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Diving in Palau and Yap

by Trudy Kelly

Reproduced from in focus 56 (January 1996)



Earlier this year we visited the Micronesian islands of Yap and Palau where we experienced some excellent diving. Yap is actually a cluster of islands between 6 and 10 degrees north in the Pacific which stretch across some 10 degrees of longitude. Yap Proper has the only organised diving and permission is not normally granted for diving activities at many of the outer islands. Yap Proper is a beautiful, friendly island and a wonderful place to wind down. Most visitors only stop a couple of days to dive with the mantas but we stayed for seven days diving. We had ten manta dives and on only one did we miss them; perhaps we were looking in the wrong direction. We generally dived in a group of four or six though on one occasion we found twelve divers in the water. If everyone observes the rules this in fact does not detract from viewing the mantas though it's not so good for photography as you'll invariably get someone's bubbles in the frame. The visibility to expect in Miil Channel where the mantas feed and are cleaned is probably fifty feet - sometimes more on the incoming tide and less as the tide ebbs from the mangroves.

During our April visit the mantas were still located in Miil Channel which normally means a delightful boat ride through the mangroves to the site. This can't be attempted at low water although the big boat sometimes makes the long journey around the outside of the reef. At higher states of the tide the boat passes right through the centre of the island through a channel made at the beginning of the century. The mangroves are wonderful and in the shallow water of the narrowest part it's worth keeping an eye out for archer fish and on the exposed banks of the channel for the mudskippers and crabs.

Our favourite dive in Yap was the drift over the manta ridge on the incoming tide. Even without mantas this dive would rate quite highly with lots of interesting life such as turtles and sharks cruising through a channel lined with sea whips. Crossing the ridge can be an exhilarating and somewhat uncontrolled affair as the water depth reduces from some ninety to thirty feet and the aim, if there are stationary mantas, is to stop with them! We had dives where we were able to tuck ourselves out of the current and sit within ten feet of a manta for thirty minutes.

Not only does Yap have its manta rays: it also has extensive coral reefs which are in almost pristine condition excepting occasional cyclone damage. At the southern tip of the island we experienced some excellent wall dives, cavernous areas and reef tops teeming with life. We were fearful only of the extremely territorial titan triggerfish which produced the most aggressive encounters we had during our holiday. They clearly resented our presence even when we were a long way off from areas which may have been potential nest sites. The reef was patrolled by large schools of humphead parrotfish and looking into deeper water we often saw big groupers swimming along.

Moving to Palau, possibly one of the prettiest places to be found anywhere, the diving just gets better. We dived up to five times a day from an excellent six guest live aboard for a week and also had some day dives with one of the most well known local diving operators. Palau seems to be home to almost everything tropical and the diving ranges from soft corals to schools of shark, from glimpses of thresher shark to encounters with tiny little octopus clinging to the boat ladder. Night dives were excellent with particularly memorable ones along Big Drop Off and through the blue hole at Turtle Cove. There are also of course plenty of wrecks, though we only dived them on our way through the rock islands to and from the outer reef.

We dived some sites like the famous walls of Ngemelis island several times because there were so many things to see and the type of dive experienced depended on the state of the fide. Blue comer, a famous dive site, lived up to expectations and I could have happily dived it every day of the week - that is assuming it was possible to hang on at the comer! We were surrounded by fishes darting in different directions. While schools of several hundred individuals of jacks, black snappers, barracuda and rainbow runners were present with each species darting in unison, the pyramid butterflyfish and red tooth triggerfish were much less organised. At this time of year schooling fish even included large groups of elegant moorish idols. There were a lot of grey reef sharks stooging about in the current - indeed if they weren't circling and sneaking up behind us to pass again and again there were a hell of a lot of grey reef sharks and some of them were big and close. It was comforting to find that when you sensed something just off your shoulder it was the usual friendly humphead wrasse!

We had read about the currents before we came to Palau and were somewhat apprehensive as we had also heard scary tales from divers we had met in Yap. On our live aboard, with such a small group and the inherent flexibility, our skipper was able to choose where and when we dived so the big currents did not materialise although drift diving was the norm.

Whilst diving from day boats however you can find yourself amidst boats zapping about the same dive location and the concept of selecting what state of the tide the dive takes place doesn't really exist.We consequently found ourselves on our last dive being propelled by the current at high speed through the sharks and into the middle distance away from Pelileu, emerging into choppy seas. It has to be said though that the part where we hurtled along the wall and across the top of the reef was a pretty exciting finale and we were in fact immediately picked up by the boat. We would have expected, especially after the deaths which have occurred here, that the use of safety sausages would be mandatory on the day boats.

This last day typified just how different the dives could be. During our earlier dive in stack water at the tip of Pelileu island it was possible to potter along the wall and move up onto the ledge to watch sharks resting on the sand. We were able to stop and look at isolated coral heads which were home to so many fishes including stunning blue palatte surgeonfish which darted in if we approached too closely. We even discovered leaf fish sitting tucked against the coral in depressions on the reef terrace.

Not only does Palau boast the big dive sites - there are also a number of sheltered sites which are not to be missed. Chandelier cave is an interesting diversion. The seabed in front the cave appears fairly tatty with a certain amount of rubbish from tripper boats but even here there is plenty to see like the stunning mandarinfish, pajama cardinalfish and lots of juvenile fishes which may be found in this sheltered water among the corals and leaf litter. The cave itself is a big crystal clear cavem with a number of air chambers and beautiful limestone and stalactite formations.

Soft Coral Arch is stunning but inevitably from the number of snorkellers and divers visiting some of the corals are now damaged. There are a myriad of different coloured soft corals with pastel shades of orange and yellow that defy adequate description.

Palau of course is home to several saltwater lakes in the middle of the rock islands, one of which is regularly visited by snorkellers in order to view its jellyfish. The jellyfish have evolved to lose their stings and derive energy through a symbiotic relationship with algae so the greatest density of individuals is found following the sun around the lake. We visited during overcast conditions making the snorkel out through the channel of tree roots, inhabited by cardinal fish and small white anemones, quite eerie. Despite missing the great concentrations of jellyfish that occur when the sun narrows we were still able to see hundreds and hundreds of individuals.

Snorkelling in front of our hotel was also a delight for fish watching with a myriad of butterflyfishes and angelfishes and lots of picassofish living in the scattered rubble patches along the sandy bottom. There are clams everywhere, from small specimens to the giant ones which have been transplanted to this location.

We look forward to spending another holiday in Palau and Yap and if anyone is hoping to visit in the near future we have fairly up to date information and can be contacted through BSoUP.

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