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Trip Report: Land-based diving from Peleliu and Koror (Palau)

Discussion in 'The Pacific Islands' started by Banyan, May 24, 2010.

  1. Banyan

    Banyan Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: New York, NY
    143
    37
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    I just finished a trip to Palau. I had booked four days diving with MAML Divers in Peleliu, as well as three days diving with Sam's in Koror.

    There are three dive operations based on Peleliu: Day Dream, Peleliu Divers, and MAML. Day Dream caters to an exclusively Japanese clientele and is not an option for divers who can't understand dive briefings made in Japanese. Peleliu Divers is run by the same owners of Dolphin Bay Resort, the upper end accommodation on the island, which caters to English speakers. MAML (the Palauan word for Napoleon Wrasse) seems to be the poor cousin to the two others, and appears to attract an assortment of other nationalities, though Korean and Japanese divers seem to make up the bulk of the high season.

    MAML has a main Koror-based operation as well, but their Peleliu operation is based out of Peleliu North Dock and the dive operation is integrated with Yellow Wall Restaurant, whose cook also provides the boxed lunches for divers. Most people diving with MAML seem to stay at the $67 per night per room Ocean View Hotel next door, though there are several $35 'no aircon, no hot water' places in the village that some divers stay at. MAML and Peleliu Divers have the same rates for diving and I suppose that there's no reason one couldn't stay somewhere besides Dolphin Bay Resort and dive with Peleliu Divers, but I don't know of anyone who actually did that. Most of the days the boat was stationed at Peleliu's South Dock, from which you can get to most of the dives on the south and west wall in about 10 minutes.

    MAML in Peleliu does not provide Nitrox, so all dives are made with air. The rental department is rudimentary at best and I'm not certain includes enough gear to get one diver into the water. Their gear is sized for their normal Asian clientele, and those with larger physiques will likely have to be driven to Peleliu Divers to rent from them. For some reason, they only have two pound weights, so divers who need a large amount of weight will get a densely packed weight belt while those wanting an odd number of pounds are out of luck. I showed up with all my gear expecting nothing more than air, which seems to be typical of their customers, and so had no problems at all.

    The boat we used was rust-stained, with at least two poles for the roof completely rusted through and held down with rope, but certainly served the purpose of getting divers into the water at dive sites. I had arrived in the off season and, for five of my 12 dives I was the only diver, so in effect had a charter with my own boat captain and dive guide. I never had more than three other divers on the boat. I was told that in high season, MAML has four dive guides based out of Peleliu, but when I was there the entire operation consisted of the guy who filled the tanks and ran errands, the cook at Yellow Wall, and the crew for one boat. Bernard, the dive guide, had been working on Peleliu for the past five years, while the boat captain, Henry, was a Peleliu local. Both were extremely competent and experienced and I felt completely comfortable diving with MAML. The one time I felt that a briefing was really lacking when I was not informed of the downcurrents coming off of Peleliu Corner. (To be fair, I had told the dive guide that I was feeling seasick in the big swells and needed to get in the water right away.)

    All in all, I was pleased with my experience with MAML. I showed up expecting a bare bones operations catering to experienced divers who would be carrying their own gear and whose major expectation was to be provided a tank of air and be put into the water on top of a dive site with a knowledgeable guide, and that is exactly what I got. There was no evasion or misinformation about what MAML could provide, and Bernard was perfectly happy to take clients to Peleliu Divers if they needed something their own shop couldn't provide. Many divers will obviously find that diving off Peleliu with MAML isn't to their taste, but they're good at the service they provide.

    When I got back to Koror, one of the divers at Sam's said she had heard rumors that MAML was "a kamikaze dive operation", which I think is entirely unfair. Peleliu Corner, which includes Peleliu Express, Peleliu Cut and Yellow Wall depending on currents, is an advanced dive with currents that were twice as strong as those I experienced at the popular Blue Corner. Similarly many of their Korean and Japanese clients only have three or four days in Palau and do 4 dives a day on air, pushing their no deco limits. The difficulty level of the dives and the decisions of some of their customers doesn't affect my impression of the MAML staff in Peleliu as being very experienced and highly skilled and the gear as being adequate. The operation simply juggled my decision to do three dives with another diver doing two dives and two Korean divers doing four all in the same day on the same boat out of South Dock without comment. It should note that one of the divers with Sam's who did Peleliu Express while I was there was sucked down to 110' after leaving the 60' corner, so it's by no means a MAML issue.

