formation, wingtip to wingtip, towards the cleaning station. On arrival in front of the slack-jawed group of divers, one ray proceeds to soar inches overhead.
I look up as it blots out the sun, and see a solitary grey snapper cruising in its shadow like a Messerschmidt behind a cloud, occasionally darting out to scatter the baitfish around the cleaning station.
Of course there is much more to Yap, and we have the chance to experience a range of dives during our stay, including some of the most striking hard coral I have ever seen.
Yap largely escaped the effects of El NiÃ¢â‚¬â€œo because the Yap Trench, a great canyon in the ocean a mere 17 miles away, acted as a thermostat, regulating the temperature of the water around the island. The visibility is also tremendous, allowing you to view 30-40m of tangled coral gardens that unroll before you like an angular buffet.
But despite the strength of the fascinating local traditions, the warm welcome, the visibility, the magnificent coral and the cruising sharks, one image will stay with the team always from our brief time on this tiny island. It is the effortless approach of a creature weighing over a ton, with a 4m wingspan, capable of a top speed of 24 knots, yet content to ride the current towards you and stop so close that you hardly dare to breathe.
The manta rays of Yap are a sight that none of the Full Circle team will ever forget.
SIX Cairns, Australia
Reality bites as the team lands in Australia. After a series of exotic Micronesian islands and exclusive resorts, Cairns is a quintessentially Australian experience. Loud, lusty and larger than life, Cairns is having a good time and doesnt care who knows about it. Slightly shell-shocked, we are led to our hotel nursing sweet memories of swaying palms and grass skirts.
Cairns has grown up as a staging post for the voyage to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns Dive Centre was our host, and I try not to feel trepidation as I enter its well-appointed shop close to the sea-front this afternoon.
Will I be faced with burnt-out instructors, hollow-eyed and jaded at the endless stream of pimply Poms passing through their pool and then out of their lives forever I am, of course, very wrong.
Aside from an unfortunate experience involving a rugby ball, some size 11 boots and my vulnerable buttocks, which I wont bore you with here, I have always liked Australians enormously. They are an entire nation of straightforward-look-you-in-the-eye types whose lives are fuelled by high-octane enthusiasm.
This is evident in spadefuls as they receive the team and our absurd mountains of baggage. Hands are pumped, backs slapped, gdays exchanged, and soon we are basking in the warmth of the welcome.
Diving in Cairns is big business. Fraser Bruce, Operations Manager for Cairns Dive Centre, tells me about the immense amount of business passing through the town.
We start a new Open Water course pretty much every day, and qualify 6-7000 divers a year, he says. Since we started 13 years ago, we have qualified more than 100,000 divers, which must make us one of the most prolific qualifiers of new divers anywhere on Earth.
All this activity takes place under a regime that has evolved over the years into a model of efficiency. Once caught up in the machine, its a joy to sit back and be whisked from shop to boat, from boat to liveaboard, and from liveaboard to reef.
The next morning we transfer to the mv Kangaroo Explorer, a purpose-built liveaboard owned by CDC that cruises an area of the reef between Green and Fitzroy Islands, lying 40-odd miles off Cairns.
This area of reef is frequently visited by boats from various organisations in the area, but each operator has its own strict allocation of mooring points.
Unlike the Red Sea, it is unheard of for two boats to work the same point on the reef simultaneously.
Kangaroo Explorer is licensed to carry 57 clients but CDC restricts numbers to 36 to allow more space to enjoy the facilities. The CDC dayboat regularly brings trainee-divers out to the larger vessel, which acts as a floating dive centre.
The Kangaroo Explorer is a 60ft catamaran, built specifically to cruise the reefs, and is a fine piece of design, from its vast acreage of sun-deck to its bustling dive platform.
To the alarm of the crew, we unload our fruit-machine-sized bags and immediately dominate the key terrain of the sun-deck.
Controlling the members of this expedition is like herding cats. The moment you have one lot under control, a sub-group makes a break for it and will finally be cornered in the bar, giving the original group plenty of time to wander off in search of creative mischief.
The dive co-ordinator for the vessel is Scott, who is enthusiastic even for an Australian, and soon reaches the necessary decibel level to attract our attention.
Gday, ladies an gents, he bellows, and welcome to the Kangaroo Explorer. Over the next four days well be diving three reef systems - Briggs Reef, Milne Reef and the Horseshoe. Now if I can just have your attentionÃƒâ€°
With so many divers covering this area of reef off Cairns, operators are anxious not to repeat the well-publicised incident several years ago when two divers were left behind (not by CDC, I hasten to add).
Scotts briefing highlights the many safety measures in place to ensure that team-members can be traced at all times.
Another concern of the team is that many years of intensive diving in the area could have had a significant impact on the reefs, but although there are occasional signs of wear and tear, on the whole the reefs are in good condition. In certain places over the next three days, we encounter some of the best hard corals we have seen on the Full Circle tour.
The Great Barrier Reef is 1250 miles long, but only a 500 mile section is dived with any regularity. It has become something of a habit among certain divers to dismiss the reef as old hat, but the presence of 1100 fish species and 500 corals makes this one of the richest systems on the planet, made up of 2000 separate reefs and 71 coral islands.
Any thoughts of merely ticking the box and moving on are swiftly dispelled with the first dive.
This is at the Horseshoe, a U-shaped series of loosely connected coral bommies in 20m of water. Staghorn coral rises above a tangled matrix of numerous other hard coral species, punctuated by great domes of brain coral.
The marine life, accustomed to divers, carries on as normal as we roam the reef, from groupers queuing at cleaning stations and turtles grazing contentedly in full view of the divers, to cleaning shrimps and gobies grimly defending their tiny patches of turf.
Say what you might about fish-feeding - and its impact on natural systems is undeniable - it does make for some classic close encounters. As I drift back towards the liveaboard, I pass over the top of a beautiful large Spanish mackerel, all lean lines and sleek curves, hovering inches from the seabed, fins quivering, a Formula One car in the pits, trembling with explosive energy.
The next day sees the boat move to Milne Reef, and the best diving of our stay with CDC. This reef system has magnificent coral gardens, with outcrops and walls creating a maze through which the divers wander for several contented hours.
The Full Circle team includes very experienced individuals who have dived all over the world. All voice their approval for the state of the reefs and the quality of the coral here.
Our four days swiftly end, and we are soon grunting and dribbling beneath the weight of the bags yet again. We will remember the splendid crew of the Kangaroo Explorer, the team at CDC for whom nothing was too much work, and the quality of the coral on this great reef system.
Should you wish to learn to dive, or experience a slice of mid-budget fun mixed with some very nice diving indeed, I commend the Cairns Diving Centre to you.
- Sams Tours, Palau: 00680 488 1062, www.samstours.com
- Manta Ray Bay Hotel/Yap Divers: 00691 350 2300, www.mantaray.com
- Cairns Diving Centre: 0061 07 4051 0294, www.cairnsdive.com
- Full Circle Expeditions: 07812 136781, www.divefullcircle.com