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May 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 31, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fish & Fins, Palau Aggressor, Micronesia

better by land than by sea

from the May, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Waiting to collect my bags at Tokyo's Narita airport in January, before transferring to my Palau flight, I was shocked when my dive bag containing $3000 worth of gear didn't arrive. It never did, apparently having been purloined by a baggage handler in Seattle or Portland, who couldn't resist a bag marked "ScubaPro." Though I had the claim check, someone had purged it from the Alaska Air/Delta data bank. While I hated to make my liveaboard/land diving trip with rental gear, I contacted my travel agent for help and pressed on.

The Palau AggressorMy agent quickly emailed Fish & Fins and the Aggressor Headquarters to reserve rental gear. Oddly, when I checked in at Fish & Fins, they didn't even have me on their boat schedule, though I had an email showing my travel agent's reservation. Luckily, they had space, their Mares rental gear was good quality, and the diving worked out just fine.

My first dive was Ulong Channel, a beautiful hard coral garden, divided by sand slits where white tips and gray reef sharks rested, while an eight-foot reef shark enjoyed a full mouth/teeth cleaning by wrasses. A Spanish Dancer lit on a coral head and posed. While sediment clouded the water, it was full of fish, sharks, and dozens of colorful, small maximus clams.

We followed at the Ulong Sand Bar, with a little more current and better visibility. The Hard Coral Rock Caf -- my name for it -- featured a mountainside of lettuce coral serving as "Squirrelfish condos." I cruised through a huge school of white-tongue trevallies that paid me no mind. My second dive was a slow drift over a rolling coral slope, with plenty of sharks. A green scorpion leaf fish hid on a coral head among hundreds of small silver fry, and then I floated through stunning schools of barracuda and snappers.

Depending upon the trip, our boat carried 10-14 divers (I was the only American) and two skilled, attentive, helpful divemasters. Each day, the 50-minute ride to the first dive was breathtakingly beautiful, as were the beaches -- right out of Michener -- where we stopped for a bento-box lunch (cold meat of your choice, rice, veggies) after the second dive. After our 3 p.m. return, a third dive to wrecks in the harbor was occasionally offered, if there were enough people interested.

My German Channel dives produced five giant mantas circling their cleaning station, but it was Grand Central Station for the 30 day-boat divers watching -- liveaboards arrive early so as not to fight the crowds. Blue Corner had a moderate current, so the shark action was down from the peak, but we did see a dozen or so big boys, or were they girls? Various tropicals and a couple of turtles rounded out the dive.

"New Drop Off" was a delight, with a beautiful wall and lots of soft corals. We hooked on to watch big gray reef sharks, humphead wrasses, and schools of jacks, durgeons, and large big-tooth tuna attacking a school of yellowtail snappers.

After the fourth day of diving, Fish & Fins transported me to the Aggressor at 4:45 p.m., shortly before the larger group arrived. Things went smoothly until the staff told my 78-year-old dive buddy, who had a written confirmation showing she had requested a bottom bunk ten months in advance, the 50-year-old woman who was also assigned to her cabin had become unruly, insisting on the bottom bunk and threatening to sue. My buddy's written confirmation from Aggressor Headquarters was not in the Palau Aggressor's manifest.

Map of  Palau, MicronesiaMy buddy is 5 ft. tall, unable to scale the top bunk, and she must arise several times at night to use the bathroom. Her assigned roommate, fit and young enough to be her daughter, would not relent, saying she had recently requested the lower bunk, and showed no respect for my buddy or her physical needs. While the captain apologized, he couldn't get the woman to back down and would not override her. She was one rude, self-centered passenger. The solution landed in my lap, and I brought my buddy into my intentionally booked single room, giving her the bottom bunk to accommodate her very clear needs. The top bunk had no ladder, so even for 6' 4" me, it wasn't easy to climb up and down, nor was there enough headspace to sit up fully. At least the mattress was comfortable.

