As a person who loves water, island destinations with water activities always draw me in. Palau is known for its biodiversity and accessible by scuba diving and snorkeling. The snorkeling sites are unique, and it was a whole different world under the calm salty ocean water with green islands scattered all over.
Palau is a country of about 340 islands, located to the east of Philippines. There is one airport, Palau International Airport. From Taiwan, there are flights by China Airlines twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays, each leg around 4 hours. The closest US territory, Guam, is merely 2 hours away. Compared to its neighboring southeastern countries also famous for snorkeling/diving, it costs a bit more in Palau for almost everything – flights, lodging, water activities. There is a fee entering and leaving the country, usually included in air fare. Plus, for going out into the ocean, a government permit is required starting 50 USD valid for 10 days. The fees go to environmental preservation, I do strongly support and believe in their mission to protect the amazing biodiversity they have.
Relation with Taiwan
Part of the reason we decided to visit Palau was because it was one of very few countries which had bilateral relation with Taiwan, my home country (as of writing, March 2019). It was also convenient that Palau is only 3.5 hour flight away from Taiwan. During our airport transportation with Taiwanese guide, he told us about one of the airport terminals, road, and public playground that Taiwan donated in the last few decades. While Japan also sponsored infrastructure to Palau over the years, Japan was able to negotiate with Palau for favors in return due to its stronger position and more leverage in the world. A few resorts in Palau have Taiwanese owners, though very little Taiwan branding was visible. Our hotel, Palau Royal Resort, does have a Taiwan flag among the three flags by the logo near the entrance.
Snorkeling in Palau was such a unforgettable experience. We started our morning at the dive shop of Sam’s tours. After registration and getting our permits for Jellyfish lake, we embarked on our boat ride around 8:45am.
It took about 30 minutes to get to the first snorkeling spot near the arch. The arch is one of the 200 Rock Islands. It was like a warm up stop for us. The water was warm, and the coral reef was beautiful with tropical fish and clams.
Big Drop Off
This spot was not originally on the agenda, it is more of a diving site. But our guide and captain kindly took this request from a few of us snorkelers and the weather permitted our detour. We also passed by German Channel, part of WWII remnant, the variety of ocean color was so mesmerizing. Once we arrived the Big Drop Off, our guide told us the drop is about 900 ft / 274 meters – more than 170 times of my height. We snorkeled along the wall, so many fish swam by and into the deep drop. I could only imagine what it is like to dive deeper.
This 12000 year old lake was just reopened early 2019, after more than a year of recovery from drastic weather change and human activities. Our snorkeling guide said there used to be millions of jellyfish, then all gone after the drought. They closed down the lake while baby jellyfish grew up to a normal population size. To reduce the risk of harm to the jellyfish, tourists are supposed to wear only mineral sunscreen (an official ban of chemical sunscreen in Palau becomes effective in 2020). Visiting Jellyfish Lake requires a different permit for another 50 USD, and no diving here due to the fatal layer of hydrogen sulfide about 15 meters / 49 ft down. There are actually a few other similar marine lakes with jellyfish (Goby Lake, Big Jellyfish Lake), but only this lake is open to the public.
There is a hike before the lake, about 5-10 minutes and pretty steep. Sandals and sneakers would be the most comfortable. Near the dock, there was only a small number of golden and moon jellyfish. As we snorkeled further into the lake, about 100 meters / 328 ft away from the dock, we started seeing more jellyfish, predominantly golden jellyfish. Later it became inevitable that we ran into them, their bell soft and smooth. Jellyfish here lost their ability to sting, after living in this isolated lake so long without predators.
After Jellyfish Lake, we took a lunch break at this uninhabited island. This is probably the designated lunch island in this area, so many snorkeling/diving groups resting and having lunch here. It was quite lively, with BBQ and many exploring the beautiful beach they had. I had fried fish bento box from Sam’s Tours, it was not fancy but so delicious after three snorkeling sites. We chatted with another family on our tour, they are from Guam (the mother moved from California) and the father traveled to Palau quite frequently for business.
The Milky Way
This was the last stop of our snorkeling trip. Not a snorkeling site, but a beauty treatment stop. Our guide dug out a pile of mud on the body board from the water, and we all coated ourselves with milky white mud of soft clay texture. After letting the mud sit for a little, we had a relaxing swim rinsing off the mud in the beautiful lagoon of natural turquoise water. After the milk bath, we got back on our boat and weathered through a thunderstorm.
Since all snorkeling or diving sites out in the Rock Islands require a boat and permit, joining a tour is the easiest way to snorkel in Palau.
- Sam’s Tours: Sam’s is the oldest diving/snorkeling company in Palau. We considered their Rock Island snorkeling tours and kayaking tours with snorkeling. Eventually we just did one day Rock Island snorkeling tour, but would love to try their kayak day tours (Tarzan one sounds like an amazing adventure).
- IMPAC: this is an established Japanese tour agency, that offers tours beyond water activities and suitable for almost everyone who loves water activities or not. I believe they have English guides, but probably the majority of groups are Japanese.
- Fish ‘n Fins: our hotel recommended this diving center in addition to the previous two. It looks like snorkelers go on the same boat with divers.
We did not have a car but still wanted to try local restaurants, so we went to a few places within walking distance from our hotel in Malakal Island, Koror. Due to the amount of Japanese visitors (one of the biggest snorkeling companies mentioned above is Japanese), there are a bunch of Japanese options and dishes at hotel buffet. A bunch of western food around too, and Tony finally had his “real” burgers after a few months in Taiwan.
- Drop Off Bar and Grill: all outdoor seatings, with a deck looking out to the islands and diving boats. The menu is pretty western, but we managed to find an Asian style pan fried noodle dish for my family. Plenty of fish dishes and drinks, big portion, relaxing ambience, and friendly staff.
- Carp Restaurant: it was not the most obvious restaurant to find, hidden in a dark corner in the Carp company complex. Japanese decor, and the menu had a lot of casual Japanese dishes with seafood. Dishes were very affordable, we went big but the bill was still cheaper than any other place. Sashimi, sukiyaki beef, grilled fish, fried rice, and okonomiyaki were all about 10 USD on average. The restaurant filled up with western and Asian diners, with a big Japanese group.
- Kramer’s Cafe: located on the second floor of its diving center, the outdoors seatings embraced a view of the ocean. We went right before sunset and witnessed the sky from blue to pink to dark. It was very lively at the cafe, with a bar inside and open air. I had a banana leaf fish rice plate, it was tasty and a great way to wrap up a day of snorkeling.
We stayed 3 nights at Palau Royal Resort, an option from our tour agency package in Taiwan. The hotel has been here for more than a decade, and we spent one full day just relaxing at the resort. They had a manmade beach, where we rented snorkeling gears for 5 USD and saw quite some fish near the fence. There were hammocks and chairs almost everywhere to enjoy with the ocean view. It was also a convenient location with mini marts and restaurants nearby, plus less than 5 minute drive from Sam’s Tours.
Palau is truly a snorkeling paradise. We met people who were staying in Palau for 6 days, and snorkeling for 4 days – I was quite envious. They decided not to visit Jellyfish Lake for environmental reasons. I do hope to see all the amazing biodiversity protected well and lasting long. Unfortunately the underwater cameras all broke down with limited footage (an old Olympus Tough and two disposable film cameras), but the images stay in my memories live and vivid.
Last but not least, here is our full Palau itinerary.