Palau: Into the Shallows

PALAU: INTO THE SHALLOWS

I thought I had come to Palau to scuba dive. I thought I had spent the last 25 hours on four planes to hook into Palau's outer reef, bracing myself against a powerful current to gape at the big stuff in the Big Blue: the sharks, turtles, mantas and Napoleon wrasse that traffic the waters of Micronesia. But here I am, about 500 miles east of the Philippines, 7 degrees north of the equator, peering into a shallow marine lake with nothing more than a mask and snorkel, looking for something only a little bigger than my fingernail. I'm looking for the baby sweetlips.

Yes, a sweetlips. I finally spot the tiny ambercolored fish as it ducks under a rock in 2 feet of water. It whirls its ruffled fins around like a flamenco skirt and clumsily bumps into the coral, looking a bit like a baby bird whose wings don't quite work yet. Eventually it will grow into an elegant, leopard-spotted adult nearly a foot in length. For now, though, I have trouble hiding my surprise that something so small can be so entertaining. My guide, Ron Leidich, is not surprised at all. He's my companion for the day, and ever since the former dive guide met up with me at his outfitter's early this morning, he has made it his mission to dislodge my conviction that the best parts of Palau are seen with scuba gear. According to him, there are coral gardens and fish nurseries so fragile in Palau that you can only see them by snorkeling. I confess my scuba-snobbery, telling him that I always assumed snorkeling was "scuba-lite." Why would you snorkel when you could dive? And how could coral possibly be as interesting as, well, sharks? "See what you think when you see the lakes," he said this morning as we jumped into our kayaks and paddled out into Nikko Bay, at the south end of the country's most populated island, Koror.

Getting to this lake, only accessible at low tide, was a matter of precise timing. Even with the tide out, we had to lie back in our kayaks to squeeze through a dark, narrow limestone tunnel, grabbing onto the low ceiling like horizontal rock climbers and crawling along to propel our boats forward. As we emerged, we entered what looked like a large tropical bathtub ringed with dense foliage, and right away Ron spotted the sweetlips. I haven't even gotten into the water yet, and I'm already convinced I've been missing a lot while looking for the big stuff. Now we're out of our boats, the jade water trembling around our masked faces. Under this lake's surface is a riot of color. Coral is to this lake -- dubbed Disney Lake by Ron, but otherwise it has no offi cial name -- what neon is to the Vegas Strip: almost overpowering and nearly as bright. There are psychedelic brain coral in Day-Glo reds and pinks, phosphorescent-green lettuce coral, tangerine-colored fungus coral that look like anemones, scarlet sea whips and sea fans lazily waving. We soak it all in as we gently kick our feet on the surface, fi nless to keep our disturbance of this old-growth coral forest to a bare minimum. The water is 15 to 20 feet deep, but with coral piled so high, there's actually not much room to swim. I can't imagine bringing a scuba tank into such tight quarters. At several points I suck in my breath and make snow-angel-type strokes in the water to avoid disturbing massive, bright-purple swirling baskets, which are waferthin and can grow here to 4 feet across. I could float around here like a human lily pad for hours -- days, even. The limestone walls give this place the quiet majesty of a Florentine cathedral, and aside from some fluttering of fruit bats, it's just me and my even, snorkeled breathing. "After years of sneaking guests through the tunnel," Ron whispers, his low voice echoing, "I noticed everyone said, 'This is better than Disneyland!'" But these aren't manufactured thrills; this is all real.

We crawl back through the tunnel and then paddle out into the mostly enclosed bay, past several of Palau's famed Rock Islands. The mushroom-shaped islets look like pegs ham mered into the sea, bearded with jungle flora on top and stripped to limestone below, the result of tectonic shifts, ancient volcanic eruptions and four ice ages. Many of the islands are dimpled in the middle, allowing seawater to flow through porous stone, forming lakes like the one we just left. When I squint my eyes, the water and trees blur into one shade of sparkling green. A trip with Ron, who has a degree in organismal zoology from Oregon State and who has lived in Palau for 14 years, isn't so much about the kayaking; it's about discovering the hidden natural wonders of Palau. The kayak is just the most unobtrusive vessel for getting to those wonders. Our paddling is easy, meditative. We stop periodically to investigate caves, to vault off island ledges that make natural diving platforms, and to explore one of 14 Japanese World War II bunkers that dot the islands of the bay. Aside from these detours, I spend most of the day in several lakes and coves with my face in the water. Above the surface, I listen to the spectral echoes of the Palau bush-warbler's throaty, two-toned whistle and follow Ron as he glides over the reef like one of the islands' elusive saltwater crocodiles. He exudes an almost parental pride as he explains the coral biology. At the end of his outstretched finger is always something I would have passed by: a baby eight-banded butterflyfish nudging a young oval butterflyfish; a bubble coral that looks like a giant egg sac; a showy featherduster worm. He introduces me to Lonely Joe, the singular clown fish living in the only anemone in one lake.

Ron free dives down 15 feet and picks up a neon-blue giant clam to show me Zooxanthellae, the algae that gives these clams and corals their color. I come to understand that the story of these gardens is one of constant flux. This is the meeting point of biological history: The tiny animals here will one day make their way to Palau's outer reefs, where they will no doubt impress divers like me. Exploring this realm means not just using a different method -- snorkel versus tank -- but a different process of seeing. When Ron and I climb back into our boats and paddle back to Koror, I leave appreciating the intricacies of a new underwater world, one I discovered using the power of my own breath.