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Palau's Enduring Dive Appeal

Can a return to paradise hold up to memories of yesteryear?
By By Terry Ward | Published On July 6, 2024
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Palau's Enduring Dive Appeal

Illustration: Lauren Rebbeck

Going back to a spot I once loved to dive but haven’t visited for a long while is fraught with emotions similar to reconnecting with a long-lost love. Will it be as beautiful as it’s been cemented in my starry-eyed memories of those less-experienced years?

I was full of emotion in February, landing under the cover of darkness in Koror after a late-night flight from Guam (and a 12- year hiatus since my last dive trip to Palau). “Settling down” and raising kids kept my dive travels closer to Florida for longer than expected, and getting to Micronesia from my home in Tampa was no brief jaunt.

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Palau’s scent—sun-baked, rain-splashed jungle and flowers—brought me back as soon as I stepped from the airport, like the lure of a familiar cologne. But it wasn’t until I threw open the curtains at Palasia Hotel the next morning to the sight of the Rock Islands—emerald green, touched by a rainbow and surrounded by turquoise ocean that appeared lit from within—that the feelings really came flooding in.

Dive sites like Blue Corner, Big Drop Off and Ulong Channel are impossible to forget—their schooling fish and current-washed channels and walls beyond compare. But the years that passed since my prior visit to Palau (this time was my fourth) had been freighted with doom and gloom in the news and climate reports. I’d been diving long enough to see sites once brimming with healthy coral and fish rapidly lose their looks as if in a time-lapse, due largely to warming seas. How had Palau fared? I boarded Four Seasons Explorer, newly relocated from the Maldives to Palau, to find out.

Dive guides in Palau hardly need to sell the place. After an all-business dive and safety briefing at Siaes Corner, I got the feeling that mine was ready to let Palau show me all it’s got. When we surfaced, I couldn’t take the reg out of my mouth quickly enough to say, “Wow, wow, wow.” He gave me a knowing nod and smile.

It felt like coming home. The reef was so colorful and carpeted with healthy soft corals, I’d wondered if it wasn’t Fiji at first. But the massive schools of jacks and tuna whizzing by on the hunt, patrolling reef sharks, pyramid butterflyfish floating like confetti along the wall and fluttering redtooth triggerfish left no doubt—I was in Palau and so relieved to see it was the place I remembered.

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A week’s diving always stretches out long before you, then passes in a flash. Flying home through Honolulu, I spotted a couple wearing Fish ’n Fins shirts and asked how their trip had been, still buzzing from mine and grateful to share my experience. “We’ve been going to Palau for 20 years; it’s still just as good as back then,” they said. I got goosebumps because I knew it to be true now too. That some places can still live up to your memories of them might be the greatest travel gift of all.