Author Jacqueline Detwiler Photography Whitney Tressel
DAY TWO | The local fruit is ambrosial, but if you’re going to be chasing ocean predators all day, you’ll need something a little heartier for breakfast. On your way to dive operator Sam’s Tours, you stop at Blue House Market to pick up a few tama, which are a bit like condensed, sweetened balls of funnel cake.
Nibbling at the confections to keep them from burning your mouth (they’re fresh from the fryer), you board a boat filled with sightseers chattering excitedly about their piscine wish lists. After some thought, you decide that in addition to a shark, you’ll look for a giant clam of the sort you ate yesterday. Clams can’t swim, you think. How hard could it be?
Your first stop underwater is a shallow, sandy reef called Fairyland, which is clamless but ethereal and serene. Light-colored corals conceal cuttlefish; oddly graceful hawksbill turtles drift around you. A blacktip shark slides by, glowering. You back away instinctively, but it’s too busy to be concerned with you as it surveys its domain. Scattering smaller fish with its approach, the blacktip possesses the majesty of a lion. You emerge from the water invigorated to have seen it.
At your next stop, the coral garden at the end of German Channel, you pop your face into the water with a “mwooogh” (which is what “wow” sounds like through a snorkel). Snorkeling here is like swimming in the aquarium of a particularly ritzy dentist’s office: Phalanxes of triggerfish, parrotfish and Moorish idols navigate a field of vibrant corals studded with teal-mouthed clams the size of love seats. You free-dive until you’re inches away from one of the things, with its pursed lips and nacreous stripes. It spits in your face. Mwooogh, indeed.
After polishing off a quick coastal lunch of roast chicken, salad and rice, you head to the center of one of the Rock Islands to check out Jellyfish Lake, which is famous for being chockablock with golden jellyfish. Having spent eons in an environment with no natural predators, the jellyfish have lost their ability to sting—something that you only really believe once you’ve swum into a horde of thousands. As you gingerly tread water, the jellyfish bouncing off your body like slippery little hacky sacks, the scene you take in through your goggles is very much like something from outer space.
Finally, you visit Milky Way Lagoon, whose bottom consists of white mud so good for the skin that it’s harvested for use in Japanese beauty products. Hopping off the boat, you cover your body with the stuff. Once it dries and you start to look like a powdered doughnut, you snap a few pictures, wash it off and admire the results, feeling only slightly less pampered than you did after yesterday’s spa treatment.
Back at the resort, you shower, change and take a taxi to The Taj. Overseen by amicable Kerala, India native Robert Scaria, it’s been highly recommended to you by several of your boatmates. Soon you’re surrounded by metal bowls of aloo gobi (spiced cauliflower and potatoes), vegetable-studded rice and lamb vindaloo, plus a hefty glass of Australian chardonnay. The way you see it, any calorific excess here is canceled out by your swimming. In fact, this may be the first vacation ever where you’ve actually lost weight.
For a nightcap, you join a few of your fellow divers at Drop Off Bar & Grill, an open-air jam bar that resembles nothing so much as a beachfront porch. It was built during the taping of “Survivor: Palau” in 2004, for crew members who wanted to take it a little easier than the cast. Looking across at the island where the reality show was shot, you raise a frozen daiquiri to those silly enough to rough it in a place this perfect.