May 2008: After watching the Imax movie, ” The Living Sea,” which featured Palau’s idyllic and wild rock islands, a cluster of hundreds of small mushroom shaped jungle clad islands surrounded by heavenly turquoise green seas, I was sold on Palau. The scuba diving, jelly fish lake and World War II battlefields were all attractions I would later discover but it was the beauty of the rock islands that first captured my attention. Without anyone to join me that was able to afford the expensive flight to Palau, I traveled there on my own and spent a week exploring Palau’s rock islands by kayak, scuba diving and its World War II battlefields.

 

About Palau

Location of Palau

Palau is a small island archipelago of extremely beautiful islands located approx. 1000 miles to the west if the Philippines. It has some of the most famous scuba diving in the world and its rock islands have recently also become world famous as a result of the Imax movie, “Living Seas.” Palau is a country with a small population and well protected reefs and island eco-systems. It prides itself in its ability conserve these areas and it depends on quality instead of quantity tourism. It has been reluctant to allow direct flight s from major Asian cities for this reason with the exception of manila and during my visit the only way to reach Palau was via the Continental Island hopper from Manila, Guam or Yap. These flights were also not regular and for this reason tourism in Palau remained at a trickle and its nature did not seem to be overwhelmed. Palau was also the scene of some vicious fighting in World War II at the battle of Peleliu island.

Scuba Diving-Abandoned with an Air Hose Malfunction

Location of Palau

After a few days of travel from LAX-Hawaii-Guam-Manila-Palau via the Continental Airlines Boeing 737 island hopper, and after only a few hours of rest, I decided to go for a day long scuba diving trip. I was traveling alone and when I alerted the dive master that I didn’t have a dive buddy the dive master informed me, no problem we dive as a group. I foolishly accepted this, and we headed off into the ocean in the dive boat. Once we were several miles out into the ocean, the group of 12 or so divers and me all jumped into the ocean, and we descended 100′ in murky dark water in order to begin a drift dive. our dive boat would pick us up approx. a mile or so down current. As soon as we reached the ocean floor, the group was carried away by the current and I was about 50′ feet away from the nearest diver. When I began swimming towards the group, my air suddenly started to cut out and I found myself struggling to catch a breath. My oxygen levels were ok, and regulators seemingly ok but my air was not flowing. I had no choice but to go back up and quickly. But I didn’t want to injure my lungs or risking the bends by darting to the surface so I ascended as slow as I could managed given my difficulty breathing and I even conducted a safety stop for a few minutes at 30′. I will never forget the feeling of being suspended in the murky ocean at 30′ by myself barely able to breathe in some of the sharkiest waters on earth. Then when I surfaced, the dive boat was barely within sight in the distance. I inflated my B.C. to stay afloat in the ocean and I waved frantically at the dive boat to hopelessly get their attention. But the dive bot was looking in the other direction awaiting the group to surface elsewhere. I was very concerned that I would be left behind to perish in the open ocean. The thought was terrifying. Then after a few minutes I was spotted by the dive boat, and I was rescued. The dive master and I couldn’t figure out what the problem with the equipment was but out of caution I switched my regulator and tank with another. This was not how I wanted my first dive in Palau to go and I was shaking in adrenaline and angst. I was tempted to call it a day, but I knew that unless I went for a second dive and got back in the saddle again, I might risk letting fear get a grip on me. So, I decided to jump right back in and go for a 120′ wreck dive. This tie I had no issue diving and the dive master stayed very close to me.

 

