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May 2000 Vol. 15, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving Palau from the Sun Dancer II

the coral's been ravaged, but the fish are still there

from the May, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The deplaning passengers were staring at us. Youd think they had never seen people wearing lobster, parrot, and pig noses before. But we were just a covey of crazy divers out to have the dive trip of a lifetime -- luxurious and unforgettable diving aboard Palaus Sun Dancer II.

Arriving a day early, I spent my first night at West Plaza, a step down in elegance from the Palau Pacific Resort but at one-third the cost. The room was simple, the staff pleasant and helpful. Next day it was the Palau Pacific, where Peter Hughes arranges day rooms for incoming guests to ward off jet lag. My group of eighteen made up the bulk of the twenty passengers, the boats full complement. A Sun Dancer staffer picked us up at 4 p.m. He didnt seem impressed by our animal noses.

The Sun Dancer was squat and ungainly from the stern, but from the side, a sleek 138-ft. study in elegance -- or it would have been, except that it was sitting in a scummy harbor filled with land/sea containers, with the Star Dancer tied off on the side. Sun Dancers polished wood, curtains, and glassware seemed too opulent for saltwater-soaked wet divers, though I could get used to it, if the crew wasnt too highbrow to put up with a gaggle of woo-hooing divers. The dive deck had lots of room, plus rinse tanks, hang bars for wetsuits, two hot showers, two camera rinse tanks, and twin camera tables complete with compressed air and camera towels. The uppermost deck, the shaded Lido deck, held deck chairs and hammocks. We socialized on the main deck, where theres a briefing room (with insufficient room for 20 divers) that has a drop-down erase board and a bright and spacious dining room, with tables, booths, and chairs. They serve breakfast and lunch at the large island bar. On the other end of the room were a small coffee bar and a comfy sofa in the TV area. An area is set aside for smokers.

Diving Palau from the Sun Dancer IIDown below, most cabins were spacious, with a picture window with double twins or beds pushed together to make a king. The Captains Room, one deck down, only had a porthole, but was bigger and had a TV/VCR; the two forward rooms had queen beds, picture windows and small TV/VCRs. All rooms had hair dryers, but none had keys. My room was quiet -- no compressor noise.

Remembering that the website said we would depart between 5 and 6 p.m., I was ready to cast off until Captain Allen said the bay was littered with coral heads waiting to shred the bottom of his boat, so wed spend the night in the harbor, which may be the normal modus operandi. Wed depart at 6:00 a.m., he said, but we left late, so the first dive began late, and lunch and dinner were rushed. Once I hit the water, though, I forgot all that. With temps from 82 to 85 and visibility up to 140 (though it got as low as 40) feet, life was good. That riot of intense colors of fish and coral will calm you every time.

It had been three years since my last South Pacific trip, so Id grown accustomed to the muted reef colors of the Caribbean. My first dive at Mutiyar Wall -- Shark City -- was speckled with Moorish idols and squarespot anthias, though few sharks. But at 60' sat a giant clam, well over five feet long and 3.5 feet wide, big enough to swallow me whole. I hovered over a garden of gigantic lettuce coral, some leaves so immense it would have taken three of us holding hands to match the circumference.

It got even better at Ulong Channel, our fourth dive of the day that, due to our tardy departure, ended up as dusk/night dive. Halfway down the channel lay an immense stand of lettuce coral measuring 100 feet long and 30 feet high with a soft coral palette shading from purple to pink to fuchsia to white. Sadly, however, much of the hard coral was dead, bleached white by the warm waters of El Nio. In fact, much of the once splendid hard corals of Palau are bleached white, a severe disappointment to those of us who had been here before. From Undercurrent reports, Id expected that, and I came anyway. The big fish action still makes the trip worthwhile.

If you’ve been there, done that lately, your fellow divers would love to hear about it, and so would we. So relive your last trip and tell us what was great and what wasn’t, and contribute your chapter for the next Chapbook.

Blue Corner begins along a nice relaxing wall. But when I got to the corner, the current was ready to drag me to the Philippines. I latched my reef hook into the coral -- standard practice here -- and hovered, mesmerized by scores of sharks weaving themselves into the throng, darting in and out, working to fill their insatiable appetites. There were gray reefs, white tips, and the occasional silky, twenty to forty at a time. Massive balls of barracuda and hundreds of durgeon and tang swept past in schools so thick I couldnt see through them. At times I was engulfed in schools of fish, and then a shark would dart within a foot or two of me -- an incredible rush. It was a blur of flashing schools and darting sharks, wild current and powerful surges of adrenaline. Sixty minutes was gone like that. I was down to a hundred psi and needed to split.

