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Sunday, October 1, 2006

Scouting Report: Palau

Unexpected and off beat visions of this South Pacific paradise

Most visitors stay on the island of Koror, where the government and all the shops, restaurants and hotels are located.

Photo ops right there include a beautiful Bai house, a traditional longhouse nestled among the palm trees, located on the grounds of the Belau National Museum.

Tropical sunlight can be harsh, especially when you have patches of shadow areas in the composition. It's best to wait for some cloud cover or an overcast day to shoot these structures. The lowered contrast allows the bright colors to saturate nicely on film or digital chip while retaining detail everywhere. A wide-angle 24mm (in 35mm format) is perfect, and the morning light is best.

Palau's most photogenic attraction, though, are the hundreds of rounded, coralline limestone outcroppings known as the Rock Islands. These amazing atolls, which look like green, moss-covered mushroom caps scattered over crystal-clear, blue-green waters, lay offshore a few miles from Koror. There are spectacular beaches, fabulous dive sites, waterfalls and inland lakes with unique sea life—a veritable aquatic wonderland.

The Rock Islands are so rich in subject matter that you should plan on visiting them several ways in several different conveyances. My first visit was on a boat tour that took in several great snorkeling spots, some Robinson Crusoe-like sandy atolls with powdery beaches and great scenic views from the water. I found that a wide-angle lens—in this case, a 12-24mm on my Nikon D200—was perfect for these views, and the Singh/Ray LB Warming Polarizer gave me great saturation with minimal light loss.

I also used a housed Nikon D70s for some over/under shots of snorkelers among the Rock Islands. Although I prefer to shoot most landscapes in the early morning or late afternoon, whenever I'm around tropical islands and water, I find that the midday light penetrates the water best when the sun is high. As long as you use your polarizer to cut reflections and glare, you'll get those rich greens and blues.

Midday is the perfect time to visit Mecherchar Island, the home of the famous Jellyfish Lake. This interior lagoon is home to millions of golden Mastigias jellyfish, or so-called stingless jellyfish. Trapped in the lake, they evolved from a predatory stinging type of jellyfish to one that has a symbiotic relationship with algae.

After a steep climb up and over the ridge, you can snorkel out to the center of the lake, where you'll be surrounded by the ethereal creatures. Go slowly, as they're fragile, and a quick kick of a foot or fin can harm them. You'll feel like you're floating through a solar system of soft planets, and the sensation as they brush against you is eerie at first. Fight the tendency to panic by concentrating on your photography.

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