Photo Credits: Kevin Davidson
From the cobalt abyss of the outer reef walls, to the rich burnt orange of the volcanic savanna soil and the deep verdant forests, you can easily see why Palau calls itself the ‘Rainbow’s End’. While it is primarily known for its excellent dive sites, Palau’s lesser- known terrestrial adventures round out the country’s offerings.
Palau’s oceanic realm is home to about 215 reef-building hard corals and 150 species of soft corals, gorgonians, and sea pens. Reef fishes in Palau are also far more diverse than those in neighbouring Micronesian islands – at least 1,450 species. Favourites of divers, the napoleon wrasse and bumphead parrot fish, are protected species here. As Palau was named the World’s First Shark Sanctuary in 2009 (covering 600,000 sq.km.), 17 species of sharks and 10 ray species thrive in the dive sites. It’s a groundbreaking measure that’s now being followed by many of Palau’s Pacific neighbours.
In total, Palau has over 60 dive sites, with its best-known dive sites situated along the outer reef walls, including sites like the famous Blue Corner and New Drop Off where rich oceanic currents sweep across these reefs. Ulong Channel is well known for its patches of lettuce coral that rise up like city skyscrapers along a narrow passage amid bustling shoals of groupers, while manta rays can be found swooping down in the shallow reef at German Channel.
In addition, there are 60 wrecks to explore, as well as an enormous cavern dive known as the Blue Hole. For anyone without a PADI licence, several accredited dive shops offer introductory dives and certification courses. Typical dive packages include up to 3-4 dives per day, including a lunch break at one of Palau’s idyllic beaches near the southern lagoon.
Palau has received numerous awards for its diving, including being named as one of the underwater wonders of the world by CEDAM International. Diving isn’t the only way to experience Palau’s marine life – local operators also offer snorkelling or kayaking tours in the scenic Rock Islands of the
southern lagoon. Then there’s the famous Jellyfish Lake (which is inhabited by jellyfish that don’t sting), where you can swim with gentle golden mastigas that follow the sun across a landlocked saltwater lake while they farm their algae that sustain them. Likened to a lava lamp, you can float amongst these creatures which can number in the thousands.
Sport fishing is also popular in Palau, where a variety of reef fish and billfish can be reeled in, with operators offering hand-line fishing, trolling, casting, deep bottom fishing, and night fishing. There is also an annual fishing derby (check www.visit-palau.com for details), which visitors can participate in.
Many of Palau’s traditional customs are still practised today. Palauans are closely connected to the sea as the men studied the currents, moon and tides for fish, and the women stayed on land or along the shallow reefs, with days spent tending to their homes, family and taro patches. Palauan villages were, and still are, organised around 10 matrilineal clans. A council of chiefs from the 10 ranking clans governed the village, and still do to this day. A parallel council of their female counterparts hold a significant advisory role in the division and control of land and money, giving rural Palau a fascinating, thriving social and cultural dynamic.
From the smallest Rock Island, or atoll, to Babeldaob (the second largest landmass in Micronesia), Palau is a cluster of over 586 limestone and volcanic islands. While the main town, Koror is really a group of islands connected by causeways and bridges, it’s where most of the dining and accommodation are located. Here, you can pick up Palauan handicrafts, drop by its twice-monthly night markets, or visit the kitschy local jail. Other attractions include Dolphins Pacific (where you can swim with dolphins), Palau International Coral Reef Center (showcasing mangrove channels, seagrass beds, as well as inner- and outer reefs) and the Belau National Museum, which has a traditional bai (meeting house) on its grounds. The outer islands – namely Kayangel, Babeldoab, Peleliu, and Anguar – offer opportunities for intriguing land tours. At Palau’s largest waterfall in Ngardmau State, you can ride a zipline down to the falls and return by hiking. There is also a zipline and adventure park in Airai State, a short ride
Most of these islands and states hide WWII artifacts in the forests, preserved by law as they were left in 1945. As well, since the construction of the main highway in Babeldoab, accessibility to sites of cultural and historical importance, such as the Badrulchau (stone monoliths), can be reached in just a couple of hours. In fact, many other stone paths and monoliths were uncovered and protected while the road was being built.
On Babeldoab, the dense forests contain approximately 186 species of trees from more than 50 different families. Over many centuries, Palauans have gained traditional knowledge about the trees, including their religious significance, cultural history, economic value, and medicinal use. These forests and those on the outlying islands are home to 161 resident and migratory bird species, the endemic fruit bat and other creatures.
At the Ngermeskang Bird Sanctuary, many of these species can be identified on a short hike. In northern Babeldaob, kayak tours take you through dense mangrove channels to sites of cultural importance, such as the burial place of the goddess who made Palau’s taro patches. There are also many dirt roads to explore, passing by the rivers and rainforests of Babeldoab, which are accessible only by 4WD.
Palau’s UNESCO-listed Rock Islands Southern Lagoon is listed as a mixed site (for both cultural and natural properties), covering 100,200 hectares. Here, many of its mushroom-shaped islands dot the turquoise lagoons surrounded by coral reefs, with its beauty heightened by a complex reef system featuring 385+ coral species and various marine habitats, sustaining a large diversity of plants, birds and sea life including dugong and many shark species.
The Rock Islands is also home to the highest concentration of marine lakes (isolated bodies of seawater separated from the ocean by land barriers) in the world. They are among the islands’ many distinctive features and sustain many endemics – and continue to yield new species discoveries; one of the best ways to appreciate this extraordinary site is from a helicopter or small plane when the sun is at its highest.