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September 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fish ‘n Fins and Ocean Hunter II, Palau

where’s the best diving, by land or by sea?

from the September, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

While it’s a very long haul, Palau has some of the best diving in the world. I had been there four times already, always land-based and day-boat diving with Fish n’ Fins (FNF), and I saw sharks and pelagics on nearly every dive. But would I have better diving aboard one of their three liveaboards? I decided to find out last February, spending the first few days on Fish ‘n Fins’ day boats out of Koror, followed by a week on board its Ocean Hunter II.

I was concerned that global warming, which had already bleached some reefs, would mean deteriorating coral and fewer fish. Turns out I didn’t have to worry -- Palau diving was just as good as, if not better than, before. But I did have issues with FNF’s liveaboard and land-based diving itineraries. As the Ocean Hunter motored time after time to reefs I had just visited during my land-based leg, I kept asking myself, “Did I really need to pay more money to do the same dives?” It felt like we were just following in the wake of the speedboats coming from the dive shop.

Ocean Hunter II

Ocean Hunter II

The best of Palau diving is highlighted by a site like Peleliu Cut, where I hooked myself into the top of the reef and watched two white-tip sharks patrolling with a large grouper. In a blink of my eye, the sharks raced several hundred yards down the wall, disappearing around the corner. Hundreds of surgeonfish, snappers and jacks thronged together. Sharks and big pelagics appeared en masse on every dive, but never once did I feel like it was just a “so what” moment.

But getting in three dives a day like this was difficult. Contrary to most shorebased dive destinations, Palau’s big dives can take up to an hour to reach -- those along the outer edge of the Rock Islands are as far as 35 miles offshore. Fish ‘n Fins and Ocean Hunter II, PalauFNF’s boats carry up to 16 divers and transporting three tanks for each of them was a load. For most divers, two dives were enough and many certainly weren’t interested in going out that far for a third dive. My two dive buddies and I made sure to get in a third dive, but it was after those who weren’t interested got off at the dock, and the rest of us went to sites closer to Koror. Chandelier Cave is a standout, and there are a few WWII wrecks covered in reef fishes, but they lack the big fish and action I come to Palau for.

When I first arrived at Fish ‘n Fins, FNF owners Tova and Navot Bornovski gave me a hearty “welcome back!” and handed me a personalized sport bottle to fill up with dockside tea and water, and keep as a souvenir. They hire and train locals as boat captains and divemasters, who do a superb job. Thrown in the mix are friendly and attentive expat dive guides. You’re usually assigned to a guide for your entire stay but sometimes you get one who knows his or her dive sites, sometimes you don’t. I was assigned to Steve, a congenial Englishman who had been in Palau for a year. He gave informative detailed briefings about topography, possible fish sightings and the necessary info about safety stops and reboarding. The six shore-diving boats range from 29- footers with dual 150 HP engines to 35 feet with 225 HP four-stroke engines. Fish ‘n Fins and Ocean Hunter II, PalauAll are fast, stable, and open-air with a roof cover. The comfortable, cushioned seats opened up to store gear below. Where to put cameras was a quandary because there are no assigned rinse tanks but crew put in a five-gallon bucket just for me. The ladder was so easy to climb that I could get in the boat with my tank still on my back, but the crew was right there for others to hand up their gear.

The boat left the dock around 8:30 a.m., often making pickups at other locations, and arrived at the first dive site at 10 a.m. After an hour, we took surface breaks on glistening white beaches for delicious lunches of fried fish, steamed chicken or pork, and fresh fruit in bento boxes. I started my second dive at 1:30, grumbling because I knew we had to head back for a third dive closer to town, and was back at the dive shop at 3:30, finishing the third dive at 5:30. It would have been possible to start earlier if there weren’t so many diver pickups along the way.

One day, after a first tank at Siaes Corner, I asked Steve to make the next one at Ulong Channel. We backrolled in, dropping 60 feet into a wide bowl where the incoming tide rushed through a small opening into the channel. Ulong is a shark-hunting area, and a mix of eight-foot white-tips and greytips patrolled the opening, some coming within 10 feet of me. Sting rays and schools of jacks, snappers, barracuda and batfish also clustered around the entrance. After 20 minutes of the underwater café spectacle, I unlatched my reef hook and went with the current into the channel, careful to avoid nesting titan triggerfish, which are extremely protective of their eggs. When the incoming current is strongest, visibility can shoot up to 90 feet, and the big fish come along for the ride. This time I was too early, plus other divers in the boat wanted to do a third dive at Chandelier Cave, so I missed the main current thrust. Feeling bad for me, Steve made it up on the third dive by showing me the glittering stalactites and jagged rock formations in Chandelier Cave. Water temperatures averaged 80 degrees, and I was fine in my 3-mil wetsuit with a 1-mil hooded vest.

