Few places on earth are unique, but this island nation rates that distinction with its quirky culture, surreal beauty, and prehistoric creatures of the deep.
By Ken McAlpine Photography by Kevin Davidson
Patti Jean is strung out—pink and jiggling—in a five-by-three-foot wire mesh cage on the skiff’s bow. Kevin Davidson made the requisite preparations on the dock back in Koror, stringing up the chicken fryer’s stubby arms and legs so that it now hangs, spread-eagled inside the cage, in pimply Fay Wray fashion.
A small piece of loose skin dangles from its backside, wagging like the tail of a hairless chihuahua.
Silly chicken. Far below the surface, in the pitch-black depths, I imagine a similar form of instinctual applause. Patti Jean will serve as enticement for the nautilus belauensis, the elusive chambered nautilus, rarely seen because the cephalopod resides at depths of 1,000 feet or more, a prehistoric creature quietly wreaking its scavenger existence in a world of gigabytes and iPods.
A professional photographer and Palauan resident for 11 years, Kevin may very well be the globe’s deftest nautilus hunter, not that many vie for the title. The cage will be lowered, via some 1,000 feet of line, into the deeps. Lured into the trap by Patti Jean’s greasy ministrations, the following morning the nautiluses will be hauled to the surface to enthrall curious divers.
“They have these chambers that somehow release gas so they aren’t damaged when you bring them to the surface,” says Kevin, as we throttle down above Short Dropoff. “It’s a rare opportunity to see a creature from another world.”
The chicken, perhaps finally wising up, stops wagging.
Kevin lowers the cage into the expressionless water, where it sinks out of sight.
The chicken returns the following morning—flayed, shredded, and missing one leg—accompanied by five sorely gorged cephalopods.
I descend, along with a dozen other divers, to the shallow reef, watching as Kevin removes the nautiluses from the cage. We each hold them, these lovely denizens from another time. The shell is ivory smooth to the touch, and roughly as heavy as a paperweight. Free of our grasp the nautiluses wobble resolutely for the deeps; we have to push them back up again and again. The overall effect is akin to juggling beach balls in syrup.
When we are sated, Kevin places the cephalopods back in the cage, lowering them again into the depths, these creatures that waited patiently in our hands and will likely still be waiting patiently when man is gone.
Toweling off, Kevin grins.
“Pretty psychotic, huh?”
When describing Palau (Belau to the locals), psychotic is as suitable a description as any. The island nation harbors both surreal beauty and surprise. You might happen upon a nautilus, or a lake turned gelatinous by thousands of jellyfish. Deep in an undersea cave you could come upon a Frankensteinian mollusk that appears to emit a reddish-orange electrical current. Treading a jungle path, you might look to your feet and see a live grenade. Or, perhaps, larger armament; certain Palauan islands were home to some of World War II’s fiercest fighting.
“About two years ago my wife’s uncle was clearing his property and this 500-pound bomb comes rolling down the hill like a big drum,” a Koror resident told me matter-of-factly. “There’s live ordinance everywhere.”
Some might find this disconcerting. I found it added just the right touch. When I travel I hope to find many things—among them, friendly, open people, jaw-dropping natural beauty, and just the right dash of attendant weirdness.
Palau scores off the scale on each count.
Not surprising for an island nation, Palau is largely about water.
I came to Palau to dive. Palau may be off the map for many, but it is a Holy Grail for divers who can recite, dreamy-eyed, Palau’s who’s who of signature dive spots—Siaes Tunnel, Chandelier Cave, Blue Holes, Blue Corner. The islands are situated at the confluence of several major currents, delivering nutrients and species from the rich waters of the Philippine Sea and New Guinea right to Palau’s reefs. Some 1,400 species of reef and pelagic fish call Palau home, along with roughly 700 kinds of hard and soft coral and sea anemones. Sheer fall-away walls are festooned with Jackson Pollock corals. Schools of sharks cruise through smoky blue. World War II wrecks rest in vicious silence, depth charges coated in silt, masts adorned in soft corals.
