A while back a friend introduced me to an imax documentary called The Living Sea. It was shot after spectacular shot of the most stunning, underwater scenery you could dream of. Before departing for Palau, she told me that I should go back and watch that again because apparently it was filmed here. Maybe it was, but those are the kind of shots you can only get from going way out into the middle of the ocean where people don’t go and mess up the reefs on a regular basis, right? I’ve never seen scenery like that in real life. It’s like any natural wonder, you see it on tv or in a photo in all of its natural glory, but when you go there in person there’s a pathway for tourists that’s been cut through. It’s still awesome, just not quite as untouched as you were led to believe.

I was wrong. Or maybe I was right as Palau is actually out in the middle of the ocean with nothing nearby. We went diving yesterday and wow. Just WOW.

Let me introduce you to diving in the Caribbean: there are some beautiful and colorful coral reefs to be seen but fish are sparse enough that as a divemaster you will point out every fish that you see.

Let me introduce you to diving in Thailand: almost the exact opposite. There are some 200 species of fish in the Gulf of Thailand, and you will see big, beautiful schools of them, but there is very little coral worth mentioning.

Palau? Those nature documentaries weren’t just once in a lifetime shots where everything came together perfectly into one screen after days of waiting. That’s what the ocean looks like here. In fact those shots don’t do justice to the reality of how beautiful it really is. Massive walls of thriving corals. So many fish that it’s not even worth pointing any of them out, there’s simply too many to look at. Hundreds of sharks, not intimidated and running away from divers. It’s just wow. I’m beginning to think maybe I just had a really awesome, vivid dream.

There are two big dive shop names that always come up when you search Palau: Sam’s Tours and Fish and Fins. We figured we’d do some diving with both until we’re ready to go out on our own on the boat. So yesterday we headed over to Sam’s Tours for our first day of diving in Palau. I love the boat schedule they have, it is incredibly relaxed. Show up at 8:30, boat departs at 9:00, then some days they’ll have two dives scheduled and some days they’ll have three. Either way, you’re not rushed and you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and then already be through a morning of diving by the time you actually wake up.

One of the ladies who works behind the desk showed us around. There’s a big board where you look for your name to see which boat you’re on, all of which are named after species of sharks. The boats all hold a max of maybe 8-10 divers if I had to guess. There’s an area where you go to get rental gear, and a guy who works just that area. There’s a classroom area, big tubs to wash gear, and a nice little restaurant area. And of course the actual shop. It’s a very big, very organized operation. Organized, but not the most personable shop I’ve ever been to.

The lady showing us around also informed us that not only is Palau the world’s first shark sanctuary, but starting next year, the Palauan government is banning all commercial fishing. Local fisherman who fish for sport will be able to go out and then sell their extra fish to restaurants, but there will be no commercial fishing boats. After seeing the horizon lit up in nothing but green fishing boat lights in Thailand every night, the idea of an entire island nation banning commercial fishing is almost too good to be true. I mean who actually puts the environment ahead of economic gain? Maybe there is some good in the world after all. (If you aren’t aware of what overfishing practices are doing to the world’s oceans, watch the documentary End of the Line. It’s terrifying).

Our boat for the day was Thresher. We found it easily enough amongst the many boats on the dock and boarded and set our gear up. Unfortunately my newly serviced regulator second stage wouldn’t allow me to draw any air and so I got stuck using the boat’s spare reg. That was quite a let down. I don’t know who services gear here but I guess I’ll have to find out soon. Fletch is a certified ScubaPro technician and has the DVD to look up how to service it but we don’t have a DVD player.

We set off east on a 45 minute speed boat ride across crystal clear turquoise waters until we arrived at our first dive site, Siaes Corner. We back-rolled into the relatively chilly water (80 degrees as it is winter time. I’ve been spoiled by ridiculously warm water). Our divemaster instructed us to meet about ten feet down so we descended and reassembled next to a beautiful wall. We swam along this wall for the beginning portion of the dive. It was bursting with corals of every color, all alive and healthy and thriving and endless. Coral, coral, and more coral as far as the eye could see. We kept the wall to our right and on our left, out in the open ocean were schools of hundreds of fish, small fish at first, but the farther we swam, the bigger they got, until we started seeing sharks. Eventually we reached the corner and our divemaster motioned at everyone to hook into the reef.

I had never used a reef hook before, but basically, you have a stretch of three or four feet of sturdy line, a clip on one end, and a hook on the other. You find a dead piece of coral or something sturdy to put the hook end onto, and then clip the other end to your bcd. Then you just inflate your bcd a bit and hang there like a kite, not having to worry about buoyancy or staying in one spot. It’s brilliant, except that the entire wall was so alive and thriving that I couldn’t find a single spot to put the hook. I probably wasted a good five minutes trying to find a spot dead enough that I didn't feel guilty hooking into. When I finally did though, I looked up to see hundreds of sharks swimming about, minding their own business and not caring at all that we were in their space. We saw whitetip reef sharks, and blacktip reef sharks, and grey reef sharks. I’ve never seen so many sharks in one dive, not even at Stuart Cove’s when they were baiting them in. It was beautiful, and mesmerizing, and we just hung there in awe, watching like we were in the middle of an aquarium. I love sharks, and was about as happy as happy gets.

People always ask me if it’s scary diving with sharks. Movies make it scary, with the suspenseful music and the camera right in the shark’s line of travel. In reality it’s the most relaxing thing in the world. Underwater no one can talk to you. The only thing you can hear is the sound of your own breathing. You’re free to just observe pure beauty. Sharks are beautiful creatures, deserving of a lot of respect of course, but they don’t care that you’re there. they swim right by you as if you’re not even there. It’s no different then if you were separated by aquarium glass, minus the screaming kids.

After our dive the boat took us to a little beach on a nearby island called Ulong where there were some picnic tables set up. Since we were getting a discounted rate for locals, we had to provide our own lunch and so had stopped at the WCTC grocery store that morning to buy some premade sandwiches. Those turned out to be pretty darn good. Or maybe we were just that hungry. Being cold and in the water has a tendency to make you hungry. After lunch we got to know the people in our group a little bit. Our divemaster was originally from New York and had been here about eight months. There was a girl from Russia who was doing her divemaster training. There was an older lady who sounded British who was an instructor and had worked all over the world, but now was just fun diving, the same as Fletch and me, and there was a guy who kept to himself and had a total of 20 dives.

Eventually we made our way back to the boat and headed off towards the second dive site. It was a false channel, which I’m looking at the map and maybe it was Ulong Channel. I can’t remember for sure though. For this dive we drifted our way down as much of the channel as we could cover in an hour, which was quite a bit. Drift diving is fun, you don’t have to do any work, just let the current push you along. Fletch and I held hands at one point and pretended like we were flying.

Once again the corals were beautiful and thriving. We happened upon a shark nursery and saw at least twenty two baby sharks. Baby sharks are awesome. They are just little miniature versions of the full grown ones. Around that same area we saw a turtle and some giant, hundred-year-old clams. It seems silly to try and list what we saw because every moment was filled with hundreds and hundreds of fish. Schools of them in every shape and every color. Moorish idols (the grumpy fish with the scar from Finding Nemo), massive trumpetfish, bigger than I have ever seen before, happy faced puffer fish in every color of the rainbow, more varieties of angel fish then I could keep track of… It was the epitome of what diving should be. I’m glad I’ve experienced the diving I have prior to this, because now I am about to be terribly spoiled. There will be no going back.

We made our way back to Koror and took a scenic route through the labyrinth of rock islands. Everyone on the boat was trying to close their eyes, exhausted from a day well spent. The cold from the splashing water and the constant bumps from the fast ride kept anyone from actually dozing off though. We wove our way around rocks covered in lush greenery and everything seemed like a dream. A perfect dream in an unspoiled paradise. I’ve already forgiven Koror for being as run down as it is. If that’s the price to pay for finding a nation that hasn’t polluted and overfished its waters than that is more than a fair trade off.