(Trivia: This was the first time underwater with a camera!)
My interest in the sea was sparked when I was a young child. My parents used to take me to the tidepools in San Diego, where I would poke anemones with my finger to watch them close up. In 1995, I happened to see "The Living Sea," which was one of the first IMAX movies I had ever seen. I experienced it in all of its splendor at the Omnimax theater at Balboa Park's Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and have been fascinated with aquatic life ever since. During the summer of 1995, I became scuba certified as a 'Sport Diver' through BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club), whose course includes rescue, navigation, and decompression diving. Later on, I crossed over to PADI as an 'Advanced Diver' because many people in the States had no idea what BSAC was (including people working at dive centers). "The Living Sea" spoke of a wonderful reef paradise called Palau, located just east of the Philippines. Palau consists of roughly 300 small rock islands, and has previously been occupied by Germany, Japan, and the United States. Consequently, the local currency is the U.S. dollar, and everybody speaks English. It was the location of several important battles in World War II, and memorials (both above and below the water) can be found on Koror and Peleliu Islands. In "The Living Sea," I saw footage of Jellyfish Lake, an inland saltwater lake where evolution had taken its own unique path after being cut off from the world ocean a long time ago. I was fascinated, but didn't think much about Palau again until planning a vacation between jobs a couple of months ago. I roped Kenny into getting scuba certified, and a week after he finished his certification, we were aboard the Big Blue Explorer, anchored in a port in Koror, Palau. Everybody on board thought Kenny was crazy for showing up to dive in Palau after logging only five dives, but he is a natural diver, so there were no problems. This site contains about 300 photographs taken during the trip, both above and below the water. All of the underwater photos were taken by me, but some of the land photos of the boat were taken by Kenny.
May 9, 2001 - The response I've been getting from this site has been overwhelming! It has received more than 4000 visitors in just two weeks. Thanks to all of you out there who have written -- it really does make putting the site up worth the effort.
Getting to Palau
I met up with Kenny at the Tokyo Narita airport (he flew in from L.A. and I flew from San Francisco). Both of us had to fly California - Tokyo - Guam - Koror because it was cheaper than the more convenient flight through Honolulu. I tried to get a free ticket using miles on Continental, but I couldn't get further than Guam and had to suck up the $800 ticket from Guam to Koror. Continental Micronesia has a stranglehold on flights to and from Koror, so there's no way around paying outrageous fees.
We had an overnight layover in Tokyo, and the "limousine bus" from the airport to the Shinjuku Washington hotel took over an hour and a half to get to downtown Toyko. Narita is likely one of the worst located international airports in the world. Hitomi came to meet us at around 9pm, and took us out to eat at a yummy noodle house. We didn't get to hang out much with her because she had to go back to work, but it was good to see her, and I am grateful for her hospitality. Afterwards, Kenny and I walked around Shinjuku for a little while before retiring to our room.
The next morning we went to the front desk to book a ticket on the bus back to Narita airport. The bus was full. That was not ideal, but what could we do? There was a Narita Express train from Shinjuku station to the airport as well, so we walked with our luggage to the station (15 minutes), only to discover that they didn't take credit cards. Now, I had come to Tokyo under the impression that it was going to be AT LEAST as "advanced" as the States, so I wasn't worried about carrying around too much cash. However, I was mistaken. We walked around trying to find an ATM for about twenty minutes. After finding one, we discovered that none of our cards worked, and money changing places weren't open at 7am. Apparently, there are multiple banking systems in Tokyo, and they don't all work together. Who knew? Panicking, we decided to head back to the hotel to see what other options we had. On the way, we happened upon Citibank. My card opened the door, but wouldn't let me take any cash out. Luckily, Kenny's card worked, and we rushed back to the rail station to board the train after the one we had missed. So, after much stress, we ended up on the airplane to Guam and were able to continue our trip.
Upon arriving in Guam after our "stranded in Tokyo" scare, we gorged ourself on food from Burger King and on udon from the "Local Micronesian Food" stand. Burger King in the Guam airport sucks. Some might argue that Burger King sucks everywhere, but sometimes a juicy Whopper really hits the spot.
Anyway, Guam was just like the rest of the United States. Comfort! Payphones worked as promised, letting me get to my calling card's 1-800 number, and mail there is on the U.S. postal system (zone 8, I think), so domestic rates apply (!). It was a nice layover, althought I sort of felt like I was still in Japan because none of the youth there had the black hair given to them by their genes (you might have to actually go to Japan to see what I'm talking about).
