Adventures: Dots in the Ocean - Palau and Guam

It had been more than a year since I last went scuba diving. Yet standing in the hot sun at the back of the crowded boat, connecting air tanks seemed very familiar. So too was the feeling of trepidation about what we were about to do.

We were moored on a shallow reef flat but just off the bow was a blue patch where the sandy floor fell away into a cavern that looked like the top of a lift shaft. After entering the water, we descended into that vertical chute and discovered the special attraction of Turtle Cove. Red and yellow coral trees came into view and tropical fish came out to watch us swim past. Looking towards the surface, I saw a diver above me silhouetted against the sunlight entrance far above.

At about 25 metres below the surface, I emerged from a cathedral-like archway onto a coral wall. It looked like a young girl's idealised bedroom, all pink frilly soft corals and matching parrot fish. All it needed was a couple of toss cushions. The current sweeping along the wall even negated the need to swim. I just watched the panorama unfold.

Then I realised that the current had picked up speed and I couldn't effectively swim against it. By now I was being swept along uncomfortably fast so I grabbed at a passing rock to slow my progress. It tore out of the wall. I lunged at a larger, more secure chunk of brain coral. It held and I turned to see where my diving companions were. They were hanging onto other outcrops nearby.

This was when I remembered the other side of all those diving articles extolling the wonders of Micronesia in general and Palau in particular. In the past, strong currents have swept divers away - to be found hours or days later, if at all. While I waited for our dive master to indicate what we were to do next, a tiny angel fish swam over and peered into my face mask. I marvelled that it remained motionless in a flow of current I could barely resist.

The fish was still there when I left, retreating out of the main current into more comfortable conditions. Towards the end of the dive we swam through a narrow coral canyon where a school of barracuda flashed their impressive dental work as we passed. The dive boat found us the minute we surfaced so my fears of being lost at sea proved unfounded..

"That was the most dramatic entry to a dive site I've ever seen" Eric, a New Yorker living in Hong Kong exclaimed. "And I was really enjoying that scenic tour of the wall until the current picked up."

"Wait until you see this afternoon's site!" our Palauan guide replied. "That is really special."

We ate our lunch while moored in a lagoon by the sandy beach of a picture-perfect, uninhabited coral atoll. As the turquoise water lapped at the side of the boat the idyllic scene took on an added piquancy because we knew what lay below the surface.

That afternoon we dived at Blue Corner. For some inexplicable reason, divers are universally concerned with rating dive spots - far more than trekkers ever rate mountain walks or cyclists assess scenic valley rides. Invariably, Blue Corner appears in every "Top 10 Dive Sites" list in every dive magazine. It's frequently ranked the best in the world.

"But wait until you experience the current," one of the divers said as we motored across. "Think of Turtle Cove as a mere zephyr and Blue Corner as a full tornado." Indeed, as we arrived, we could see the swift current reflected in the "oily" appearance of the surface water.

We dropped down to about 15 metres in the open water. My attention was diverted momentarily as we swam through a massive floor-to-ceiling curtain of silvery fish that shimmered en masse as we passed.

Then we came across the wall. The current pushed us fast and lifted us up and over the crest of the coral ridge as if plucked by a giant hand. As I reached the top, I grasped the ledge and let the current spin me around to face back the way I came. I found myself face to face with a grey reef shark about the same size as myself. Another shark was swimming just behind it.

This is Blue Corner, the natural home of sharks, sea turtles, groupers and moray eels. They are here because the current sweeps over the coral wall, heavily laden with nutrients. Small creatures come to feed and are eaten in turn. This restaurant at the end of the universe spans just about the entire aquatic food chain. At the top of the pyramid you have the sharks, soaring the ocean currents just metres off the top of the ridge. That path took them on a trajectory that was less than two metres away from me. Once, when I stuck my head out to look down the wall, a large shark had to turn sharply to avoid running into my head.

Ray Sandford, one of the resort's instructors told me that after watching sharks hanging motionless in the current at Blue Corner he decided to try it himself. It worked - but after he had been there a few minutes a largish shark came over to join him. They remained suspended shoulder to shoulder for quite a while before Ray became uncomfortable about his new friend's proximity and swam away.

