Sunday, 24 August 2014

Dive Log - Palau

Below is a collection of dive logs from some of the dive sites that we visited during our time in Palau. To start off with, the area is a marine national park and the waterways, sea life and environment are protected here such that removal of any specimen or artefact is prohibited, as is damaging any of the reefs. The protection mantra is repeated at the tour companies and on your national park pass. Sailing boats are required to have a multitude of permits depending on where in Palau the yacht is and people must carry a national park pass if they are to partake in any water based activities. The money is reported to go to managing the park islands and picnic areas, moorings for dive boats and improving the infrastructure for aquatic activities. The sea life and its condition make for truly world class diving. Palau has been famous for aqua activities for decades and there are some local and very skilled companies offering unparalleled diving experiences.

Siaes Corner

Located 30nm southwest of Koror, the site provides a fabulous wall dive on the reef wall separating the fringing reef of the greater Palau archipelago to the east and the Philippine Sea plunging to depths of 2000m to the west. This dive was in brilliant conditions with visibility up to 30m, undertaken on slack tide before the tide started rising. The wall life was layered, showing soft corals, sea fans and hard corals flourishing in the rich waters. The sea life was abundant, we made our way through dense schools of barracuda and red snapper, while brilliantly coloured small reef angel and moorish idol fish flickered through the coral seascape. We also marvelled at the reef sharks and sea turtles that were effortlessly moving about. We dived to 22m and easily filled up our 50 minute dive with spectating.

Ulong Channel

Close to Siaes Corner we undertook a dive at Ulong Channel on the incoming tide and enjoyed relaxing at shark corner and watching the multitude of grey and white-tipped reef sharks cruising around and taking an interest in us. We used the Palauan invention of the 'reef hook' to hook into hard (and dead) coral so as to preserve energy while the sharks perused the corner and we spectated on the whole event. 

After a while we continued swimming around the corner to the channel  where the current had increased to about 2 knots and we zoomed through the lettuce coral garden, spotting even more sharks and rays as we slowly ascended from the 20m dive. Visibility was declining as the current increased with the incoming tide, though it was still excellent at up to 20m vis.

Blue Corner

Further south of the above two sites is blue corner, a wall dive again on the meeting point of the Philippine Sea and the Palauan archipelago. We took the wall dive to a depth of 30m and marvelled at the detailed wall, covered in micro species of fish and invertebrates while huge Napoleon wrasse, grey reef sharks, blue fin trevally and sea and green turtles ambled around in the blue expanses. The visibility was perfect, providing greater than 50m. The Napoleon wrasse fish were very tame and even accepted a pat off one of the divers. 

German Channel

This passage was blasted through the reef by the Germans during their 'ownership' of the island nation in the late 1800s, to enable easy access for their steamships that were transporting mined phosphate off the Angaur Island in southern Palau. We went at rising tide which is when Manta Rays frequent the location to go to the 'cleaning station', where Remora fish will tend to their grooming needs. Convenient for divers, this offers an opportunity to be a voyeur while they are cleaned and majestically swoop close to the channel floor to pick up any plankton that are funnelled into the channel. We were lucky enough to see a Manta Ray slowly pirouette in and make two swims past us on his way through the cleaning station. He had a wing span of 3m across with an open mouth for plankton while two remora's were cleaning its underside. 

We also spotted a feathertail stingray keeping an interested eye on us as we passed behind, while he was buried in the sand with only his eyes and the end of his tail visible. He must have decided that we were not worth ruining his hiding spot for, as he did not move (except for his eyes carefully monitoring our movements). The visibility on this dive was lower than the previous ones, at about 15m decreasing as the tide started to change and the current increased.

Jake's Seaplane

A downed Japanese sea plane from 1941 is resting upright on the harbour floor at 15m depth on the western side of the Koror township. The plane is in excellent condition, having only experienced damage to its right-side pontoon and tail. The plane has become an artificial reef and there is not a spot left on the plane body that has not been taken over by corals and sponges. The visibility was low at about 8m, but the site is well worth the visit for a mostly intact war artefact.

Ulong - Sandbar

Cruising at a depth of 25m this was a spectacular micro dive. We spent time inspecting coral formations to spot the scorpion leaf fish, small shrimp hiding in tiny crevices, flatworms and clams snapping shut at your close visitation. Large sea turtles cruise the area, while sharks are just keeping the peace. A relaxed dive, we took our time looking for the shy of the aquatic kingdom for the best part of an hour.

