Rock Islands Tour:
Yesterday we chartered a boat for a tour of Palau's famous Rock Islands led by Melahi, our guide, and navigated by Rodney (yes, this is another Sam's tour! What a great dive shop, Tim!). Previously this week we boated through the Rock Islands to reach our dive spots, but the bounty of the islands themselves was yesterday's focus. I found the Rock Islands to be an amazing sight. They are gigantic limestone rocks, but trees and plants are able to grow on them even though there is no soil. The rock island jungles are a demonstration of "nature finding a way," as the plants root right into the porous rock, forming thick jungles. The limestone itself gets eroded by the motion of the water, so at low tide you can see that the shape of the rocks are akin to a mushroom. The "caps" of the islands where the trees grow is broad, while the "stems" of the islands are narrow. From a distance, the islands look like they float on the water.
The majority of our rock island tour included snorkeling, and our first stop was called Cemetery Reef. The name stems from the layout of the coral, which looks like large headstones lined up in a row. While we didn't really see a likeness to headstones we did see fish and coral everywhere! Melahi was an excellent guide, taking care that we caught all of the neatest underwater attractions. At Cemetery Reef, we were able to view giant lettuce coral, which looks like... you guessed it... a giant head of lettuce! At this spot we also were able to tickle some friendly clown fish that were playing in anemone (just like Nemo).
Our next snorkel spot was Big Drop Off. You may remember that this is a location where we originally tried to dive, but the waters were too rough early this week. It turns out that Big Drop Off is also an excellent (and popular) snorkel spot. Once we made our way past a slower group of Asian snorkelers in life jackets (okay I have to kind of laugh at this... I mean, the saltwater really increases one's buoyancy significantly. Being a freshwater girl, I find it tough to get underwater and stay underwater here, so I really can't understand how lifejackets were helping them... but whatever.) we were free to drift with the current. We found some different species of fish here that I don't remember seeing at other snorkel or dive locations. We also saw more sharks, which were calmly sleeping in a flat part of the coral. By far the best part of this snorkel spot, however, was the sea turtles! We saw some at a distance, but we really had a chance to get up close here. We were lucky enough to be drifting along at the same time that a pair of turtles was swimming with the current in shallow waters. They allowed us to swim with them. Diving down, I almost got close enough to touch them, but the little turtle I was chasing seemed to be playing with me, speeding just out of my reach whenever I got close!
After Big Drop Off we beached the boat at a white sand beach on Ngermeads for lunch (with a view!) and a rest out of the equatorial sun. It does sizzle here!
Our next destination was Jellyfish Lake. Jellyfish Lake is unique to Palau; there is no place in the world like it. Jellyfish Lake was once open to the sea, but eventually closed off. The population of jellyfish living in this inland saltwater lake had no predators, and so the population evolved without stingers and is safe for humans to swim in. We docked our boat on the island and took a short hike to the lake. We strapped on our fins and masks and swam out to the center with Malahi in the lead. At first we saw nothing. The trees shaded parts of the lake, which was murkier than much of the open water that we'd been swimming in all week. However, once we ventured more toward the center, we started to see a jellyfish here and a jellyfish there. As we swam, they started to become denser. At first, I found myself trying to avoid touching their pulsing little bodies as I swam, mostly afraid that I'd get one down my suit! I stopped and touched one on the top of its dome, and it was smooth and firm, like a Jello jiggler. I wasn't brave enough yet to touch the "brainy" looking underside, so I swam on. The jellyfish got thicker and thicker, and eventually they were touching me everywhere. They ranged in size from the size of my pinky tip to the size of a large grapefruit. Once I realized that I could not avoid them, I just relaxed and let the experience happen. The jellyfish were everywhere. It was surreal! Eventually I even became comfortable with them and found the environment to be a real peaceful wonder. Malahi took us to the far corner of the lake that was on the edge of the shade (jellyfish seek sunlight) where there was literally an underwater WALL of jellyfish. She told me to try to go down, swim under the wall, flip over and allow myself to float up through it. She demonstrated and I followed. It was amazing. We have good photos of everybody doing this. Every day I've been here, I keep saying, "Wow, that is the most amazing thing that I have ever seen." But really, truly, every day Palau presents something more and more impressive.
After swimming with the jellyfish, we took a few shorter stops. The first one was at Clam City where we dove among giant clams. They were HUGE! It's kind of fun to dive down and touch the rubbery "mouth" of the clam and watch it flinch shut.
The next stop was called Milky Way, which is a cove where the water has a creamy look to it. The bottom of this cove is covered in a white mud made of tiny particles of eroded limestone, washed from the island. The attraction here is the mud, which is good for the skin and is used in spas. We dove in and slathered it all over ourselves, took some photos, and were sure to get in a good mud fight before leaving.
Our final destination was Malahi's reef, which is a younger reef that our guide discovered herself. The current was very strong here, so she called it an "express snorkel" because we jumped out of the boat, floated along the current, and then the boat picked us up at the end. This spot was a great spot for viewing smaller fish. We got to pick up and feel a bright blue starfish and a sea cucumber here. We also swam against the current a little to check out some lobsters, which were hiding in a hole in a nearby rock island. Katie was getting a blister from her boots, and decided to do this spot sans fins. We already know that she's an amazing athlete, but I can't believe she was able to swim against that current without fins! (It was a tough swim with the fins.)
So we ended our Rock Islands tour and headed back to PPR (Tim's club) to try to catch a horizon sunset. So far we have been unsuccessful at that. Every day we go to PPR for the sunset (a fantastic spot for viewing it), hoping to watch the sun sink into the ocean, but each time we seem to get too many clouds in the evening and the sun sinks into them instead. Perhaps Palau is waiting until our final day to reveal its sunset to us!
We had dinner at The Penthouse, which ironically is at ground level. Tim said that this restaurant has great fish, so many of us tried real Palauan style dishes. I had sautéed parrot fish and rice. The fish was whole, and I enjoyed flaking the meat off the bones with my chopsticks. Good stuff!
And that was our day!