FNF does a good job of grouping divers with similar skill levels as well as interests. This trip offered a global mix of Europeans, Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese, so talk about a Babel of gabble. However, when newbies doing their first dives came aboard with an FNF instructor, Steve had to find a shallow and calm site for them, meaning one far from the pelagic-filled reef.

I made it a habit of having cappuccinos before every morning dive in FNF’s openair Barracuda Bar next door, and using their hot freshwater shower on the dock at day’s end. Once again, I booked at the West Plaza Desekel, one of Koror’s five West Plaza hotels, the Motel 6 chain of Palau. My $90 room was simple but clean with a small fridge and a king-sized bed. It was a five-minute walk to the dive shop (although FNF offered to pick me up) and to downtown, which was traffic-congested but clean and resembling your typical American suburban strip, except for the abundance of Japanese restaurants. My favorite eateries were the Taj, an Indian restaurant across from the jail, and Surinaya, a cozy Thai restaurant across from the national basketball court building. Both had friendly service and a wide array of their national dishes but most important, they were inexpensive and had air-conditioning and cold beer. There were pizza and burgers at the Rock Island Café and a supermarket below the Desekel.

My third and last day was spent at Palau’s signature Blue Corner, a ledge at 60 feet with a steep dropoff exposed to a weak current. Sharks hovered just 10 feet away from where I swung from my reef hook. Visibility was just 60 feet, but it was clear enough to see the abundant groupers, morays, turtles, eels, snappers, chevron barracudas, redtooth triggerfish, and Napoleon wrasses. One giant grouper let me snap photo after photo from three feet away. I found a delicate white nudibranch nestled in the rocks, a striking contrast to the large marine life lumbering above it. After 20 minutes, I unhooked and moved to the plateau behind the ledge, watching a barracuda ball form, a sleeping reef shark, and a large pufferfish out for a stroll with a jack. I blessed FNF for its free Nitrox but when several divers got short on air, we all had to surface after 60 minutes. This time I didn’t mind cutting it short as I wanted a hot shower and a cold cocktail before I had to pack my bags for the Ocean Hunter II.

The next morning, FNF’s driver picked me up at the motel, and other crew moved my luggage onboard the 75- foot vessel moored at FNF’s dock. I collected my gear, drying in the locked drying room, and gave it to the crew to stow while I checked in at the Barracuda Bar. Joining the crew of five were 12 guests for six cabins – couples from Germany, Switzerland, Oregon and Florida, a Canadian and my group of three. I got Cabin 4, one of the five deluxe cabins with a double bed that tall divers are best off sleeping diagonally in, a single bed overhead, bright reading lights, ensuite shower with hair dryer, storage space and air-conditioning that was kaput most of the trip. The large master suite on the top deck has a spacious king bed. Smokers are allowed, but blissfully, nobody on this trip was one.

After a boat briefing, we headed 15 minutes south to our checkout dive at the Japanese tanker and transport ship Iro, sunk by a torpedo during WWII. Visibility on the forward part ran 100 feet as I checked out the coral-encrusted forward tower at 25 feet and the deck at 85 feet. Next stop was the Ulong Channel, which I had done two days before. The current was stronger on this dive and more sharks were around, as well as a large bait ball. It was an interesting dusk dive but the sense of déjŕ vu followed me for the rest of the cruise.

Led by Eddie, the eagle-eyed trip director and divemaster, the five-man crew from Palau and the Philippines was friendly and always available, even after supper when they told stories in the salon. Food was tailored to individual requirements, including my request for low-cholesterol meals. It was good but not fabulous enough to make me have to go back for seconds. Coffee and rolls were available before the 7 a.m. dive. Dried off 90 minutes later, I sat down to a full American breakfast with fruits, cereals, eggs and pancakes. I jumped back in the water at 10 a.m., then had a 12:30 lunch of burgers or tacos, vegetarian dishes and various sides. After the 2 p.m. dive, chef Arlee handed me the fresh fruit smoothie along with a brownie or a cookie. After a snooze or a look through my photos, my final dive was between 4 and 5:30 p.m. We all gathered at 7 p.m. in the salon, just big enough to seat 12 people at the round tables, for soup, followed by meat, fish and vegetarian entrees, and desserts of cakes, custards or simply fresh fruit. Afterwards, I lingered in the salon to watch Arlee and Richard, the chase boat driver and steward, break out the karaoke microphone. However, I did turn down their offer to join in for a duet on “My Way.”

