Our friend Kyle arrived! He’s going to be living with us in our house which is coming along quite nicely. We took him out on his first day of diving here the other day, the second day of diving for Fletch and me. We had to wait until he had his driver’s license because as a local, the price is about half of what it would be otherwise, and diving here is fairly pricy.

We were told to show up earlier this time around as our divemaster wanted to do something “special,” so we did, met our two divemasters who were young Americans, and found our boat, the Whale Shark. Our special dive was going to be to go back to Ulong Channel as the tide was going out, only when we arrived at the site 40 minutes later, we hadn’t made it early enough and the tide was coming in. The next plan was to do a reverse profile and dive the channel backwards. We drove the boat to the other end of the channel and our divemasters did the funny thing they do here to check the current. They hang over the side of the boat, head first with a mask on, and dunk their heads in to look at the fish. The direction the fish are facing determines where the current is coming from.

One of our guys popped back up excitedly and told the boat that there was a school of orange spined unicorn fish directly underneath us. Apparently sharks love to hang out with orange spined unicorn fish, so that was good news for us. Our other divemaster popped back up, completely silent, and desperately started trying to pull something out of the neck of his hooded wetsuit vest. He finally managed to fling out what looked like bright blue goo, jellyfish tentacles. I stared in horror at what looked identical to Portuguese-man-of-war bits. The guy who had gotten stung still didn’t say a word. Someone else on the boat said “At least it’s just a blue jellyfish, they don’t sting much.” I breathed a sigh of relief to learn about this blue jellyfish, not wanting to have a run in with a Portuguese-man-of-war again.

Here’s a story for you which I hope my sister will forgive me for telling on the internets. When she and I were little, our parents used to take us on a week-long vacation to the Caribbean every year. One fantastic week of sand and sun and playing in the ocean to break up the long winter. When we were maybe 9 and 10 years old, we went to a little island off of Belize called Ambergris Caye. The first few days in rained non stop. By day three the sun finally came out and we ran to the beach in glee. We were the only ones there. Our dad played with us and we entertained ourselves by running out to the end of the dock and jumping off and swimming back. It was all good fun until we saw something bright blue floating in the distance. Our dad, never one to pass up freebies, said it was a snorkel and let’s go get it! As we got closer I saw it was a jellyfish. I remember trying to scream jellyfish but no one else remembers hearing it. Whether I was able to warn them or not, it was too late. My sister, who has always been a very teeny tiny person, especially at the age of 9, was suddenly completely wrapped up in bright blue tentacles. All of her right arm and right leg were entangled. She started screaming a scream that I hope to never hear again. Locals came running to help, knowing what had happened. My sister kept screaming until she passed out from the pain and we had to rush her to the hospital via speed boat.

Portugese-man-of-wars are beautiful creatures. They are vibrant blue or purple, colors you would find in a box of crayons, and have a bubble that floats on the surface with a sort of sail. The bubble gets to be about a foot long. Their tentacles can stretch up to 200 feet. They attack the nervous system, so it is said that the strongest man in the world can get stung and still scream like a little girl. They are the second most venomous jelly after a box jellyfish (except that man-of-wars aren’t technically jellyfish but siphonophores if you want to get specific), and the toxins from their tentacles are about 75% as powerful as cobra venom. Scary organisms.

Our divemaster’s neck swelled up until it looked like he had a six-inch snake under his skin. Someone else on the boat noticed that the surface of the water was covered in jellies (or siphonophores if you want to be a stickler about it). Everyone crowded to the sides and sure enough, hundreds and hundreds of half-inch long, baby jellyfish covered the surface. These were no “blue jellyfish” though. They were Portuguese-man-of-wars. There was no way we would be able to descend safely without getting stung so we moved on to another site.

There was already another boat at the site we chose and we drove up behind them to see if they were getting in the water here. There were still hundreds of baby jellies here and the other boat was getting ready to leave, so we did too, and ultimately ended up at Siaes Tunnel.

I put on my hooded vest under my long wet suit just to be safe, and back-rolled into the water and descended straight down without wasting a moment at the surface. Safe.

The tunnel was a beautiful cavern with a large entrance on one end and two small exits on the other. It looked like we were entering a dark passage, but once inside we found ourselves in a massive, well lit cavern, which our eyes easily adjusted to until it was easy to see again. Fish entering the tunnel swam upside down under the ceiling. I rolled over and joined them, staring upwards at beautiful sea fans and black corals growing upside down off the ceiling. I felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. Curiouser and curiouser.

We exited out one of the two exit windows and swam along a wall covered in beautiful soft and hard corals. Once I start learning the names of the fish here I’ll be able to explain better what I saw, but for now I’m stuck saying that we saw fish in every shape and color of the rainbow. Every now again I would look down below and see a shark swimming by. A school of fish greeted us at one point, swimming in the opposite direction, with two very ugly fish that didn’t match the rest of them, white-margin unicornfish. I say ugly but they are really pretty cool. White-margin unicornfish are grey in color, nothing too exciting, but they have a protrusion between their eyes that looks like Pinocchio’s nose. I stopped to watch a few of them and then had to swim to catch up to everyone else.

Farther down the wall, Fletch pointed up at a turtle who was hanging out above us. We spent several minutes slowly ascending the short distance between us only to find the turtle hiding deep in a crevice in the coral. Whether he had found a snack or was trying to sleep, he wouldn’t come out of his hiding place and so we waved goodbye and continued on our way.

For lunch our divemasters said we were just going to hang out on the boat because it would be too much of a hassle to fight the wind to get over to the beach, only then they realized that someone had specifically requested going to the beach that day. So we went to Ulong. As we moored the boat, we noticed that here too there were baby man-of-warss floating in the shallows, and so had to be careful where we stepped along the beach.

For our second dive we went back to Siaes Corner, swam a little ways down the wall, and then hooked in with reef hooks to watch the show. The show wasn’t quite as fantastic; apparently the previous time we had been there had been a certain phase of the moon when more sharks are around. Everything revolves around moon phases here. In fact, the Palau flag, a yellow circle against a blue background represents the full moon. The show was still exciting though. The numbers of sharks weren’t nearly as many, but they seemed a lot more active. From my spot I watched as sharks whipped around following fish right in front of me. I kept waiting for one to attack its next meal but apparently they only wanted to act frisky.

Our divemasters rearranged us at one point, and one at a time led us to new spots along the corner. I reluctantly relocated to a spot farther away from all the action. This spot also seemed to have a much stronger current. It’s a strange sensation to be anchored in place and have water rushing at your face. If my hook came loose I’d probably be pushed away from this spot fairly quickly.

At the end of our dive we swam above a fairly shallow bit of reef, exploring around for several minutes before it was time to ascend. One of the divemasters waved me over as I was the only one looking back in his direction, and he led me over to a little tiny anemone, the size of a pin cushion, with one little anemone fish the size of a thimble hiding inside.

We ascended and made our way back to the boat, only to find that the same guy who had been stung earlier had just gotten stung again. Rotten luck. Nobody else was stung all day.

One of the other divers on the boat told us later that he has been diving here for ten years and has never seen Portuguese-man-of-wars spawning like that here. Hopefully the currents will push them far away from here before they get any bigger.