|THE current was roaring. I needed both hands to keep my heavy camera aimed ahead, and I had already rigged the flash in such a way that it would not be bent back on its mounting arm by the force of the water.
My arms ached as my exhalation bubbles spun away horizontally. To turn and look at other divers caused my regulator to free-flow and my mask to flood, and their exhaled bubbles gave them the appearance of the steam expresses of my loco-spotting youth.
I was glad Id selected a secure place to fix my reef hook. Now I was tied off by a metre and a half of line, and a little bit of air in the BC gave me the buoyancy I needed to keep the line taut and the hook in place. I vectored my body so as to be as aqua-dynamic as I could. Below me, further down the wall, a grey reef shark did the same, but a lot more effectively, and he wasnt tied off to the rock!
Peleliu Cut, Peleliu, Palau. Its a slash in the reef wall at the south-east end of Peleliu Island, where the tide of the Philippine Sea, moving water north, meets the current of the Pacific Ocean working in the opposite direction. Where the irresistible force of the sea meets the immovable mass of the reef, the result is spectacular.
We were facing the flood tide from the south, watching for action out in the blue and knowing that we had a contrary current waiting at our backs - waiting to hurl us, up or down, but certainly out into the wide open space of the Pacific Ocean.
It is not a place for beginners. But it is a place to see pelagic action. Big fish enjoy the current - mantas, tuna, sharks (oceanic white tips, threshers, tigers and silvertips) all pay regular visits.
By the time I was down to 50 bar of nitrox I noticed I was alone. My companions were by now making their safety stops, spinning along at the unpredictable will of the two opposing currents.
I pulled myself down my own tether to where the hook had been planted. It was not an easy job with one hand holding the camera. I began to wish I hadnt fixed the hook so securely and considered disconnecting it from where it was clipped to my BC, but that meant losing an important tool. It took me another 30 bar before I had freed it and taken the hurdy-gurdy ride in the current at 6m on my way to the surface.
Every diver goes in equipped with a safety sausage and direct-feed whistle. It was a lesson learned the hard way. Some years ago, four Japanese divers and their local guide lost their lives here when their pick-up boat was unable to find where they ended up on the surface in stormy conditions.
Palau is located east of the Philippines and a long way south of Japan. It is another of those tiny groups of dots that punctuate the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. At 7 north, in the Western Caroline Islands, it is equatorial, and the area is collectively known as Micronesia.
Palau was discovered by the Spanish in the 18th century, but its ties with the west stem from a friendship built between an Englishman, Henry Wilson, and a local chief. Wilsons ship, the Antelope, had been wrecked on Palaus barrier reef. At the beginning of this century Spain sold Palau to Germany, but it was soon wrested from them by the Japanese.
Palau came to prominence at the end of World War Two due to the stubborn defence by the Japanese, with their underground tunnels and fortifications built under Peleliu. Around 11,000 Japanese and 1000 Americans lost their lives before the islands were liberated.
Blue Corner - a point on the reef not far from Peleliu - is another place where divers can hook onto the top edge of the wall and observe the wildlife enjoying the movement of the sea, out in the blue.
Here the flow is one way only, but when it is right the cabaret begins. Shoaling jacks rid themselves of unwanted lice by rubbing themselves boldly against the rough skin of cruising sharks. A mass of black snapper pass, oblivious, in the opposite direction. A dog-tooth tuna dodges in, looking for an opportune meal; a giant school of chevron barracuda waits at the edge of visibility.
The Blue Hole is a cavern near Blue Corner with entrances from the top of the reef down to 18m and opening into a wide arch on the wall. Therein lies a plaque, put there in memory of divers lost at Peleliu. When you look up you see four vertical chimneys rising to the sky.
Then there is German Channel, so named because the Germans blasted through the reef nearly a century before to give their ships access to Palau Lagoon and the bauxite and phosphate of the mineral mines.
Here giant clams gape widely, waiting for a meal. Some of them weigh in at an astonishing 200kg.
Reef sharks continue their ceaseless hunt for the weak and ill, competing with silver-sided wahoo. Mantas come in to be cleaned, and you can marvel at schooling Japanese divers waiting for the show to commence!
