Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I’ve never been scuba diving, and I’ve always been a bit concerned about trying it because I have a couple of ill tempered Eustachian tubes. But, I was told on multiple occasions that coming to Palau and not scuba diving would be criminal, some people regard this as the best diving in the world.
Part of the reason we wanted to get here a week before the rotation started was to do the PADI open water course and get certified. After making some phone calls we found a place called Fish ‘n Fins that would run us through the whole course in four days. That includes one full day of class room work, a contained environment dive and 4 open water dives. All for $350, which is a phenomenal deal, we got the “local” rate because we are working at the hospital. Just for perspective I was going to do this same course at Tulane and it would have totaled over $700, and the open water dives would have been in the gulf of Mexico.
Our guide through the PADI course was Alain, a Pilipino dive instructor that had been living in Palau for well over 9 years teaching and guiding scuba. Although he was in his early thirties and had a kid he was really big kid himself, whenever he wasn’t teaching us something or cracking some joke he was glued to his headphones. Our first day with him was spent in a small classroom. The day followed the basic formula of watching a PADI instructional video, Alain summarizing it, then taking a quiz. We repeated this about four times before a final exam. The next day was our so called “contained water diver”. In most places that offer the PADI course this is done in the deep end of a pool, I wasn’t sure what kind of pool we were going to as we hoped aboard the dive boat and headed out into the rock islands. After about 15 minutes we pulled up to a beach surrounded by a reef and crystal clear blue water, and Alain announced that this was the pool.
The day was spent practicing underwater skills which meant everything from being able to control neutral buoyancy by expanding and contracting the air in my lungs to being able to take off and put back on all of my gear under 10 feet of water. While we were doing all this a small school of black tip reef sharks maybe 5-6 feet in length joined us. Alain assured us that they meant no harm. At the end of the day we had some time to kill before the boat was ready to go back, so Alain took us out in just snorkeling gear with a bunch of scraps from lunch. He started feeding the smaller fish, but the real purpose was to attract the sharks. Soon enough we were surrounded by a large variety of tropical fish as well as about 6 or 7 sharks circling very tightly. It kept thinking how my contained water dive sure beats the deep end in the Reily pool. I think Vanessa was either traumatized, or got over her fear of sharks, still can’t figure it out.
Our third day of the course was the first two of our four open water dives. We were basically going out with the dive boat in the morning that was filled with other experienced divers and tagging along on their dives while Alain basically held our hand. The first dive was off of some reef that is know to be fairly abundant in aquatic life. As the rest of the divers went off one side of the boat Alain said that we were going in a different direction and it wouldn’t be as exciting as what they were doing. So I decided not to bring my camera, I found out pretty quickly that he was joking when he said that. After running through a couple more underwater skills we ventured off exploring the reef while keeping a close distance on Alain’s tail. The amount of exotic fish and things to see was pretty surreal. Schools of snappers and Barracudas would whip around like some kind of underwater tornado while giant parrot fish and white tipped sharks would patrol the bottom of the reef. Alain had a little board he could write things on and would was giving us a tour of the wildlife. Several times we would find ourselves inside a school of fish to which Alain would start pretending to take pictures, basically mocking me for not bringing my camera. My response was to steal his white board and write “You said it would be boring!!”
The second dive of the day was at a place called the “German Channel” basically a big shipping channel dug out by the Germans a long time ago. The point of diving this was that later in the day as the tide changes plankton are brought in which attracts giant manta rays to come feed. We sat perched on a ledge that overlooked this channel with about 15 other divers just waiting. I guess the manta ray is the elusive creature that everyone strives to see here. Soon enough one came floating by, it had about a 9 foot wingspan and flapped its wings like some giant underwater bird moving in slow motion. I managed to get a couple pics off, but it was pretty far away. After waiting for a while we swam off into the channel hunting for more manta rays. The best one of the four I saw came about 10 feet from us, and just glided by. I whipped out my camera and the battery was dead. I just had really bad luck with the camera that day. As we floated along looking at different things my oxygen started to get low, I let Alain know, we started to slowly make our way to the surface. After a few more minutes breathing was getting harder and harder, until I couldn’t take a breath. Thankfully this is not that uncommon in the diving world and everyone carries a second regulator in case a neighbor needs to share air. I gave Alain the signal and he gave me his spare regulator and I shared his tank with him until we got to the surface. After heading back to the dive shop Vanessa and I headed home somewhat disappointed knowing that tomorrow we would have to be in the hospital and not underwater. I can see how diving can be addictive, but maybe its just Palau that’s addictive.