Palau with its moldy buildings. Palau with its blue skies and towering rain clouds. Palau with its many island heads with green hats. Palau at night, with its muted street lights and its fishing boats in quite harbors. The romance of Palau for me, for a third time, is still alive and inspiring as ever. And the diving always delivers!
It is hard to not fall in love with diving in Palau. As a seasoned diver, it is hard to not return to those honeymoon dive days, where everything was new, still odd and amazing. But as a photographer, it can be a frustrating endeavor to capture the bulk of this beauty, especially with any original vision.
It is precisely Palau’s popularity that can make shooting wide angle, particularly with a fisheye lens, a challenge. Hardly a day boat leaves the dock that is not completely full of scuba fins. The same fins that like to sneak into the frame when composing soft corals on a drop off, or bleed from the ceiling in the silhouette of a cave opening. Finding a way to minimize diver interference can prove to be a real challenge when taking underwater photos at such a popular destination.
Granted, a fisheye lens is not the ideal choice for taking shark photos in Palau. A wide rectilinear with good zoom reach is much more effective for getting the classic Grey Reef profile. But then, these are the only kind of shark photos you get in Palau, and in my opinion, a little over represented.
So the Rectilinear and Mega Dome stayed at home, and I took the canon fisheye 8-15mm on every dive behind the 4 inch Zen mini (this being more of the result of a combined Philippines muck diving trip in which the carryon was 40 pounds heavy with macro toys). The rectilinear was missed on certain sites though. Blue Corner was particularly a challenge to get close enough to any large schools to capture their immensity.
So much of the time spent at Blue Corner was “hook in (reef hook) and watch the show”. I was actually more than happy to just relax for a bit and be mesmerized as the marine food chain took to the stage like an hour long broadway production. Large schools of Bohar Snapper congregated at the edge of the drop off. Jacks swirled in and out of visible range in the blue. Twelve to fifteen grey reef sharks could be identified anywhere you chose to look on the current heavy dives, gliding and sliding in turns. Juvenile Barracuda littered over the reef top with thousands of Red-tooth triggerfish rising and falling like a rain storm.
Occasionally a wall of Blackfin Barracudas would emerge from the edges of periphery and slip back into the blue with the faint silhouette of sharks. Everywhere. Juvenile Eagle Rays, Green and Hawksbill Turtles made appearances and the resident schools of Blue Lined Snapper would encircle curious divers with stealthy buoyancy control. Big Action. It’s why Blue Corner is world famous and if timed right, it still has its magic.
But for my fisheye set up, the most productive photo dives were the ones most seasoned divers consider rather boring. It wasn't until my third trip that I actually voluntarily dived in the blue holes. To my surprise I discovered the Blue Holes had some excellent CFWA (close focus wide angle) opportunities, particularly with Lionfish hunting near sea fans. The main challenge, however, was divers. A total of twenty boats were parked in the area at the time, five of which were diving the blue holes at the same time our group was. Trying to gain access to a fin free photo op. became a lesson in patience.
Another dive that I fell in love with all over again was Big Drop Off. The visibility was astounding. This time boats were not as prevalent, so I just trailed behind the dive group at a distance and framed up the vibrant, cotton candy soft corals in the gentle current.
Palau with its gorgeous seascapes and delicious restaurants has my heart and my stomach. With a good guide you may not even notice the potential dangers of the unpredictable currents, but believe me they are there. It is what makes the diving so unique and “action packed”. While photography may be a challenge, there are still many possibilities to explore. I think having a private guide may be the way to get the most out of these possibilities. Palau still remains one of my favorite destinations and I will dream about it until I return.