Ulong Channel, a natural cut in Palaus southern barrier reef, should be renamed Triggerfish Alley. We spun along with the flow past endless numbers of nesting triton triggerfish. Only about a foot long, the nesting female is just about the most aggressive animal in the sea - armed with exceedingly large front teeth. A perceived threat is challenged with a headlong charge and a fierce bite, and I was obviously seen as a threat.
The effect for me was similar to, I imagine, meeting anti-aircraft fire in a low-flying bomber - Luke Skywalker dicing with the defences of the Death Star!
As I zipped along past a seemingly endless display of coral heads, these marine bull terriers would take turns to hurtle up at me from their nests, only occasionally making contact - Im glad to say. I was equally thankful that a successful strike amounted to no more than latching on to one of my fins. It was a relief to make it out into the safe deep water at the channels mouth to watch the sharks skulking deep below me on the sand.
Koror, the capital of Palau, was the administrative centre of Japans wartime Pacific island empire. After a massive loss of shipping in Truk Lagoon in 1944, Palau became a very important naval base for the Japanese. The Allies, viewing this as a potential threat to their invasion of the Philippines, and eventually Japan, executed Operation Desecrate One - a relentless attack that saw 60 Japanese ships sunk or burnt out in Palaus lagoon.
The Teshio Maru was one of the few vessels to escape this fate. She made it to open water but was still doomed to destruction. A small freighter displacing about 2000 tonnes and measuring around 100m long, she lies on her side in 25m. Her masts are still attached and, like the gun on her foredeck and the one on her aft, they are totally encased in coral.
It is possible to penetrate her superstructure to find plates and sake bottles (it is illegal to remove anything) but this forms the less interesting part of the dive. It is the marine growth and fish life around her that makes a visual treat and, unlike the wrecks within the lagoon, the visibility is superb.
To get to these sites from the capital island of Koror, one takes a fast boat ride past the Rock Islands - a unique and famous landmark consisting of old coral reefs forced up by prehistoric volcanic activity. They are now heavily topped with vegetation and their bases are being eroded by the sea and the activity of algae-eating marine organisms. The effect is like a collection of massive heads of broccoli sticking up out of the shallow sea.
In fact the sea is so shallow here that the boat seems to skim perilously close to the reef top as it makes its way at around 40 knots.
Chandelier Cave, close to Koror, was once an air-filled cavern, and now boasts a massive display of stalactites. You can swim inwards about 100m, surfacing in one of three air spaces to chat with your buddy. It is an easy dive, spacious, and not in the least bit claustrophobic, but it has seen one or two divers resort to blind panic. Not everyone is cut out to dive in the dark without a clear surface.
The island of Eil Malk boasts the famous Jellyfish Lake. This is a landlocked salt-water lake that was cut off when the surrounding reef rose up in prehistoric times. The jellyfish here have evolved separately from those you might meet in the sea, and there are literally millions of them.
The jellyfish feed on the algae that live within their tissues. They rise during the day to find sunlight and sink to the depths at night, possibly to absorb nitrogen. Because they have no predators, they have lost the ability to sting. It is a strange feeling to snorkel among them and feel them bounce off your body like silky tennis balls.
made the steep climb to Jellyfish Lake over the hill from the sea, avoiding touching the trunks of certain trees that host a poisonous sap. This climb was accompanied by the jungle-like sound effects from Tenko, with the odd shout in Japanese from somewhere distant through the rainforest. I started thinking about Chindits, the fall of Singapore; echoes of David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.
I was glad to find that on some of the more difficult parts of the route there was a tied-off rope to hold on to. I found it a sweat to get there, but Jellyfish Lake is an experience not to be missed.
Slipping and sliding down the slope to the lake, I was bemused to see a chain of about 50 Japanese tourists, each clad in a lifejacket and holding the ankles of the person in front, making their way back to the shore. The leader, obviously a local guide, was aided by a float-board. It seems that you do not have even to be a swimmer to enjoy this unique place.
Although Palau is now an independent island republic, it has good connections with the American empire through Guam.
Hotels like the one at which I stayed, Palau Pacific Resort, built on the site of a war-time Japanese seaplane base, are exceedingly modern and well serviced. Splash is the name of its in-house diving facility and there is a well-stocked underwater photo-store called Photo Palau.
Splash is run by Gideon, a gentle giant of a man, an Australian fluent in Japanese and Chinese, which reflects the nationality of the majority of the customers. Photo Palau is run by Bert from Arkansas and his wife Jan, a Susan George look-alike from Liverpool.
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