Slightly over 24 hours of airplanes, Los Angeles to Honolulu to Guam to Truk, made us all cranky and tired. This mood did not last long.
Our group of sixteen divers was, for the most part, from Southern California, with two Nevadans, a Kentukian and a Floridian thrown in for flavor. Two years ago we made our reservations for all of the spots on the Truk Aggressor for a week in January, 2001, and for all the spots on the Palau Aggressor the following week. It's a heck of a lot cheaper to reserve the whole boat than it is to reserve individual spots. With 14 paid, you also get two spots free, which we amortized over the sixteen divers to reduce the cost. With an additional $100 off for back-to-back charters, we saved almost $1,000 per person by traveling in a group. Plus we discovered that live-aboards are more fun when you know everyone on the boat!
The Aggressor folks met us at the airport in the rain and transferred us, our luggage and dive gear to the boat, moored at the fuel dock in Moen. It rained almost everyday we were in Truk with only one day of sunny weather. And this was supposed to be the dry season. The strong winds made for choppy surface conditions, but we were able to do all of the dives and get to all of the wrecks that we wanted to dive because we were afforded some shelter in the lagoon. After a quick briefing on the boat, everyone headed for their cabins and tried to catch up on their sleep. The Truk Aggressor had returned from a major refit in Majuro the month before and everything was new and shiny. They've added a quad cabin on the top deck and now hold a maximum of 18 divers. The TA is a well appointed yacht with lots of wood trim and a nautical feeling. We did not feel crowded, but maybe that was because we all knew each other. The cabins all have ensuite heads that are small, but adequate. Each cabin has a lower queen and an upper single that allow for any desired combination of bunks for two passengers. The dive deck is spacious, with lockers for each diver, ample rinse tanks, and a large camera table. Diving is all done from the mother ship, which is moored near each wreck. When you're ready, you do a giant stride off the back of the boat and then follow the anchor chain down until you see the wreck. Coming back to the boat you can hang on the deco bar for a safety stop which has a low pressure hose and second stage for out-of-air emergencies. The only limitations on divers were they asked us to go no deeper than 130 feet, but no one ever checked any of the computers. All but one of our group dove 32% enriched air nitrox. (unlimited nitrox fills are $100 for the week) The nearest chamber is in Guam! The crew consisted of Captain Niall, a Brit, Tom, a German, and a Chuukese cook, dive masters and deck hands. Tom is a licensed chef who was doubling as a dive instructor/photopro. The crew went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. The Aggressor's motto is "eat, sleep, dive." We tried to live up to the motto. After each dive there were delicious snacks to munch on between meals. The food was served buffet style for each meal and was ample and delicious. The usual fish, chicken, and beef was augmented with breadfruit and regional dishes. They will do their best to accommodate any dietary requests. We had a full blown turkey dinner with all of the trimmings the last night.
I know! I know! What about the diving? Well, the water was a consistent 84 degrees and the visibility was a comfortable 50+ feet. Most of the wrecks are cargo ships that were caught in the Lagoon by the US Navy in February of 1944. On board, are sake and beer bottles, airplane parts, bombs, torpedoes, china, uniforms, and miscellaneous items used by the crews. Either on their side or upright on the sand, the ships are in good shape despite the more than fifty years underwater. While the bottom is usually over 100 feet down, the deck and upper structures are shallower and made for ideal multilevel dives. The cargo holds are wide open and are easy to penetrate. The more adventuresome or wreck certified divers can safely venture into the engine rooms with a dive guide. The upper part of each wreck is covered with soft corals, anemones, tropical fish, invertebrates, and myriad schools of small bait fish. The occasional shark or eagle ray may make its appearance during a dive, with schools of jacks, tuna, and other predators visiting the wreck with the divers. You can treat each dive either as a wreck dive or as a creature dive, or both. Photographers can do both wide angle and macro to their hearts' content. We never saw any other divers on any of the wrecks that we were on. With forty wrecks and a maximum of only about 75 divers when the Aggressor, Nautilus, Thorfin and Blue Lagoon are all full, you won't encounter any crowds here. Most of the wrecks are near to Moen so there is little time lost in traveling from one site to another. On some of the sites we did more than one dive which gave us time to explore all parts of the larger wrecks.
During our week, we dove the Kiyozumi (twice), Rio de Janiero, Sankisan, Unkai, Fujikawa (three dives), Nippo (twice), Betty Bomber, Fumizuki destroyer, Shinkoku (three times), Kensho, Heian (twice), and Yamagiri (twice). My favorites were the Fujikawa and the Shinkoku because they are big, upright, have lot of things to see in the holds, and have the most marine growth and fish life.
Unfortunately, we only got to do five days of diving instead of the normal five and half due to the fact that Continental Air Micronesia doesn't fly out of Truk everyday so we had to leave a day early for Palau. Our plane wasn't until 5:00 pm so the Aggressor van took us to the airport to check in early and then returned us to the boat to wait for the plane, returning to the airport just in time to walk on board.