We arrived in Koror in the late afternoon, where a car was waiting for us. We checked into the West Plaza Coral Reef Hotel (it actually is a Motel, but doesn't advertise itself as such), which was fine -- meaning that it had suitable beds, air conditioning, and a bathroom in it. The two women manning the front desk were very nice. In the morning we went to eat at the Sea Horse Restaurant down the street. I ordered some sort of Indian omelette thinking that I'd be adventurous, but what came was a standard omelette instead. Oh well.
At noon, Lynne came in a van to take us to the chase boat, which would take us to the Big Blue Explorer, anchored in the bay. Speaking of the Big Blue Explorer...
Big Blue Explorer
Our wonderful live aboard vessel was christened the "Big Blue Explorer." Previously, the Big Blue lived as a communications vessel the Japanese used to monitor fishing boats. When it was acquired, it was literally stuffed full of random communications gear, some of which is now being used as a fancy desk for the crew.
What can I say? This boat has character. The other live aboards in Palau look fancy and sleek, but ours makes you want to step aboard and hang out with the crew. It's the biggest live aboard in Palau, and can host thirty divers plus crew. It has all the amenities you'd expect on a dive vessel, including cabins with private bathrooms, two chase boats to get out to dive sites, personal storage crates, space for hanging wetsuits, two eating areas (one outdoor and one indoor), a dedicated camera room, a deck with chairs and a jacuzzi, a wonderful crew, NITROX tanks, and lots and lots of space.
I highly recommend this live aboard. Just about everything was perfect!
This trip to Palau marked my foray into the world of underwater photography. Some time ago I purchased an Ikelite housing and Substrobe 200 for my Nikon Coolpix 990, but after a trial run in a swimming pool I realized that there was a flaw with the first rev of the housing. TTL wasn't working properly because the port on the front of the housing was too small and covered crucial sensors on the body of the Coolpix. Ikelite was good about getting the camera modified and back to me within a couple of weeks, and the camera seemed to work fine after that.
My underwater photography setup included:
- Nikon Coolpix 990 Digital Camera
- Ikelite Underwater Housing for Coolpix 990 (~$800)
- Substrobe 200 (~$900)
- Nikon WC-E24 Wide-Angle Adapter for Coolpix 950/990
- Lexar 10X 256MB Compact Flash Card
- Minds@Work Digital Wallet (backup device)
Unfortunately, taking the housing down to pressures greater than that which would be sustained in a swimming pool introduced its own set of problems. The additional pressure caused the buttons on the back of the camera to be depressed on their own, which (of course) made it impossible to control certain integral features (like changing the aperture) while underwater. My hi-tech solution was to fold up pieces of a notecard and wedge them between the back of the camera and the plastic knobs on the camera plate. This had the effect of pushing the camera away from the back of the housing by a millimeter or two, which was enough for me to regain use of the camera down to a depth of around 90'. When decending lower than that, I made sure to set the aperture to something reasonable while shallow -- the other features worked, but were a bit inconsistent (if you pressed one of the buttons on the back of the camera, other options would often change along with the one controlled by the button itself). NOTE: This problem has since been fixed by Ikelite.
Another (very frustrating) problem was that TTL flash exposure seemed to perform differently underwater than on land. My land exposures came out perfectly, but underwater, all exposures closer than about two or three feet came out greatly overexposed. Further than that, the flash was sometimes not powerful enough to properly illuminate the subject. Setting the aperture of the camera to its smallest setting (f11.1 at full zoom) helped a bit, but didn't solve the problem. Large aperture exposures were almost impossible to expose properly.
Solving the problem involved learning how to expose manually by setting the aperture and strobe power. I found that setting the aperture of the camera to f7.0-f11.1 (smallest apertures for wide angle to maximum zoom) and the strobe to 1/8 or 1/4 power typically produced acceptable exposures for macro photography. Of course, it's impossible to detail the exact procedure here -- one just has to get in the water to see what happens. There's a useful information dial on the back of the Ikelite Substrobe 200 that lets you look up distance, strobe power, aperture settings, and ISO for a given shot.
I also tried setting the external strobe power to -1 E.V. on the Coolpix itself. I had to shoot in manual mode, with the internal flash turned off. Shooting this way produced reasonable exposures with TTL metering, and most of the photos I took underwater with flash were exposed in this manner.
