The Tropical Wonderland of Palau

With a shark sanctuary the size of France, un-defused booby traps in wartime tunnels, a Kamikaze plane crashed in the trees, and jellyfish that don’t sting… Trystan Grace recalls his time in Paradise.

With an air of trepidation and a lust for adventure tinged with an element of disbelief, I found myself sailing out of the iconic Victoria Harbour of Hong Kong onboard Eternity a 65m superyacht.

Up until then, I had only sailed aboard small cruising yachts of less than 17.5 m. This unique opportunity had presented itself from my slightly over-ambitious call from the dock: ‘Got any jobs?’, to finding myself talking to a South African mate who asked, ‘Can you start, Monday?’.
Six months later after learning how to clean the boat, work the deck during operations, clean the boat, gelcoat repair and paint and did I mention…clean the boat? We were now heading out into the South China Sea towards the Philippines. Once there, we would provision and prepare for the next leg to the island paradise of Palau.

The passage down was a baptism of fire for many of the junior crew, who had never been out to sea and especially had never seen heavy weather. As soon as we left the protected waters of Hong Kong, we hit a large swell that turned many stomachs. I have sailed this stretch of South China Sea a few times now and I have never had a comfortable experience. It is also constantly hit by typhoons powering their way North to ravage the Chinese mainland, so prior planning through the summer months
is important.

A few of the crew took, what I believe, was the wrong option and stayed in the crew mess, feeling rather worse for wear. I decided to stay on the bridge as much as possible or in my cabin way up in the bow, where I tried to stop myself being thrown out of my bunk.

Being on the move was exciting, especially after being confined to the marina for the last few months. With each of the deck crew picking their watch schedule, I was lucky to be left with my preferred option, 04:00hrs -08:00hrs and then 16:00-20:00 hrs, catching both sunrise and sunset, which are the most magical time out at sea. I loved the bridge watches, not just because of being able to avoid the monotony of the cleaning schedule we had been following, but because I was learning valuable new navigation skills for the first time. 

Now to get this out of the way, the Philippines is amazing and well worth a visit, so much so that we will include a travel article soon, and you can spend months and months sailing around these beautiful islands, especially down South to the island of Palawan or Coron. Subic Bay, however it is not one of those beautiful locations. It is fine for what it is, an arrival point to process paperwork and provision before heading South, but that’s it.
Unfortunately due to a typhoon moving up towards us, we had to stay for just over a week before we could safely move on.

Once underway, we sailed down through the sheltered straits until we came to the open ocean and steered a course for Palau, about 600 miles off the Mindanao coast.

Three days later, just after sunrise, the outer protective reef of Palau came into view and a pilot vessel bobbed lazily towards us. Palau is an archipelago of over 500 islands, with the largest and most populous island called Koror, holding 65% of the population….about 11,500 people.

A large reef protects Palau in a ring around the territory with a few dredged channels to allow vessels to safely pass into the protected waters. We slowly made our way, with the assistance of the very laid back pilot, through the channel and towards a customs dock. The staff were friendly and efficient and before we knew it, we had anchored off Malakal harbour. We anchored in the channel due to our draft and size but smaller yachts have excellent protected anchorages around the local quay and bar.

Palau was incredible. The water was so clear, blue, warm and the amount of sea life was like nothing I had ever seen before. During my night anchor watches, I sat on the aft quarter, transfixed by six large yellowfin tuna darting through the waters lit by our underwater lights.  

Unfortunately, I had to shelve my daydreams of exploring this paradise, as we had a long list of work to achieve before the boss flew down from Hong Kong so back to cleaning duties.

Although we didn’t have any days off, we took every opportunity in our downtime to get into the water and explore the areas close to the yacht, swimming, kayaking or paddleboarding.

Eventually, the day came we had been preparing for, the boss arrived with his entourage of guests and staff, from world-class chefs to expert masseuses. His simple brief to the crew was to look after his guests and family while he took advantage of the many dive sites scattered throughout the islands. Four days of almost no sleep while everyone pulled together to ensure each element of their visit was perfect. I roamed the yacht with an eye for detail, looking for anything out of place, whilst attempting to remain out of sight at the same time. 

The time passed in a blur and before we knew it the owner was strolling aft to the awaiting tender, it was just before Christmas. He was very thankful to the crew for making the holiday perfect for him and his family. As he stepped off the boat, he handed a bunch of red ‘lishi’ packets to the Captain and said ‘Merry Christmas’. The red packets each containing $2,000 USD. These gifts are traditionally given in Asian cultures during family gatherings or holidays like Chinese New Year. This kind gesture was very welcome and helped make having just four days off in a month tolerable and memorable. 

As an avid diver, I could not wait to slip into the tranquil warm water to explore under the waves. Having done 99% of my diving in the UK before moving to Asia, I was used to suffering bitterly cold water, poor visibility and a constant green hue, so I felt rather spoilt descending into the deep blue abyss. In truth, UK diving does hold a certain place in my heart, but this really was a different world. I joined Sam’s Tours, which I would highly recommend. They took us down through the islands to one of the best dive sites in the world called the Blue Corner. This triangular point sticks out into the Pacific Ocean. Steep walls force nutrient-rich water to flow up both sides, creating a hotspot for coral fish and big sharks. My eyes were the size of saucers throughout the entire dive, trying to take in the plethora of fish in all directions while reef sharks cut paths through the bait balls.

