Before I left for Palau, friends and colleagues prepped me by regaling their stories of this magical world.
I’d heard of people swimming right off the beach and being accompanied by an octopus who swam alongside them, playfully. Others talked about the vibrant corals and the overwhelmingly wonderful people that I would encounter.
What I didn’t realize is how these stories — and even the photos I researched prior — would do nothing to prepare me for what I would actually encounter.
On my first dive, I remember dropping into the warm, blue waters and scanning the ocean floor, amazed at how far I could see. I was convinced that the visibility under the water was greater than above. As far as the eye could see, multi-colored coral stretched before me with fish darting under every fanning formation. As a photographer double-timing as a filmmaker, I was overwhelmed by the opportunities to make great imagery. I didn’t know where to point my lens first.
For over a week, I went on dive after dive, sometimes with SCUBA other times traveling light with only a mask and snorkel, often holding my breath and trying to keep up with the Palauans who had an uncanny ability to hold their breath longer than a song.
In the evening, when all available light was gone, I’d walk the small streets of the capital, Koror, talking to the local restaurant owners, watching a game of basketball at the community center and comparing diving tales with tourists. What I quickly realized was that Palau wasn’t just a paradise for tourists on dive vacations, but also a nation of friendly, warm people eager to share their customs and make you feel like one of them.
On one such occasion, I was invited to a fundraiser for the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC). It felt like a backyard barbecue I would have with friends. Songs, dancing and of course, exquisite local foods adding flavor to the event. I also had the opportunity to meet many of the nations leaders, including members of their congress who were so warm and approachable that a week later while packing bags in my hotel room to return back to the U.S., one of them called me in my hotel to wish me a good trip home and thank me for helping document their country.
Of course all of these moments inspired me but a defining moment was a 45-minute helicopter ride.
I had seen Palau from beneath the waves and inside the local restaurants but after nine days, I had not yet seen it from the air. After convincing two body-builder-shark-diving Australians to split the airfare with me in the 4-seat chopper, we lifted off and set about a tour of the rock islands. It was difficult to hold a camera to my eye — it was unlike anything I had ever seen before, better than any special effects in a movie.
The world beneath our feet was a giant expanse of coral reefs stretching to the horizon in surreal vibrant blues, turquoise and green. By the end of the trip, everyone was silent. The hardcore Australians didn’t speak at all; one had tears running down his face.
We all knew that what we experienced was the perspective of a lifetime and I knew I was honored to have the opportunity to share this place with the world through my lens.
Learn more about The Micronesia Challenge, an ambitious commitment by Micronesian governments to strike a critical balance between the need to use their natural resources today and the need to sustain those resources for future generations.