So, here's a simple way to get reasonable shots with the above setup:
1. Put camera in manual mode.
2. Using the menu, turn internal flash off, external flash on.
3. Using the menu, change the external strobe exposure to -1 E.V.
4. Always shoot with the smallest aperture possible (f7.0-f11.1) when shooting with flash. The dial on the back of the camera in the upper right-hand corner changes aperture when the flash is enabled.
5. If diving deep, change the camera's aperture while shallow, with flash set to 'on' in the camera. It will not affect aperture when flash is turned off, but will 'stick', so when you return to flash mode, the camera remembers what aperture you set.
6. Remember to use macro mode for close-up shots.
7. Try setting the camera to use center-weighted metering. My shots were generally less overexposed when using this mode rather than matrix metering.
1. Use the strobe falloff to light your subject more (center the strobe output) or less (move the center of the strobe's output away from the subject).
2. Position the strobe above the subject (pointing down at it) to minimize backscatter.
3. Clip the camera to yourself, because it's not positive underwater and you don't want to lost it. :)
4. Change the camera batteries after every dive. The strobe is usually fine for two dives, with the light on all the time. If you don't use rechargeable batteries, this may be painful on your wallet.
5. The Nikon 880 doesn't have a manual dial for controlling aperture. Don't try to use this camera underwater, as you'll likely be disappointed if you cannot easily control aperture!
6. Don't take your camera inside for long periods of time if your accomodations have air conditioning, and you're diving in tropical climate. Otherwise, your camera will fog up horribly (it will be wet) the next time you take it outside into the humid heat. If you must take it inside, put it in a zip-lock bag and squeeze all the air out of it before taking it back outside. Let it warm up in the bag.
Even though I really enjoy photos that came out of this trip, I had two big problems with using the Coolpix 990 underwater. The first was that photos weren't as sharp as the ones I'm used to getting out of the D30. I guess this was to be expected -- the optics aren't as good, and I rarely was able to shoot faster than 1/60 sec. The second problem was that it was hard to focus on dimly lit subjects during night dives. In order for focus to lock, one has to illuminate the subject with the strobe's modeling light and frame the shot such that it's in the middle of the viewfinder. This is not a problem if you're taking photos of something stationary, like coral, but shooting little things that are moving can be difficult. Manual focus macro setups use framing brackets. You just stick your subject in the goal post-like bracket and shoot! I have a really blurry photo of a swimming nudibranch (taken while doing somersaults around it). Francis just positioned his camera such that the nudibranch was in the framing bracket, and snapped his photo. :)
All land photos were taken with a Canon D30 Digital SLR, 24/2.8 and 50/1.8 lenses, and a Coolpix 880 (Kenny's camera). I've also posted exposure information for the photos on this site. To find exposure details for a given image, click on it load the full-size version, then find the name of the image by right clicking on it and selecting "Properties". Convert all instances of "%20" to a space, and look it up in the exposure information file.
Update: I received a reply from Ikelite after asking them about the overexposure problem. It seems to match what I had to discover on my own:
Due to the sensitivity of the digitals, they all seem to overexpose somewhat, especially for close-ups. Here are some shooting tips that might help:
1) Set the metering to either "center-weighted" or "spot"
2) Set the aperture in the 5.0-7.2 range
3) Set exposure compensation to about -1.3 EV
If all the electronics are functioning properly, this should help.
11/11/2001 - Update: Ike wrote me from Ikelite, concerned that my housing was defective. I sent it back in to have it fixed, and it is now working wonderfully without automatic button pushing at depth. I've learned a lot since writing on this page, and apologize if some of it is dated! My new tips for getting good results underwater:
1. Shoot on manual mode.
2. Point your camera into the blue and set your shutter/aperture to underexpose 1-2 stops to get nice blues from the water. Your camera will overexpose if you try to meter automatically underwater.
3. Shoot with the strobe on manual, and use a diffuser.
4. If you have a Substrobe 200 and are shooting macro, you might be able to get away with shooting at small apertures and high shutter speeds (although the water in the background will be black). TTL worked wonderfully for me while shooting macro at 1/500-1/1000 sec, f11.1, iso 100.
Our surroundings were gorgeous. I had seen photographs and video of Palau in the past, and I was happy to discover that it looks even better in the first person. The rock atolls that adorn the waters of Palau sit magically like mushrooms adorned with lush tropical trees, bats and beautiful white birds flying all around them. The water ranges from a deep blue to a brilliant, glowing turquoise and is so clear that you can often see the sea floor rushing by under the chaseboat. The lightness and intensity of the turqoise was something I had never seen before -- it almost looked as if it was illuminated from below. Being on a boat presented us with the perfect weather -- it never was too hot (because of the breeze), and it was never cold enough to cause discomfort.
