© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

Wow, wow, Palau, Palau!  Everyone has seen a picture on the back of a glossy magazine advertising some far off pristine paradise that looks so perfect it could have only been created with computer graphics or a heavily airbrushed photograph.  A place that looks like heaven on earth, tranquil turqoise waters, gold dust beaches with coconut bearing geometrically perfected palm trees.  Ever thought places like that actually exist?   Well they do and Palau is one of the best and most perfect examples of a place like that.  At least for the time-being.  Sadly, rising oceans levels may have the last word on this little glassless aquarium, off-set slightly from the equator with some 250-300 plus islands of varying shapes and sizes scattered over a 465km area, Palau is heaven on earth.

The mainland island of Koror is where all the land action is.  It’s where you’ll find all the hotels, gift shops, restaurants, dive operators, the shopping mall (yes, just one) and so on.  It’s an island in the middle of nowhere and as such, everything is pretty expensive.  Comparable to Tokyo prices and in many instances, more expensive.  There is really only one luxury hotel on the island of Koror and it has the only beach, which is in fact a man-made one.  Prices at the Palau Pacific Resort (PPR) start at around 400$ per night.  Needless to say, we crossed that one off the list pretty soon and opted for more of a ‘dive base’ since that was all we were going to be doing.  In fact most hotels on Koror are basic, have no restaurants, pools or Internet services!   I know, like caveman times, right?!  How exciting!

It’s all you need.  If you are going to Palau to dive (by the way, there isn’t anything else to do there, just so you know), all you need is a place to eat breakfast and dinner, a bed to sleep in and a massage service.  Pick up time for almost all dive tours is 8am.  You will most likely dive 2 dives in a day, if not 3 and by the time you get back to your hotel after a long day diving, a body full of nitrogen and your brain still bouncing around in your skull as if you were still on that speedboat crashing through the waves on the return journey, about the only thing you can do is lift a fork of edible biological stuff into your mouth, chew and swallow.  All you need then is to be near a restaurant and even if you’re not, most of the medium to upper range restaurants have a pick-up service.  So as long as you can lift a telephone receiver and push whichever button has been assigned to reception, you’re all set!

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Drift Diving Through the German Channel with amongst epic Coral Lettuce.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

Almost every dive in Palau is a drift dive.  There are some caves and wrecks which are not and those are usually reserved as third dives and nearer to the mainland in many cases. I dived the Helmet wreck, a Japanese cargo ship complete with WWII military helmets, gas masks, sake bottles and live depth charges!  Hafa Adai, a small ferry wreck, but not the Zero Fighter, a Navy Type 0 Carrier Fighter or Chandelier Cave.  As they are closer to the mainland and in swallower waters the visibility is usually a lot shorter at around 9 or 10m as apposed to the 29m you’ll get at most of the deeper sites further from the mainland.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Wreck Diving the Hafa Adai

Each days diving destination(s) is decided by two factors – the weather and the divers requests so you never know where you’re heading until the briefing on the boat.  But wherever you end up in Palau, you’re more than likely not going to be disappointed.  The crystal clear waters with incredible 30m+ visibility, 29-30 degree celsius water temperature all year round and large marine life from Leatherback and Green Turtles, Manta, Eagle and Spotted Rays, Sting Rays, Grey, White and Black tip sharks, large schools of Barracuda and Jacks every which way you look, it can be quite a challenge trying to keep up with remembering everything you get to see.  If you’re the type that likes to log everything you see, you will need to take some extra memory classes or have a video camera running constantly to review back to later.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Hump Head wrasse. AKA Napoleon Fish
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Green Sea Turtle
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
White Tip Shark

No doubt about it, Palau is an excellent choice as a dive destination.  One of the best in the world.  The Palauan dive guides and boat captains I met were incredible to dive with.  So much fun and so happy all day, everyday.  Not everyone on the island is full of cheer that’s for sure, but these guys working with this dive operator were like hard-wired happy.  They laughed more amongst themselves in one lunch break than I do in a year.  It was blissfully depressing.  I remember after one particular dive we moored up for lunch in the middle of some incredibly beautiful waters, the sun was shining, we were all a bit tried from the dive, and had just eaten lunch.  I went to the bow and laid down in the sun and closed my eyes.  The Palauan guide and boat captain were talking in Sonsorolese (one of the native languages), and laughing.  As I started to nod off with the gentle rocking of the boat, slowly drifting in and out of consciousness, the warmth of the sun on my face, my muscles completely relaxed and only the sound – two mens voices in a state of complete joy, I had this sudden feeling that I had died and was now in heaven, which is weird because I don’t believe in any of that.

I think for a moment everything disappeared.  Work worries, life back home, stuff I have to do, deadlines, moving, everything got stripped away.  What was left was the moment.  Part of a moment in a routine that had been rotating for the last week.  Eat, sleep, dive.  It was pure bliss and I didn’t want to move or open my eyes and spoil the moment.  But I had to move or I was going to get seriously sunburnt!  Reality can be such a party pooper!  I was dead, in heaven and blissfully happy, Godammit!

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Guide preparing to deploy surface signal

I’ve dived in other countries but Palau threw a switch in my head that of course I never knew was there otherwise I would have thrown it myself; my new found passion for underwater photography.  Palau is full of epic moments and scenes.  The level of epicness is such that it’s too good to just commit to memory and needs to be photographed.  Well, if you’re a photographer you’ll want to take a camera at least.  If you don’t, you’ll only be banging your head against your buddy’s oxygen tank when you surface and get out the boat.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Clown Fish and a rare Red Anemone

For the non-diver, underwater photography might conjure up images of unidentifiable microscopic aquatic critters that look like a piece of rock or maybe a clown fish hiding in anemones, ala Finding Nemo, and therefore perhaps all but impossible to muster any kind of appreciation for them or the photographs that capture them.  Certainly that was my image of underwater photography, but not anymore.

Large wide spaces and sunlight streaming underwater can be a majestic sight to behold.  Hypnotic even.  Whether you’re on the surface looking down into an abyss, at depth looking up at the silvery mirror-like surface or even in the mid-blue where you can’t tell which way is up, light underwater fascinates me.  Blue holes or caves for example can create some incredibly epic scenes and if you throw a diver or large aquatic predator into that composition, you can get some pretty cool stuff.  It’s all the more enchanting simply because it’s not a scene we see everyday.  I’m sure if I was an astronaut in the International Space Station my face would be suction-cupped to a window 24/7 like a cat fish on the side of a fish tank!  It’s like wow – new data stream – must consume!

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Photographing a Green Turtle

I like all kinds of outdoor photography but underwater photography poses some challenges you don’t have on land.  First of all, besides all the training you need to have under your belt to be able to get in the water in the first place, there’s the sheer clunkiness of diving, the inability to use a viewfinder, the lack of natural light and powerful artificial lighting apparatus, limited time, weightlessness, the loss of colour, the skills you need to maintain proper buoyancy and trim, techniques for moving around in caves and wrecks without finning up sediment that will cause your immediate environment to go to zero visibility and so on.  It’s a process within a multitasking process and I think that’s part of the appeal to me.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
School of Jacks

When diving you need to be aware of a few things and constantly monitor them or you’ll have a bad day.  For example, even when recreational diving you need to be aware and monitor your current depth, your no decompression limit (how much time you have before you have to do specialised techniques before resurfacing), your remaining air, local currents and tides, surface weather conditions, your current position and exit point, your buddy, your buoyancy and trim, surrounding marine life and coral and so on.  In tech diving or in a cave or wreck you can add a few more things to tack onto your RAM.  It’s really not a good idea to neglect any one of these so to be able to concentrate on photographing stuff underwater, all those things need to fall into the background, into your unconscious like riding a bicycle so you have enough RAM to actually concentrate on taking pictures!  I read somewhere years ago there are 4 stages to learning:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence (You don’t know that you can’t do it)
  2. Conscious Incompetence (You know you can’t do it)
  3. Conscious Competence (You know you can do it)
  4. Unconscious Competence (You don’t know you can do it)

I am at level 3 in recreational diving so still got a ways to go and add to that photography, it’ll be some time before I’m taking anything remotely like I want to be able to do but it’s always nice to be learning new things, working towards something.

Since I don’t have any great pictures myself to really demonstrate what I am talking about, let me borrow some to show you.

These 2 images that were published by National Geographic are what I’m talking about.  These shots are obviously planned well in advance and probably by a buddy team that regularly visit the site and decided to set up the shots.  The imagery is so epically majestic, they sort of sum up mankind’s urge to explore the unknown, the extent to how far we endeavour to go, how small and insignificant we are and how little we know even about our own planet.  There’s almost a space theme here.

Though I didn’t notice at first, these 2 images seem to have been taken at the same place but at different angles and under different weather conditions.

oderb0y

cave-dive-mexico

I’m pretty sure the above location counts as overhead diving and therefore I would probably need a cave specialty and experience.  A more immediately attainable goal would be taking pictures of Freediver’s for example where the light and the subject are the main elements you work with and could be done any where on sunny day with fairly good visibility.  This image below is to promote PADI’s new Freediver course where you can learn and get certified to dive to 10 meters on one breath.

freediver_cover

In Palau I took my GoPro Hero Silver 4.  I had it set to record video at 30fps and take 12 mega pixel images every 30 seconds.  That was not really good enough however.  Even diving everyday, 3 times a day and constantly recording I got only a few images I like and of course they are 72dpi which means they’re good for the net but that’s about it.  Obviously if you’re going to go to such amazingly beautiful places like this, it’s nice to have a proper camera that does RAW.

Underwater stuff is expensive and that goes for camera housings too but I think you can start out with some of the smaller point n’ shoots like Olympus that don’t break the bank and shoot RAW.  There’s a ton of accessories for these cameras too ranging from marco ring tube strobes, larger, more powerful strobes and so on.  Probably where I will start.  A GoPro is small and convenient but you just can’t squeeze the quality out of it that places like Palau offer and deserve.  Many dive shops offer camera rental too so that is always a great option and if you lose it, I guess they got it covered!

I’m currently training for Rescue Diver certification and that will take me one step away from achieving a SDI Divemaster certification.  Since it’s getting colder here now in Japan, I’ll be training in a dry suit and that’s a great thing to learn because you never know when you’ll end up in the Artic Circle photographing penguins and polar bears!  Seriously though, maybe not polar bears, but it would be cool to go to places like that and see those sorts of creatures in their natural habitat, dive and photograph them!

As a side note, the images I shot you see on this page all on the GoPro look pretty nasty.  I’m not sure what’s happened but I have all my image crunching plug-ins switched off and they look fine after export so I can only assume Word Press is compressing them more than I’d like them to be.  So don’t judge Gopro on these examples!  Apart from colour issues because of a lack of a colour correction filter, the images are sharp with good detail.  Just not really printable.