For me, diving from the Sun Dancer (as it would be from the Aggressor, as well) was too rushed. Diving is done from two tenders, each holding ten people and all their gear. (One was replaced by a local dive boat and driver during the week, and the second broke down near the end of the trip, leading to three dives with 20 divers on the tender.) Diving Palau from the Sun Dancer IITransfer gear, climb in one by one, ride 10-30 minutes to dive sites, backroll into the water, do the dive, climb up the small ladders with gear on, head back to the boat, disembark. To get in four dives, I often had only enough time between dives to rinse, reload film, and suit up before the next briefing. (Dives were usually an hour, and the 130' depth was the only restriction.) Someone different briefed us each day, the quality varying according to who gave it. There were only three night dives, so during the evenings I watched movies on the VCR, browsed their fish books, chatted with companions, and relaxed. Still, I like more downtime between dives.

Underwater, of course, I forgot the hassle and took my quiet time to observe abundant fish life. Butterflyfish are prolific, especially the pyramid butterfly, but I captured photos of the panda, Bennetts, Meyers, raccoon, and the saddled butterflyfish. Batfish, scorpionfish, banded shrimp gobies, the occasional Napoleon wrasse -- my mind was boggled every dive.

Captain Allen made us feel welcome. He was informative, friendly, and took time to talk to every passenger. My worry that all the polished wood and glassware were a sign of a crew too stuffy to have fun was dismissed when we encountered the Star Dancer at a beautiful spot in the Rock Islands (knowing Peter Hughes was on board). The Good Captain joined us in mooning the boat, and at the end of the trip suggested a repeat performance through the dining room windows. Fun as Captain Allen was, his wife, Jan, complained too often about missing the house they gave up to take this job, and constantly showed her displeasure to the passengers, once loudly complaining about our being back late from a dive and giving us but ten minutes to prepare for dinner. Rudeness wrecks ambiance in such close quarters, for sure.

But the rest of the crew was first rate. Yanis, the young, bubbly chef from Belize, did a fine job feeding the hungry divers. Breakfast: eggs, bacon, French toast, cereals, and toaster items. Between dives she produced hot cookies, chicken wings, or vegetables. Lunch could be enchiladas, pork chops, lasagna, or ribs, tasty, but too heavy for me with an afternoon of diving ahead. Dinner started with soup and salad, followed by a choice of entree ranging from chicken, beef, or pork to fish and seafood. Desserts were amazing. Yanis made a vegetarian menu for me and anyone with special needs. Drinking (except a glass of wine at dinner) meant your diving was over for the day.

Tanya and Marcos, wife and husband, are the main divemasters and photo experts. Tanyas great photos and her end-of-week photo handouts were real winners. Marcos put together a terrific trip recap video. Both took us to great spots, pointed out shots, and make the diving memorable. In fact, a few weeks before, they had found the nesting site of two cuttlefish, and they took us there. We were like wellbehaved paparazzi at the Oscars, one person at a time sidling up and taking our shots. Mr. and Mrs. Cuttle appeared up for a brief tte--tte, and, yes, our video captured them in flagrante delicto. They were the talk of the boat until some divers saw a 15-foot whale shark, which beat out mating cuttlefish for best picture.

A couple of nits to pick: reviewing the Captains log at the end of the week, it showed 24 dives available. I did every dive offered, save the one I missed doing a land tour around Peleliu. And I made 22. Could I have dozed off and missed one? Nope, the log listed our boat ride through the Rock Islands as a dive opportunity. And Dancer docked in the harbor the first and last nights, perhaps to make shopping for supplies easier, but it means that this is really a five and half day trip. We pulled away from the dock Monday morning and returned after lunch Saturday.

So, although Palaus corals took a big hit, the big fish are still there, and a liveaboard is a great way to see them. Since Palau lacks good anchorage, the big boats need tenders to truck divers (only the six-passenger Ocean Hunter dives without them). But, since most good sites are at least an hours boat ride from shore, live-aboards beat landbased divers to the sites, giving their divers a chance to dive without the crowds. But, live-aboard or landbased, Palaus big fish action is still there, making it still worth wearing lobster, pig, or parrot noses just to prove how crazy divers can be.

-U.K.

Diving Palau from the Sun Dancer IIDivers Compass: Peter Hughes Sun Dancer II: phone 305-669- 9391, fax 305-669-9475, e-mail dancer@peterhughes.com, website www.peterhughes.com; one-week package was $2,395...they offer a $500 discount to first timers, but wont necessarily offer if you dont ask for it...strong encouragement to tip 10% of package price...some rental equipment, repairs possible...Nitrox was free...aluminum 80s, 2750+ psi...ccards checked...oxygen and first-aid equipment available...due to significant currents, a sausage and a horn are mandatory...WWII history buffs shouldnt miss the $15 tour of Peleliu...in town, check upstairs across from the mall for souvenir carved wood storyboards...late February air temp 85 ...often brief, unexpected, and drenching rain showers...Best time to visit Palau is December through April; avoid February crowds for Chinese New Year...The Peter Hughes website still advertises Jellyfish Lake, a chance to snorkel with thousands of jellyfish ... who have lost their sting, but theres no trip to the lake due to the effects of El Nio (see sidebar).

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