It is, in a word, astonishing. Even the mushroom shapes of the limestone islands make sense—as if the land itself were craning forward for a look at the freewheeling circus down below.
These days the famous dive spots to the west of Koror are often heavily trafficked. But the ocean, blessedly, is a big place. One afternoon, Kevin turned our boat to the southeast.
After a time, Kevin said simply, “Here.”
There was no mooring buoy. There were no boats.
For an hour we finned over a lovely spur-and-groove reef. There were sharks, turtles, giant clams, barracuda, and a flood of lettuce coral woven through with so many snappers the fish resembled ants.
Back on the boat Kevin smiled, almost shyly.
“I don’t think it has a name,” he said. “Maybe I can call it Kevin’s Heaven.”
Cartographically, the facts are thus. The Republic of Palau, a tropical archipelago of Micronesian islands, is scattered across roughly 400 miles of Western Pacific, part of a vast mountain range rising up some 27,000 feet from the ocean floor. North of New Guinea, east of the Philippines, and southwest of Guam, of Palau’s 340-some islands, fewer than 20 are inhabited.
Koror is Palau’s capital, and suffice it to say it is a small place. I happened to arrive during Palau’s November elections (Palau has a constitutional American-style democracy). Two days before the vote, I jounced down Koror’s main drag with cabbie Francis Haruo.
Casually negotiating pedestrians and dogs, Francis nodded toward a woman walking alongside the road.
“That’s the vice president, going door to door for votes,” he said. “Often it does not matter, though. Most people vote for their relatives.”
Formerly a U.S. Strategic Trust, for the visiting American, Palau is an odd mix of the familiar and the not so. Palau’s politics are complex—with a mere 19,000 people under the governance of 16 different states, Palau has been called the most over-governed place on earth. Byzantine politics are not unique to Palau. American travelers will also recognize Palau’s official language (English) and currency (the dollar), but it’s also true that $35 buys you fruit bat pie at the Dragon Tei restaurant in Koror. But understand that the bat is served whole and recognizable.
Koror—with its Internet cafés, wandering packs of Japanese and Taiwanese tourists, and air-conditioned grocery stores—is the big city. On other islands, you might select a box of Cocoa Pebbles ($4.50) or a large can of Spam ($2.50) shaded by a corrugated tin canopy. Or you might gaze out, bare feet immersed in pillowy soft sand, and see no one at all, naught but water and sky, a contiguous blending of the softest baby blue.
Not all is bliss, though it may appear that way to the mellow tourists grooving on the white sand beaches and impossible sunsets. Family is the cornerstone of Palauan culture. On paper this chimes a happy ring. In reality it sounds a darker note. Extended family clans are expected to support their members without qualm or question.
On Peleliu Island, roughly an hour boat ride southwest of Koror, I met Des.
Des clasped my hand in some kind of soul handshake.
“Hey man how ya doin’?”
Grinning, Des read my mind.
“I went to college in New Jersey.”
Tangie Hesus had been to the States too, once traveling to Chicago, he told me, at the invitation of Mayor Richard Daley, where he performed a Palauan dance before a crowd of 6,000.
Des and Tangie took me on a tour of Peleliu. Des drove along the empty sun-smote roads until Tangie issued a terse bark—“Tank! Here!—and we plunged off down a dirt track through the jungle.
Tangie may know more about Palau’s role in World War II than anyone else on the planet. Today Peleliu is a quiet, jungled place, home to about 600 residents, a count which roughly equals the number of caves the Japanese dug to prepare for the coming of the Americans in September of 1944. American commanders figured the battle to secure Peleliu would last several days. It raged for nearly two months.
We spent the day wandering through the jungles of Peleliu, a sobering and unforgettable experience. The remnants of war are everywhere, enfolded in jungle’s bosom, everything from upended tanks (“Run over the land mine,” explained Tangie. “Kaboom, kaboom.”) to bullet casings. Tangie has done the tour many times for many people—among them Arizona Senator John McCain—so that he casually recounted the horror of war without a blink.
