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Micronesia 9: Diving in the Rock Islands of Palau.

So today we rode a boat for an hour down to the lower end of the Palau archipelago where the best dive sites are. It was a lovely ride, passing scores of muffin-shaped rock islands.

Paradise. I'm finally in Palau. I've been looking at pictures of it and wanting to come here for twenty years. We went with this great dive operator called Sam’s Tours.

The first dive was so-so, Coral Garden with most of the coral dead from an El Nio a couple of years ago, the second was one of the best ever, as good as the Somosomo Strait in Fiji. It was called Turtle Dropoff or Big Dropoff, a spot where a three-foot deep reef suddenly drops down 2,000 feet into the abyss. The tide was running, which meant we just drifted along the wall, down at about 50 or 60 feet. Moving really fast, like almost at bicycling speed, the wall streaming past, covered with waving soft corals like casts of a person's lung passages, like prickly pears, like bushes and bowls and brambles. Schools of fish high above us, fish all over the wall, fish below us, and out in the deep water, over and over, five-foot-long reef sharks. They beat their tails in a rhythm that seems sullen, sulky, slow, skulking. Not really sneaky, though. Sharks don't have to sneak. Maybe the thing that differentiates their motions from that of other fish is that the sharks are the only guys who aren't worried about someone else eating them. They're not all twitchy and jittery and birdlike and abrupt. Nobody's gonna rush out and bite them. They can friggin' well relax, and never mind about the manners. You don't like it, whatchoo gonna do about it?

At one point I'd drifted out to the front end of our party of seven, and I saw a really big shark coming right along the wall, not more than twenty feet away, and now here come something else out of the deep, a hawksbill turtle three feet across, swimming dead-on straight for my head, I saw deep into his eyes. Swimming right below the turtle was something big and flat, at first I thought it was a ray, but it was a fish fully as big as the turtle, swimming on his side so as to take advantage of the turtle's wake — on the surface the guide told me, “That's a bat-fish. He eats the turtle's shit.”

The same bunch of divers went out together three days in a row, it was interesting getting to know them. There were two cute Chinese women, sisters from Shanghai, but one of them, call her Shirley, now lives in, natch, Santa Clara near my home San Jose, she owned a restaurant in Milpitas near all the high tech companies, but sold it. Shirley's younger sister, call her Min, lives in Macao (now spelled Macau), which they described as the Las Vegas of China, it has a reputation as a wide-open Sin City. Both were married, but their husbands weren't along.

At one point we saw a school of dolphins, swimming along at the prow of the boat.

click on this link to see a 5 Meg MPG: movie of the dolphins. (You can hear the Chinese women talking about them in the background.)

There was a guy called something like Bob on the boat, a Texan who's lived in Taiwan for quite a few years, making a living selling custom robots to chip fabs. Big talker, big Texas accent. He has a Taiwanese girlfriend, so has some expertise with Chinese women, and he was bragging to me about how he was going to try and get a date with Min, how Asians all have open marriages and it's not like the uptight USA. And then this morning he's saying something along these lines to Min's sister Shirley, about Asian sexual mores being different, and Shirley is like, “Who say? Why it different?” So much for that theory. And then Shirley tells me that Min's husband owns a casino and two hotels in Macao. To my mind, this calls up an image of a fairly tough character. A guy with an implacable security staff, a private army of martial arts warriors, right. So I'm thinking Bob's odds aren't too good.

Bob was always touching me and Embry when he talked to us, on the arm, on the back, patting and glad-handing, and we privily agreed spending that six hours a day in a small boat with Bob was getting to us. So I took Bob aside and asked him not to touch me anymore. I told him that my brother and I had grown up in the hills of Kentucky and that back there when you touched someone, it meant you were about to punch his nose, so it made me edgy to have him coming up and patting my back all the time, I wasn't sure how I might react. So he stopped doing it, which was a relief. Embry didn't hear me tell Bob this, and was of course delighted when I told him later. To get in on the fun, the next day Embry told Bob that he'd seen Min's husband on the dock, and he was a Chinese gangster in a Shantung silk suit, with two really big bodyguards. The Rucker brothers messing with Bob's head.

All this by-play if you just mix together a dozen people for three days. We're such social organisms. Like fish.