    I had heard so many good things about Sam's that I truly expected my comment on their operation to be "As expected." However, I found their utter lack of organization to be rivaled only by the appalling ineptitude of some of their clients. The first day's lunch, they provided me with a main portion I had specifically said I could not eat when I made my reservation, and subsequently reminded them about. Since the only non-3 tank day I had with Sam's was to include Jellyfish Lake, I had assumed from the fact that the boat only had two tanks per person that this was what was going on. However, Sam's had apparently just lost my itinerary and put me on a plain two-tank dive, which I had not requested at all. (I could have caught this mistake myself if a member of staff had bothered to explain the scheduling board in the main area of Sam's, rather than simply telling me to get on a boat and wait.) In any case, I ended up losing a dive in Palau because of the scheduling snafu. The next day, the third "dive" was Chandelier Cave, which was worth doing once but strikes me a bit of a toy dive (35 minutes with a max depth of ~30' with much of time being a description of the cave in the surface pockets) that would be more appropriately used for a fourth dive following a more challenging real dive. However, because all the boats return to Sam's dock after the second dive, a third dive has to be close by, rather than putting all the divers wanting three dives in one boat and having them stay out at the 'real' dive sites before heading in. In any case, I found that my schedule was still utterly twisted when I returned to the dock the second day and I had to fix it again. I thought it couldn't prove to be any less organized, when Sam's outright forgot to pick up me and two other divers at our hotel on the third morning, so we had to call them after 15 minutes. This wouldn't have been so bad if the two other divers weren't new on island so had to fill out paperwork and rent gear, which delayed the dive boat departure at least 25-30 minutes.

    While some of the people I dove with at Sam's were lovely people and experienced divers, there were also some of the most appalling displays of idiot diving I've ever seen. Of the six 'real' dives I did with Sam's (not including Chandelier Cave), three ended with divers running out their air and needing to use the guide's spare. Let me repeat that: In FIFTY PERCENT of my dives at Sam's, divers got into in OOA situations and had to rely on the dive guide to nanny them back to the surface. The last day was truly epic in that in both dives, the backup guide had to accompany divers who had chugged through their air early AND the dives ended with the main guide, who did truly heroic work, literally dragging buoyant divers who were out of air for ten minutes underwater. I won't even discuss the amount of damage I saw this group do to the coral on the walls. It was literally impossible to enjoy the dives since I kept wondering if I would need to rescue someone else since there was literally nothing the remaining guide could do if another of the incompetents had an actual emergency, rather than being the first to run to the guide's spare reg like an overgrown and spoiled breastfeeding child.

    In between the inept scheduling and incompetent divers, I will certainly not be returning to Sam's and look forward to trying out either Fish and Fins, Neco or maybe a smaller operation on my next trip to Palau. On the other hand, I see no reason not to use MAML Divers again, other than curiosity about what Peleliu Divers might provide.
     
  2. TSandM

    TSandM Missed and loved by many. Rest in Peace

    36,349
    13,594
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    Wow. A fascinating report, and one which I think might give me a much more realistic set of expectations for a trip to Palau than trip brochures :) Thanks for writing this up.
     
  3. robint

    robint Orca

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Albuquerque, NM
    6,539
    1,146
    113
    thanks for the report!
    We did Palau by liveaboard and were lucky enough to get to Peleliu for a whole day of diving. Our briefings included info on those down currents so not one diver had issues, plus we were all (but one stubborn guy) diving 32% nitrox all week, so the 4-5 dives per day were good. I can't imagine diving Palau on air when doing so many dives per day!

    Sad to hear what you said about Sam's, I have always heard good things about them. Several of the divers on the liveaboard with us stayed in Koror for a few extra days and used Sam's or FishNFins, not sure who used which but I am sure that some used one and some used the other, and they all had similar comments about the divers and dive guides - I think part of the problem was we had been so spoiled on the liveaboard. They all agreed that the service was completely different from start to finish between the liveaboard and the land-based ops and that there were more beginners/less competent divers diving land-based. Just something to be aware of...

    robin:D
     
  4. neetshah

    neetshah Guest

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Mumbai, India
    3
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    I'm just about to go to Palau and plan to do 2-3 days of diving in Peleliu and 1-2 days in Koror. So that was an immensely useful post for me!

    I see you mentioned being seasick because of the swells. How bad were the swells? Would you recommend spending less time in Peleliu and more in Koror based on your experience?

    I'm planning to dive with Maml as well, so it was great to hear your feedback on them.

    Thanks again and hoping to hear more :)
     
  5. donnyb

    donnyb Solo Diver

    # of Dives:
    Location: Olympia, WA
    293
    1
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    Wow. Sorry to hear about your experience with Sam's. I just got back from Palau a week ago. Did 2 days with Sam's & then 2 weeks with the Aggressor.

    While I would agree it seemed chaotic in the morning at Sam's, I watched closely & eventually recognized that everything was getting done and things were moving along. We actually were impressed at how well they handled so many customers.

    Our 2 days with them went like clockwork, and the local dive guide was far more experienced (20+yrs) and skilled than our liveaboard guides. He nailed the tide times on every dive, and was able to stagger us so we were not stacked up with the Japanese groups on the same sites.