Another unique experience is Palau’s jellyfish lake. After a short hike over a hilltop, you descend down to an enclosed lake, originally formed 12,000 years ago at the time of the last Ice Age, when the sea level rose to a point where seawater flooded the basin. When the glaciers receded, the jellyfish caught in the lake evolved and adapted to their new environment with no stingers. You can swim with the jellyfish in the lake without fear. The lake is about 30m deep, however, only the first 15m are safe and oxygenated. Below this point it’s toxic and it is dangerous to swim too deep. Masks and vests are available there. It is truly amazing to see hundreds of thousands of these cute jellyfish slowly moving across the lake in search of algae.

On Christmas Day, my friends and I decided to chip in for a boat to take us down to the Island of Peleliu, about 22 miles South South West.

Some of the history buffs among us will understand the significance as it was the site of one of the biggest battles in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The Battle of Peleliu, codenamed Operation Stalemate,  involved the US military bombing the island in preparation for an amphibious invasion. As you can imagine from the operation name, it was not the four-day walkover which was previously predicted, but a gruelling two-month battle resulting in 20,000 casualties. The Japanese forces holding the island dug a honeycomb of tunnels under the infamous ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’, many of these tunnels are still booby-trapped and mined to this day. The resistance was heavy and the American forces took note from the Japanese defensive strategies and had more success in Iwo Jima and Okinawa because of it.

I was astounded that a site of such historical military significance was so untouched by tourists, a consequence of the island being hard to reach and being part of an already remote archipelago. As an example, we hired a local guide to drive us around the island and let us know some of the history. He pulled off the side of a road and took us 20m down a slightly overgrown path only to find the remains of a crashed Japanese Zero, untouched since the day it crashed through the trees. Buildings, tanks, gun emplacements and other artefacts are scattered throughout the islands.
It is certainly worth a visit for any military history buff.

We also explored the main Island of Koror too, hiking through the forest to find a beautiful waterfall, a welcome sight after a sweaty ramble. I was told about a local Christian mission which flew to the most remote islands with supplies and medicines. They also offered sightseeing flights for tourists to help fund their operation, so I parted with some of the red envelope bonus money to take a flight. I would certainly recommend this as the views were incredible, giving a new perspective on this tropical paradise. We finished the day with a lovely meal in the local town, myself having Poke, a Hawaiian raw fish salad using tuna, the recipe is in our ‘From The Galley’ section. 

To any aspiring yacht-hand reading this, who is struggling to find their first job in Palma or Antibes, consider Asia. You will learn a lot, have opportunities on yachts unavailable in Europe and potentially sail in some of the most beautiful waters in the world. A year or two working on a 50m+ yacht in Asia will open doors all over
the world.

Although I was working, my time in Palau will stick with me for the rest of my life. I hope to return to this beautiful place and have more time to explore the many islands and coral reefs. For the cruising yachtsman, it is not a cheap location, the local government charges fees to visitors (a list of which I have included below). These fees do help the local populace. I found normal shops and restaurants to be moderately priced. Having your own boat and being self-sufficient divers, will make the visit all the more special (and less expensive).

If you love to dive or snorkel, you will be in heaven as nothing has come close to it for me, yet. The people were also lovely and we certainly made new friends here. If you are looking for that untouched slice of tropical heaven, look no further than Palau.

Fees & Tips

  • Visas granted on entry for 30 days. No more than two extensions at $50 each. US registered boats are allowed 1 year.
  • Dispose of any organic trash before arriving
  • Private yachts of less than 40 ft – US$250 for 30 days, $1000 for the second 30 days and $2000 for the subsequent 30 days.
  • Private yachts over 40 ft but less than 90 ft – US$500 for the first 30 days, $1000 for the second 30 days and $2000 for the subsequent 30 days.
  • Koror State Cruising Permit: This is required if wishing to cruise outside Malakal harbour. The permit costs approximately $10/foot of boat length, up to a maximum $80, and is valid for 30 days.
  • Port Fees: $100 PPEF (environmental fee) upon arrival for all non Palauan Passport Holders.
  • Line Handlers Fees: If the Port Office is not informed that these are not required, then the port will attempt to charge you a fee based on your vessel’s tonnage, typically $80 or more for an average 40 foot yacht. The Skipper may be able to negotiate this down to a flat $20. If you do not throw any lines to the dock handlers, you are not required to pay a fee.
  • Rock Island Permits: Each individual wishing to go swimming, snorkelling, diving, kayaking or using the beaches within the Rock Islands. The fees are:
  1. $50 per person – valid for 10 days EXCLUDING access to Jellyfish Lake.
  2. $100 per person – valid for 10 days INCLUDING access to Jellyfish Lake.
  3. Peleliu State has a permit fee that applies to divers only (not snorkelers) at $30 per person and valid for 10 days and $10 per person for land tours.
  4. Fishing License: $20/person for one month or $240 for a year.
  5. No departure fees

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