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April 19, 2013

Boy did we ever have the storm of all storms last night! Rain, thunder, lightening…something rare for Palau. It did offer a nice breeze for the tents, which were relatively hot. Some people might say that relatively hot was an under statement as they were considering sleeping out on the beach or in a hammock like some of the crew. If I were assured I wouldn’t be eaten alive by ants and mosquitos, I may have slept under the stars as well, as they were magnificent. Interestingly, while Palau is in the Northern hemisphere, 4° above the equator, the North Star can’t be seen. Sailors navigate by the Southern Cross and moon. Since most of us had our tent flaps up, the crew came around at two in the morning during the monsoon and zipped us in. The crew is fantastic. They won’t let us carry anything…not even our day gear off the boat!

After our full breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, pancakes, fruit, juice and coffee, we set off for a full day of snorkeling, my dream and Ellen’s nightmare! Miraculously, the sun came out, a bright rainbow formed overhead and shortly thereafter we launched our boat. Three of us being divers were somewhat concerned about the wind and associated visibility or lack thereof because we were planning on snorkeling the number one dive site in the world! I was envious that I wasn’t diving it until I found out divers are attached into the reef with a grappling hook, so the current doesn’t sweep them away. I don’t know, I may still have to return to dive because some the snorkeling we did was superb, and all I could think of is what it would be like to be 40 feet lower!

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Our first stop was German Channel. We were hoping to see mantas, which wasn’t in the cards, but we saw a handful of large grey reef shark circle below schools of snapper and unicorn fish. We moved from the deep blue and sandy bottom area to the shallow reef and basked in the multitude of colorful fish. I spotted another pipefish which looks like a blend between a snake and a sea-horse. While I was busy snapping photos of moorish idol and a variety of butterfly fish that were somewhat cooperative for a change, I turned my head to the right for a second to glance at the channel and was surprised by a black tip reef shark six feet away. Once I got over my initial shock, I was excited that he hung around for a photo, passing in front of me, across the reef, and circling back to me again. Upon his third return; however, I thought, “Hmmm, I don’t know much about black tips…I dive in Nurse shark world…where are my snorkel mates?” He was harmless and probably just curious about my camera reflecting in the sun. It was fun to watch! Just before I got on the boat, I spotted a giant bump head wrasse that had to be 4 feet and weigh more than me and a turtle. I love the turtles…such a treat!

From the German Channel we motored over to German Wall. Here we saw puffers, goat fish, juvenile black and white snapper (another beautiful fish as a baby and ugly as an adult), a trumpetfish, and sweetlips. We saw these fish on multiple snorkels, but my photos came out the best at this location!

Our next stop was Big Drop Off named by Jacque Cousteau. None of the dive sites were very far apart. We could see if boats were at each location. Big Drop Off may have been my favorite snorkel of the whole trip so far. We started off on the shallow reef and immediately found the Clark’s anemonefish when we jumped off the boat. These aren’t in the Carribean, so it is a treat to see them. Throughout the dive there were more, and some were enormous for their species. We also spotted within the first minute a juvenile yellowtail coris…an inch long, red with big white dots. Jayden was excited to see this fish. He said he sees it once a year, and of course, the adult is not very pretty! Just a little bit further between the shallows of the reef and the sandy bottom, a moray wedged itself into its home. It stuck its head out about a foot to say hello every now and again. As we were crossing over to the “Big Drop Off”, which drops over 1,000 feet to the ocean floor, I spotted an octopus free-swimming! He passed by me and landed on a head of coral. He stayed on top of the coral until I waved Ellen and Gary over. Then he slid partially under the ledge, but never really camouflaged himself. He remained purple. Each time we backed away, he slowly inched up the coral ledge. It is such a treat to see the elusive octopus in the daytime!

Eventually, I made it to the drop off…sea fans and sponges grew on the wall while pyramid butterflyfish, a type we had yet to see, schooled around the reef’s edge. The pink tail triggerfish and clown triggerfish were also new to see (and favorites of mine). The yellow masked angelfish was gorgeous. The bi-color parrot fish feeding frenzy was crazy. The school of parrot fish were rapid swimming from coral to coral attacking it like a starving dog with raw meat. The quick, darting wrasse finally got caught by my camera lens!

