Feb 11, 2009


PALAU, Micronesia – Saki wears pink fins and carries a Hello Kitty slate. Her thick, waist-length pigtails swirl in the sea: sea urchin black at the roots, butterfly-fish blonde at the tips. This Carp Island Resort guide is tough and smart and funny. In fact, she one of the most amazing female divers I've met.

But, well, she is a team player from the land of bullet trains with professional packers. And I have some atavistic pioneer gene: bristly and independent as only a New World mutt can manage. The wagons should be circled only at last resort.

Strangely I understand Saki's "herd" impulse, even as I push back against it. I mountain-guided several summers high above tree line in the Cascades and Olympics. I quit after I had to Scotch-guard someone's armpit, because she was too lazy or fool to take off her own jacket for waterproofing. My onboard system is just not rigged for that much babysitting.

Saki's is, bless her. Once she even holds my hand to keep me right next to the safety sausage, as everyone's tanks rattle like ice cubes in a cocktail shaker.

The first time she gets distracted, I bolt, of course. And then, only then, does diving in Palau click for me.

About 50 feet from the group, I nose among old-growth coral, rocketing close to the reef, then swerving out to barrel roll like a manta ray. I can move and move I do, finally without risk of an amateur photographer kicking out my reg or sitting on my head. Even after Saki rounds us all up, finning towards the Blue Corner, the grace continues. Minutely adjusting my breath, I soar up the wall, anchor my reef hook, then let the current pivot me into position. I hang over the vertiginous ledge, staring out towards the Philippine Sea. And there I hang, head whiplashing to take in all the early morning shark action. Black tips, white tips, grey reefers: they muscle past in great sweeps, sometimes framed by a quiver of barracuda.

The sensation of being watched suddenly flares my nerves. I peek over my left shoulder, expecting a fresh throng of inflator-ignorant divers sprawled on the coral. Instead I spot a seven-foot Napoleon closing in, the wrasse's huge humphead and trippy acid-test patterns evoking the Magic Bus. The fish drifts closer and closer, its golf-ball-sized eye boring into my gumball baby blues. Just before impact, it veers. I sigh and stretch my tensed neck muscles. That's when I realize two black-tip sharks are lounging nearby, overbites almost on my shoulder, like thin-mustached, high-school burnouts outside a 7-11.

It all just … flows. And this, I realize, is the story I travelled here to find. Why Palau has so many strange ebbs of fate and beauty, such a close connection to "the zone".

I surface and, much to my surprise, Saki grins. "That was some good diving," she notes.

On this, at last, we agree.


  1. Hi,
    I recently traveled to Palau with my husband and 2 of our children to visit family. I think I saw you there...weird?! We tended to notice fellow "American-looking" travelers. I love your posts. They truly capture the impression I have of Palau especially the intermingled beauty and history.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Amanda. I know what you mean about spotting visitors in Palau: I felt VERY pale and conspicuous in such a small nation!

    I read some of your blog about hosting a Colombian orphan last summer – great stuff.

  3. Hi,Amanda !!!
    How are you doing!?

    I am so glad when I find out This page.
    I remember we enjyoyed diving together.
    It was so nice diving at Blue corner.

    I hope you come back to palau someday.
    Nice to see you again at here.

    Please keep in touch!!!


  4. I met Saki last year in Palau and became friends. I could not agree more about Saki, she is one of the best dive guides I have seen anywhere. I have been diving for 27 years and have seen a few. I was fortunate to dive with her on some dives recently and some that were only for an experienced diver. She really is that good.

    Though I was a little confused by your post, you said some very nice things about Saki,which are al true, but was it you just didn't like be guided ? Is that what you couldn't agree on ?

    I am a fairly avid user of the english language, being an American and all, and I even had a hard time understanding your cryptic message quote "But, well, she is a team player from the land of bullet trains with professional packers. And I have some atavistic pioneer gene: bristly and independent as only a New World mutt can manage. The wagons should be circled only at last resort." what the hell are you talking about ?

    Is it that you don't appreciate the fact that a very experienced dive guide is trying to keep people in line and together on a spot in Palau that is rated for advanced divers? I find it hard to believe that the only thing you could agree on was that it was some good diving ? So you couldn't agree on safety ? hmmm. That tends to make me think you are one of those typical loud american travelers with the " I
    know how to do this I don't need anybody telling me what to do attitudes" the same one that makes people around the world hate
    Americans and the kind of attitude that gets people killed when diving. Of course when people get hurt diving, who gets blamed, the dive guide. I think your post needed a disclaimer, who do we blame when a diver breaks away from the dive guide ? Oh I read it online, Amanda says it is OK, because I have the pioneer spirit gene that has been repressed for several generations too. I am really disappointed with your two faced and backhanded compliments to Saki, are you sure this was fair and balanced ? May be you work for the FOX network too, just curious.


  5. Saki, hi! Hope to see you again soon!

    Todd, sorry to see you upset – polemically so – by observations on cultural differences. I meant no insult to Saki by noting that Japanese divers often stick closer together than North American ones. That's a well-known phenomenon above and below water.

    The rest of your comments are flames and, frankly, don't deserve any reaction.

  6. Amanda

    Your generalities and sterotyping of the Japanese and their divers is ridiculous, on so many levels. I know plenty of japense divers that have an independent pioneer spirit that you seem to think is exclusivily in America.. Do you really believe this effluent you write ?

    So me commenting on your lack of safety is flames, I find that very interesting. Your advocating leaving your dive guide and this should be commended ? Someone needs to comment on someone like you, your just giving bad advice. You over romantisize the fact you have to break away with your independent spirit and that is the only way you could have reached nirvana and enjoy the diving in Palau, give me a break. I think dive centers around the world should be warned about your diving and creative writing skills.


  7. I'm done with this conversation, which is juvenile. In the spirit of editorial open-mindedness, I'll let your comments remain, however.

    Hope you find something better to do with your time than be a troll, dude.