At one point we ducked into a claustrophobic cave, impossible to find if not for Tangie. Here, Japanese soldiers had hidden.
I had to stoop low. The cave was suffocatingly hot. Mosquitoes picked at us. Tangie played his flashlight along the floor. There was a gas mask, sake bottles, and a sorely crumpled canteen.
Tangie turned his beam to the ceiling.
“Look up here,” he said.
Big black stains pocked the limestone. When the light fell on them, they began to move.
“Crickets,” laughed Tangie. “Don’t open your mouth. They drop their shit.”
There were black marks on the walls too. I asked Tangie what they were. This time he didn’t laugh.
“Americans throw the flame throwers in here,” he said.
In Palau, no natural wonder is too far, nor do you have to be a diver to appreciate it. Palau is dotted with 70-plus marine lakes, jungle-ringed watering holes in which tropical fish drift among coral bommies. The lakes possess a serenity that cannot be justly defined, a silent softness, a delicacy so pleasant that, were it manmade, it would be auctioned off at Sotheby’s or illegal. Snorkeling in the marine lakes I formed a habit of finning along so that my ears poked from the water. There are few pleasures more satisfying than watching fish dart among coral prongs while the flute-like cries of bush warblers fill your ears.
There are more than enough lakes to go around, but most visitors to Palau make a pilgrimage to Jellyfish Lake on Eil Malk Island, the famed marine lake of millions of stingless jellyfish, reduced to ineptitude through years of isolation.
Kevin tied the boat off at a mooring. We hiked, snorkel gear in hand, up a short, steep path, and then back down again to a small wood dock.
From the dock the lake looked little different from the lakes of my childhood—a dark green marble basting quietly beneath the sun. Indeed, swimming away from the dock I spied mossy tree limbs resting on the bottom, and, flitting here and there in the greenish murk, dark fish.
And then Rod Serling touched the place. Halfway across the lake the first of the jellies appeared, an innocuous scattering at first, like the earliest drops of a thundershower. I overcame the instinctual urge to avoid them, and they brushed past. Almost imperceptibly their numbers steadily grew until, after several more minutes of swimming, they thickened into a gelatinous mass.
Some experiences are intensely personal, and should remain so. I will say that the glancing press of hundreds of jellyfish is very erotic, each as delicate as the fingertip glance of a loved one. I snorkeled slowly across the surface. I swam down into the darkness, and then drifted up through their cloud-cover mass. I entertained thoughts ethereal and base; you’ll have to use your own imagination because I’m not sharing any of them.
I swam through the jellies again and again, until finally Kevin swam over and looked at me curiously. “We’d better go,” he said .
On my last day I take a guided kayak trip with Sam’s Tours. Our guide is Butler Bintorio. Butler can identify every single flower and fish; birds even answer his calls. Palauans revere the sea; Butler is no exception. Occasionally he stops paddling to exhort us. “OK, everyone! Enjoy! Right now!”
For six hours we glide through a Seuss-land of rock islands, draped in sun. We paddle across Blacktip Lake, admiring the sinuous forms of juvenile blacktip sharks—perfect 10-inch miniatures of their adult kin. We snorkel above a reef just off an empty beach, fish like colored darts above a meadow. Yellow butterflies waft; night herons lift from marble-still waters. When the breeze comes, it feels like a great cooling tempest.
Mid-morning we pull ashore on a small beach. Butler crunches off into the jungle. He returns with several coconuts. Neatly breaking them in half, he offers them around. The meat is sweet.
One woman asks for more.
Butler politely denies her.
“You keep some, and you have to give some away,” he says.
We paddle away, leaving behind a halved coconut balanced neatly on a rock. I look back, wondering if I will ever return.
On the beach the coconut crabs scurry for their prize.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “For a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”