Palau is a good place to overcome all sorts of perfectly rational fears.

I spent another afternoon in a lake crowded with jellyfish. Because the lake is completely landlocked, the jellyfish have no predators and so have lost the ability to sting. There are two types present - the standard yellow model that looks like a small Sydney Harbour Man o'War and the larger, pure white, moon jellyfish.

You have to climb over a small but rugged limestone hill to reach the lake from the sea. After reaching the lake shore, we all put on snorkels and masks and swam down a channel and out over mud and rocks. We aimed for the sunlit part of the lake and at first only a few small jellyfish came into view. Despite being told we could touch them with impunity, it's hard to let the first one touch your skin. However, you're soon surrounded by the creatures so every sweep of your hands brushes scores aside. They range in size from a full handful to tiny juveniles barely as large as a fingernail.

Finally, it's impossible to see your swimming companions through the sea of jellyfish, numbering perhaps a million in all. When I returned to the landing, I exclaimed that this swim was as close as I was ever likely to get to jelly wrestling. It was just another surprise of a pleasantly surprising destination.

It would be difficult to find a Pacific neighbour that we know less about than Micronesia. Yet it lies only 3700 km away from us, just north of the equator and midway between Australia and Japan, Hawaii and the Philippines. The main language is English and the principal currency is the US dollar.

The size of Micronesia can be viewed two ways. In total area, it covers an area somewhat larger than Australia. However, that territory consists of lots of water and over 2000 small islands - only 96 of which are inhabited. Take the water out of the equation and you have a total land mass that roughly equals the Australian Capital Territory.

Despite its diminutive size, Micronesia has five different forms of government. Guam is a US territory, and Palau is administered by the US under a UN trusteeship. In 1986, the rest of the islands left the trusteeship and split to form the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (principally Saipan, Tinian and Rota), the Federated States of Micronesia (Yap, Truk, Kosrae and Pohnpei) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

There is one image of Micronesia that most people remember. It is the much published photograph of myriad emerald green islets scattered across an azure blue sea. As an encapsulation of a Pacific paradise, it's hard to beat.

And the place of the photograph and daydreams actually exists. It is known as the 70 Islands group, part of the Rock Islands due west of the main islands of Palau. One sunny day it seemed worthwhile chartering a Cessna and flying out to see if reality matched the fantasies. It did. This was truly a flight into Wonderland and we spent the whole time peering down as one idyllic scene after another presented itself, like the view through a heavily blue tinted kaleidoscope.

The flight also put Palau in clear perspective: we didn't fly fast but we covered the whole territory in an hour- from the dive sites in the far west, the jellyfish lake, the channel that the Germans carved through the outer reef early this century, the resort where we were staying and the scattered towns of Koror Island.

Our time on the water cruising these same islands was equally rewarding. The endless variation on the theme of bay, beach, sand and sunlight on water remained enchanting as we cruised around hundreds of mushroom-shaped islands that are all intriguingly tapered at the waterline and capped by dense green vegetation. However, driving around Palau is less appealing as one simply passes through some ribbon settlements along the main roads and other larger (but no more engaging) fishing communities.

One of the weird historical facts about Palau is that it is where the people of Yap used to come to make their money. And I mean that literally. Yap coins can be up to 3.5 metres in diameters and are always made of Palau limestone. Warriors would paddle 350 kilometres to Palau, quarry the giant coins and tow them home on barges pulled behind the canoes.

Incidentally, before the all conquering US dollar arrived in Micronesia, the people of Palau used a type of coral as their currency. The coral selected is rare on Palau but plentiful elsewhere - so the whole economy was contingent on no entrepreneur importing tonnes of the stuff and deflating the currency.

For divers, Palau has a big attraction that is almost as much of a lure as the diving. That is the Palau Pacific Resort, managed by Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts. It's over 10 years old but has maintained its quite luxurious standards and it is many rungs above the average seedy dive resort. Splash Dive, the resort's dedicated dive operation is a PADI 5-star establishment with good equipment and experienced dive masters.

