PALAU IS AN ARCHIPELAGO nation in Micronesia made up of 200+ limestone islands. It has a middle-of-nowhere feel, ~500 miles from its nearest neighbors of Mindanao, Philippines, and North Maluku, Indonesia.
No one you know has been to Palau, (unless your grandpa was in the Navy during WWII or your friends are serious divers), but that — along with its geography, climate, and small local population — have helped keep it a pristine place to get in the water. Visibility edges up to 150 feet.
Though there are scores of uninhabited islands reachable by boat, visitors to Palau will base out of Koror, the primary population center. The city looks a bit like an island resort — paved roads, nonexistent litter, lush landscaping. Hotels and restaurants cater mainly to East Asian visitors, though Palauans speak English as a first language and the US dollar is used as currency.
Dive boats depart from docks in Koror for all water-based activities and exploration. The popular sites for open-water divers are usually about an hour’s boat ride from Koror.
The 25,000 people and government of Palau take their eco-consciousness seriously. In 2001, the Palau Shark Sanctuary was founded to protect sharks and 2,000 species of fish from long-line fishing vessels. Hotels sell reef-safe sunscreen, and all visitors pay a green fee at the airport. Preservation is working — Palau is wild.
Here are 6 ways to get wet.
I was fired up about diving in Palau, but on day 1, when I was still disoriented from 20+ hours of flying and kind of overwhelmed by the foreign geography and isolation of the rock islands, kayaking was a more realistic option.
My group was shuttled south to the large, uninhabited islands of Ngeruktabel and Eli Malk. These are surrounded by dozens of tiny, mushroom-shaped coral uprises, and we paddled through the channels between them, which are hemmed by pristine mangrove forest.
It was a laidback trip, and cool for the fact that these places are only accessible by kayak. Afterwards, I felt relaxed enough to deal with the sharks on the next day’s dive.
Tip: Don’t come to Palau without some sort of underwater camera. Even on a paddle trip, there’s potential for wet shots and snorkeling.
Do it: IMPAC Tours runs a $90 trip including transportation, lunch, and guides.
2. Night diving
It was raining the evening of my first ever night dive. The dive boat left Koror and headed into open water for Chandelier Cave, but after realizing the currents had changed the dive master decided to lead us to an unnamed coral wall.
We descended 50 feet into the dark water. Coral can look dull in the daytime sun, but at night the reef was bursting with neon colors. I got up close with my first octopus and spotted blue basket stars and several sharks. When we shut off our lights, thousands of bioluminescent organisms glowed fluorescent orange around us.
Tip: Spend some time researching marine life before you dive. Knowing the names of the plants and animals you’ll encounter makes diving less passive — more like an underwater game of I Spy.
Do it: Check the $70 hour-long dive trip from Sam’s Tours (price excludes equipment rental).
3. Swimming at Jellyfish Lake (Ongeim’l Tketau)
Jellyfish Lake is a 14-acre geographical anomaly located on Eli Malk Island. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how or from where the jellyfish arrived, but swimming in an isolated lake pulsating with millions of jellyfish sounded like a torture challenge left over from when Survivor was shot here. But the swim was one of the coolest and most peaceful experiences of my life.
Even though the jellyfish have evolved to lose most of their sting because they don’t have to fight off predators, I still got zinged in the lip by one the size of my thumb. It felt like a shock from a 9v battery, and the pain lasted a few hours.
Tip: Palau is super serious about protecting Jellyfish Lake. Expect to pay $100 for the experience and be inspected by a park ranger for any sand or dirt on your body before hiking to the lake. Don’t even think about kicking a jellyfish.
Do it: Sam’s Tours runs the trip, as do many other operations.
4. Spear fishing
At a meet-and-greet lunch with several government officials, I announced I wanted to try spear fishing in Palau. The initial response was that women usually just gather fish in baskets during low tide.
I persevered, and the manager of the Palau International Coral Reef Center agreed to let me spend a few hours on his boat with a spear gun. Because of rain and current, we only strayed 20 minutes from the dock, where fish are less plentiful.
As a rookie, I didn’t have the aim to shoot a rabbit fish with my metal spear, or the lung capacity to free dive 20 feet and hold completely still while searching for prey. I could, however, strap on a weight belt and a pair of fins and shoot the arrow without hurting anyone, including myself. I considered that a success.
The guide managed to kill five fish, always checking beyond the reef to make sure the fresh blood didn’t attract sharks.
Tip: Anyone with a spear gun and a $10 fishing permit can spear fish in Palau. Talk to local dive masters for tips on the best fishing spots and information about which fish are protected.
Do it: As of now, there aren’t any official spear fishing operations in Palau. Best bet is to ask at a dive shop. Don’t be dissuaded by gender stereotypes.
Scuba diving isn’t for everyone. It’s time consuming and expensive to get certified, and many people have a straight-up fear of being 75 feet underwater with a weighty tank of air strapped to their back. Snorkeling can be stigmatized as simply the “next best thing,” but in Palau the water visibility is so intense that snorkeling on the surface still allows for sightings of sea turtles, white-tipped sharks, and a rainbow of coral. Though I’m a certified diver, I still love to free dive.
On the way from Koror out to spots like Clam City (known for rainbow-colored giant clams) and the German Channel (which often attracts huge manta rays), snorkel boats usually have time to stop at the Milky Way, a shallow spot where swimmers cover their bodies in mud that’s supposed to be anti-aging.
Tip: Don’t snorkel in just your bathing suit. Pack a rash-guard. I use it for added sun protection and modesty when I don’t feel comfortable in a bikini top.
Do it: With Fish ‘n Fins, a day of snorkeling costs $105 with lunch, drinks, and hotel transfers included.
6. Stand-up paddle boarding
SUPing hasn’t taken off as a complete craze in Palau — yet. Boards are available to rent at Palau Pacific Resort for $15/hour.
The resort’s private beach has some small waves and is also a sea turtle habitat, though I was more focused on trying to do Tree Pose than nature watch. I still have the blood blister on my toe to prove how difficult yoga on a moving board can be.
Tip: Try to rent a board at sunset for uninterrupted views of the sun melting into the horizon.