Still, my displeasure grew. Though my travel agent had informed Aggressor Headquarters five days earlier -- and I had a confirming email -- that I needed rental gear, the boat didn't have the request. They scrambled around, coming up with a crappy old 3mm (functionally a 1 mm) wetsuit, and, later, a shorty I could wear over it. The BC had a broken pocket zipper, but the fins fit and the regulator worked (they comped me). It took a delicious dinner -- salad, pork chops, fresh vegetables, and mashed potatoes with dessert -- to wipe the bad taste from my mouth. Afterwards. I had a chance to converse with the two Russian couples and twelve other Americans on board.

The dive crew was proactive, attentive, and helpful on board. They conducted detailed dive briefings and organized the too-crowded skiff dives well. American captain Scott was all business and a thorough divemaster. Divemasters Dan and, especially, Ernan, accommodated individual needs, including some divers' forgetfulness and mistakes (e.g., forgetting weights, jumping in without fins or without their computers) that can be made when divers are rushed. And, indeed, it was rush, rush, rush, beginning with the first dive at 6 a.m.(!), and the rest of the day as they tried to meet tight schedules for five daily dives. Rest periods between dives were short, so I ended up doing 3-4 dives a day, just so I could feel as if I was on vacation and unbeholden to a tight commercial schedule.

The Aggressor is a nice size, well maintained and well laid out, and I enjoyed hanging out between dives, on the top deck in the large, shaded area, or at one of the few tables aft of the dining room. Two fellow divers and I often took refuge there during meals, as the cold A/C in the dining room/lounge was uncomfortable, despite frequent requests to warm it up a tad. The small lounge had cushy couches and a big-screen TV for videos. Cabins had en-suite heads and showers, and while I had plenty of hot water, others complained about occasional cool showers. There was ample storage in the cabins and on the dive deck, but stuff left there was not protected from water.

Fish & Fins dive boatUnderwater, the guides never asked me about air status, at best flashing an occasional "OK?" sign, but that's only if I could keep up with them. Scott just barreled forward, rarely pointing out anything. Ernan was more considerate, as he was usually videoing stuff and divers, and would point out the occasional nudibranch, leaf fish, or crocodilefish. With 14 on a skiff that can hold 16, it was crowded above and below as we dived in a single cluster, with inexperienced divers running into me when I was shooting. Several of us asked to be divided into a second group, but they told us that they couldn't run five dives a day with two groups. (Well, give me four uncrowded dives rather than five crowded, rushed dives). There was a 60-minute bottom time maximum, and on wall/reef dives they let buddies go off on their own, to be picked up later by the boatman spotting safety sausages. For hook-in dives, we had to stay together. Getting back in the skiff wasn't difficult, with lines in the water and a permanent line along the starboard side where the ladder was. Take off your BCD and tank and they pulled it up. The crew handled cameras with care, and back on board there were good rinsing facilities, compressed air hoses and plenty of charging stations for the three of us with big rigs; with six or more it would be crowded.

Palau's waters were healthy, the hard corals mixed with prolific soft corals. Where there was current, there was tons of shark action, with white tip reef sharks and black tips [carchahinus limbatus] on the hook-ins and on the walls and over coral gardens at times. Big schools were common on the hook-in dives -- big-eyed jacks, barracuda, fusiliers, trevallies, snappers, durgeons, and Moorish idols. The frequent big-tooth tuna, humphead wrasses, and eagle rays were nice treats, but small wall fish were sparse. And this is no place for macro: Few nudis, but frequent anemone nests with Clarkii, pink and salmon clownfish, the occasional leaf scorpionfish, one pygmy seahorse, but enough Christmas tree worms to drive you crazy.

Conditions were disappointing, however: frequent and long upwellings of 73-75F water -- cold for my funky wetsuit -- with about half the dives 80-81F. Visibility at 30 to 50 feet meant a lots backscatter -- even the boat video they sold was frequently cloudy.

At South Island Peleliu, we had a great dive off Orange Beach. I then took a three-hour tour of the island where a bloody WWII battle is still remembered. The last day we snorkeled Jellyfish Lake at 7:30 a.m., so no one else was there and it was an ethereal, wondrous experience to paddle among endless benign jellies. We finished with a pleasant, easy dive of Chandelier Caves, among the beautiful sparkles and stalagtites.

