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An Underwater Fantasy World

An Underwater Fantasy World

By Steven Butler

Giant Clam and Diver, Tridacna Squamosa, Micronesia, Palau.
SourceReinhard Dirscherl/Getty


Few places on Earth can rival this exotic marine environment.

By Steven Butler

The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.
My first encounter with a giant clam came on a museum wall in Florence, with the goddess Venus born fully grown, standing fantastically on a huge cupped shell in the famous Botticelli painting. The second? Snorkeling just off the beach from my hotel on Palau, a small island republic about 800 miles southwest of Guam. When I dove beneath the surface, the open clams — several feet across — quickly snapped shut.

Palau has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most exotically beautiful marine environments in the world, both on the surface and deep under the water. Millions of years ago, shifting tectonic plates thrust accumulated limestone from coral reefs to the surface, creating a chain of hundreds of strangely shaped formations known as the Rock Islands, which have been eroded into the shape of a giant mushroom head, covered with thick tropical vegetation. Elsewhere are extensive caves, some big enough to paddle through in a kayak.

Beneath the surface, though, is an underwater fantasy world. The confluence of three major ocean currents brings together hundreds of species of marine life, from swarms of gray sharks and tuna to the laconic giant humphead wrasse. Coral formations are abundant. Much is accessible to a snorkeler from tour boats — including World War II wrecks — but the best is reserved for divers, who travel from all over the world. But some commercial stocks have suffered from overfishing, says Steven Victor, a scientist at The Nature Conservancy, although he’s optimistic that programs in place can reverse the decline, including an effort to culture and farm giant clams.

Some of Palau’s sites are just strange, like the stranded pond that lost its salinity over the years after it was thrust from the sea and replenished by Palau’s copious tropical downpours. Jellyfish gradually adapted to the freshwater environment and lost most of their sting, making it possible to swim among them in an otherworldly experience. 

But Palau is an isolated place, which can be challenging for some. “It was island fever for me,” says Eli McCann, a Salt Lake City attorney who recently spent a year on Palau working as counsel to the Supreme Court. While he treasures the experience for the island’s beauty, slow pace and the people, it wasn’t always a happy time: Poor Internet service created a heightened sense of isolation, and the food tended to be fatty, fried and starchy, with an almost complete lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

If you’d rather be diving than surfing (on your phone), a flight in from the West Coast via Guam will cost upward of $2,000 round-trip. The resort hotels are nice, with the well-situated Palau Pacific Resort starting at $362 a night. Cheaper and simpler accommodations can be found, including downtown hotels for under $100. 

There’s hiking, and even an aquarium, but don’t bother unless you plan to explore the deep. It’s not for nothing that some people call the Palau reefs the seventh underwater wonder of the world.

Photograph by Reinhard Dirscherl/Getty

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