Jellyfish Lake

For my first few days in Palau, I based myself in Koror at a budget hotel run by a flirtatious Philippina lady. From Koror I went scuba diving and on a day trip to the rock islands specifically to Jelly Fish Lake, the location that Palau is most famous for. It is hard to describe the sensation of swimming in a remote jungle clad lake with thousands of harmless jellyfish. It is an incredible experience that every trip to Palau must include in its itinerary. The jelly fish are found in the lake as a result of the lake becoming isolated over the course of time because of the formation of the islands and changing of sea levels.  With no enemies in the lake, the jellyfish evolved to lose their ability to sting. This doesn’t mean that they do not sting at all, because they still have some venom but nowhere near the amount that their ocean dwelling relatives do. The lake is completely wild and home to thousands of jellyfish. The jelly fish swim near the surface of the lake and harvest the small plankton and organisms that thrive off of the sunlight. The lower levels of the lake are a toxic slew of death from the accumulated levels of ammonia that the jelly fish secrete. For this reason, it is best to only snorkel near the surface of the lake.  To reach the lake, first you must travel a few hours to the rock island where its located by boat. Then you need to hike a few hundred yards across the jungle just to get to the lake. There were about a dozen other tourists on my boat when I visited the lake and we all jumped into the lake with our snorkel masks ready to explore and see the jelly fish. Flippers are banned because they are not necessary, and they only serve to massacre the defenseless jelly fish. I swam off in a different direction from other and basked in my own isolation of the lake. I dove down about 7 feet into the jelly fish and looked up towards the sunlight through hundreds of them above me. This is definitely an experience I will never forget. One important fact about the jelly fish is that their levels fluctuate tremendously due to biological factors and sometimes their numbers can plummet, and the lake can be closed to allow them to recuperate so it is always important to check on the lake’s status in advance.

Jellyfish Lake

Me with the Jellyfish

Jellyfish Lake

Me in Jelly Fish Lake

Being Dropped Off Solo in Rock islands to Camp and Kayak

I didn’t just want to visit the rock islands, a remote uninhabited cluster of hundreds of limestone jungle clad islands. I wanted to immerse myself in them. I figured the best way to do this would be to find an outfitter that would drop me off on one of them with a kayak and a tent so I could camp overnight and explore on my own via a kayak. I pre-arranged this in advance with an outfitter and I selected a remote group of islands where I knew I would be alone that no other tourists would visit during my stay. The outfitter packed a cooler of cold beer, sea food and fruit for me and dropped me off via speed boat on a small cove with white sand. I was given a map and a route that I needed to paddle. Then in the afternoon of the following day I would be picked up by a speed boat at the end of my route, a location miles away from the idyllic cove where I was initially dropped off.  The cove would become my home for the night, and I set up my camp and immediately set off in my kayak to explore the area.

 

The beach I camped on and my kayak

kayaking small inlets in between islands and snorkeling the pristine reefs

Kayaking into the mangroves

Equipped with maps, I kayaked for hours and miles each day exploring the many narrow inlets, and secret lagoons like this one only entered beneath this small limestone doorway. Once inside the shallow lagoon was a marine paradise of colorful fish and reef.

 

Entrance to secret lagoon

Inside the secret lagoon

Another place I kayaked was into a mangrove forest. There were ancient giant brain corals in the mangroves that I jumped out of my kayak and dove down to visit. There is an extensive inlet that goes pretty deep into the mangroves, but the tides need to be monitored to avoid being trapped overnight in the mangrove forest, something that I very badly wanted to avoid. There are also saltwater crocodiles that live inside the mangroves, and I hoped to see some, but I was told they are shy and rarely spotted. Paddling through the mangrove alone brought me back to a childhood horror movie, “The Creature of the Black Lagoon.” There was definitely a primordial feel to the place, and it could easily be a home to monsters.

 

Tip of my kayak in bottom left corner as I entered the mangrove forests

Rock islands

Limestone overhang

One of the pristine beaches in the Rock islands

Some of the heaviest WWII fighting occurred in Palau specifically in nearby Peleliu Island and many downed planes can be found in the reefs and jungles of the Rock islands. Many of these wrecks became the burial ground of Japanese and American soldiers. One wreck of a Japanese plane can be easily reached during low tide when the wreck is visible from only a few feet beneath the water. I paddled over to it and jumped out of my kayak and snorkeled around it and even sat in the cockpit, which is still well preserved.

 

Wreck of a Japanese WWII Plane

At night I camped by myself in my little slice of remote island heaven. I treated myself to fresh fish and cold beers from my cooler and I swam in the warm water of my private beach and watched the sunset. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little spooked about the thought of being visited by the ghosts of lost souls from WWII wandering the jungles at night. Ask any Palauan and they will tell you of having such an eerie encounter. 

 

My camp on the Rock islands on my private beach

Pelileu Island-Scene of One of the Bloodiest WWII Battles

At the southern end of the Rock islands is Peleliu island, which saw some of the fiercest fighting in WWII between American and Japanese forces and had one of the highest casualty rates among American marines. 40 percent of all marines that fought on the island were either killed or badly injured. The Japanese were so well fortified in the limestone crags and extensive tunnel systems that it took 2 months to root them out despite the superior numbers of American forces. In the end approx. 20,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives on the small island. Nowadays only a 100 or so of the residents of the island have returned and remain living there. Visiting the island is a solemn experience. Despite the tranquil white sand beaches, there are reminders of death and war everywhere. Its jungles and beaches are littered with ruined tanks, bunkers, aircraft and unexploded ordinances. The jungle once decimated from a hellfire of bombs and fire has no overgrown all of the buildings and fortifications the Japanese built giving the island a post-apocalyptic feel to it. Then there is what can be found beneath the ground. Miles of tunnels built by the Japanese remain carved out through the limestone hills and remain the final resting places of mutilated skeletons some still remaining where they took their last breath. I visited the island alone via a motorboat from Koror. A local guide that lives on the island, whose family lived on the island during the Japanese occupation met me at the boat wharf. The guide and I drove around the island visiting the many battle sites and relics in one of the only vehicles of the island. To add to the eeriness of the island, there were no other tourists visiting and much of the island felt like a ghost town with few of its residents out and about.

 

One of the beaches that my guide said was the scene of fierce hand to hand combat with knives and swords drawn  

One of the beaches that my guide said was the scene of fierce hand to hand combat with knives and swords drawn  

100 residents remain on the island eke out an existence despite the almost constant reminders of war and unexploded ordinances. My guide was one of them and he regaled me with tales passed down from his parents and grandparents about life under the Japanese and of the war. For most residents, they were spared the worst of the battle because they relocated to other islands in Palau when the fighting was at its worst.

Local lady farming in her Taro fields in Pelelieu 

A mass grave marker for bodies of US soldiers that were to maimed to be identified

The island is criss crossed via a series of small roads

We visited Japanese command posts, bunkers, tanks and other fortifications that are now completely overgrown by the jungle.

Japanese command post

The beaches are littered with blown up landing craft from when American marines first invaded the island. When I asked my guide, who lives on the island if it was possible to camp on this beach, he responded yes but these beaches and jungles are haunted. He himself had experiences many unexplained encounters with the strange sights and sounds of soldiers that he claimed were the wandering spirits of soldiers. When I asked him if he was afraid, and he exclaimed that there is nothing to fear. The soldiers mean no harm, they are just young men who are lost and trying to find their way home.

Ruined landing craft on the beach

Pillbox used by Japanese

Japamese bunker

Ruined tank

One of the ridges that was honeycombed with tunnels where the Japanese hid during the battle. The fight for the ridge to secure the island and its airfield saw some of the worst fightingespecially since the temperatures were at record highs and there was a water shortage. 

There are miles of tunnels and I explored some of them with the light from my cell phone. American forces lit barrels of gasoline in the tunnel entrances to draw out the oxygen in order to suffocate or burn the Japanese soldiers to death inside. War relics and skeletons are still found in the tunnels and there are ongoing efforts by the Japanese government to repatriate the dead and provide them a proper Shinto burial, which many believe will finally bring peace to the spirits of the Japanese war dead.

Japanese Tunnel

In the back a gasoline barrel used to kill the Japnese soldiers hiding in the tunnel and in the front the skulls of the dead japanese soldiers. There were also canteen bottles, bullets, shells, and other artifacts found throughout the tunnels

Japanese soldier skulls inside the tunnels

The airfield that the battle over the island was centered on

Me on one of the tanks

Japanese Anti-aircraft gun hidden inside a cave

Me at the entrance of a bunker

The only source of freshwater on the island- a sinkhole that I swam in

Me on top of the Japanese Command Headquarters

Japanese Gun

After Palau, I traveled to Micronesia to visit the island of Yap via a late-night flight.

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