Rock Islands



Non-diver David Whitley visits one of the world’s undisputed great diving destinations, and finds that there’s no oxygen tank required

It all happens so suddenly. On one side, the rock and coral is shallow. On the other, it is a deep blue, plummeting down heaven knows how far. The colours are so high definition that it looks almost computer generated and airbrushed. It’s the best snorkelling spot I’ve ever had the privilege to witness – better than anything I’ve seen on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or its slightly shorter compadre off the coast of Mexico and Belize.


It’s evidently not just me that reckons this. SCUBA pioneer Jacques Cousteau reckoned the Big Drop Off in Palau was the greatest wall dive on earth. I don’t dive; I’ve tried it and I really don’t like it. But I’m usually deliriously happy looking at giant natural aquariums through a mask, and breathing through a plastic tube.


From a snorkelling perspective, the Big Drop Off is pretty darned special. Shoals of fish swarm around me, lionfish duck in and out of hidey-holes and a black-tipped shark sashays its way along the underwater wall.


This should be the sort of highlight that dwarfs everything else. The rest of the trip should seem miserable in comparison. It doesn’t.


To just say “the Rock Islands of Palau” you might not get too excited. They’ll be like the Scilly Isles or something, yes? Well they’re not – collectively, they’re one of the most extraordinary sights on the planet.


Nobody has properly counted how many there are – the default answer from guides is “365-plus” – but sauntering around them in a boat or kayak is a joy. They were once coral reef themselves, but tectonic plate crunching thousands of years ago forced them upwards. The coral gradually turned into limestone, and the sea got to work carving out the shapes. Many of the smaller islands – some of which are little more than green-topped rocks standing on their lonesome – were once joined together. Now they just stand, looking extraordinarily pretty. This is partly due to the shape – most are rounded, with mushroom-like bottoms cut away by the crashing saltwater. Some of the excavations have turned into caves; others have seen tunnels blasted through. These get the water into the marine lakes.


But it’s also about the colour. All of the islands are thick with vegetation, which billows over in a most unruly fashion. In the sun, it’s a vivid, emerald green.


The colour blast extends to the water too. In some parts of what is essentially a giant lagoon that envelops the country, it is a deep blue. In others, it’s a turquoise. In others, a vibrant green or a milky mint colour. But it’s almost always incredibly clear. Bomb through the channels in a speedboat, and the contrasts make for postcard shots at just about every angle.


Throw in the beaches – it’s not a beach holiday destination, but every now and then you turn a corner to see a strip that’s white and untouched apart from the coconuts that have landed on it – and you’d have to have a hard heart not to fall in love with the place.


For visitors, the Rock Islands are a playground. But for millions of sea creatures, the area is home. Further snorkelling expeditions unveil beds of giant clams, baby rays darting towards mangroves and vast fields of brain coral. It seems you needn’t have a PADI certificate and oxygen tank to enjoy one of the world’s greatest diving destinations. I’m unashamedly in love with the place.