In order to get to Palau from Truk, you have to go back to Guam to make your connection. In Palau, we reserved rooms at the Palau Pacific Resort for the group and they provided our pickup and transfer to the hotel. The next morning we all went snorkeling on the reef in front of the hotel; very healthy and populated by various butterflyfish, triggerfish, parrotfish, giant clams, pipefish, blennies, etc. The PPR is a five star hotel with beautiful grounds and nice rooms; a nice place to relax before going on to the next week of diving. Late that afternoon the van from the Palau Aggressor picked us up.
The Palau Aggressor was moored at K dock. The crew welcomed us all aboard, showed us to our cabins, gave us a briefing on the boat and fed us dinner. This Aggressor is very different from the Truk Aggressor. It is a huge, three story catamaran. The eight staterooms are on the first level with the dive deck. The cabins are very large by boat standards and contain a large, en suite head and shower. Each cabin has a window, queen and single bunks, individual AC control, and ample storage. The dive deck is spacious and there are lockers for everyone with a large camera table and rinse tanks for the shutter bugs. The dive deck is terminated by a hydraulic lift that cradles a large skiff with room for all 16 divers. Your tanks, weight, etc. stay on the skiff. When it is time to dive, you walk onto the skiff at deck level and slip into your BC. The skiff is then hydraulically lowered into the water and driven to the nearby dive sites. No dive site was more than 10 minutes from the main ship. Entries are back rolls and a ladder is lowered for divers at the end of the dive. Upon returning to the main ship, the skiff is driven onto the lift and brought back to deck level where you simply step off. Really neat! Warm towels were ready for you on the dive deck. Air fills are done with a whip, but for our nitrox fills the crew had to transfer the tanks to the deck and then back on the skiff. (IMHO, a situation that needs to be remedied.) The second deck is the lounge, dining area and kitchen with a bar that can be opened onto a shaded deck area. There is a hot tub but we did not use it. The food was fantastic! Eric, the chef, goes out of his way to make sure that you are happy. We had delicious fish, chicken, lamb, pork and beef dishes. Curries and soups were especially good. The desserts were very tasty and the snacks between dives were too good; I gained five pounds! Eat, sleep, dive. The third deck is a partially shaded sun deck with chair, tables, and hammocks. A great place to idle, read a book or catch some rays.
The crew on the PA consisted of Captain Brian, Instructors/Photopros: Sam, Janice, Sarah, and DM's Ike and Hector. They arethe hardest working people I've ever encountered on a dive boat.
Unlike Truk, where we had rain most days, in Palau the skies were partly cloudy and we only got a couple of brief showers. This enabled us to get to the outer reefs to do the diving that Palau is famous for. We essentially did three types of dives in Palau, drift dives along vertical or slopping walls, high energy reef hook dives on the corners, and a couple of wreck dives. Oh, yes, and a couple of cavern/cave dives. The drift dives were leisurely, "wall on your left" or "wall on your right", depending on the currents. We saw an indescribable number of different tropical fish: many kinds of butterflyfish, unicornfish, fusiliers, white tip reef sharks, gray reef sharks, bump head parrotfish, lionfish Napoleon wrasse, bird wrasse, other wrasse, swirling schools of snappers and barracuda, eels, angelfish, a zillion soldier and squirrelfish, anemonefish, and all of those "did you see that?" fish! We also saw a couple of manta rays, eagle rays, one ornate eagle ray, an octopus (I guess they are rare in Palau because the guides got all excited about finding one), several kinds of nudibranchs, and my first seasnake! The reef hook dives at Blue Corner, Peleliu Corner, New Drop Off and Saies Corner are world famous. You drop in the water and after a brief drift along the wall, you are swept up to the top of the reef in 40/50 fsw and deploy your reef hook to hold you steady in the current. Some currents were of the "turn your head and lose your mask" variety. The attraction on these dives is the shark action. While you are holding on for dear life in the currents, the sharks are sailing effortlessly by giving you the eye. Schools of pyramid butterflyfish are like fall leaves in the wind. Here too are the huge schools of bait fish that come to feed on the incoming currents and attract the top end predators. We made the following dive sites: Lionfish Rock, Big Drop Off, Turtle Cove, Ngebus Coral Garden, Ulong Channel (twice), Blue Corner (twice), Matthew's Wall, Peleliu Corner, Barracks Point, West Wall, Orange Beach, Blue Holes, German Channel, Saies Tunnel, Saies Corner, the wrecks of the Gozan Maru and the Chuyo Maru, and Chandelier Cave.
Dives were limited to: no more than 110 feet, be on the surface by the end of 60 minutes, and no deco diving. No one checked our computers. Tanks were aluminum-80's filled to 3,000+ psi. Fifteen of us dove nitrox ($100 per week for unlimited 32% EAN). Nearly every dive was an hour. I did 21 dives in the five and half days of diving and totaled 21 hours and 19 minutes of bottom time. The water temperature was 83/84 degrees F and visibility was an honest 80-100 feet on most dives.
The last night we all went into Koror for dinner at Kramer's for mangrove crab. The next morning the van dropped us off at the PPR where we snorkeled, ate and rested up for the arduous 24+ hour trip back to Los Angeles.
It was a fantastic trip with my wife and 14 good friends. Save your pennies, get together with your dive friends and book a live aboard together. You will have a wonderful time and great memories that will last you a lifetime. And, at some time in the future, you just have to do Truk and Palau. I would go back in a heartbeat.