Swiss-born Thomas and Australian native, Natalia, met, married, and lived in the Republic of Palau for more than three years. Their combined skills as divemasters and underwater videographers and photographers make them ideal leaders on many Zegrahm expeditions.
How did you come to work and live in the remote islands of Palau?
I first came to Palau as a dive instructor. When I stepped ashore for the first time I was met at the dock by the local agent, Esther, who immediately took me into her family and introduced me to the island customs. When I returned from my first stint out on the live-aboard dive ship the entire family was waiting on the dock (dozens of people!). I was their adopted son and they took this very seriously.
When Natalia and I met (she arrived on holiday), she was embraced by the family as well, and when we became engaged the women gave her bead money—an heirloom passed down through the generations of Palauan women, and a great honor. Most visitors don't know that Palau is a matriarchal society and that women wield a high degree of power, particularly in the family. We were married on the island and, as members of Esther's family, became an integrated part of the community. To us it was home in the best sense of the word and we loved being able to work in the water and live in paradise.
Palau is renowned for its underwater wonders. What are the other top draws to this remote corner of the world?
Topping a long list is the stunning beauty of the islands, especially the Rock Islands—the dazzling lush green against the blue waters far surpasses even the best photographs. A kayaking trip through the crystal-clear channels around these isles is simply magical. The limestone absorbs all the noise so you hear only the dip of the paddle and incredible bird songs. There are eight endemics here, including the stunning national bird, the biib, or Palauan fruit dove. Also, the snorkel experience in Jellyfish Lake...you can't even imagine what it's like moving through millions and millions of these graceful creatures which have evolved from hunters into stingless farmers.
Why is the underwater scene here so different from other parts of the Pacific? And why so much diversity among the species?
Palau was formed when two continental plates, the Pacific and Philippine, met, thrusting a huge volcano above the surface. In this uplifting, the old reef systems came with it and new reefs formed around it. A second major push exposed all the limestone, or corals, above the water which became the Rock Islands. The whole circle of life plays out here in some very unique ways. Huge drop-offs around the reefs mean major currents which bring the big fish in to feed on the little fish that, in turn, feed on the nutrients coming through on the tides. And the sheltered lagoons are a snorkeler's paradise—delicate, pristine corals and hundreds of species of small, colorful fish.
What advice would you offer to travelers interested in photography?
This is wide-angle photography at its best, both for landscapes and for the scenes underwater. There are beautiful walks and incredible snorkels and dives so we recommend bringing lots of memory. Macro photographers really enjoy the elegant smaller creatures in the fold of the corals, like shrimp, nudibranchs, and tiny mandarin fish. And snorkelers are rewarded with incredibly photogenic corals and teeming schools of fish. Also, the sunsets here are probably the best in the world because of the magnificent cloud formations.
The island nation of Yap is considered culturally authentic, and the underwater scene here is also unique. What are the highlights?
Due to relatively few visitors, the traditional culture of Yap is still intact. On the smaller islands the village women are bare-breasted and wear very colorful dyed grass skirts and the predominant crafts are basketry and weaving. The history of Yap's stone money is amazing and at the money banks you'll see it lined up by size. Our favorite underwater spot is the M'il Channel where you almost always see manta rays. Our boat ties off there and you can hold on to the rope and watch the rays as they come in to the cleaning stations.
There are dozens of world-famous dive sites around Palau and Yap. Which do you think are the best?
There are many reasons why Palau is one of the Underwater Wonders of the World! First, there's the number of sites concentrated in a relatively small region. And secondly, it's the variety that you find nowhere else: wreck dives, wall diving, caves with spectacular limestone formations, channels where manta rays often swim. The number and variety of big fish here is a prime factor; sharks, barracuda, tuna, jacks, and dog fish—amazing sights. Ulong Island, with its beautiful beach and deep channel, is perfect for a drift snorkel and dive. For us, Blue Corner, with its long, elbow-shaped wall, is number one. We hook divers on with a rope so they can just watch the amazing big fish show in the high voltage current at the edge of the reef. I can't think of anything anywhere else that compares!