Out near the Marianas Trench… in Palau, Micronesia onboard MV Solitude One

DAY 1#IntroToAdventure

So where are we? To get your bearings, Palau is in the western Pacific, north of the equator and east of the Philippines, on a small coral archipelago that’s part of the Caroline Islands chain in Micronesia (near to the Marianas Trench, deepest part of the ocean). We’re here for a week of diving aboard MV Solitude One.  

Our first day is spent close-by the port town of Koror, easing us into the week ahead. 

Dive 1 is on a casualty of World War II – a Japanese Aichi E13A reconnaissance seaplane code-named #JakeSeaplane by the Allied Forces. Dive 2 took us deep inside one of Palau’s limestone islands itself, through 4 linked chambers that together make up Chandelier Cave. Each chamber has an air pocket at the top so we could pop up and have a chat! Dive 3 was another wreck, a small ferry named Hafa Adai … our first Night of the trip, full of colour! 

Day 1 got us off to a fabulous start! #MyTankIsTooSmall I’m not going to be able to keep up with my buddy Jasmine Carey ’cause #SheHasGills .

Palau Underwater © Darren Jew

DAY 2 #Edges

Today we’re out of the reef edge to the west of Koror and things have ramped up a bit. It feels like we’re flying in the clear water off these precipitous walls , their sheer faces draped in whips and fans, bursting with life and colour. The walls disappear below into the cobalt deep and off in the blue reef sharks patrol and flash mobs of jacks, barracuda and snapper seem to wrestle the reef for attention. 

Palau Underwater © Darren Jew

The mouth of Siaes Tunnel leads into an enormous amphitheatre–sea fans hanging from the ceiling and lining two giant windows that draw the light in and provide vistas out into an ocean of life.

I’m getting a taste of what Palau diving is about, dropping in on edges, corners and channels where huge volumes of water are moving under the pull of powerful and unseeable forces. The dive team aboard MV Solitude One are weighing up many factors in their decisions on which sites we dive when, with great results. 

The unhappiest moment of each dive is when Caroline our guide sends up the SMB and we know it has to end. 

Three sites today: Oolong Channel, Siaes Corner and SiaesTunnel.

DAY 3 #Blue

Today’s the day we are to dive Palau’s famed Blue Corner for the first time, but not until we’ve done an early morning dive at German Channel (very scenic spot to park the boat), known for its cleaning stations bommies.

At the right time of year you get mantas availing themselves of cleaning services and reef sharks are also visitors. We were lucky to see one manta fly-by, but at the edge of visibility. Others in the group had a close encounter with the same one, and also saw a second behind it. I spent most of the dive at a spot our guide Mitch introduced us to… a cute bommie covered in fish and circled by a group of grey reef #sharks. I sat in the one spot for ages just watching the show, it was beautiful and bright and thoroughly entertaining, guessing when the sharks would glide by.

Next dive was to Blue Holes a massive cave system entered through one of 4 holes in the reef top and opening into a massive cathedral with light tumbling in and creating an ethereal beauty i won’t forget. Next was famed Blue Corner… was to be our first chance to hook: I process local divers developed for divers to attach to the reef edge by a strong hook and line so you can glide stationary in very strong current and watch the show.

More about hooking tomorrow… suffice-to-say the Palauan currents were playing tricks on us today, and our Blue Corner dive was virtually current free… so instead of hooking we got to hang with fish, fish and more fish! (and a green turtle) Such an awesome, epic day. 

Three sites today: GermanChannel , BlueHoles , BlueCorner

The most challenging shot of the day was the one of Jasmine… she was hanging with so many fish, getting a clear moment proved time consuming!

DAY 4 #fishessssss

Fourth day on  Solitude One and wow man, soooooo so many fish! Big, fish, little fish, red fish, blue fish! Fish with bones, fish with cartilage. Fish with teeth, Fish with serious rock-breaking beaks. 

I love all the fishes (except maybe some damsels that are too feisty and territorial and like to take bits of skin off you when you’re sitting quietly trying to photograph some stationary marine critter) but today my choice of favourite fish in the sea was solidified when a gang of bad ’n’ mean bump head parrotfish swam out of the blue, across Blue Corner, straight towards me. These guys are seriously angry looking fish. Like I said this was not a school, it was a definitely a gang. In some oceans they wouldn’t be allowed to gather for fear of arrest. Their beaks are made for breaking coral rock so they can feed on the tiny coral polyps. 

There are plenty of prettier, more delicate, more colourful fishes… but I’m definitely impressed by this fish’s attitude. 

All three of todays dives were fishy … grey reef and white-tip reef  Sharks, Barracuda, Bluestripe Snapper, Trevally … plus countless others … you name it and I think we swam with it!

Three sites today: #BlueCorner, #TurtleCove , #NewDropOff … all amazing, awesome and epic.  Thanks Mitch for the great guiding on days 3 + 4! 

