Diving in Palau: The biodiversity of a world-class scuba destination

See Palau through the eyes of a dive guide as he tells you what a typical dive is like and why he thinks the island nation's waters are so full of life

The tiny nation of Palau is proof that big things come in small packages

What’s it like to be a dive guide in one of the world’s top scuba diving destinations? Find out for yourself as Matt Boyle – who works for Sam’s Tours, a popular dive shop in Palau – talks about what he sees in the country’s incredibly rich waters on a daily basis.

Many divers think of diving in Palau and immediately picture big fish like sharks and manta rays. But what if I told you that these large pelagics are only a fraction of what can be seen in Palau? In fact, that reef behind the shark you’re imagining in your head right now could very well consist of hundreds of different coral species, each hiding any number of fish and invertebrates. For a country that is only 465 square kilometres in size, there is an astonishing variety of life living and breathing in its waters.

As a self-proclaimed fish nerd, working in Palau is challenging in the sense that it’s hard to keep up with the sheer amount of fish species. It’s just dizzying! Over several hundred species can be encountered on a single dive. To give you a clearer picture, here’s what a typical dive on any given day can be like:

Step into my office

You’ve just rolled into Blue Corner, one of Palau’s most famous dive sites. Following the mooring line down, there are various types of fish dotting the top of the reef. Schools of surgeonfish, tangs, and parrotfish are peacefully grazing on algae while swimming among stout branching corals and sturdy boulder corals. Some sea whips flutter with the current. Wrasses and groupers hunt around the nooks and crannies of the reef, hiding under plates and tables of corals. A pack of bluefin and yellowspotted trevally hunt like wolves circling around a prey of unlucky damselfish.

Sharks are a common sight in Palau’s crystal clear waters

Kicking over the top of the reef, you descend down a vertical wall. Looking below, you see that it disappears into the darkness. The wall is peppered with growths of soft coral, sea fans, sea whips, and some hard coral – perfect for wide-angle photography. As the current starts to take you, you quickly realise you no longer need to fin. As you relax and calm down, life seems to envelope you. All around there are swirls of schooling fusiliers, each swimming in unison with the others of its species. It’s a chaotic mass of fish to follow. Among them dance red-toothed triggers, pyramid butterflyfish, and whitetail dascylus – they’re feeding in the current. As you drift along, you’re greeted by an enormous school of bigeye trevally ringed by red and black snappers.

Also read: 10 dive destinations for wide-angle underwater photography

Turning away from the reef, there are a few grey reef sharks cruising by in the blue. Down below you, a dogtooth tuna swims by. Looking away from the open, a Napoleon wrasse is accompanied by a longface emperor, scouring the reef for crustaceans and mollusks to bite into. They prowl through numerous cracks and crevices and are followed by a pack of goatfish and other large wrasses, all this is happening while bluefin trevally circle the group – one of the best examples of nuclear hunting the animal kingdom has to offer. There is a bend in the reef ahead and a bunch of sharks are schooled up, taking advantage of an eddy current that’s forming. Here is where the reef hook comes out of your pocket and you stop to watch the show.

That, believe it or not, was the first 15 minutes of an average dive I had the other day. The amount of life I spotted made my head spin when I tried to drink it all in.

Location, location, location

Home to a whopping 1,543 species of fish, 400 species of sponge, over 400 species of hard coral, 300 species of soft coral, thousands of invertebrates (many yet to be discovered), 10 types of sea grass, and at least 30 species of marine mammals, the Palau archipelago is chock-full of marine life. This is far more than the rest of Micronesia! There are many possible reasons for this phenomenon, with each one probably playing some part.

Expect to see friendly sea turtles every day

On the west, Palau is bordered by the Philippine sea, and to the east, the Pacific Ocean. On top of that, Palau sits right on the eastern edge of the Coral Triangle – the global centre for marine biodiversity. Any species that can successfully make that ocean crossing could possibly settle in these fertile waters.

There is a mixture of varied habitats that can support all sorts of fish and coral. There are steep outer reef walls where pelagic predators such as tuna, mackerel, rainbow runners, and sharks can interact with reef organisms. Sprawling coastal mangroves also exist, which can harbour an abundance of fish and act as a nursery to many reef species. Extensive shallow and deep water lagoons are found throughout the rock islands of Palau; these limestone islands contain a variety of marine lakes, each a pocket of diversity in their own right. The rock islands also break up and create small passages through the lagoon, providing an even larger range of habitats. Ample seagrass beds and mudflats line the east side of the country, providing a home to the most isolated population of dugongs in the world.

In the far north, there is a huge sunken coral atoll that makes up a fifth of Palau’s entire reef area, and to the far south there are majestic undersea mountains whose tips just barely breach the surface surrounded by barrier reefs. About 64 kilometres away, Palau’s southernmost island is a coral atoll. Interestingly enough, this shows the future of the other peaks in the chain, which will one day sink below the sea, leaving behind only the barrier reef that once ringed them as atolls.

Go with the flow

On top of having so many habitats for organisms to find a home in, Palau is also fortunate in being right in the path of some major currents that aid these ocean voyagers. Palau’s major current driver is known as the Equatorial Counter Current – this is a slower current that has formed going along the equator in the reverse direction of the Equatorial Current. The main Equatorial Current is driven by the wind in a westward direction, pooling massive amounts of water up in the Western Pacific. This makes the Western Pacific’s sea level slightly higher than that of the Eastern Pacific. As gravity acts on all that water, it moves to equalise. Flowing along the equator back towards the East, it creates the Equatorial Counter Current.

An aerial shot of the German Channel, one of Palau’s most famous dive sites

There are also two major eddy systems that interact with Palau’s current systems seasonally. The Mindanao Eddy and the Palau Eddy form and decline following the Asian monsoon seasons.

There is no answer yet to where and how all of this biodiversity reached Palau. It could be any one of these many factors, or some combination of them all: Palau’s proximity to an area with some of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet; the variety of distinct marine habitats that are available to allow all organisms to find a niche; aided by currents that provide nutrients and a means for organisms to make the journey here; or perhaps even some unknown factor could be controlling it all. Regardless of the real explanation, you can’t deny it: The biodiversity of Palau is an amazing spectacle to behold.

Dive Palau with Sam’s Tours

Sam’s Tours offers both diving and non-diving activities

An award-winning operation, Sam’s Tours is a PADI 5-Star dive centre that offers daily scuba trips as well as non-diving activities such as kayaking, aerial, and WWII tours for every diver and non-diver to discover a different side of Palau.

For more info, visit the official website of Sam’s Tours.