[140710, 0225 UTC, Sam's Tours/Royal Belau Yacht Club, Palau, 07°20.4'N / 134°27.2'E]
The Rock Islands of Palau are uplifted, mushroom-shaped limestone islands, carved over millions of years such that most of the shoreline is undercut, making it almost impossible to land except at a few rare beaches. These islands with impossible-to-pronounce names such as Ngeruktabel, are also steep and are only thinly covered in soil, making the ground sharp from limestone. It is this set of physical characteristics that has helped to preserve this wilderness for the flora and fauna alone. The underwater world is, for the most part, also pristine and magnificent, though no piece of ocean, sea, or lagoon escapes completely the scourge of plastic bags and bottles.
For us, the tiny lumps of island create cozy little anchorages where only one boat - or at most a few boats - can anchor in amphitheaters of steep green walls. Birds abound, most of which can only be heard and not seen in the dense jungle. And, as night falls and a clear, dark, star-speckled universe above emerges, a symphony of sound emanates and echoes around you as you bob gently on your anchor. The specific amazing sounds cannot be described....screeches and mournful howls punctuated by high pitched hoots and hollers. Amazing stuff.
During the day, speeding boats chock-full of tourists blast through narrow cuts in sometimes skinny water oblivious to their wake. The obnoxious whomping of Palau's only helicopter also disturbs the peace as tourists lean out and shoot photos of the iconic sites and of little people exploring in a tiny dinghy. But long before the islands begin to form shadows, these menaces are gone and solitude returns to the enchanted islands.
Wilderness does though have its disadvantages. One night as we lay reading in the v-berth (which for you lubbers is the berth at the pointy end, thus the V), we heard a heavy thump on deck. Philip, being the strong, male one, went to investigate with a flashlight. Reaching the hatch above our bed (that's immediately over our heads as we sleep), he said, "You MUST come and see this, but first, shut the hatch. Reaching the foredeck, Leslie was treated to the image of a creature from a horror movie stretching the diameter of a salad plate. A HUGE reddish-brown flying bug with LONG segmented legs, a long body separated from a swiveling head with buggy eyes and and long tentacles. By closing the hatch, we had captured one or two of its legs and as it struggled to get free Leslie thought it a truly frightening sight. She skeedaddled away to go back in the cabin to raise the hatch, while Philip stood guard, making sure our visitor didn't find a way in. Imagining what would happen (death by fright) if this thing had dropped in and landed on Leslie's chest, we decided then and there that we'd put up our mosquito nets despite the fact they held heat in the cabin(and it was HOT).
Later that same night at 0300, our Cockroach Detection Device screeched when she found a 2" cockroach crawling up her bare leg. Once again, Leslie called in Philip to give it a few smacks as it frantically tried to escape under the sheets. As we said, wilderness can have its disadvantages.
When we last wrote, we had dropped anchor in a place called "Stone Bridge" in the Mecherechar group of islands. And, though tucked into the tiny isles and behind a reef, we had a panorama to our west across Palau's lagoon. This view also made us vulnerable to a rare day of NW winds, dark clouds and rain that kicked up waves as they crossed the bar to our bow. Though bouncy, our anchor held fine and we relished the cool breeze. Further inside the island group, we explored by dinghy dozens of little bays, some of which were closed off by a surface level reef of coral of a magnificence difficult to capture in prose or photo.
Navigating around the Rock Islands requires continuous conning as charts and Google Earth satellite photos are both poor. There is a good guidebook with important waypoints but despite this, rock, reefs and coral bommies pop up unexpectantly from deep water. A friend whose Amel is equipped with a forward-looking sonar, smacked firmly into a rock at 4 knots while approaching an anchorage in full sunlight - and with his wife on the bow as lookout! So, we were careful and proceeded slowly!
From Stone Bridge, we went north to the Ulong group, anchoring off a beach at the site of an ancient village and petroglyphs where the healthy reef forms a bit of a protected anchorage. Though a lovely spot and with good snorkeling, we felt exposed while anchored in deep water only about a mile from Palau's western reef. That evening, squalls moved across the western sky, dumping sheets of rain backlit by the sunset. The following day we moved east about two miles into a sandy bay of brilliant turquoise water and dropped our anchor closer into the protection of the island. Adjacent to us, a reefy bar protects Swiftlet Lagoon, where two boats were already at anchor - Downtime and Lorelei. The weather was hot and still and the tide falling so we thought it prudent to remain outside.