We took a break after three snorkels and ate lunch on the boat at our next snorkel spot Fairyland. We could not land on the nearby beaches, as they were protected. The coral reefs at Fairyland were magnificent, with cuts in and out for divers to weave around. I was really wishing for a BC, tank, and regulator, and we hadn’t even made it to the world’s best dive site yet! We saw another enormous bumphead wrasse, though my picture makes it look much smaller than 300 pounds. These fish begin as colorful females and convert to green males as they mature. We saw some more butterflyfish, more Titan triggers, another clown trigger, and a conch. The arc-eye hawkeye seemed to catch my attention. He seemed lethargic, laying on the coral, and I thought he might not moved if I dove underwater to take his picture…I was correct!

I just realized anyone reading my blog today that isn’t interested in fish must be incredibly BORED! I am just loving the snorkeling here because most of my diving, aside from the Red Sea and Australia, has been in the Caribbean, so while we see the same types of fish, the colorful markings on many are very different.

We continued on to the number one dive site in the world, Blue Corner. Due to the depth, I’d say it’s a better dive site than snorkel spot because I couldn’t get very good pictures! Regardless, the variety of all the sites we’ve been to have been spectacular from the corals and sponges of the inner lagoons, to the colorful fish on the outer reefs, to the sharks and schools of big fish at Blue Corner. I snapped a photo of spade fish, sweetlips, and a turtle over the top of the reef before making my way to the corner which was about 75 feet deep. The white tips and grey reef sharks circled around 45 feet. I counted as many as six at once. The schools of snapper, trevally, and barracuda were much closer to the surface. The corner was a haven for the big fish, especially the shark, due to the current because it gives them a chance to sleep and fall to the bottom before the have to swim again.

Our final stop of the day was the Blue Hole/Blue Corner site which is basically the Blue Hole and the other side of Blue Corner from a different direction due to the currents. There are four holes. Three are in a row and connected by a tunnel 45 feet below the surface. Divers bubbles from their tanks were filtering up through the coral hours after they had been there. The first and second hole were connected by a 15 foot arch. Bruce, Jayden, and Hamilton free dove down through the tunnel. I wasn’t sure I could make it, especially given it was our sixth snorkel of the day, so I skipped out. We saw another turtle, a few white tips, a school of Titan triggers, a school of golden trevally that look silver in the daytime but gold at night, a school of sweetlips, and two palette surgeonfish (like Dori). It was the first time for Jayden to see palette surgeonfish at Blue Hole/Blue Corner. Many times it isn’t possible to snorkel Blue Hole because of the waves that crash over the reef, so we had a lucky day with the weather, visibility, and the currents. With the half-moon, we were dealing with slack tide which makes them switch around a bit, but they seemed to work in our favor to see fish today!

Bax took us back to our camp at Jackson’s Beach. We freshened up beneath our sun shower and enjoyed a drink on the beach while chatting. Bruce, from the Virginia area, owned a chain of laundromats which he sold over five years ago. He sold his string of Polo ponies too, so he could spend time traveling. He’s a strong paddler and swimmer, and has a high curiosity. Karen, a nurse from Florida, also loves traveling. She tracks the number of countries she has visited. She tells us there are 196 countries recognized by the UN. I think Palau was her 48th country. Just a layover in an airport doesn’t count, and all the islands that are territories of a larger nation like France or Denmark only count as those countries. Apparently, lots of people track this. I never have. Sonja is a German geneticist who lives in the New York area. Interestingly, she specializes in horse genetics and by looking at the confirmation of the horse, can predict a horse’s ability. It was a little weird to be in a group of six with three of having been or currently are heavily involved in horses. Sonja and I knew some of the same people in the hunter/jumper world!

After enjoying a drink on the beach and the sunset, we were called to dinner by the conch shell horn. Ludy and Wilter had prepared a Palaun BBQ for us! As usual it was a feast: corn, beef and pork stir fry, ribs, chicken, rice, peanut cabbage salad, and more. In addition, some of the boys went fishing for us and brought back fresh sushi! It was a fantastic send off dinner, as we will be waving “bye” to Ludy, Michael, Wilter, and Hamilton tomorrow when Jayden and Bax take us away in the boat. ETB

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