The only problem with the scenery was that it was overcast and raining during the majority of our stay. The sun shone fiercly upon our arrival to Palau and on my last day landlocked on Koror, but during the week I believe I only saw the sun twice. Sad, yes... but it wasn't the end of the world. After all, I was still on a live aboard dive vessel in Palau. :) Dive vacations are perfect because rain cannot stop you from diving. It can only decrease visibility and make the top layer of water cold.
One thing I liked to do was to sit on the side of the chaseboat when returning from a night dive in pitch blackness to watch the swath of foam we cut through the water. Bioluminescent dinoflagellates light up intensely when disturbed, which had the effect of making us look like we were throwing off sheets of blue-green sparks.
Diving in Palau is, of course, spectacular. I have had limited experience diving in warm water, and I have to say -- it's much better than cold water diving. There's no shock and involuntary inhalation upon hitting the water, and your face and hands aren't numb after a dive is over. After I'm suited up for diving in Monterey, I'm already tired, but here, diving was perfect. You just step on the chase boat in your wetsuit and booties, "kit up" at the dive location (gotta love U.K. English), and roll into the water. :) There's a comforting warmth upon entering the water (the water was 85 degrees F), maybe like returning to the womb or something. Ok, maybe that's going a bit too far. I have notes and photographs from many of the dives, which can be accessed through the table of contents menu to the left.
When we arrived on the Big Blue, we went for snorkeling and kayaking at Mandarin Fish Lake. Even though you see these fish in tropical fish stores all the time, there are not many places in the world where they are found in the wild. There were a lot of them at Mandarin Fish Lake (which isn't surprising, given its name). Kayaking through the channel into the "lake" was a lot of fun, except that we had to squeeze by two chase boats who had decided to sit in the middle of it, effectively causing a traffic jam (because there were divers underneath them).
Four to five dives were offered each day, and the boat cruised from German Channel to Peleliu, and back. Half of one day was spend at Ulong, which required a 45-minute ride on the chase boat. The following are the dives I chose to go on:
April 14 - Mandarin Fish Lake (snorkel)
April 15 - Ngemelis Garden, Turtle Cove, Ngemelis Wall
April 16 - Virgin Blue Hole, German Channel, New Drop Off
April 17 - Blue Hole, Big Drop Off, Blue Corner, Turtle Cove (night)
April 18 - Blue Corner, Ulong Channel, Ulong Island, New Drop Off
April 19 - Peleliu Express, Purple Beach Drop Off, Orange Beach, Blue Corner, Big Drop Off (night)
April 20 - Iro Maru Wreck, Helmet Wreck, Chandelier Cave, Jellyfish Lake (snorkel)
April 21 - Clam City, Lighthouse Channel, Short Drop Off
All were fantastic dives, except for the exploration dives we did on April 21st (we were anchored at port and were waiting for a new group to come aboard). El Niño had committed genocide on these reefs, and the sites looked like coral wastelands. However, one of these dives presented an opportunity for me to be attacked by a 2' remora (I can still imagine Silvia's underwater squeaks of terror... :). Despite knowing that it was harmless, it was fairly disconcerting! It's hard not to be afraid of a 2' fish with suckers trying to attach itself to you.
You can also check out Paulo's dive log for more commentary.
Dive: Turtle Cove
April 15 - Dive No. 26 Max Depth: 63' - Dive Time: 48 min
Log: Amazing dive! Wall dive, entry through vertical cave in coral plateau (maybe 10m down). Beautiful sea fans, bright clams, schools of large fish, a large sea anemone with a mated pair of clownfish in it, a moral eel, and much more. I sucked air like crazy this dive, presumably because I had my camera with me (not used to it). Regulator still leaking -- getting worse.
This was the first dive I took the camera on. I wore 10 lbs of weight, because I had no idea how much lead to wear in warm water. This turned out to be FAR too much, and by the end of the trip I was down to 3 lbs, which may still have been too much.
Dive: Ngemelis Wall
April 15 - Dive No. 27 Max Depth: 54' - Dive Time: 47 min
Log: Yet another amazing dive! There were huge gardens of hard coral (lots of white acropora with bright blue tips), but the highlights were an enormous 18 inch cuttlefish and two lionfish, both of which I snapped photos of. The cuttlefish was the largest one I had ever seen, and ripples of color flashed at me from its back as I approached. Little spikes raised up on his back, too, so I assume that he wasn't too happy that I was close.