Some 60 per cent of the resort's guests are divers. The closest dive site to the guest rooms is a coral head that is home to a family of sea horses living in less than a metre of water just off the resort beach. We did a night dive to visit them - the water temperature was a tepid 31 degrees Celsius. Despite our air tanks and paraphernalia, at one point the water was so shallow that we simply stood up to take a look around. The lights of the resort restaurants shining beguilingly across the water completely distracted us from our diving. Indeed, that was our last dive and we flew back to the big city the next day

In Palau one is conscious of the fact that Micronesia serves the same role as a fun-in-the-sun holiday destination for Japan that Bali does for Australia. However, when we flew back to Guam, Japanese domination of the tourist industry was even more evident.

After Palau, Guam was quite a culture shock. It's rather like a tiny Los Angeles with healthier palm trees but the same array of fast food outlets. The present population of Guam is about 110,000, including a lot of US military personnel.

Tourists, merchants and conquerors have swept across Guam since Ferdinand Magellan arrived here in 1521. Indeed, the local Chamoru people have spent so much time dealing with foreigners that they have maintained much more of their local culture than, say, the Hawaiians who encountered foreign culture much later but fell harder.

Guam was a focal point for the war in the Pacific until it was decisively recaptured by the USA. Still, they didn't do a perfect job of mopping up. It was on Guam that a Japanese soldier was found in the jungle, 28 years after the war ended, still holding out against capture. He was sent home and his hideout is now a museum exhibit.

Like most visitors to Guam, we stayed in the large Hilton on Tumon Bay and went shopping at the Duty Free Shoppers' Galleria. Micronesia is a duty free destination so the Galleria resembles a large department store. While not as cheap as in the US itself, some of the offerings, especially clothes, are both different and less expensive than in Australia.

A surprising fact about Guam is that it can claim to be the highest point on earth. The Marianas Trench runs just south of the island and it is the deepest point of the ocean floor - about 11,000 metres below the surface. So, although the highest point on Guam is only about 400 metres above sea level, the island stands 11,400 above its absolute base - or more than 2,000 metres higher than Mt Everest.

Because there's not much of Micronesia that isn't water, it will always be primarily a destination for divers and snorkellers. That's especially true when its perpetually hot, sunny days are compared with Australia gripped by winter. Diving these warm waters is a series of brilliant highlights, both in terms of the corals on display and the fish living within them.

Travel Fact File

Getting There

Bookings for Palau Pacific Resort can be made in Australia on (02) 264 1122 or (1-800) 625 959. Bookings for the Guam Hilton can be made on (02) 267 6000 or (1-800) 222 255.

Currency

The currency used throughout Micronesia is the US dollar.

Time zones

Guam is on the same time zone as Sydney. Palau is one hour behind. This is a major advantage to holiday travellers because there's simply no jet lag.

Health

There are no malarial mosquitoes in Palau.

Overflights

It's just as important to see Palau from the air as it is to explore its underwater attractions. While very expensive for an individual, if you can put together a group it's affordable. The local aviation service, Paradise Pacific is owned by an Australian and the manager is Captain Ponciano Salanga. Call (680) 488 3192 or fax (680) 488 2348.

Climate

The best time to visit Micronesia in general and Palau in particular is in the driest months between February and April . The rainy months are July to October but Palau is very fortunate in not being located in a cyclone region. However, Guam (which has roughly similar seasons) is regularly visited by cyclones.

Visas

Australians don't need a visa for Guam or Palau for a holiday visit of less than two weeks. However, regard Guam as part of the US when it comes to officious officials. In effect, the visa waiver means that you don't have to line up in Australia to get your US visa (but if you already have one it will be accepted). However, coming into Guam you have to fill in a green visa waiver form which is just as long and time wasting as the form that visa holders have to fill out.

Further Information

You can directly contact:

Guam Visitors Bureau, 401 Pale San Vitores Rd, Tumon, Guam 96911, tel (671) 646 5278, Fax (671) 646 8861.

Palau Visitors Authority, PO Box 256, Koror, Republic of Palau 96940, tel. (680) 488 2793, fax (680) 488 1453.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd