Exploring Palau by Sea Kayak
The warm breeze sweeps a delicate floral scent through the cool, shadowy limestone sea cave. Drips pitter on the earth floor around us, and tick-tock into the still water where our boat rests. Carried on a silent current, a single large leaf floats past the arched stone mouth we paddled in.
Drawn upward by the light at the back of the cave, we climb higher and higher on great boulders that furnish the high domed room like immense chairs. Opposite the mouth, we gaze out through a large window through a tangle of vines and ferns. Under the hot equatorial sky, a powerboat buzzes across the distance skimming the turquoise sea.
Kayaking in Palau, in the far southwestern corner of Micronesia, we explored a number of such sea caves. One had served as a seaplane hangar during the Japanese occupation. In another, clicking bats grew nervous as we invaded their chambers. Limestone sculptures hung like cake frosting in the shifting beam of a flashlight. In a third cave, we found a rusted iron cannon.
For my money, the best part of Republic of Palau is the Rock Islands, ancient coral karst uplifted from the seabed south of the large main island of Babeldaob. These small islets slowly rose as the Pacific Plate slipped under the Philippine Sea. Over the millennia, tides, storms and rainfall have undercut and shaped them to strange and wonderful forms.
Known as Chelbacheb (‘El-ba-’Eb – the ch is a gutteral stop) in Palauan, the isles appear from the air like a scattering of fuzzy green sponges in the wide ocean. Down among them, the deep bays and secret coves rest in the curving arms of high overgrown landforms where soft beaches of coral and sand await the explorer.
The smallest of the Rock Islands seem to float like fantasy ships on the reef. The larger ones snake for miles – cliffs, jungle and sandy bays. Here, meter-long endangered sea turtles slide like ghosts below the boat. Though Palauans come to picnic, fish and play every weekend, the solitude can be so pure you imagine you’ve found the prototype for Eden. Wonderful life abounds despite increasing environmental threats.
Hiking in search of a promised jellyfish lake, we came across an immature tropic bird, wary as it watched us pass. Undisturbed, dozens of species of exotic birds nest and play. Far from the madding crowd, they scream warnings across the water and call in sweet bell tones.
Leaving the big dripping cave, we paddle the shoreline. Something large and clumsy bursts out of a tree, flaps in circles, then catches a branch with its feet and swings up-side-down. As it folds its wings, it resolves into a fruit bat the size of a heron. Ahead on the reef, a real heron, this one the color of rust stands motionless. It’s a scholar with a spear studying the fish.
Below the salt, fish of more than 1500 varieties dart and glide, tropical jewels of such infinite variety and vivid patterns and colors that the visitor is dazzled and confused. In the quiet, even a few sharks and giant mantas hardly disturb the peace. The luckiest among us may even see the rare dugong feeding on eel grass. The placid cousin of the manatee is an endangered sea mammal more closely related to elephants than to seals.
Gliding close to shore, we could look down into gardens of brilliant corals, sponges, anemones and rose pink sea fans, a living museum of the most ancient of animal phyla. Thread-like tube-worms, far more advanced, likely evolved a billion years ago. A fat spineless sea urchin is as large as a football. The locals eat sea cucumbers, and we saw lots. But which of five very different varieties would be edible? Across the corals communities range large brilliant orange sea stars and a tiny blue variety. We spot one example of the hated crown of thorns star, that can ravage a whole reef if its population gets out of control.
In the water, with goggles and snorkel, we explore a vertical underwater wall in deep shadow most of the day, a protected place where the most delicate creatures can live undisturbed. We find hundreds of invertebrates that rake, suck, siphon, scrape, sting and filter their appropriate meals in the crystalline water. The biggest living mystery was a colony of rather alien, meter-long white tubes snaking from an overhang. All this treasure below the sea is available to anyone. Truly unsurpassed snorkeling awaits even an inexperienced swimmer along the many protected reefs and shadowy niches.
For those who want to do it deeper, a number of very professional dive shops cater to the SCUBA crowd. Fabulous wall dives, the memorable Blue Hole and friendly people have made the underwater wonders of Palau the dream destination for many of the world’s divers.
But even experienced divers can only stay down so long and must seek other amusements. Most do their exploration in big powerboats that scare the wildlife and never get close to the secret haunts. Kayaking is a great alternative, so great that many of the dive companies and other tourist businesses now rent the little boats.
We began our kayaking with a day trip on our own, and set off with full water bottles, lunch, cameras and SPF 30 sunblock, plus snorkel and mask. The day started early, at the edge of a mangrove swamp in Neko Bay. It’s almost enclosed by the island of Koror, which has Palau’s only town. The bay is filled with little islands and narrow channels.
That first morning, we were like kids in wonderland, astonished by the scenes revealed. After wandering all morning, mapless in a labyrinth of solitude, we left the bay through a narrow gap and emerged “outside.” The whole Pacific lay before us, still as the pure blue sky. Beaches are few here, so we pulled up on the first one we saw.
Huge trees arched over the shallows, shading a chamber roofed in living lace. We sat on the sand to eat. According to Palauan party custom, guests carry off the leftovers. So we had local treats from the previous night’s feast. Tapioca flour dumplings are like soft pasta balls, served in a rich coconut milk sauce. Sliced boiled taro root resembles a blue potato. Tiny sugar bananas make a great dessert, along with a ripe papaya split in two, salted and shared.
In the forest above, some bird belched and roared like a sick cow, but we never caught a glimpse of it. While swallows, frigate birds, sooty terns and fairy terns swooped around us we listened to the cooing of the colorful Palauan fruit dove. The sound came accompanied by cricket chirps, and mysterious cheeps, dings, smeeps and weewops from unseen contenders for the bird-of-the-month club.
Scattered along the sand we found the weathered remains of young giant clams, pearly turban-like trochus shells, cowries, white bubble shells and one iridescent pink spider shell. Some shells sheltered hermit crabs. The law says NOTHING but food fish may be taken in these islands, an excellent conservation provision for a tiny nation of 17,000 people struggling to preserve their natural heritage. So we reluctantly left each treasure in its place.
Offshore, a local family tossed their anchor onto sand. An elderly man and a younger one put on masks, snorkels and fins and went off with their spear guns. The woman sat in the boat with Palauan country music for company. We exchanged waves, then packed away the remains of our meal. That’s when we noticed that the sky had gone very dark.
From the first raindrop to full downpour, we had just enough time to check out the limestone overhang at the edge of the beach, grab daypacks and crouch under cover munching on raisins. The sky dumped an inch in 10 minutes. Then it was over. The woman in the boat appeared from under the front deck. We emerged dry from our shelter and set off for more exploring.
A few days later, having studied the map, we decided to paddle out from Sam’ s Dive Shop in the port at Malakal and explore large Risong Bay with its many isles and inlets. The goal was one of several small island lakes. We rode the tide out into the brilliant morning.
Entering the first inlet, the water glowed pale blue over the sandy bottom. But vertical cliffs 10 meters high convinced us to abandon the notion of reaching the lake shown on the map. The next inlet was a similar steep disappointment. The third appeared to be another “forget it” situation. But as we drew closer, we saw an opening in the vertical wall, hardly wider than our boats. Slowly we snaked through the passage, paddling over a field of pink sea fans down in the clear water. Trees and vines formed a tunnel that led to a hidden lagoon the size of a ball field. Inside, in the tranquil quiet of a jungle paradise, butterflies danced in the hot sun.
We tied our boats to a vine and went snorkeling. In the clear sea we moved very slowly, watching fish skitter around the coral heads. The water was so still the view was not disturbed by the usual undulating pattern of brilliance refracted by surface waves. A grand variety of corals thrived in the cove, and in some areas the sandy bottom sprouted sponges.
In that hidden sanctum, I sensed how a place can entrance a person, awaken the ancient spirit deep within, bring us to heightened awareness. In that state of grace brought out by escape from routine, we merge with the place where man was born. We can feel mystery and know Creation in a new way. In the serenity of such an undisturbed environment, true wildness can permeate the psyche and pry open the hushed chambers of the mind.
Moving weightless and warm, slowly over a large knoll of branched brown coral, peer down at its intricate complexity. As your eyes focus nearer, then farther, you see small brown fish hovering just above the staghorn’s branching surface. The more you look, the more fish appear, almost invisible they are so well camouflaged. Like a living aura above the coral, they match perfectly. Thousands of fingerlings rest motionless. Look away. They vanish. Look closer and they materialize, so still they can slip back into dreamtime with a blink.
Now come out, dry off, lie back. Trust the untied boat to find its way. Close your eyes and listen into the distance, to the chorus. A rare blend of music sweeps you into a tropical world a long, long way from the truths we count on. Out here they sing like this every day for a thousand years, in simple celebration. Out here, they sing with an eternal vitality that pulses like the heartbeat of the gods. Float free, attending to the grand symphonic gathering. The frogs are playing our song. Every one senses the presence of a listener. Every bird knows you are here, every cricket, every tree peeper.
Peace alternates with violence. As soon as we paddle out of the secret cove and into the big bay, a squall hits hard, driving buckets of horizontal rain before a ripping wind. Lucky for us, as we near an anchored yacht, the people aboard invite us to tie our kayaks to the transom and climb up. We all huddle under the canvas canopy laughing, sharing barbecued fish, beer and good stories until the weather lightens up a bit.
“So,” queries the captain, hoisting a cold one, “if a typhoon is winds over 100 kilometers per hour, when do you get a Tropical Depression?”
“Winds over eighty?”
“Way off. It’s when the islanders run out of beer.”
We learn that our hosts have sailed out of Los Angeles, via Samoa and New Guinea to be here. Incredibly easy by contrast, our journey to Palau seemed long enough. You arrive exhausted and jet-lagged after a transpacific flight to Manila and short hop to the islands. But as soon as you see the gorgeous blue water and emerald green land you are ready to go.