    I would also agree that Peleliu is advanced diving and not for marginally skilled divers.
    Figuring out buoyancy issues or how to deploy a reef hook should be old news before you dive there.

    You have to be sooo comfortable diving that you can concentrate instead on your surroundings & notice the little clues, like which way your bubbles are going (up or down), which way the small fish are swimming, and which way the soft coral is pointing up ahead. Then you make adjustments, and are prepared to deal with difficult situations as they appear.
     
  6. Banyan

    Banyan Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: New York, NY
    143
    37
    28
    I had heard nothing but glowing reviews as well, which is probably why I just assumed that they knew what they were doing and didn't ask the questions I should have. The number one thing I can recommend for people diving with Sam's is to check the scheduling board both first thing in the morning and after returning to the dock, when the next day's schedule will be up. If you don't understand the board, make an employee explain it. People normally figure it out by on their own by the end of the first day, but that doesn't help if your itinerary is messed up at the beginning of that day.

    One of the other divers at my hotel with whom I was waiting for the pickup stated that when he last dove with Sam's back in February they had forgot to to pick him up and he had held up the departure of the dive boat. It was a funny story when the pick up was three minutes late, but not funny twenty minutes later when the minivan finally arrived after we had the hotel front desk call Sam's to remind them of our existence, and he ended up holding up the boat for two trips in a row.

    I'm willing to entertain the idea that my awful experience may have been atypical, since Sam's was recommended to me by so many people. I can only review the operation based on what I experienced: Sam's reputation for clockwork precision is overrated.

    This is nothing against Sam's boat crews, who I found to totally professional. I am in absolute awe of Shirley, the dive guide, who at a safety stop was able to hold down the buoyant diver who was on her spare reg with her right hand, while holding her SMB line and SPG in her left hand (where I assume she could monitor the flailing diver sucking all her air) and deal with another diver who had assumed a position at the stop with his fins kicking Shirley's face, all while maintaining a rock steady 15 foot depth. I've never seen another diver show that sort of physical toughness, multi-tasking ability and unflappable calm, but Shirley's heroics don't change the fact that Sam's couldn't keep my itinerary straight, repeatedly. And I'd prefer to find an operation that doesn't attract the sort of divers who have to be rescued as a matter of routine.

    More generally, I went to Palau to dive and I found, to my surprise, that Sam's was not set up to cater to people who don't consider two dives to be a full day's work before hitting the bars. This may in part explain why Sam's totally fumbled my itinerary with two 3-tank days. Some of the many operations out of Koror should be able to keep a diver out at the main dive site clusters for three repetitive dives. I imagine the shore-based operations with a significant northeast Asian clientele, who pack a lot of dives into very short trips, would have been a better fit for me. (Though even I can't be convinced that four dives a day on air is a good idea.) Divers who expect to have plenty of time and energy for evening entertainment will likely be more satisfied than I was with the underlying assumptions of how Sam's structures its operation.

    The swells really changed from day to day. The water off of southern tip of Peleliu is open ocean. On the calmest day, it was no worse than within the fringe reef and it wasn't an issue at all. On the worst day, I was probably 60 seconds away from losing my lunch before I jumped in and the swells were large enough that even at 50'-60' on Yellow Walll we were bobbing up and down from the waves going overhead into shore. I never completely lost my nausea that entire dive, during which I spent several minutes not-entirely-casually considering if one could safely vomit into a regulator. On that dive and the next dive at Peleliu Corner, the other diver was so affected by the swells as she ascended that she lost her lunch after inflating her BCD on the surface. I never reached that point but spent a fair amount of surface interval time at South Dock that day splayed out on top of a picnic table trying to convince my inner ear that the earth wasn't swaying. :D After the first day, I imposed on the cook at Yellow Wall Restaurant for a couple slices of fresh ginger root, chewing on which helps my motion sickness.

    One thing that I meant to put in my original post was an irritating issue with tank pressure. The Maml AL80s were filled to only about 2850 psi. Apparently there is an issue with the compressor settings or installation, the nearest qualified technician is on Guam, and Maml hasn't bothered to get that person to Peleliu yet to fix it. So this is 5-15% less air, and bottom time, than what most divers expect. Though my dives with Sam's, which had full AL80s, felt artificially shorter than my dives with Maml since someone else in the group would be sucking up air, while I was no better than average for the other divers at Maml. The air is a reason why I might try Peleliu Divers if I went back, though I'm not sure I'm willing to risk having a less experienced crew and Peleliu Divers seemed to be busier so there'd probably be the same issue of being limited by the least efficient breather in the group that I found at Sam's.