Anotehr time we did Turtle Cove, we went through a hole in a reef, came out on wall and drifted, passing quite a few turtles. Then we did another hole dive, Blue Hole, in which we floated down eighty feet through a vertical shaft in come coral and came out into this immense cathedral-like space. Not all that many fish in there, but the guide showed us a fire scallop, which he prefers to call a “disco clam.” This thing is a shell, which is open, and it has undulating lips with iridescent white lines flashing on and off along the lips, and some kind of protruding from the center is some gnarly soft grabbing device, waiting to snag curious fishies or shrimplets. Then we drifted along a wall towards Blue Corner, not quite getting there.

After one dive day, I felt like getting off on my own, so instead of getting a ride home with the dive charter guys, I walked to a bus-stop, looking around. Seemed kind of like I imagine Jamaica, colorful, lots of dark-skinned people (the Palauans), and reggae music seemingly playing everywhere. Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry,” I was remembering first hearing that when Sylvia and I were in some sense exiles from the US, ex-pats in any case, living in Heidelberg, and how strongly I shared Marley's images of the glory of the downtrodden.

I did yoga on a dock for half an hour, beat old boats around, sun going down, very mellow, listened to a whole side of Marley from a nearby bar as I did it. Nobody bothered me. When I walked up by the bar, really a patio, I stopped to study a trail of ants. In the setting sun, they had shadows a quarter of an inch long, magnifying their motions wonderfully. I could hear a guy talking in the bar, a young heavyset guy with a shaved head, a face like a white marshmallow with a few holes in it, like the Pillsbury dough-boy, he has a very heavy-duty underwater camera on the table behind him, he's pitching, “Bottom line, bottom line, I get that slide up, I'm sellin' Palau.”

On my last Palau diving day, we did the classic Palau dive, Blue Corner, where the Philippine Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. We went down a wall covered with hard and soft coral and drifted with the current. Out in the open sea were big sharks, considerably larger than me, some of them. Not all that far away. We were at about 70 feet. There was a swirling whirlpool of big-eyed trevalleys, each of them trying not to be out on the edge where the sharks were. Like a slow cyclone, making a shape like a nest, with every now and then a bright flash as one of the fish turned onto his side to wriggle deeper into the core. These were big fish. Clouds of little butterfly-looking fish, yellow and white like confetti. Up above a school of several hundred barracuda. Then a turtle paddles off the lip of the reef sixty feet above us. And then an eagle ray with a fifteen-foot wingspan flaps by.

The greatest dive of my life.

2 Responses to “Micronesia 9: Diving in the Rock Islands of Palau.”

  1. jaydee Says:

    Your Palau blog is mesmerising but, I’d like to drop a few comments on the books.
    I just picked up Frek and the Elixir. Reading though it and having fun. It’s great to be back in that Rucker Space.
    There’re a few spoilers in this comment.
    A few cover straplines come to mind; The ecstatic collaboration of Lewis Carol and H. P. Lovecraft.
    This is a kid’s book, and that is fine, but it’s a bit dark; like the brain pecking and the encounters with the Unipuskers. I haven’t read any other children’s fiction lately? Has it really become this edgy?
    Of course I love the richness of the imagination; the biotech future is well realised, but what is impressive are the various cross fertilisations, it is also a political dystopia (I don’t think you’ve really done one of those since Spacetime Donuts.) And it does not forget information technology (pervasive, scary; from adverts which follow you, to the universal surveillance of watchbirds and jelly satellites.)
    The Alien environments are rich too, and they rely on totally different technology, the manipulation of dark matter, and we get kicked rapidly from local, to global to cosmic scale. I don’t pretend to understand half of the stuff about superstrings and membranes; to me it all falls under Clark’s Third Law, science so advanced that it is magical.
    Which brings out another aspect; This is really ambitious, not only a children’s book but it stretches across the stylistic boundary between science fiction and epic fantasy. The whole structure; as in the search for the Elixir, is a quest structure, and specific sequences, like the encounter with the Gruloo have the style of classic fantasy. The Lewis Carol moments are associated with those squid like Aliens who shrink Frek and simultaneously take him down a rabbit hole like entrance to their ship. Surprisingly, it all works so far.

  2. r.s. re: jaydee Says:

    yes to great blog entry
    yes to all those Frek comments. Has your publisher pushed it at teens? Its a natural. I gave to one teen and he liked, but I have not checked back in with him now several months later to check his impression.


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