Diving in the deep depths of Micronesia, part of the Oceania eco-zone, will forever remain my most imminent memory in the ocean. Palau was unlike any other place I had been diving. The marine life, undisturbed and never distraught, relished in a habitat of untouched anemones and sea grasses and without a trace of plastic clinging to corals, which I saw too often elsewhere. The respect towards natural ecosystems was incredible; no scraped sea walls, no dragged equipment or dive buddies reaching out to touch starfish. Additionally, I experienced my first manta ray sighting, which made me breathless with amazement. Finally, not only was the manta sighting incredible, but every moment on the ocean floor was unfamiliar with thousands of animals passing every which way. One day, I’ll return to the waters of Palau, which I now tell people is my favorite country.
Early in the morning, a car belonging to the dive shop picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the other side of the island. The cool morning breeze flowed inside the car by the window left ajar. I watched all the small Palauan kids in navy blue uniforms walk to school with all their friends. I spotted Mormon missionaries (who seemed like the only other foreigners on the island besides marine biologists and divers) leaving the single supermarket. I pointed out the Thai restaurant we had eaten at the previous night, which we would soon visit every day in Palau. After the drive through town, we rounded the corner a couple more times before I got my first glimpse of the crystal clear water of Palau. It looked inviting even at 7 am as the sun was already heating the island rapidly. Finally, we pulled up to a big blue dive shop at the end of the island.
My dive gear lay next to my feet on the boat. As we pulled out of the marina, the still water turned to a pretty bright blue in the open sea. The speed boat crashed hard as the waves got rougher, although our driver seemed highly trained as he dodged whitewater and cranked the wheel repeatedly. Unlike all the other dive sights I had dove, I saw not one other boat heading out to sea with us. An hour later, my feet were numb from my massive dive vest, still resting on my feet. We had reached our first dive site of the day.
Suddenly, my stomach churned with nerves. Who knew what was waiting for me in the eerie shadow of the boat? Alas, I flipped backward into the water, holding my mask and regulator with my one hand and breathing deeply. I left my familiar above me; I descended into theirs. I heard nothing but the rasps of regulators echoing in the abyss. My nerves disappeared as I reached the calmness of the ocean floor and remembered the beauty of the animals coexisting around me.
I estimate forty circling, like packed sardines, only more significant and sneakier—sharks, both big mamas, and small babies. My eyes widened with each new animal I had never seen before. An octopus passed me seemingly with no care in the world. Eels in colors of neon green and bright yellow peeked out from their homes in rocks and corals. Two giant jellyfish clung together and floated off past my eyesight. The sharks circled and came into view again, and I felt thankful for another look at the majestic creatures known for destruction and death, but now seemingly tranquil and composed.
I spin my regulator in my mouth, trying desperately for the simple squeeze my ears feel once adjusted to the change in surface level. As I rise to the boat, the natural endorphins after a dive kick in, and I’m suddenly alive and regenerated. Chowing on my lunch of tofu and rice, and waiting for the next dive to commence, I eat hungrily and wait painfully. The boat engine roars up, and I can feel the vibrations of the motor on my back. Faster than the last boat ride, we arrive at our next site in a mere 10 minutes, saving my stomach from my constant queasy seasickness.
As I descended like normal on my second dive of the day, I couldn’t possibly imagine seeing even more ocean life than I had that morning. My divemaster had promised me that this would be the better site, and I laughed him off, thinking he was joking. Submerging near 10ft underwater, I signaled back to my divemaster that I was ok and we continued along the ocean floor. We turn to the left, and out of nowhere, a sea wall appears. I knew this would not be a regular dive.
The pectoral fins close enough for me to touch, moving up and down, up and down. My first manta ray sighting. Breathlessly, I watched in awe for thirty minutes. It wasn’t just the mantas either; a show of massive turtles, babies, eels, sharks, triggerfish, and stingrays twirled around us like a show. The best part, it was a show of natural causes and happenings, not animals trapped in small cages in an aquarium. A triggerfish darted up to me, and I kicked my fin at it, terrified it would take a chomp at me like my instructor had warned; it darts off. I gazed in disbelief at the occurrences of mother nature in front of me, not wanting the moment to end, but like all good things, it eventually does. I certainly won’t forget that first sight of those pectoral fins, those beautiful mantas in the wild—close to my body submerged in their habitat yet seemingly so far away in the deep blue ocean.
Heading back across the sea channel at the end of the day, was not the last of excitement. High white water waves thrashed against the speed boat in heavy currents. I screamed of exhilaration. My arid towel swathed around my body became soaked as the speed boat dipped to interchanging sides every minute. I shivered in my jacket and towel; however, my face felt feverish from my sunburn, already turning a warm pink. That wasn’t going to leave an appealing mask tan line, I thought. The boat pressed on, steering past wave breaks and speeding through the calmness of the shallows.
Palau—I talk about it daily, wishing to return and to visit the other countries and territories in Micronesia along with it. Although I can’t be in Palau with quarantine still underway due to COVID-19, my retention of the memories I had there keep me sane and my momentos are a constant reminder of my visit. First, my country patch of Palau, stitched unevenly onto my backpack, is a big teal outer body which represents the ocean, and the yellow inner circle representing the moon. The representations of Palau on the flag I can easily attest to as accurate. Secondly, my face still peels painfully from my harsh sunburn due to those strong UV rays as Palau is close to the equator at 7.5150° N, 134.5825° E. Finally, my dive book coated in messy loggings, the official dive shop stamps, and the now dried leftover saltwater leaving the pages crinkled. I will always remember my time in beautiful Palau; I honestly can’t wait to return.