Siaes Tunnel and Wall

Descending down the wall to 30m we enjoyed the lavish coral fans and wall formations before entering the tunnel. The tunnel is about 20m wide and 20m deep providing a natural cutting through the wall corner. As we made our way through the tunnel the lack of sunlight penetration made the dive dark, though looking back past the entry all you could see behind lit up by the sunlight above was the deepest of blue of the Philippine Sea beyond into nothingness. The visibility was so good providing up to 50m, and the further into the tunnel we travelled, the more depth the blue behind developed. As we exited the tunnel we traversed along the exterior of the wall and inspected the microscopic sea life, including some female damsel fish laying eggs on a coral stem awaiting germination by the male. The damsel fish were close by to ensure that we would not damage their precious eggs they had just laid. We also had trouble moving around for fear of touching a sea turtle, there we just so many. Another spectacular dive.

Above the Waterline

Not to miss a mention are the brilliant surface intervals that you are treated to. From relaxing on the white silica sand beaches of Ulong Island to paddling in the reef encircled sand bars near the rock islands, the surface intervals are as perfect a break as you could ever want. Crystal clear waters expose shallow reefs where you can watch the reef fish zipping about from the deck of the boat. 

Ulong Beach

Best Time and Tour Company

The diving is challenging off your own boat as the dive moorings are not permitted to be used by yachts and the anchoring is deep and in some location untenable. You could try and dive off your dingy, however many dive sites would be long distances from your anchorage. You will still be required to have a national park pass and a guide (as required here in Palau). We used a commercial company to go diving (see below).

Because we were intending to spend up to 3 weeks in Palau, we were able to pick the best weather for diving, days where there was little or no wind. We were also there over the full moon which is the best time for pelagic fish as they are busy getting out and about around that time. Our dive guides were fantastic and selected the sites on the day based on the conditions and the tides to best capture the features of each location. There are no shortage of dive operators to go with as you are required to go with a dive guide to any site, but we went on our diving trips with Sam's Tours. A company that has been operating in Palau for over 25 years and offers an excellent experience with well trained guides adhering to the rules set out for protection of the special aquatic environment of Palau. Don't miss the opportunity to revel in a world class diving experience, come to Palau!

Thanks to Alessia for use of her underwater shots.


Saturday, 16 August 2014

Palau, Perfection Protected

A place of mixed origins set in an isolated island group many days sail from any other inhabited land. It has postcard sand islands with palm trees atop, ringed by lush reef networks that step between microscopic fluro aquatic fish, seascapes of coral beds and give way to deep seas abundant with shark, rays and turtle populations.

One tree island

The native people on the land originated from Indonesia, Yap and other nearby Micronesian islands and the Philippines. Then came the Spanish in 1710 from the Philippines, though they showed little interest in colonising the land and only became heavy handed regarding their 'ownership' of the islands after English merchants ended up trading with the locals when they were shipwrecked off Palau, and expelled the British in 1885. Though it was barely 15 years before the land was handed to Germany in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (when Spain also lost the Philippines to the USA). Another handover less than 20 years later saw Japan holding the islands and undertaking mining, fishing and other ventures, it also saw the population of 4,000 Palauans versus the Japanese population of 30,000 inhabiting the islands. WWII brought bombings to the population centres, and a fierce and bloody battle on the southern island of Peleliu and its airfield which American General MacArthur hoped to win control of to use strategically for his triumphant return the Philippines in 1944. Despite the 1,500 US troop deaths, Peleliu was never used in the invasion of the Philippines.

The winning of Peleliu and the eventual end to WWII in the Pacific was not insignificant for the island nation. Not to mention the loss of 30 years of Japanese language, food and culture imposed on the Palauan people. At the end of the war, Micronesia, Palau and many other western Pacific nations became part of the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands administered by the US. That meant the use of English language in schooling, business and in communication. The result is that the population here speak perfect fluent English, use the US dollar as their currency and drive on the right hand side of the road (however due to the importation of Japanese and other asian vehicles, the cars are right hand all makes for a very strange driving experience). With the population around the 20,000 mark, in 1994 Palau voted to successfully become self governing after 10 years of messy political assassinations, and to a state of 'free association' with the US. The US grants millions of dollars in aid money to the remote island nation every year and in exchange has the right to build a military installation on the land (which they have not taken up yet, not while Guam is still going well for the US). Such is the role of the US in the economy that aid money forms a significant portion of the national GDP and many Palauan youth are sent to the US for high school or college education and do not return. This leaves a generation gap in the workers here, now filled predominantly by Filipinos. 