The skilled, long-tenured Filipino cook produced croissants, cookies, dim sum, and cheeses after every dive. Breakfasts were cooked-to-order omelets, plus meats, cereals, toast, tea, and mediocre coffee (no decaf). Buffet lunches had a variety of primarily American food, and the dinners were varied and plated, preceded by an excellent soup. Special diets were accommodated, albeit the food was high in carbohydrates. The food was well prepared. Chicken, beef, pork, fresh fish, pasta, rice, salads, potatoes and gravy -- just like mom used to make. I liked the saucy beef dishes, and the local fish was simply grilled and not over-cooked. Desserts and fresh fruit followed. Beer and wine were complimentary, but a few divers felt shorted because there was no full bar or hard liquor.

Night dives began at 6:30, 45 minutes before it got dark, usually disappointing those who went. I suppose the schedule was set to keep dinner early, but this is a diving cruise, so why not either an 8:00 dinner or two seatings?

Neither Aggressor dive at German Channel had current, so no mantas. Bad luck? Poor tide timing? I don't know. So we went to Barnum's Wall, and in my juryrigged wetsuit, I hit the 72F water with a gasp. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful wall with huge diversity of soft corals and a modest amount of fish, including a cute little juvenile black snapper flapping on a rocky outcropping.

I loved my Fish & Fins trip to New Drop Off, but when I returned with the Aggressor, we didn't cruise the beautiful wall but dived over rubble to hook in, then waited 15 minutes for the action to begin, but the slow current brought no big animals. My Blue Holes dive was disappointing as well. As we descended, I worked hard to avoid the 13 other divers before assembling at the bottom of the big, uninteresting, lifeless cave, where it opens onto a wall. Outside, a pygmy seahorse lost itself in a fan, but so many people crowded around to see it., I took one macro shot and gave up. The remainder of the dive along the wall turned up few fish.

Rating of  Diving Palau, MicronesiaEveryone dived nitrox. The first fill you analyzed, but you checked subsequent tanks at their central gauge while the tanks were being filled. Most guests failed to get it right. May I suggest that the crew simply post the percentage on the board after each fill for the guests to put into their computer/log? After all, the range was negligible: 31.7%-32.1% every time.

Certainly, Palau makes my top ten, but not as great as Raja Ampat, North Sulawesi/Bunaken/Lembeh, or Papua New Guinea. It doesn't quite measure up to the Maldives, or in the Philippines, Tubbataha, and Moalboal/Visayas. I would, indeed, return to Palau, and stick with a day boat first to get acclimated and a liveaboard for more dives per day. However, the poor record-keeping, sloppy communication between headquarters and the boat, the rigid, rushed schedule, cluster diving with 14-16 divers, and some comparately not-so-good dives means I'll pick a craft other than the Aggressor next time around.

P.S.: My dive buddy, who has been diving since the 60s, is a former underwater photographer for Skin Diver Magazine back in the day, and has over 3,000 dives all over the world. After the trip, when our travel agent confronted the Aggressor office with the emails and invoice documenting her confirmed lower bunk reservation, they apologized for it not getting to the boat's manifest and offered us both $500 off our next Aggressor trip. My buddy, who accompanied me on three of the four dive days I took on Fish & Fins, commented many times how much more enjoyable the dives were with F&F and how much slower and attentive the dive guides were.

- W.M.

Our author, who has been diving 25 years with over 1,000 dives from the Caymans to the Maldives to Bonaire and Bunaken, says that "When I grew up watching Mike Nelson on Sea Hunt fight off the bad guys who wanted to cut his hoses, I never imagined the bad guys stealing my gear and being on a cattleboat-like operation in Palau. But the endless beautiful coral and big animals made up for it all.

Kosrae and Yap, MicronesiaDivers Compass: Fish & Fins 2-tank dive including lunch, cost $160, plus $75/day for gear rental! . . . The Landmark Waterfront Hotel had nice, spacious room with good breakfasts. . . . nearby restaurants, Drop Off and Kramer's, were excellent and reasonably priced . . . . . Next to the Landmark, the small Palau Aquarium was worth a visit. . . . .The Aggressor was $3255 pp/trip, including beer & wine, plus $200 for park fees. . . .Both dive operations only offered 80 cu. ft. tanks.

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