Exploring the Rock Islands: Milky Way and Einstein’s Gardens

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The tents were spread out along the sweeping sandy beach that looked out onto calm, turquoise water protected by reef to the left which was home to WWII Japanese Zero airplane. A young 19 year old pilot safely landed it on the reef as opposed to crashing the plane Kamikaze style, as they were taught.

The staff had a nice tin roof shelter supported with Kelly green painted wood for cooking and storing our supplies. A few large picnic tables were scattered about the beach and the bathrooms were built up on large cement bases. The Survivor Island contestants were living right compared to our first camp.

Torrential rains blew in right at departure time so we waited a little while before leaving on our paddle. Once the rain slowed to a drizzle, we loaded our kayaks and paddled in “rougher” seas to a channel called the Milky Way. The bottom of the channel is almost a soft clay like substance that is used in beauty treatments. Jayden dove to the bottom multiple times and filled up a plastic pan with the mud so we could all rub it on our bodies. Not everyone in our group were willing participants, but Bruce now has a wrinkle free shin, Sonja and Karen have smoother faces, and I should have a youthful front-side!

We just beat the tourist boats to the Milky Way. As we paddled out the back side of the channel and across the open water, one boat was on its way in. I’m glad we had the place to ourselves. It was so tranquil. From the Milky Way we continued on to Einstein’s Gardens for a snorkel, but not before we stopped to check out a pitcher plant which eats insects by trapping its prey in a deep cavity filled with liquid. We snorkeled Einstein’s Coral Garden and Newton’s Wall. The tide was high and the water was a bit murky and cold in places where the marine lake water filtered in with the bay through the pores of the limestone. It was not the best for picture taking, though we did see some amazing coral and even a turtle.

After our snorkel, we paddled through the inner lagoons, between some Rock Islands and then rode some breakers into a small beach for lunch where we saw an old megapode nest. It looks like a large pile of leaves. There was also a small lagoon at this resting spot, though we didn’t do much venturing. We sat on our kayaks under the protection of a tree and tried to stay out of the rain which was relentless.

After lunch, we paddled back out across the waves for a brief minute before cutting between the Rock Islands into the protected coves, though we did contend with the wind quite frequently today. We were supposed to snorkel the other side of the reef we were on this morning, Darwin’s Coral Wall, but without the sunlight, the group made an executive decision to keep paddling toward camp; of course, not without detouring through another tunnel into another marine lake. This time we did the kayak limbo into Secret Lake. We paddled around, saw a few jellyfish…bigger than the ones in Disney Lake…dipped our hands in the water and determined it was way too cold to snorkel…and kayak limboed back out.

We had a pretty long paddle against the wind back to camp, and we were all ready to sit in the dining tent just to dry off. Everyone in the group cleaned up except me. I figured the sun shower couldn’t be too warm, since the sun hadn’t been out yet today, and if the sun did come out there was a chance we could go snorkeling again. I knew if I cleaned up like everyone else, I wouldn’t want to go.

Lucky for me, it cleared up, so Bax the boat captain took me and Jayden back to Einstein’s Gardens. This time we snorkeled Darwin’s Coral Wall and later we snorkeled Einstein’s Coral Garden and Newton’s Wall again. It was incredible! I’ve noticed the fish are very shy in certain areas because they are hunted by spear fishermen, rightfully so, as the Palauns live off the ocean. Having said that, other reefs are protected, but it is amazing to see the difference and how fast the fish swim away and hide. With just Jayden and I, it was much easier to see fish and get pictures. We saw all sorts of creatures…sea cucumbers feeding on a sponge, razor coral feeding on each other, sea squirts which are nearly translucent, pincushion starfish, brain coral of all colors. Some of the brain coral was colonizing so it was pushing a piece out. The piece falls off and starts growing a new colony. The juvenile spadefish with a fluorescent orange stripe leading from its mouth to dorsal fin was breathtaking. As an adult these are silver and black. The Clark’s Anemonefish guarded its home with gusto, always turning its head toward me ready to charge the camera if necessary. The lettuce coral was enormous, probably 500 years old. The Pajama Cardinalfish, yellow in the front and red polka a dot in the back with a black vertical stripe down its center were peppered everywhere in the stag horn coral. Measuring a few inches, they seemed to be bigger than the others we had seen too! The Pennant Bannerfish still alluded my camera…it is a challenge to snorkel and shoot. To really keep the blue shade of the water out of the shot, the fish has to be only a few feet from the camera and with only a 3x zoom that is a whipping while contending with current, choppy surface water, and fish darting around. And on sunny days, forget seeing the fish in the viewfinder, just point the camera toward its location and hope. I took underwater photography while diving for granted…it’s so much easier while floating in a BC! I couldn’t count how many pictures I’ve deleted. Thank goodness digital. The highlight of the snorkel may have been the octopus. They don’t usually come out during the daytime. It was crawling along the coral and sucked itself underneath the ledge and changed from purple to white as it tried to camouflage itself like the sandy bottom. Each time we backed away, it would slowly poke its head out. Jayden would dive down for a photo and about half-way there, the octopus would tuck back under the ledge. I was entertained because I wasn’t bothering with diving down thirty feet for picture! It was turning dusk, and Jayden suggested we swim back to the boat via the middle of the lagoon, not the edges because the crocs come out at night…that got my heart beating fast. The saying, “You only have to run faster than one hiker when you see a bear” was not going to work for me. I was definitely the slowest swimmer between Jayden and me, and would be a tasty dinner to the croc!

Obviously, I’m here to report we made it safely back to camp for, of course, another outstanding meal. Each meal includes a seafood, chicken, and a meat along with rice and a vegetable and a dessert. Of course, we try everything. Despite all this exercise, I bet I’m gaining weight. I’ve been eating like a horse! ETB


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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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