In terms of our trip, the vibrancy of the aquatic environment here is not paralleled by any other, except by some places in Indonesia, but the protectionist policies and fee and fine structure here are so layered and ingrained in the cultured that the uniqueness could be protected for many centuries to come. Fishing is restricted or prohibited and the entire archipelago is encircled by a national park status attempting to ensure that any illegal fishing is harshly punished. Tourism taking the form of dive, snorkel and kayak tours are the dominant industries. The reef encircled nation rises out of a 2000m depth from the Philippine Sea and gives way to limestone rock formations reaching 200m in height and covered in dense layered jungles housing monkeys, a rich array of bird life, lizards, snakes and all manner of insect life. The volcanic forces of centuries gone by lifted the land that created the reefs and the rich nutrients pushed up by those events enables the reefs to grow, being covered by so many different types of coral it is overstimulating.   

Limestone cliffs encircling countless bays and inlets

We were lucky enough to do some diving here. Hugh's dreams came true when we were visited by a manta ray that majestically swooped us as he enjoyed being cleaned by a remora fish. Other highlights were the abundant reef and white tip reef sharks, swimming and trying not to trip over turtles there were so many around and seeing juvenile spotted eagle rays.  

Cruising reef sharks

Importation of all food in the shops comes predominantly from California, such that 'fresh' food is 40 days old before it even hits the shelves here. But it sure was going to be an experience to walk into a 'supermarket' for food, after going to markets and haggling with the sellers for the most fresh produce and being limited by circumstances (such as typhoons which stop the boat delivering produce from other islands). Also to buy meat in packages after practically picking the chicken I wanted as they marched it off to slaughter.

I walked into the supermarket to get some food for dinner and could barely walk from tripping over my jaw which was on the ground at the sheer amount of options of food. There were fridges brimming with US beef, steaks, mince, ribs, shanks...the options seemed limitless.I picked up a packet of bagels and cream cheese and I had to leave, I could not cope with so much choice of food that looked just fabulous. It had been 9 months since we had last had steak that we bought in Phuket (imported from France). Hugh was starting to waste away having not had a red meat injection in a while and it was something that was hard for Aussies like us to be away from meat for so long and having eaten vegetarian on the boat for the best part of the last year.

Being in little America was a serious culture shock from South Eat Asia, though the conveniences were easy to get used to. We were certainly going to lap up being in a little paradise for a few weeks.


Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Philippine Trench

Day 1 
A tense trip through hard-to-see reef sections bordering both sides of the passage leading out of the Philippine archipelago started off the morning, compounded by the 30-35kt winds we were experiencing on the beam. This area is world famous for surf breaks and people fly in from around the world to surf breaks at 'cloud 9' and 'Tuason Point'. This was the opposing wind season, so those places were free of international tourists but we could certainly spot some barrel waves adjacent reef sections and steered well clear. 

Just 30nm east of the Philippine islands we crossed the Philippine trench where the water depth plummets to some 5000m generating sloppy waves and an impenetrable deep blue ocean. The wind that we had so diligently studied and expected to be 30kts disappeared while we were in the wind shadow created by the Mindanao land mass and we motored until nightfall as the searing heat of such still air got us sweating and diving for shady cover. Just as we were hoeing into dinner, it whipped back up with a freshening 15kt sou-easterly off the starboard bow. After settling the sails, we relaxed into our 3 hour rotating shift pattern for the night.

Day 2
Early in the morning the wind filled in to 25kts at a touch over 'relaxing' wind speed, bringing with it 3m beam swell and 1m chop on top to make for a seriously uncomfortable time. Heeled over to port, taking waves over the starboard side that washed half the mainsail and everything below it and the port toe rails going under with every rolling wave. It certainly was a wild ride. We reefed the main to the third point as the wind increased to 30kts, gusting up to 35kts. Apart from my overwhelming feelings of seasickness, the one dominating memory was of the immense sound of the wind. Howling and swirling around it certainly evoked feelings of fear. With no land for hundreds of miles, it was a reminder of the power of nature and the exposed isolation of being at sea. This was the tail end of the big wind system that we had been watching.

Day 3
The wind and seas had stayed in, though they abated at lunch time long enough to have some reheated lentil curry. A big step up from 2-minute noodles of the previous day. The third reef and the staysail remained the sail configuration for the day as the wind picked up again. Another notable feature of the trip so far was that we saw nothing, no birds, no boats, no fishing apparatus (fishing attraction devices), no moon (as it was a waxing moon and covered by clouds), just nothing. It was just us and the sea. 

Day 4 
The world suddenly looked brighter. The wind was steadily dropping, finally below 25kts and the seas reduced to under 2m. We rubbed our salt encrusted eyes as the sun shone brilliantly and it was one of those perfect days at sea. The only problem arose when we needed to use the engine to charge the batteries. We discovered a fault in the solar panels on day 1, which left us with a significantly reduced ability to generate electricity, with only the wind generator left. So we started the engine but it was overheating. So Hugh donned his problem solving hat (the head torch) and submerged himself in the engine bay. The boat was still heeling heavily to port and we were still receiving knocking waves, so to be inside lying across the main engine in the cramped engine bay was no mean feat. Hours ticked by, Hugh removed the cooling water impeller and discovered it had shed 4 blades, now the hunt began for the rubber fragments that were lost anywhere in one of the myriad of segments of the engine connected with hoses. The heat exchanger was opened, the now redundant engine driven fridge cooling was removed, the impeller replaced and finally at 2am after working all day to solve the problem, the lube oil cooler was the final section of the cooling system where the rubber had lodged itself, blocking the sea water network. Almost 24 hours on from the problem arising, a hot, tired and very relieved Hugh caught 3 hours sleep and I was finally able to go to bed at 5:30am.

Day 5
Land-ho! The hazy green slowly rising land form was visible on the horizon, spotted 15nm off the bow and in perfect conditions identical to the day before. We hung out all our canvas and sailed EJII as fast as she would go in 10kts towards the reef-ringed western entry channel. It was going to be a close run thing, to make it to customs check-in before 4pm (as it was a Friday and the officials charge a hefty additional fee for after hours and weekend check-ins which is required before anchoring or mooring). With our happily cooling engine. we used horse power to navigate the tricky reef sections and the additional 15nm upwind trip to the CIQ dock. The reefs we were navigating through shone an array of aqua colours from miles away, the water was a brilliant blue and clarity was spectacular. It was the sight we had been longing to see and it was very exciting to be arriving in a new country, and one that was already visually living up to expectations. 

The brilliant reefs that are Palau

We made it to the CIQ dock just in time. Though it was low tide and we had to tie up parallel to a high concrete wall that was covered in spiky was tricky and not something that we wanted to do with our passage-lag that we were suffering. But we managed to get in, flopping all our fenders over the side and doing some strategic fending off the concrete wall while the officials watched from above. All at once, 5 officials jumped aboard and made themselves comfortable in our cockpit while they all shot questions at us simultaneously, all keen to knock off on time and go to the pub. We were furiously filling out forms, providing copies of documents and answering questions. Customs, Immigration, Port Master, Quarantine, Public Health were all intently watching our form filling skills and interrogating our check out port, how many days at sea, where we had been, making sure all the answers were consistent it was a very hectic experience! But we got through it reluctantly giving up our last avocados, garlic and eggs to the Quarantine guy.

We leisurely motored around to Malakal Harbour and Sams Dive Tours, the home of the Royal Belau Yacht Club, gratefully taking their welcome mooring before celebrating our arrival at port with a glass of red wine on the deck as the sun set behind the rising tree covered limestone cliffs that created an extremely sheltered cove. A sigh of relief and a feeling of sheer pleasure came over us. It had been a stressful time with the engine problem, as we may have required a tow through the reef entry otherwise. But all was well, we had made the 550nm eastward journey and were making some gains on our big trip home. That Hugh awoke the next morning to find that the toilet was blocked took some of the sheen off our arrival, no one wants to get up close and personal with their own waste. But boat dramas aside, the friendly locals and buzzing expat community (not to mention the western dining delights) were bound to make for a fabulous first Pacific Ocean stop.

Malakal Harbour encircled by limestone cliffs


Sunday, 3 August 2014

Bibles, Beer and Basketball

We had learnt during our short 6 week stay in the Philippines that the three B’s were the heart and soul of the people. The population was profoundly Catholic attending church, listening to Christian music, adoring their saints and covering their tricycles in biblical names like Saint James or Christobel as if they were another family member. On the jeepney trip in Palawan there was a sticker on the rear view mirror asking God to ‘Bless our trip’ (because we quickly learnt that the rear view mirror certainly had no other practical purpose). We struck up a conversation with a Filipina in Dapa and when she learnt that we were off a yacht that had come from Australia, she was praising God and blessing us all the way home again! The love of the bible and Catholicism or other Christian denominations was nationwide and added a warmness to Filipino interactions and with us interlopers.

Divine assistance was required for a safe journey!

There was an overt drinking culture, such a stark contrast to neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia where alcohol is heavily taxed to impede consumption for countries where the national religion forbids it. The national beer brand – San Miguel cost $1 at a bar and as low as 50c from a store in small brown glass bottles that were recycled, you could almost count the years of its service by the scratch marks on the outside of the bottle (a very efficient way to manage the glass needs and drive down the cost). The brewery was another lasting legacy of the Spanish colonialism era, located in a town outside of Manilla and servicing the entire country and all of its remote islands with a beer they proudly consume as few other brands compete with its sale, certainly an easy winner for this enterprise. Next is the Philippine made rum – Tanduay where you can pick up a 1ltr bottle for $1.20, it may be a bit rough but it also cleans the fibreglass very effectively. You can look at the Philippine basketball competition to see the ‘San Miguel Tigers’ battling it out with the ‘Tanduay Lions’, such is the role of alcohol in the society that there is no regulation against advertising and sponsoring sporting competitions.

Basketball has truly been embraced by the Pinoys, a gift from the US era producing a sport loving culture that is evident in even the smallest villages. When we were in Puerta Princessa, the NBA finals were being televised from the USA and our tricycle driver was listening to the broadcast over the radio on his mobile phone, while every shop we walked into had the staff and their extended family glued to every minute of the action. The unfortunate power crash partway through the final quarter almost led the locals to riot. No matter what island or what language spoken, we saw hoops pinned to tree trunks or stuck on walls and kids through to adults almost always shooting hoops. Given the cramped and populous living conditions of the Filiponos, the joy they derived from playing basketball outside was obvious and an escape from the indoor life. Hugh was invited a couple of times to play, but often the rims were lower than his eye height, not a particularly fair match!

Spurs champion of the future? Playing with a basketball stand fashioned
out of welded pieces of metal, held down by large rocks.

So we made our way through our last legs of the trip, upon leaving Port Carmen we noticed that 120lts of fuel had been siphoned from the jerry cans locked securely to the deck. A wave of anger and bitterness came over us, we had only been in Carmen awaiting our sail repair, so we had been most unfortunate. However, we were off on a 100nm overnight sail, bound for Surigao port for an unscheduled fuel stop and our last Philippine stop. We arrived there after a brilliant overnight trip with great wind and none of the nasty fishing obstacles that we had been warned about (such as 4m long metal drums that could do some serious damage to the fibreglass if struck). Surigao port was less than inviting and the town did not have much going on. So fuel stop completed, we sailed another 35nm to the small town of Dapa in Mindanao for our last fresh food stop and to pick our weather window for the 550nm Pacific Ocean crossing to Palau. Another tropical disturbance kept us in port for 3 more days while we waited for a clearer (and larger) window. A typhoon was forming east of Guam and we needed to be confident that it would head north and west, not south and onto us! Thankfully it made its intentions clear enough and we were able to leave, though the wind was high so we prepared for high winds by tying in the third reefing line in the main and leaving bright and early in Monday morning so that we had some good visibility picking our way through the reefy sections exiting Dapa and the Philippine archipelago. Another ocean and a new world awaited us on the other side of the Philippine Sea…the Pacific better get ready, because we were on our way!

Thanks for having us Philippines