Palau is a small island nation surrounded by shallow coral reefs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It sits about 500 km northeast of North Sulawesi and 500 km east of the Philippines. It’s remote! This remoteness, however, works to our benefit as snorkelers because the shallow coral reefs are in fantastic condition, they are abundant, as are the fish. While reefs border the entire country of Palau, we tend to concentrate our time in the south, around the Rock Islands and even further south towards Peleliu as that’s where we have the most protection from wind and waves, not to mention that’s where the best reefs are and the marine life is most abundant. There are only a few flight options for arriving into Palau. Some of the most popular and recommended routes from U.S. are either through Guam via Hawaii or Japan, or via Taipei which has a direct route into Palau several times a week. If you’re looking for flights you’ll likely see some convenient-looking routes through the Philippines. As convenient as these itineraries look, we’d advise against them as the airports in the Philippines are notorious for delayed or canceled flights, and many of the airlines that route through the Philippines are some of the least reputable ones out there.

Palau is quite a small place, with one main town called Koror. There is one Airport which is about 20 minutes outside of town. The nicer ocean-view resorts are about five to ten minutes from town and border the marina. This is generally where we’ll spend our time on land as it’s where the nicer resorts and restaurants are, it’s also the hub for all of our snorkeling activities.

Snorkeling

While Palau sits just outside the Coral Triangle, it still shares the bulk of the abundance and diversity that the Coral Triangle is known for. Around the Rock Islands you can experience a whole variety of snorkeling sites, from thrilling channels, shallow atolls, sea grass beds mixed with hard corals, inner lagoons, fringing reefs and ridges, and even marine lakes.

As you move south from the Rock Islands towards Peleliu there’s a noticeable change in the topography. Instead of being surrounded by the lush green limestone islands you’ll find far fewer islands and you’ll likely notice that the boat is either cruising over a very shallow plateau or deep blue water. Down here you’re right on the edge of a very steep shelf where the reef goes from just beneath the surface to well beyond 1,000 meters over a very short distance. This abrupt topographic feature stimulates a change in both the types of marine creatures you’re likely to see as well as the types of reefs. Regardless of where you’re snorkeling though, all of these different sites are completely covered in a stunning array of corals. Unless of course, you’re in one of the marine lakes, in which case it’s a competently different story, which I’ll address shortly.

The sites more exposed to the open ocean will offer you a more tropical coral reef experience with clear blue water, vast hard coral plateaus & slopes, and plenty of those colorful reef fish that we all like so much. On these outer reefs you can also expect a bit more current. Nothing significant, just a gentle push from behind as you casually float over the stunning reefs. That being said, if you are on one of the channels or ridges the current can be quite strong depending on the moon phase. We only snorkel the ridges and channels at certain times—when the current is more amenable basically—to ensure we have the most comfortable experience possible.

The inner lagoons and reefs are a very different story when compared to the outer reefs. As these areas are very well protected from the wind and currents the water is typically like glass even on the windiest days. The water is still clear, just not as clear as the outer reefs. While the coral does tend to be mostly of the hard variety, it’s very different than the outer reefs—more colorful in fact—with lots of burnt reds and oranges. Along the limestone walls near the surface you’ll find colonies of tunicates, vibrant sponges, and pretty patches of algae. 

Marine Lakes

Palau is unique in that it has a number of marine lakes around the Rock Islands, some of which we can access either by a short hike in the case of the Jellyfish Lake, or via a shallow swim-through we can pass through at lower tides. The water in the marine lakes is brackish so you can expect a completely different ecosystem when compared to any of the other types of reefs around Palau. Each marine lake will have its own ecosystem depending on how much access it has to the sea.

For example, the marine lake we visit that has a decent-sized swim-through—while still very different—will have more in common with your inner lagoons as the passage allows for some water movement in and out of the marine lake, bringing in corals and different fish species. A marine lake that’s completely cut off from the ocean—aside from the infusion of saltwater through the porous limestone—offers us a very different experience as the species of coral and fish that live in these types of lakes will be more or less unique to these that particular marine lake. 

Jellyfish Lake is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. In this magical lake, you’ll see some fish, but mostly strange little blennies, gobies, and some cardinal fish. You’ll also notice that there is very little coral and that the sides of the lake are covered in beautiful algae, sponges, and many little white anemones. These anemones are actually the predators of the jellyfish that live in the lake! Of course, you’ll also notice—depending on the stage of the bloom, anywhere from a few dozen to several million STINGLESS golden jellyfish!

 

Marine Life

The abundance of marine life in Palau is quite astonishing, even when compared to places in Indonesia. The marine life you are likely to encounter will very much depend on what type of site you are on. For example, in the area where there’s a mixture of reef and seagrass, you’re likely to encounter a number of different types of nudibranchs, cowries, and juvenile reef fish like sweetlips and angel fish. Maybe even a turtle or two. If you are super lucky you might get a passing dugong!

On the sloping reefs, you can expect Napoleon wrasses, bumphead parrot fish, schools of fusileers, the occasional turtle, as well as all your staple tropical reef fish like sweet lips, snappers, anemone fish, and a bunch of different types of butterfly fish. The same goes for your channels, ridges, and open ocean plateaus, only out here you’re more likely to encounter some of the bigger creatures like reef sharks, large schools of pyramid butterfly fish, more turtles, more napoleons, more big parrot fish, groupers, and if you’re lucky one or several mantas feeding or cleaning.

With regards the the inner reefs and the marine lakes that have an opening to the sea, you’ll notice that there won’t be that cacophony of fish dancing on the reef or in the blue. There tend to be fewer fish, and they tend to be smaller, but no less cool or interesting! Pajama cardinalfish, nudibranchs, pipefish, a whole host of juvenile reef fish, strange blennies, and even Mandarin fish can all be found residing in the protected waters of the inner lagoons and marine lakes.

mandarin fish

Likely Marin Life Encounters

Surprise Marine Life Encounters

Palau Snorkeling Season

Palau can be snorkeled year-round, but the best time for us to snorkel is during the dryer season from October to May. Water temps around this time of year will generally be around 81-86°F (27-30°C). Very little changes with the marine life from an annual perspective and everything from mantas, sharks, and turtles, to all the beautiful reef fish, can be more or less expected (expected does not mean guaranteed in nature) on a typical Palau snorkeling safari.

Snorkeling Holiday Examples

At the moment we are running only one Palau snorkeling safari each year. The first five days of this safari are resort-based where we stay in one of the nice big hotels right down by the marina. We depart each morning around 8:30 by a large private snorkel boat for our first morning snorkel, followed by lunch on a beautiful beach or in a tranquil lagoon, after which we’ll enjoy our second snorkel of the day before heading back to the resort. We tend to arrive back at the resort around three in the afternoon. After a bit of down time we meet for dinner at one of the fantastic seaside restaurants nearby.

The last week of the trip is spent on an outstanding liveaboard which we’ve chartered exclusively for us snorkelers. Each morning after breakfast we’ll head out on the liveaboard’s large speedboat and partake in two morning snorkels at different sites. The time in between the morning snorkels is spent on the spacious speedboat with freshly baked snacks, fruits, and hot or cold drinks. After the second snorkel, we’ll head back to the main boat for lunch, a little siesta, and then back in again for the afternoon snorkel. On some days we may do one morning snorkel, one afternoon snorkel, followed by a night snorkel.

About Author

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Alex Lindbloom
Alex is a Snorkel Venture and Dive Safari Asia guide as well as the video and photo pros for both companies. Alex is also a field editor for a popular underwater photography magazine. Prior to joining Snorkel Venture in 2018 Alex lived and worked all over the world working as an underwater cameraman, with five of those years living/working on a yacht in Indonesia. Alex's images and videos have garnered many international awards such as Underwater Photographer of the Year and can be seen on NatGeo, Discovery Channel, the UN Building, and various magazines.