They almost seem to float on the shimmering surface of Palau’s Southern Lagoon, rounded knobs of ancient coral formations mantled in dense emerald-green foliage. Though most of them are uninhabited, this spatter of tiny islands 805km (500 miles) west of the Philippines has become famous among divers for its rich diversity of marine life. The warm blue waters are so clear (up to 30m/98-ft. visibility) that even snorkelers get quite a show, but scuba divers report truly awesome experiences here, with breathtakingly deep drop-offs and immense submarine caverns. Walldiving sites such as the Blue Corner, the Blue Holes, the German Channel, the Peleliu Wall, and the Ngmelis Drop-Off have achieved almost legendary status among divers in the know.
It’s the big fish that give the Rock Islands their special claim to fame. Commercial fishing has been banned in Palau for more than a decade, and as a result, threatened shark, barracuda, and wrasse species, as well as turtles and dolphins and giant clams, thrive around the island’s spectacular reefs. Tallies vary widely, but there are somewhere around 300 islands in the group, spread over some 161km (100 miles) of ocean south of Palau’s largest island, Babeldaob. Three ocean currents converge here, which means that hundreds of migratory fish species pass in and out of these waters. Several World War II shipwrecks provide underwater landmarks to explore; you can also swim through tunnels in certain islands’ coasts to reach inland marine lakes, populated with rare stingless jellyfish, a snorkeling experience you’ll never forget.
For a great overview of the Rock Islands, take a speedboat tour from the main tourist town of Koror, about 20 minutes from the airport. These tours will whiz you around to secluded coves, jewel-like lagoons, and the most dazzling strips of white-sand beach. When it’s time to get down to some serious diving, leading dive-boat operators include Fish and Fins, Neco’s Marine, and Sam’s Tours. For a little variety, you can also try kayaking and sport fishing around the islands; there are plenty of watersports shops in Koror, as well as at the leading resorts.
Exotic as Palau may seem, English is spoken everywhere, and the U.S. dollar is the main currency. You can easily base yourself in Koror, or book a berth on a liveaboard boat such as the Eclipse (book through Sam’s Tours) or the Ocean Adventure I and III (book through Fish and Fins).