DAY 5 #reverence

The Solitude One crew had a plan for us to do two dives in the south today, off the island of Peleliu. We’re aiming first for Peleliu Cut, a wild isthmus where the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean currents collide. It’s only a 50/50 chance we’ll be able to get in the water even with the best predictions, as the full moon is approaching adding more water movement into the mix, and at this site there’s a thin blue line between exciting action and outright danger. When we arrive, the tumultuous sea tells us “no, not today”. So instead, under heavy skies we dropped into the dark sea and drifted with the current along the reef of Orange Beach. In the early morning of September 15, 1944 US Marines in landing craft crossed this very reef and went ashore under deadly fire onto Orange Beach–signalling the start of the Battle of Peleliu, a two month offensive with the aim of capturing the island’s small airstrip from the occupying Japanese. Initially planned as a 3-day battle it turned into two months of fierce fighting that left an estimated 20,000 U.S. and Japanese soldiers dead or injured–including Australian wartime photographer Damien Parer, killed by machine-gun fire as he filmed.

Drifting over the coral ridges and valleys, the reef was awakening again, just as it did 75 years ago. Above us today only rain drilled the surface. The ocean was hauntingly dark. Waves of snapper, a gang of bump heads, sharks patrolling. After an hour at the whim of the ocean, Mitch deployed the SMB and we bobbed quietly atop the grey sea.

Three sites today: OrangeBeach ; the incredible colour and detail of BigDropOff ; and some serious hooking with sharks and friends at BlueCorner.

DAY 6 #RedSnapping

I don’t really know where to start when describing this day. Suffice to say there’d been a great deal of anticipation for one possible outcome from this trip. If the moon aligned with the currents and with the weather and with our timing and with a whole lot of known unknowns and an untold bunch of unknown unknowns, we MIGHT just get to see one hell of a spectacle. 

A Red snapper spectacle. Not one, not one hundred, not one thousand… but thousands upon thousands of red snapper. Getting together under the pull of the full moon. For sex. Well for “asex” really.

Woken very early, coffee and toasting in the dark, preparing gear in the dark, boarding the skiffs in the dark, travelling to the dive site through the rain. As the sun rose behind thick sodden clouds, we entered the water in the all-but-dark. 

We descended onto the reef platform at around 25m and were immediately greeted by a very healthy Bull Shark approaching out of the gloomy dark. The water clarity was pretty good, but it was very dark. I remember thinking about how I wanted the sun to break the clouds just to give us some more visibility, more light to better capture whatever was to happen. Shooting large spaces at depth and creating readable images is a challenge even at the best of times… and this was not the best of times to be “drawing with light”… definitely pushing the tech to the limit.

Then I saw an indistinct shadow on the hazy distant shadow. The shadow became a giant writhing mass of fish flowing towards us. There was so many fish you could hear their pulsating bodies rub against each other as they swam. The first fish passed close and then disappeared into the distance, and at the same time more continued to stream, creating this endless flow that reminded me of lava relentlessly pouring down the slopes of a volcano.

The giant flowing mass started to circle back and began breaking into smaller groups. Suddenly one of the lighter coloured fish (a female) escaped the group and darted up toward the surface, pursued closely by a male, with a dozen or more others chasing hot on her fins.

At the peak of her ascent, she released her cloud of eggs into the water, and the males released their swimmers into a fertile mix. Then another group ascended and exploded into a cloud. And another. And another. Like New Year’s Eve over Sydney Harbour or the Burj Khalifa. 

Some things you see stay with you forever. This will be one of those. Sincere thank you to the extended Solitude One team for your expertise and your pursuit of the extraordinary. I can’t create images like this in isolation and I feel so fortunate to have been put into the sea to witness this by a great crew. Thank you, thank you.

Three sites today: SharkCity ; OolongChannel drift across the ocean’s largest lettuce coral patch; and lastly SiaesCorner for the final dive of the trip. 

Thanks, Julia for being our most awesome ocean-obsessed guide again today

DAY 7 #Jelly

Today is our scheduled no dive day to allow the nitrogen that’s accumulated in our blood during all those #divedivedives this last week 24hrs to dissipate before we fly.

The  Solitude One crew has a very special day on and in the water planned for us, visiting Milkyway, Jellyfish lake and a natural rock arch amongst Rock Islands.

Jellyfish Lake has been devoid of Jellyfish the last couple of years, rangers believing the loss of the animals was due to a combination of factors including extended dry el Nino conditions and the impact of sunscreen, other chemicals, and invasive organisms being brought into the lake by swimmers. But the jellyfish are back, and the rangers now don’t allow visitors to use sunscreen and you are washed down before you are near the lake, to remove outside pests.

After we were greeted at the dock by the rangers, we climbed the 160 steps up over the hill and down to the lake. We had the whole place to ourselves which was amazing. I saw my first jellyfish as I entered the brackish water, and as I swam across the lake to the sunny side, the numbers grew until it truly was a lake of jellyfish. Maneuvering amongst the bells and finding open water between the mass made for much joy and I was very sad to have to leave 😓

We had also visited white clay mud bath of Milky Way, which is said to have rejuvenating properties … so that was a popular stop, and the skiff ride to Natural Arch, weaving in and out of channels between the perfectly magical limestone islands topped with tropical forest was both beautiful and thrilling. 

Thank you to the entire Solitude One team for providing such an amazing live-aboard dive trip. 

#Last DayBlues