Dive: Virgin Blue Hole
April 16 - Dive No. 28 Max Depth: 108' - Dive Time: 45 min
We dropped down almost 100' through an amazing, narrow hole in a coral shelf. A 100m swim through a coral archway (in darkness) led to the exit into the blue. Outside we drifted along a coral wall with lots of large sea fans. My regulator is still leaking, and the camera's TTL is still off underwater. Stupid camera!
Dive: German Channel
April 16 - Dive No. 29 Max Depth: 69' - Dive Time: 42 min
Log: Yet another beautiful dive. We dropped down in the sandy area just outside the channel and watched the schools of fish above us. In the channel itself, there were several enormous giant clams -- maybe 4-5 feel in length! Unfortunately, I was plagued by equipment problems (regulator!!). Also saw garden eels poking out of the sand (photo on left). They were frightened of us and retreated into the sand when we approached too closely.
Dive: Night Dive
April 16 - Dive No. ?? Max Depth: ??' - Dive Time: ??min
Log: I don't remember the details of this night dive, but there are some photos to chronicle its existence. I believe this was the first night dive we did, because I remember trying to photograph the sleeping turtle -- it was hard to get the light under the rock. I have an image with the turtle's head illuminated, but it's not as good as the one I've posted here.
Dive: Blue Hole
April 17 - Dive No. 31 Max Depth: 80' - Dive Time: 46min
Log: Deep hole in coral (dropped down in 1st of 3 holes). Dark blue water at bottom. Lots of fish, two beautiful clownfish in a large anemone, some small sharks. Big lionfish out in the open just before surfacing (they're not usually out in the open like that).
Dive: Big Drop Off
April 17 - Dive No. 32 Max Depth: 66' - Dive Time: 48 min
Log: Great wall dive! Tons of soft coral and gorginian fans. Many sharks (some were large), a pink bubble-tip anemone with two clownfish in it, huge schools of fish. Saw some juvenile fish hiding in a large fan (black + white striped w/two long fins below, and one above -- a black and white snapper, we later found out). Oh yeah -- both Kenny and I are now Nitrox certified.
April 17 - Dive No. 33 Max Depth: 67' - Dive Time: 48 min
Log: I think this may have been Blue Corner, but I'm not sure that it was. Lots of sharks and moray eels. Saw a large gray reef shark, and a group of five white-tip reef sharks. Also saw two large anemonew with anemone fish in them (one was balled up). We hooked onto the plateau at some point, but didn't really see much while hanging there.
Dive: Turtle Cove
April 17 - Dive No. 34 Max Depth: 49' - Dive Time: 47 min
Log: Night dive. Visibility wasn't so good tonight, and everybody kept bumping into everyone else. Saw some big starfish and a lobster of some sort.
Dive: Blue Corner
April 18 - Dive No. 35 Max Depth: 103' - Dive Time: 50 min
Log: Amazing, amazing dive. Tons of sharks, jacks, a large Napoleon wrasse, schools of both large and small fish. Saw 4-5 sharks and the napoleon eating something Best dive yet. [all photos on this page are from this dive]
Dive Site: New Drop Off
April 18 - Dive No. 38 Max Depth: 63' - Dive Time: 47 min
Log: Headed towards Blue Corner, but the swells were too large, and it was raining. We decided to go here instead. A huge eagle ray swam by at an incredible speed. Bond had a little fight with a large triggerfish -- he was on the Drager Atlantis Rebreather. They danced around each other -- very funny! Tons of fish. Many sharks, and a school of large (18" or so) barracuda. Saw two carpet anemones w/clownfish, and two other pairs. Fantastic dive! Unfortunately, I have a nasty headache now.
Dive: Purple Beach Drop Off (Peleliu)
April 19 - Dive No. 40 Max Depth: 77' - Dive Time: 53 min
Log: First daytime dive in Peleliu. Saw a crocodilefish, pipefish hiding in a coral, and a nice bubble-trip anemone w/clownfish. Peleliu was fun. I'm going to include the log for dive 39 as well, because it was so amazing.
Dive: Peleliu Express
April 19 - Dive No. 39 Max Depth: 91' - Dive Time: 47 min
Log: A large school of sailfin snapper swam by for TWENTY-FOUR minutes! There were probably more than 50,000 of them. one of the others (even the instructors, who have logged thousands of dives!) had ever seen anything like it. Upon surfacing, Bond said, "you will never see anything like that again." Kenny was bitten by a large triggerfish. There's a mark on his fin. Mean bastards!
Dive: Orange Beach
April 19 - Dive No. 41 Max Depth: 63' - Dive Time: 53 min
Log: Wonderful, wonderful dive! Beautiful, large coral. Drift dive over coral gardens. The other group saw two more crocodile fish. We also saw a pretty nudibranch (black w/white and yellow spots). Also saw some wreckage from the US amphibious assault during WWII. The US marines attacked the Japanese at the wrong time (low tide) and were stranded on the coral, resulting in a massacre.
Dive: Blue Corner
April 19 - Dive No. 42 Max Depth: 66' - Dive Time: 47 min
Log: Hold on! Felt like flying! We hooked onto the reef at the edge of the plateau and sat there on the edge of our tethers watching 15-20 sharks circle around. The current was strong enough that you couldn't fin and make forward progress. You could hear it (the current), and it pulled the skin of my face back -- like sky diving! Unfortunately, my camera and strobe were like a big acrylic sail in the current. The sharks seemed to have no problem with hovering in the current (unlike some of the fish -- they let us get close because they were fighting to stay in one place). At one point the chunk of dead coral holding Matt broke, but I caught his reef hook and pulled him back down. The same thing happened to Kenny, but I couldn't grab his hook and he went flying upwards (and backwards) until he could deflate his BC and fin back down. Saw a school of huge barracuda. Fantastic dive! Probably the best one so far.
Earlier in the week, Francis, Paulo, and their family had been caught in a vicious down-current at Blue Corner. Apparently, their exhaled bubbles went down, which is almost unheard of. It caused a fair bit of disorientation. Mom was sucked down past 100' in depth -- one of her boys helped her get out of it. To get to safety, all of them inflated their BCs and finned upwards madly. Sounds scary! It was disorienting, even for us, to be out in the blue at Blue Corner. During the first ten minutes of the dive, we had to swim away from the reef to avoid the crazy current whipping over the plateau. We were out in the blue surrounded by sharks...
Dive: Big Drop Off
April 19 - Dive No. 43 Max Depth: 70' - Dive Time: 53 min
Log: Night dive. Great big soft corals puffed out to their maximum size. Saw a strange crab of some sort -- like an "advanced" horseshoe crab or something. Also saw two lionfish, a small crab hiding in a green coral, and lots of shrimp in cup corals. Whole group shut off lights to see bioluminescence. Awesome!
Dive: Iro Maru Wreck
April 20 - Dive No. 44 Max Depth: 93' - Dive Time: 48 min
Log: Wreck dive. Decended down the king's cross. Silvia put on a gas mask (regulator in the mouth-hole of the mask). Funny girl. :) Swam through the bridge. Neat, big ship. Saw 4 calamari/cuttlefish dudes at the end of the dive, lined up diagonally by size! Could see the big one flashing colors. They circled us, watching -- seemed intelligent. Also saw a beautiful white nudibranch.
Dive: Helmet Wreck
April 20 - Dive No. 45 Max Depth: 91' - Dive Time: 50 min
Log: Wreck dive. Saw two tasselled pipefishes! They're in the sea horse family, and sort of move like snakes. The first was pointed out to me by a group of photographers. There were also many gobies around - they look like muppets, sort of. Also: gas masks, helmets, depth charges, and a big gun.
Dive: Chandelier Cave
April 20 - Dive No. 46 Max Depth: 40' - Dive Time: 20min
Log: First cave dive! Surfaced in caves to find beautiful stalactites. The entrance of the cave is approx 10m down. It was pitch black, and water was very clear (except for at the entrance). Silvia, Lynne, Kenny and I took our equipment off and went caving through a little entrance in the last cave. Obese divers need not apply -- the entrance was pretty narrow. Really neat!
On the airplane on the way to Austin (visiting Dan after returning to San Francisco), I happened to open up May 2001's "Sport Diver" magazine, which had a spread on Palau. A couple apparently was recently married in Chandelier Cave (in scuba gear!). Crazy.
Snorkel: Jellyfish Lake
April 20 - Snorkeling
I cannot believe I actually made it to Jellyfish Lake, after six years of wondering whether I'd ever see it.
20010419-1655-11-eric-kenny-jellyfish-lake.jpgEvolution is cool. A long time ago, this body of water was sealed off from the ocean, its inhabitants left to evolve by themselves. Having no predators except for anemones along the lake's perimeter, the jellyfish in the lake (virtually) lost their ability to sting. They developed their symbiosis with photosynthetic algae, and now live by basking in the sunlight. During the day, the school of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of jellyfish migrate around the lake, following the sun. They bob up to the surface and expose themselves for nourishment.
We arrived at Jellyfish Lake in the afternoon. A short hike through a forest containining many poisonous trees led us to a wooden dock with cardinal fish hanging out below. We didn't have to swim far to find them. Most of the jellyfish we saw initially were small -- I couldn't believe how many of them there were. I had to fight off my hard-learned instinct to avoid touching them (especially after witnessing the stinging of my friend Pat, in Corsica a few years ago), but eventually, I couldn't help myself. You're actually not supposed to touch them, but we were gentle. They were smooth and silky, their bells just taught enough to feel perfect against our soft touch. I read some reporter's account about lifting them out of the water into the air, which is clearly marked as forbidden. He also stated that he had heard that the jellyfish were "boiled to death" by climate change. I guess "The Earth Times" doesn't have fact checkers, because they are clearly still there.*
After swimming a short distance further, the jellyfish became larger. I couldn't help but think of that scene in "Sphere" where the woman is killed by marauding sea nettles. They break through her mask and swim down her throat, suffocating and stinging her. What a stupid movie. Anyway, if you pushed on the bells of the larger ones lightly, little baby jellyfish would come shooting out, which I thought was really cute! I was impressed by their fragility -- we were told not use our fins while swimming because the turbulence caused could rip them in half. I doubt other visitors are as careful. Scuba diving in the lake is not allowed because the bottom contains a poisonous layer high in sulfur content (either H2S or SO2 -- can't remember). Oh yeah, the jellyfish do sting. You just can't feel it on your hands. Jellyfish brushed by my face a few times, and it tingled, with a slight pinch. You have been forewarned... :)
Amazing, amazing, amazing. We were sad when we were told that we had to go. Poor us.
After returning to the States, Kenny told me that the local name for the lake is "onkeim'l tketau." Very impressive! His powers of memorization are sharp after suffering through medical school for so long.
*May 9, 2001 - I've been receiving emails saying things like, "you must have gone to Palau years ago, because the jellyfish are gone." After some web research, I discovered some interesting information, posted by Planet Blue Sea Kayak Tours and Sam's Tours:
"It may surprise you to know, that this site is one of three jellyfish lakes found in the Republic of Palau. The fact that an ancestral Mastigias jellyfish responded evolutionarily in exactly the way in three separate lakes with similar environments is a classic example of convergent evolution. Most visitors to Palau have, in the past, visited the jellyfish lake on the island of Mecherchar. Unfortunately, the Mastigias in that lake suffered a huge population decline as a result of the 1998-99 el nino. As water temperatures rose in the lake, the zooxanthelae began to increase their photosynthetic output. This resulted in more food production, but also an increase in oxygen output. The higher levels of O2 actually poisons the jellyfish. Mastigias had no choice but to expel their mutualistic partners. Unfortunately, they've come to rely 100% on the zooxanthelae, and after expelling the algae they starved to death.
"In time the lake's population of Mastigias will recover. They are fortunate in having an asexual phase to their reproductive cycle, which will result in new medusa formation in a short amount of time."
- Source: Planet Blue Sea Kayak Tours/Sam's Tours
In the last two years the jellyfish seem to have returned en masse. I hope the long-term effects of human contact will not threaten their existence, as visiting to see their beauty is a breathtaking experience.
On the boat, Kenny and I were both Nitrox certified. The course cost was $150, and involved a few hours of theory and two dives on Nitrox. Additional Nitrox tanks were available for $10 a dive, or $200 for the entire week. Nitrox is air with additional oxygen mixed in. Normal air is approximately 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen. Nitrox mixes contain more than 21% oxygen (typically 32% and 36%, in recreational diving), so when you are at depth you absorb less nitrogen. Less nitrogen means a smaller chance of getting decompression illness and longer bottom times (but a shallower maximum depth).
Anyway, the theory was a piece of cake. Anyone who has studied how gases behave under pressure in high school physics should take about five minutes to understand the theory behind Nitrox. Diving with Nitrox involves a single added calculation. Anyone who can't understand for whatever reason can blindly dive using the tables and formulae supplied (hmm.. I'm not sure if that's a good idea or not, though). The PADI course video and course materials are designed for people who have not taken physics and are almost painful to sit through. However, I did forget one aspect of using dive tables, since I use a dive computer, so the course was useful as a refresher.
After getting Nitrox certified, I did a single intro dive using a Drager Atlantis Semi-Closed Rebreather. It uses a scrubber to remove carbon dioxide and recirculates exhaled air, using a small Nitrox 40%-60% (air containing 40-60% oxygen) cylinder to replenish depleted oxygen. It was fun, but made bouyancy control more difficult, because a counter-lung holds any air expelled from one's lungs. This means you can't use your lungs for bouyancy control when diving with a semi-closed rebreather. It was quiet, though.
Matt kept telling us about some guy who blew his hand off while opening the airflow of a Nitrox tank on a routine dive. I know you have to be careful while filling Nitrox tanks because the method often involves handling 100% oxygen, but I don't believe him. He's a big joker. :)
The booking company, instructors, crew, and other guests on this excursion were all fantastic. We've been emailing each other photos, and are already keeping in touch. When we arrived, there was only a Philippino family of six on board. Two of the "kids" are my age and are also playing with computers for a living, so we got along spectacularly. Later on that evening the rest of the guests arrived: two Australians, two Swiss, and two Spanish. The entire group included helicopter pilots, two surgeons, an E.N.T. specialist, and computer types. It was actually really nice not to have any other Americans on board. Historically, I've been annoyed with the majority of American travelers I've met. I know it's a bit hypocritical to write something like that, but... well, it's true. American tourists are typically loud, and not sensitive to local customs. Of course, not all Americans fit into that mold. I've met many traveling Americans who are very polite. :)
As a group, we were very lucky. The Big Blue Explorer has the capacity to hold thirty divers. Our group was 14 strong, and half way through, 6 left, leaving only 8 of us. Kenny and I were fortunate to have been with a such a fantastic group. All of us were strong enough divers that the instructors didn't have to babysit. Right? :)
To Mike Jones: thanks for making the trip booking experience painless.
To the instructors ( Bond, Lynne, Silvia, and Matt ): thanks so much for a wonderful experience!! I learned a lot, and consider myself a much improved diver. As a group, you're friendly, familial, and professional -- all at the same time.
To the boat manager ( Elaine ) and crew ( Ding, Jonny, Arnel, Bobby, Tony, the Captain, and others whom I didn't get to meet ): you guys are awesome! thanks for helping us to feel like the boat was a family.
To the other guests ( Kenny, Lucien, Lukas, Lew, Bev, Juan, Teresa, Francis, Paulo, Jungie, Javi, and Papa and Mama ): thanks for your company! I greatly enjoyed the conversations and experiences we shared. Expect email when I come to your respective countries. :)
One evening, Lew caught a big yellow-tail tuna. Good thing he had just received his fishing permit that day! At Lucien's urging, we rushed into the galley and had the cook whip up some fresh sashimi! I've never had 5-minute old sashimi before. The poor thing was still flopping around when a chunk of him was cut out. Like all animals killed for food, the result was both sad and yummy.
Actually, the sashimi was better the following morning. When we ate it that evening, it was still... warm. The water is 85 degrees, and the fish was warmer than that. It was also a bit tough (which also went away in the morning).
Anyway, so I have my fresh sashimi story now. Very cool.
Lucien took everyone out to dinner at the Palau Pacific Resort for dinner. All of the guests and crew were invited, which, according to Ding, was unprecendented. The dinner was very good; both Lynne and Silvia helped themselves only to bread and caesar's salad, which appear to both be rare commodities aboard the Big Blue. Some beautiful Polynesian dancers danced for us, and we had lots of champagne and wine. It was a fitting closing dinner for a wonderful experience!
Back on the boat, the thirty-and-over crowd started dancing and singing karaoke to songs that neither Kenny nor I knew. Bev kept wondering whether we were having a good time. Bev: we had a fantastic time. :)
Juan forbade me to take any pictures of him past a certain time in the evening, but I did anyway. Although not all of us were capable of emoting as convincingly as Juan did, this single photo could perhaps represent our mood and enjoyment during the week-long dive excursion. The Big Blue sails every week, but somehow we felt that our small group was special. Perhaps it was the magic of mixing a wonderful vacation package with fun-loving people with a taste for adventure...? Whatever it was, it was one of the most memorable trips I've taken to date. Given the top-quality crew and a boat with such character, I can't imagine taking another dive trip that will leave me being so content.