To our south, a sea stack cut-out formed an arch that framed our view. Later we snorkeled the shallows around the arch and found healthy reef along with an ominous crown of thorns starfish steadily chomping through the coral. This destructive species seems to be making some headway in the islands, unfortunately.
Lisa and Paul of Lorelei kindly lent us their sea kayaks and one day we bobbed on out through the labyrinth of bays into Palau's lagoon on the north side of Ulong Islands. Paddling slowly up the limestone cliff side occupied only by rambunctious bird life, we soon found a small inlet and beach with a degrading Yapese stone money tablet just at shoreline.
Before leaving the Rock Islands we visited the open breezy anchorage of horror-movie-bug fame, and a tiny little spot called Baby Shark. This anchorage gave us access to miles and miles of protected coastline to explore, plus the ability to easily snorkel "Soft Coral Arch". Here you can swim through a tunnel in the rock amongst stunning colorful soft coral of the type normally seen at much deeper depths. With steady currents passing through, fish are abundant, from brilliant itty bitty juveniles to large grouper and travalle that occasionally ascended from the depths to give us a thorough inspection. The atmosphere here is gorgeous, but almost eerie. Leslie describes it as floating along in the fog in a garden of giant mutant flowers.
Being a World War II buff, Philip was anxious to visit the island of Peleliu, the scene of fierce fighting in 1944. More than 10,000 Japanese soldiers firmly entrenched in hundreds of caves awaited the American advance. Days of offshore shelling by American ships pounded the island and, though the affect on the local flora was devastating, the bombardment had little effect on the Japanese protected deep inside the earth.
When the 1st Marine Division finally began its assault on multiple reef-covered beaches, they were met with withering fire and suffered severe casualties. The battle that the American Command predicted to take three days, actually took almost three months with 15,000 American and Japanese casualties before the last 34 Japanese soldiers were engaged and captured. Well, they weren't the VERY last; one Japanese soldier actually hid out and wasn't captured until 1947, long after the war's end.
Philip, David of Soggy Paws and Kevin of Miss Behave visited Peleliu on two separate 4-day visits (Leslie stayed on Carina with Jake). They traveled by inter-island ferry and took bicycles to ride to the battle sites. There are an estimated 500 caves that were used by the Japanese. Approximately 250 have been discovered and explored to some extent and the remaining not explored or their entrances covered over during the fighting and the Japanese soldiers entombed.
Peleliu is a lightly populated island and the sites of the fiercest fighting are now overgrown with lush jungle that is littered with war detritus at every step you take. The coral road to "Bloody Nose Ridge" is strewn with spent Japanese bullets and shrapnel. Many caves are hidden by the jungle and the openings hard to detect until you are right on top of them. Inside the accessible caves are more unexploded munitions, bullets, canteens, helmets, live hand grenades and even the remains of Japanese soldiers.
We climbed and walked Blood Nose Ridge and explored every cave we could find, returning to our hotel room in the evening with our sweat-soaked clothes covered with cave dirt and bat guano. We also took and exchanged lots of pictures and have loaded many (some taken by David and Kevin) on to Carina's website. Please visit the website if you are interested. Also, for those interested in the war, the internet has a wealth of information on the battle of Peleliu including a video (reportedly on YouTube) of a Sherman tank being hit by a mine and the ensuing firefight between marines and Japanese soldiers. We found that particular Sherman tank partially overturned on a hillside close to Bloody Nose Ridge. The quality of our internet access hasn't allowed us to view this video so our report is hearsay.
The New Zealand company, Cleared Ground, has been engaged by the Palau government to clean up many of the hazards on Peleliu but their mandate is for a simple visual inspection of the ground with a neutralization of any munitions they find. We were surprised to hear they use no metal detectors (probably because a metal detector would be going off continuously) and they do not enter and inspect and disarm munitions found in caves. They have detected and disarmed many unexploded bombs dropped by American aircraft. Visit their website at clearedground.org for more information.
So, here we still are in Palau, after two and a half months. We've enjoyed every minute of our time here, biking around to keep fit, visiting with friends, making new friends and watching tourists come and go. Before month's end we hope to be underway to the Davao in the Philippines. There have been no "weather windows" to make this trip enjoyable, so we'll likely do what others have done. Pick a time when the monsoon has retreated back to the west, motor to 8 N and find a westbound current and ride this until finding the southbound current along the eastern shore of Mindanao.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake