Our favorite dive trips are the ones that leave us with an abundance of memories: of the rich and varied sea-life down below…the excitement of the dives and the adventures told topside…encounters with the region’s culture…a feeling of warmth, camaraderie and shared experiences with fellow divers, dive masters, boat operators and and tour operators. After diving Palau we came home with a treasure-trove of such memories and experiences. We departed Palau with new friends, respect for the people of Palau, great stories to tell over and over, a new appreciation for sharks (thanks to Palau’s protected shark sanctuary and the many shark advocates we encountered), and many thanks to Sam’s Tours, the “scuba diving and eco-adventure company” with whom we did our dives.
Our choice to dive Palau came out of a lively discussion between two friends on the sales staff from Whites Drysuits. One friend, who had recently returned from Palau said it was the best diving in the world. The other, a world dive traveler himself, argued that diving the beautiful waters of British Columbia was the best. We KNOW diving BC is fantastic and has more life than anything we find in the Caribbean. So we decided that for sake of science, we had to find out for ourselves which was better.
The Palau Islands are an archipelago composed of about 350 islands and atolls located at a cross roads where the Pacific Ocean meets the Philippine Sea. A high current area, this wash of currents, like in the Pacific Northwest, yields nutrients which support abundant and diverse marine life. Over 1,300 species of fish, an abundance of large pelagic animals, and over 700 species of corals make Palau their home. Chosen by National Geographic Society as the “first Underwater Wonder of the World” and featured on Discovery Channels as one of the world’s last living “Edens,” Palau supports the highest number of species as well as a greater density of coral, fish, and other invertebrates not found anywhere else in on Earth.
Our stay in Palau began at the Sea Passion hotel. The Sea Passion was a decent hotel that we deemed “pleasant Taiwanese style accommodations and good value for the money.” A fairly new hotel, the rooms were neat and clean, the bathroom and shower were unbelievably huge and, at the back of the hotel, there was a private lagoon. At night, we could hear a faint “boom, boom, boom” bass beat from a near-by karaoke bar. It did not keep us awake but was a bit annoying when we WERE awake. The meals at the hotel were so so. Breakfast seemed to cater to both American and Asian tastes with somewhat mediocre eggs and hash browns, stir fried vegetables and meat, fried rice, soups, and toast. Lunch and dinner menus varied between seafood, meat and Asian dishes. We were not wowed by any meal there, in fact, often disappointed. The Japanese restaurant in the hotel was also mediocre at best. If you are vegetarian your choices narrow; if you are vegan the choices became a pinprick.
Except for a couple of standouts, the staff at the Sea Passion made us wonder if they were all just well constructed androids. When you came to them with a request, they were pleasant and responded directly, although not always correctly. But they seemed to have no individual personalities and were never proactive. When they told us that all staff live in dormitories on-site, we pictured a Cylon resurrection ship. The night team at the front desk was a pleasant exception. They were two cute and bubbly young women who broke the mood by joking around with each other. Had it not been for those two, we probably would have not remembered any of the staff. Good thing we came to Palau to dive, not lounge around the hotel.
We were able to check out another fine hotel in Palau that we hope to stay at next time we go. The Pacific Royal Resort is pure 5 star luxury. Tucked into 64 acres of lush tropical gardens , PRR accommodations were beautifully appointed, from the garden view rooms to the suites. Another hotel, Pacific Palau Resort came highly recommended, too.
On to Sam’s Tours. It was 20 years ago from 2010 when Sam Scott’s Palauan step father gave him a small boat to start a dive charter business. Sam, originally from Olympia, Washington, moved to Palau when he was 20 to join his Palauan stepfather who had been appointed Paramount High Chief or “Ibedul” under Palau’s system of traditional leadership. Those humble beginnings grew into an award winning dive locale.
When you dive with Sam’s you are feel as if you are joining a grand family. Throughout the South Pacific the social glue of life, politics and business are based on extended family relationships. This culture is evident and infused in the Sam’s Tours business model. Even upon your first arrival at Sam’s you almost feel as if you are being welcomed home to by the group after being away on a long trip. The warm family feeling is evident throughout your stay and continues on after you leave.
Topside, the vibe at Sam’s is one of family friendly warmth. Both pre and post dive you’ll find people hanging around at the outdoor café/bar, Bottom Time Grill, chatting and laughing. In an interview with marketing aficionado Marc Bauman and owner Sam Scott, they each agreed that creating the family atmosphere is a given. They told us how the staff revolves around Sam’s, often coming back on their day off just to be there. Once you leave Sam’s, you’ll feel like you are part of the family. As an example, I found that, at the bar one night, the waitress called me by my name. “How do you know my name?,” I inquired. “Well, you were here last night,” she smiled. I did not remember telling her my name, though and walked away perplexed. How did she know my name? Remembered it from the credit card? Now THAT’S customer service.
Unlike many tropical destinations, nitrox (up to 36%) is free as long as you provide proof of certification. On the boat, they observe a maximum of six (6) divers per guide. When we were there the boats rarely had more than 8 dive customers onboard.
As they offer complementary shuttle service from hotels throughout the region, a friendly van driver came to pick us up every day at around 8:30 am. After the first day our gear remained at Sam’s for the duration, hanging up or in bins on shelves in a huge storage room that was locked at night. Once we were familiar with the Sam’s Tours operation, this meant a leisurely breakfast, a quick van ride or walk over to Sam’s, carrying gear from the storage room to the boat in a relaxed manner, and chatting with fellow divers or staff until the boat left the dock. There was no sense of “rush, rush, hurry, hurry, let’s get to the dive site FAST.” It was island time at its best.
Our daily boat rides from the dock at Sam’s Tours took about 45 – 50 minutes to arrive at the dive sites. Before embarking on our journey to Palau, the thought of such a long boat ride seemed daunting; in truth, the boat rides never got old or boring. The covered boat kept the sun off our faces while we rode through beautiful little coves studded with mushroom-like islands. The boat captains seem to alter the course each day to take us through new passages. It may have been based on tides or weather, but felt like they just wanted to give a new vista. Many of the divers on board became fast friends with us. Hence, the conversation coupled with the surrounding beauty made the boat ride an easy and delightful voyage.
Sam’s also has Nick Martorano and Ocean Wonders Productions on site to provide professional high definition video and photo services. Nick is an internationally-known and multi- awarded High Definition cameraman, filmmaker and digital media producer. Nick offers workshops and videos of the weeks dives are available in the dive shop. You can also hire him to video your dives (see the Martorano video below). Sam’s also offers kayaking and other land tours.
Diving in Palau means diving some of the warmest waters in the world. On our first day, we dropped into beautiful turquoise, crystal-clear 85 degree Fahrenheit water. The 100+ foot vis allowed us to take in the living gardens or coral, the schooling barracudas, jacks and colorful reef fish, and the various critters large and small. Still, at the end of the first day, we were not convinced that Palau diving was any better than British Columbia. Different and better than the Caribbean? Yes! Better than BC? No. On subsequent dives, however, our story began to change. By the time we left, we were blown away.
The dives sites varied from relaxing meanders to more exciting, high voltage current driven sites. Blue Corner, one of our favorite dives is on many lists as one of the top dives in the world. It involved attaching a reef hook (provided by the dive master), which was clipped to our BCs, to a rock near the edge of the “corner.” From this vantage point, we filled our BCs with air and fluttered in the current as a panorama of life glided by. Wahoos, Barracudas, Dog-tooth Tuna, White tips and Grey Reef sharks did lazy swim-bys, some pausing to check us out a few feet away. Scores of colorful reef fish completed the array. Another dive, Ulong Channel, took us through gently sloping walls covered with cabbage coral, bright yellow soft corals, wire & whip coral, bushes of Black coral, and sea fans, while Pyramid Butterfly fish, Square Anthias, Moorish Idols, Sergeant Major’s, Yellowtail Fusiliers, Palette Surgeonfish, Bumphead Parrotfish and other tropical fish swam in and around. Sharks were present here, too, some sleeping in the sand, others cruising the channel. German Channel, another favorite, yielded huge, graceful manta rays, feathertail stingrays and more. Palau diving boasts wrecks, holes, Jellyfish Lake, Chandelier Cave ( a safe cavern dive for all skill levels), sheer walls, thrilling currents…in short, something for every diver’s preference.
While 85% percent of the divers in Palau are from Asian countries, Sam’s does not go after that market. Most of the other dive operators in Palau are battling for their share of that Asian market. Of the remaining 15% of the divers who come to Palau, mostly Europeans, Australians and North Americans, Sam’s gets the lion share. As a result, and since Sam’s is an award winning world class dive operator, they can hand pick the best dive masters and instructors in the world. In our interview, Marc told us that they are very picky about who they accept. Applicants must be experienced and well-qualified. You can thus be assured that you will be diving with competent and accomplished experts when you dive with Sam’s. They also try to employ native Palauan staff as much as possible. Personalities and dive styles differ, of course. The dive masters heading the daily group at Sam’s Tours vary from a more or less hands off approach, giving minimal information topside (sort of like, get ready and get in there to do what you came to do), to those who show you maps of each dive area and give massive information before you splash. In the water they were always alert and observant while pointing out interesting features and critters along the way. The assistant DMs were excellent and helpful on the boat, watchful and attentive while diving.
There is an interesting and marked contrast between the family business model of Sam’s and the hospitality business model we found in other places. It is good example how two models can be very different and still manage to provide five star services. Dive Tech/Cobalt Coast on Grand Cayman is a pinnacle example of a great hospitality business model dive operator. There we loved the consistency and attention to making sure every customer know what to expect. All dive masters drew maps before each dive. We knew the schedule of the trips and what to do on the boat. You could tell that everything was guided by a professional management staff. At Sam’s everything worked and flowed but it seemed more because the staff were all responsible members of the family and they all cared for the customers deeply but in there own unique styles.
The dive masters do check out/assess the divers on the first day. Our recommendation, though, is to make sure you tell Sam’s of your experience and comfort level with strong currents. I am quite experienced with current from diving in the Pacific Northwest. On one dive, though, I was swept up and over a rise in a strong current. Two DMs caught up with me and assisted me in hooking onto a rock to watch the sea-life; I could not imagine being a fresh-off-the-boat beginner and being comfortable with such an encounter.
Aside from this occurrence, which I just added to my “good experience vault,” the overall experience of diving with Sam’s Tours was exceptional. We learned from their topside seminars, we grew from our dive experiences, and we delighted in our new friends. We also loved the freedom of a land based trip. I allowed us to take a day off and explore the unique Palauan up-country areas. We ate at different restaurants, chatted with locals, got outstanding massages, and strolled about. We even took some time to tour one of the live-aboard boats in port. Looking at the close quarters made us appreciate the freedom we had on land.
Diving in Palau truly IS some of the best diving in the world, hands down. While there are many options to choose while diving Palau, from liveaboards such as Ocean Hunter and the Aggressor, to several land based operations, we do not hesitate at putting Sam’s Tours at the top if you choose to embark on a land based dive trip. Besides the service and care mentioned throughout this article, Sam’s offers frequent educational events, from Kid’s Camps to Photography to seminars on sea life. And, while we still contend that diving in British Columbia is world class, we now greatly appreciate and value all that Palau has to offer.