All images © Alex Mustard

Palau is certainly an exotic location for BSoUPers, primarily because its location – out in the open Pacific Ocean – is a long way from home. But it is certainly worth the air miles with amazing landscapes both above and below the surface, fascinating World War II wrecks, a super abundance of big marine life and a host of iconic dive sites. It is the latter that tends to dominate the experience for the photographer. From our perspective, the photos we want to be taking home don’t tend to be shots of a typical Palau style dive, but instead most images of Palau’s celebrated dive sites – which are all quite different. Blue Corner is an action packed drift packed with marine life; while Chandelier Cave is a shallow, cenote-like limestone cavern; Jellyfish Lake is a surreal snorkel and German Channel is a manta cleaning station. All classic Palau, all completely different. 

That said, there are a few things to expect in Palau. This is the open Pacific Ocean, so the visibility is typically excellent, and the currents can often be very strong. Good visibility means we have the chance to take on larger scenes than normal and the fisheye will be our go to lens. In such clear water, we shouldn’t limit ourselves just to close focus wide angle, but instead take on some big scenes too. Currents bring reefs to life, but, at the same time, make photography a challenge. I’ve run many workshop trips in currenty locations and the main thing I have learned is that photographers are never happy! When the currents run, we moan it is hard work shooting images. When they don’t, we complain that the reefs aren’t alive! My approach is to try and avoid the strongest currents, but otherwise I’ll always take them on. Learn how to hide from the flow in the lee of objects or ride back eddies to get where you want. Also be prepared to swim more, breathe more and have a shorter dive in the right place, then spend longer in the wrong part of the dive site just because the conditions are easy there.

© Alex Mustard: Japanese WWII Jake Seaplane – Nikon D4

© Alex Mustard: Chandelier Cave – Nikon D4

Close to the main islands are many of the wrecks. Most wrecks are Japanese from WWII, that remain reasonably intact, but are not as photogenic as those in Truk. They are well worth diving and shooting, but they should not be the focus of your shoot. I found the Teshio Maru and the Iro tanker to be the most productive. The visibility in these areas is less good than further offshore and therefore it is often worth shooting these large ships without strobes to avoid backscatter. Alternatively because these Second World War wrecks are densely colonized by life, there is the possibility to make the marine life the subject of the photo and let the wreckage form the backdrop.

My favourite wreck in Palau is not a ship, it is the Japanese Aichi E13A-1 or Jake seaplane. There are other plane wrecks, but this one is the most complete, amazingly so after so many years. The Jake seaplane is in shallow water and easy to shoot using a filter and available light. However, despite making a great image, there isn’t enough there to entertain for a full 60 minute dive. On my trips I’ve always asked to do it as a cheeky extra, by finishing our planned dive a bit early and then using the rest of our air to spend 10 minutes or so shooting the plane.

© Alex Mustard: Panorama of Blue Holes – Nikon D4

The other must-do dive close in to Koror is Chandelier Cave, which is a four chambered cavern, with stalactites jabbing down through the surface of the dark waters. An off camera light source is key here, either a remote strobe or a very powerful video light. The best way to shoot the cave is to work as a team of three, with one group shooting, one modeling and one hidden behind the model holding the backlight. Chandelier Cave is very shallow so you will have plenty of time and you can surface (mind your head) to discuss ideas for shots. It is not cenote pretty, but is an enjoyable and productive spot.

Top of the list for many photographers is Palau’s jellyfish lake. Do note that the lake is periodically closed to visitors to allow the population of jellies to recover. Jellyfish Lake is a landlocked piece of the ocean, where the golden jellies have lost their need for a sting. Instead they feed through algae living symbiotically in their tissues, which gives them their golden colour. They swim around the lake on mass, tracking the sunshine like a sundial. There is quite a steep hill to walk over to get to and from the boat, which makes photographers question whether they should carry heavy strobes. My advice is yes and even old BSoUPers should be motivated to make the trek with strobes! I only used strobes for about 20% of my shots in the lake, but it is good to have the option in a place you may only visit once in your life. Lens-wise, this is definitely a fisheye territory.

© Alex Mustard: Lightbulb golden jellyfish – Nikon D4

Far more important than strobes is sunshine, which can’t be guaranteed, but it totally transforms the photographic possibilities. The must-do medusa image is the jellyfish light-bulb. We create this shot by shooting upwards, positioning the jellyfish directly between the camera and the sun. We need to be close enough to the jellyfish so that it is big enough in the frame to completely hide the sun, which then makes the jelly light up from within – like a light-bulb.  The image is completed by the calm surface of the lake, which creates a strong Snell’s window. This is also a spot where the quantity of jellies is the story – so don’t just concentrate on neat individuals and go for the messy mass. It is well worth shooting people swimming through this other-worldly spot.

© Alex Mustard: Exploring jellyfish lake – Nikon D4

© Alex Mustard: A skeleton of a green turtle – Nikon D4

The offshore reefs south west of the mainland are where most of Palau’s iconic sites are found. Blue Corner is the most famous, but with changeable currents it is the most unpredictable.  The best approach here is to switch over from fisheye to a wide angle zoom to give flexibility. There are often lots of grey reef sharks here and a zoom can help us fill the frame with them. The wide angle zoom also suits the many schools of fish lined up in the current. Turtles (green and hawksbill) are common here, especially when the current carries you down the reef in a southerly direction. If you remember just one thing when shooting turtles it is “see a turtle, turn your strobes down”. Turtles have reflective skin and they are always brighter than whatever we were photographing before. So as you stalk into to shooting distance, always take a moment to drop the power of your flashes – it will massively increase your hit-rate.

Perhaps the most exciting dives in Palau are those targeting spawning aggregations which occur on the big corners of the reef, like Shark City or Peleliu Express. The strong tidal currents in Palau mean that many larger reef fish gather for synchronized spawnings and these massive groups can be spectacular, especially the bohar snappers and the bumphead parrotfish. However, getting your timing right is not easy and it is essential to work with local knowledge, such as the guys at Unique Diving, who have done much to research to being in the right place at the right time. Get it right as you have the chance for something truly unforgettable.

© Alex Mustard: Schools of bigeyes and bigeye trevally – Nikon D4

© Alex Mustard: Spawning bohar snappers – Nikon D4

Alex’s Top Tips

1. German Channel is a classic manta cleaning dive and the key as always is to follow exactly the advice of the guides. Mantas can be curious and playful, they can also be easily scared. And experienced guides understand much better how to get close encounters. Do as you are told and you will get closer encounters and better photos.

2. Blue Holes is one of the easier dives in Palau because this huge cavern is protected from the current and any waves. The best shots here are big scenes, ideally shot without strobes with a model giving scale to the scenery. Consider shooting a panorama of stitched images to capture the grandeur.

3. Shooting fish spawning aggregations is tough. The action is fast moving and often hard to reach out in the current. Estimate your shooting distance and practice shooting your buddy to dial in your exposures as you wait. Strobes out wide, ISO bumped up and aperture opened up will all help. You also need some luck, so if in doubt, shoot first, ask questions later!