Diving Unique in Palau
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A false spawning event of red snappers in Palau. ©Mike Gerken
“Any dive is a good dive” is the motto of many an optimistic diver returning from a mediocre dive experience who does not want to be construed as a jaded diver. After logging thousands of dives and seeing some amazing sights underwater, I find myself at times falling in to this category. For every dive that causes my eyes to pop out of my mask and regulator to fall out of my mouth there are a dozen dives that are ok, but will not be highlighted in the logbook. This of course is the nature of scuba diving. Not every dive is going to bowl you over; that is until I started diving with Unique Dive Expeditions at Sam’s Tours in Palau.
From September 2012 until April 2013 I was the captain of a startup liveaboard, the Palau Siren of Worldwide Dive & Sail. It was during this time I got to know Paul Collins, an expat scientist doing ocean geography studies of Palau and doubling as an operations manager of Sam’s Tours. Paul and Sam's Tour's dive guide, Richard Barnden are the reason Unique Dive Expeditions are so unique. For several years now, these two have been studying marine fish behaviors based on the lunar cycle, tidal actions and follow up accounts of Palauan fishermen and divers. Many fish species aggregate to the same reef at a certain time of the month or year with the intention of spawning and it is Paul and Richards job to study and track these behaviors so they can witness with great predictability some amazing spawning events month after month and year after year that very few people have ever seen. They take this scientific knowledge and use it to entertain tourists who travel from all over the world to dive with Sam’s Tour’s in Koror. This is where science crosses over to sport diving. By using scientific data, they can dramatically increase the odds of having a stellar dive and eliminating those that don’t make the cut. They prove with their results that there is more than just luck in finding spectacular marine life at a particular dive site.
I was lucky to be able to accompany these two on several dives to witness their techniques first hand. My first mind blowing dive was the spawning event of Bolbometopon muricatum or the bumphead parrotfish. The bumphead gets it name for the bulbous hump on its forehead that is just more noticeable than the tooth plate that looks like the jaws of a backhoe. With thick scales, a green to gray hue and sizes up to 25 pounds, these fish are standouts on the reef. To see a dozen bumpheads would be considered a great sighting on any given dive. Today, however, we were about to see several thousand that arrive a few days before a new moon.
In the early morning, right before the switch of an incoming to an outgoing tide, the bumpheads began to aggregate on the promontory of the reef in front of our own eyes. At first we saw a few dozen but within an hour their number climbed in to the thousands. During this time, in a large procession, they swam away from the reef in to blue water that was reminiscent of a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. Pretty soon, the current began to switch to outgoing the fishes heads began to change color. (This is likely a sign to the other fish that they are ready to spawn.) Then, with several dozen divers looking on, it happened. Some of the fish swam rapidly upwards with others joining and swimming alongside. Simultaneously, the eggs from the female are released along with the sperm of the males. As the fish collide with each other I see a cloud burst with frantic fish activity all around in the water column. Then, moments later, it begins to really go off. Multitudes of bumpheads up and down the reef simultaneously perform this ritual over and over again. Trying to film the activity was confusing and difficult to know where to point the camera. There was actually too much action! After about 30-60 minutes the spawning events began to slow down and within what seemed like moments, they were gone. There wasn’t a single bumphead wrasse left on the reef.
Bumpheads aggregating on the reef prior to spawning. ©Mike Gerken
Once back on the boat I could share my excitement with the other divers as to what we just witnessed. To say I was awed was an understatement and the same could be said for the others. The chatter in the boat was filled with adrenaline and disbelief. For millennia these fish have likely been performing the same routine on this very same section of reef with one goal in mind; to procreate and continue their species.
A video short of the aggregation and spawning of bumphead parrotfish. ©Mike Gerken
"This dive was just a warm up", Paul indicated. "Wait to you see the red snapper spawning."; (Otherwise known as Lutjanus bohar . With a shake of my head in assent I say, “bring it, I can’t wait!” “Well you’re going to have to wait” Paul began to explain. The red snapper don’t spawn for a few weeks. When I got home, I marked my calendar and patiently waited for the day of the dive to arrive.
Jump ahead to two weeks and there we were motoring at high speed across the lagoon at sunup on our way to see first hand the red snapper spawning. My camera was loaded, tested and fully charged in anticipation. “This is going to be good”, I said to myself. In a playbook taken right from the bumpheads, the red snappers assembled in the same manner, but this time in the tens of thousands. When I swam down the reef, the mass of fish looked like a swarm of locusts over a Kansas prairie. As I carefully got beneath the horde their sheer numbers blotted out the sun. As we say in Long Island, New York, “This is awesome!”. To make matters more exciting, four eight foot bull sharks arrived at the gathering to attempt to make a meal out of the distracted snappers. The Bulls meandered around the perimeter looking for a weakness keeping their distance from the divers. At one point, Richard got close to one and snapped a photo and the bull shark, not liking the brilliant strobes and electronic impulses, turned tail and swam away at high speed.
A massive aggregation of red snappers that blotted out the sun at times. ©Mike Gerken
In a matter of moments, like clockwork, the spawning began. Dozens of fish converged around what looked like one fish ascending upwards. Like fireworks on the 4th of July the cloud bursts of sperm and eggs flowed with the outgoing tide and tarnished the gin blue water above me, below me and on all sides. Predicting when the action was about to happen proved as difficult as with the Bumpheads and my camera was jutting too and fro with excitement. This process repeated itself over again dozens of times up and down the reef.
A beautiful assembly of red snappers at Shark City, Palau.
Pretty soon, all the red snappers fulfilled their duty and began to disperse to all corners of the reef, returning to wherever they started from, leaving the stunned divers behind to marvel at what we just saw. To add to the party, large aggregations of barracuda, giant trevally, big eye jacks, black snapper and even a lemon shark appeared adding to the wonderful layer cake of a dive.
Afterwards, Paul explained that the dive we just did had an average attendance of snappers. “Average” I squawked! I couldn’t imagine more fish than what we just saw, but I took his word for it. Unfortunately, I left Palau before I could return again to see if he was telling the truth. This certainly will give me an excuse for returning very soon.
A must see video of the aggregation and spawning of red snappers. ©Mike Gerken
To this day, Paul and Richard at Sam's Tour's continue to refine their dive techniques tweaking the entry times and locations on the reefs to deliver, in my professional opinion, the best diving Palau has to offer. Most of the dives I did in Palau were fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, manta rays, gray reef sharks and healthy populations of fish were all part of the joy of diving there, but nothing held a candle to the dives I did with Unique Dive Expeditions. With their science data they were able to deliver great action beneath the waves. When you have been doing this as a long as I have, every so often, you need your batteries recharged and these dives were just the power source I needed.
To set up a dive trip with Unique Dive Expeditions of Sam’s Tours, contact email@example.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Many of the unique dives offered require very early pre-sunup departures, deep dives to over 30 meters with strong currents a factor. If these conditions aren't for you then best to sign up for the standard fare Sam's Tours has to offer which is also outstanding.
Photo and Video Gallery
Another one of Paul and Richard's dive's is a jaunt to the north of Palau to see the aggregation of these
cute little black tail snappers. I was witness to tens of thousands of these fish. ©Mike Gerken
Richard Barnden pursuing bumpheads for 'the shot'. ©Mike Gerken
Look closely for the large bull shark beneath the red snappers. ©Mike Gerken
A mass of red snappers prior to spawning.
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