The tiny island nation of Palau has made big headlines in recent years for its radical commitments to ocean conservation. In a first for any nation, Palau designated almost its entire ocean territory—193,000 square miles—as a fully protected marine reserve in 2015. And it worked. Palau’s protected areas have double the number of fish and five times the number of predatory fish as unprotected areas.
And yet this is just one of the reasons that we consider Palau as a “must snorkel” destination—the snorkeling there was already some of the best in the world! To experience Palau for yourself, join one of our upcoming Palau snorkeling expeditions. We have dates scheduled in November 2017, February 2018, May 2018, and November 2018. Click here for trip details.
Palau boasts an impressive list of 400+ hard coral and 300+ soft coral species—the most diverse coral fauna in Micronesia. In the water, your eye is constantly engaged with the colors and textures that these amazing animals create. Many snorkel sites offer easy and safe access to healthy coral gardens at depths of only 3-5 feet. And while coral reefs worldwide are declining due to global warming and ocean acidification, many of Palau’s reefs have been found to be naturally resilient to these forces due to unique environmental conditions. Snorkeling healthy, diverse reefs such as these is a rare treat today!
Palau’s decisive efforts to ban commercial fishing, to create a shark sanctuary, and to set aside fully protected marine areas are combining to help fish populations thrive. With more than 1300 species of reef fish, from large, prehistoric looking schools of bumphead parrotfish, to cryptic leaf fish and colorful and elusive mandarinfish, a snorkeling trip to Palau will undoubtedly add many new sightings to your reef fish life list! And while in most areas of the world it is becoming increasingly rare to see sharks, Palau’s approach to conservation means that it is not unusual to see four or more shark species on your expedition.
One of the most impressive aspects of snorkeling in Palau is its wide diversity of microhabitats. From tranquil, protected mangrove-rimmed lakes and bays, to limestone swim-throughs lined with soft corals, to blue holes into which you can free dive, to shallow water drop offs that go from 3 feet to over 900 feet, Palau’s snorkel sites offer seemingly endless variation. For example, in wondrous Ulong Channel you can snorkel areas where large groupers spawn and gray reef sharks congregate, and then explore the shallow table coral edges for nudibranchs. It is easy to visit 4 to 5 different coral reef ecosystems just in one day in Palau. And given Palau’s role in WWII, you can also snorkel over downed Japanese Zero fighter planes and other wrecks in the shallow water.
The primary snorkeling areas of Palau are found within the Rock Islands, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of nearly 300 jungle-covered limestone islands that jut out of turquoise waters. The islands create a multitude of protected, shallow snorkel sites with calm and inviting waters that boast 50-70 feet visibility for most of the year. From within the Rock Islands’ protected lagoons, it is easy to access reef drop-offs and current confluences just outside the islands that attract large schools of fish.
One of the often-unmentioned characteristics of snorkeling in Palau is the breathtaking landscape that you traverse each day. With bright white sand beaches and mushroom shaped islands that jut dramatically out of crystal waters, one can easily fill up a memory card with only above water pictures! While traveling to snorkel sites, we often see elegant White-tailed Tropicbirds frolicking on the surface of the water. Some of the islands where we jump out to snorkel have walls covered in carnivorous pitcher plants that attract lively birds like Fantails as well as colorful Fruit Doves.
Snorkel and dive tourism is well developed in Palau and, as a result, the boats available for snorkel outings are modern and comfortable, with new and well-maintained engines. This makes access to snorkel sites and transit between them a breeze. On our expeditions, we typically depart at 8:30 am and return at 4 pm or after, enjoying a picnic lunch on one of the many white sand beaches. Transit time to the outer reefs and snorkel sites takes a maximum of 50 to 60 minutes, and that time is usually broken up by multiple stops en route to snorkel at shallow reefs harboring giant clams, soft corals, and massive landscapes of table corals. Most people travel a long way to visit Palau, and the easy-to-access reefs help you make the best use of your vacation time.
Check out our Palau: Snorkeling the Rock Islands expedition, Palau: Shark and Coral Reef Monitoring volunteer vacation, or our Micronesia: Ulithi, Yap, and Palau expedition to start planning your trip today. For our full list of Expeditions, click here, or request a free copy of our 2017–2018 Expeditions Catalog.
Special thanks to photographer Keoki Stender for the outstanding images used throughout this post, all of which were taken on Oceanic Society Expeditions in Palau.
Wayne Sentman is our director of conservation travel programs and an Oceanic Society naturalist since 1998. He is an experienced guide with a diverse background in marine mammal, seabird, and marine debris research. Wayne also co-teaches undergraduate field programs in Kenya on human-wildlife conflict and on the use of social media and art to raise public participation in conservation. He recently received a Master's in Environmental Management from Harvard University.