    You can pretty much knock out the main Peleliu dives on the west and south wall in two 3-tank days. Bernard even put us into a dive that doesn't appear on any maps that had the most pristine coral I've ever seen. I did Peleliu Corner twice in the first two days out of South Dock, once from Peleliu Express and once diving directly down in order to get to the point of the Corner to check out the giant trevallies. The third day out of South Dock the three dives were all at repeat sites. Not that I'm unhappy about doing Yellow Wall and Express more than once, especially since the seas were much calmer than before.

    If the boat is moored at North Dock, it takes 40 minutes to sail around the reef to get to the South Dock, unless the tide is high enough to take a shortcut. For first day I was in Peleliu, the boat was at North Dock and I dove Blue Holes, Blue Corner and German Channel to the north. The websites of the Peleliu dive shops make a big deal about how they are closer to these dive sites than the Koror operations, but it really doesn't make a big difference since there will be dive boats at pretty much any site you show up at anyway. While I had nearly absolute control over where the boat was going when I was by myself or could negotiate with one other person, when the two Koreans showed up with a request that the boat be at South Dock to do the Peleliu dives, I basically had to go along because there was only one Maml boat on Peleliu in low season. (Again, I am not complaining about being forced to do amazing dives.) If you could somehow get a guarantee of two days at South Dock and the other days doing the central region dives off North Dock, that would work well if being on a slower paced island is important to you. Otherwise, if you wanted to be certain that you wouldn't be forced into repeating dive sites out of South Dock, you would probably want to move to a larger operation in Koror, where you could switch boats if one was going somewhere you had already been.

    In case you were thinking that you would lose a diving day for travel, I did three dives both the days I arrived on and left Peleliu. If you do the dives early enough on the day you leave, you have time to get to Jellyfish Lake and swim around before it closes at 5. In my case, the Koreans, who were otherwise friendly and competent fellows, ordered an early morning fourth dive and then slept in, putting me so hopelessly behind schedule that I told everyone to forget about the minimum surface intervals we would have needed to observe to get me out of Peleliu in time to see the jellyfish. Fortunately, I already had a second trip to Jellyfish Lake on my schedule with Sam's (though I didn't then know that I would have to talk to four different people over two days to get to them to acknowledge this fact) so wasn't fussed and was just as happy to have a boat ride into Koror during a gorgeous sunset.
     
  7. robint

    robint Orca

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Albuquerque, NM
    6,539
    1,146
    113
    Banyan, I would highly recommend you do a liveaboard your next trip to Palau. I think it would suit your style much better in many ways.
    Check out my trip report here: Palau on the Eco Explorer - Dec 2007

    when you read my report, you will probably understand why I say this. :D

    robin
     
  8. Banyan

    Banyan Divemaster

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: New York, NY
    143
    37
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    Wow, that dive at Peleliu Cut looks amazing! I was all excited at Siaes Corner when about a dozen grey reef sharks harassing a shoal of feed fish on the wall came pretty close to touching distance.

    Someday, I'll have the money saved up for a liveaboard, AND have more than a point and shoot camera... But first I have to do Chuuk and Yap trips. :blinking:
     
  9. Travelnsj

    Travelnsj Solo Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Temecula CA
    1,489
    23
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    Sorry to hear about your experience with Sams. I have dove with them for years and this year they had the best Dive guide staff ever. I understand Russelle who had been there for years that was doing the boat scheduling had left last month. Getting the third dive had always been a problem as most people like the two dive scenario but this year Sams had made a point to get "us" 3 tank dive people on a boat together. Only a couple of days out of 10 did I get a 2 tank dive and then took advantage of the dock Mandarin fish dive. You must have hit Sams on a bad week and they still may be adjusting to Russelle leaving. I am surprised they did not take you out to the Jake Plane or the Helmet wreck for the third dive.
     
  10. manta100

    manta100 Angel Fish

    # of Dives:
    Location: Hawaii
    8
    0
    0
    I have to agree with Travelnsj. Sorry to hear about your experience. I have been diving with Sam's for years, many trips and just returned from a recent one. They have always been nothing short of accommodating to every request and willing to always go above and beyond to make sure our trips went well. They are very busy... I guess when your considered among the best in the world it goes that way. There is a reason why they are busier than all the other shops which is why I was surprised to read your report. But while a bit chaotic in them AM... they always have been on top of everything. They do miss things once in a while (like all of us...lol) but if I let them know... they made the adjustment. All in all it goes smoothly.. all things considered. As for the in water situations...While ultimately it is the divers individual responsibility to monitor their own air it sounds like the staff handled the situation well per your report. While every dive op has those types of divers... seems like you got them all at once on one boat. I always dive 3 dives a day when i am there... never had a problem. Generally we do two outer reef dives and a wreck for the third. I am in the process of planning my next trip there later this year with Sam's. Seams like a string of bad luck with them which is not the norm from all my trips there. Hope you have better luck next trip.
     

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