Like their counterparts at the dive shop, Ocean Hunter dive guides wanted rigid dive times and the group to remain together, although they ended up relaxing the rules somewhat. Eddie announced that to keep on schedule, dive times were 60 minutes max, including safety stops. He gave detailed briefings and kept a close watch to ensure everyone managed the currents. Divers either goose-stepped off the back of the liveaboard or rolled off the fiberglass chase boats, with the guides immediately after. Not a bad idea in strong currents, but constrictive if you’re used to doing your own profiles. Once I proved my dive experience, the guides let me drift farther away. My dive buddies and I took more time ogling and filming underwater than the others, so our dive times stretched to 70 minutes and we had to find our own way back. We always seemed to meet up with everyone else, but later I found out Eddie always turned the group around to meet us. The Ocean Hunter had good ladders, with steps so wide I could climb on board with my fins on.

Shark City, a site I had not dived on this trip, was along Palau’s outer reef and one of the deeper dives at 85 feet. The sharks came to meet us, along with massive schools of jacks and barracudas, clown and blue triggerfish, turtles and large unicorn fish. After a day of getting reacquainted with Peleliu’s rainbow-hued soft and hard coral, we headed back to Blue Corner –- my third time there but I can never complain about that site. The shallower afternoon dives at the end of the trip were spent closer to Koror, like at Ngerchong Outside and its acres of staghorn coral dotted with lionfish, cuttlefish and eels, and a twilight dive at Mandarin Fish Lake, where one coral head housed a dozen mandarin fish performing their mating rituals.

Even though I had a seven-day itinerary, the Ocean Hunter was back in the harbor on the sixth night and back at FNF’s dock on the seventh. Eddie had decided that to see Devilfish City and its manta rays, one of the dive shop’s twin-outboards boat made more sense when compared to Ocean Hunter’s traveling speed of eight knots. Backrolling down to 30 feet and getting myself situated, 30 minutes into the dive, two mantas with 15-foot wingspans glided toward us, ready for their cleaning appointment.

Even before my trip ended, I was planning a sixth trip back to Palau – but staying on terra firma next time. It irked me that the Ocean Hunter, charging liveaboard prices, docked within clear view of the dive shop for the last two nights -- I could have gotten a more comfortable bed by taking the chase boat to the dock and getting my motel room. While I love FNF and its staff of friendly locals, I don’t care to spend extra on a liveaboard that takes me to the same sites as their shore-based speedboats. (And the Hunter charges extra for Nitrox, while there is no additional charge for Nitrox on shore-based dives). While the information FNF offered promised five dives a day on the Ocean Hunter, I did the maximum four dives a day offered. Tallying up my expenses, a four-dive day on the boat was $445 a day, plus Nitrox, while a three-dive day on land with room and meals cost me $290 per day. For many, paying more for “immediate” access to dive sites and being on a liveaboard with more personal attention and less commuting time, and that fourth dive, will be well worth it. Me? I have just as good a time on land with exposure to the same dive sites, a wider choice of things to eat and do, and a longer bed. Plus, I get to experience more of the local culture, like taking one of FNF’s outrigger canoe tours or bargaining for local art at the jail’s gift shop.

Ocean Hunter II has been commandeered for research use until next year, but the 16-passenger Ocean Hunter III, which debuted in April, is more luxurious and has already gotten a couple of thumbs-up in Undercurrent’s reader reports. It does special trips to Palau’s southwestern islands and Yap, and for unique voyages like that, I’d spend the money. But to avoid divers who cop out after the second dive, my plan is to get four or five other divers to charter a day boat so I can go wherever I want – and even dive Blue Corner four times in a row if I feel like it.

-- H.N.M.

Fish ‘n Fins and Ocean Hunter II, PalauDiver’s Compass: Fish ‘n Fins charges $130 for a two-tank dive and $45 for the third, or snorkel at Jellyfish Lake and Chandelier Cave for an additional $35 and $40 respectively . . . 32-percent Nitrox is free . . . FNF promises discounted diving and lodging rates if you book a package through it . . . Ocean Hunter I, a 60-foot boat for six divers, is $3,200 for 7 days and $4,600 for 10 days; Ocean Hunter III, a 96-foot boat for 16, is $3,100 and $4,400 . . . Continental Micronesia flies to Koror daily from Guam, and Wednesdays and Saturdays from Manila; the lowest winter fare offered is $1,600 but check online at www.continental.com to see if flight schedules have changed . . . For more date flexibility, fly any airline to Tokyo, then use Continental to Guam and Koror; but FNF says it can get a return flight from Manila for $507 compared to the regular rate of $760 . . . Air and water temperatures average 82 degrees year-round; there’s no official rainy season, but weather can be unpredictable . . . English and the U.S. dollar are commonplace . . . Palau is not at risk for malaria, but drink bottled water . . . Koror’s hospital has a hyperbaric chamber . . . Fish ‘n Fins’ website: www.fishnfins.com; Ocean Hunter’s website: www.oceanhunter.com

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