Snorkel with manta rays during an expedition cruise to the rock islands of Palau

By | March 30, 2024

Michael Dunker/Getty

Obsession on board is a new series that explores the highlights of the most beloved cruises you can’t miss – from the shore excursions you can book to the spa treatments that are too relaxing to pass up.

As soon as my head dips under the warm water of Indonesia’s Bunaken National Marine Park, I hear a mysterious ticking, popping sound that I have never experienced before while snorkeling. I quickly kick my flippers to get up. When my ears reach the surface, I hear a leader of the Lindblad expedition explaining to some fellow passengers of the National Geographic Resolution that the faint sounds are signs of an extremely healthy coral.

I am on a 12 day trip from Vietnam to Palau aboard the 138 passengers Solutionpurpose-built to access waterways that would otherwise be impossible without dynamic positioning technology, an

I dive beneath the surface again to the undersea equivalent of Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing. Several green and hawksbill turtles dart in and out of a vibrant coral cliff with seemingly millions of species, from sculpins to sun coral and everything in between. I strain my eyes, urging my brain to take in every detail and somehow commit each scene to my memory bank. I often repeat features of marine life to myself while snorkeling so that I can identify the species later on board, with help from the expedition team and dedicated science center. One step after another I spot a fish that I never thought I would see outside a nature documentary: on the left you see clownfish in their anemone houses, plus a lionfish, a porcupine fish, an octopus, a school of thousands of Niger triggerfish that act as butterflies flutter their fins.

After what feels like hours of playing a maritime version of Where’s Waldo, I realize I’ve drifted away from the group. I decide to turn around and float on my back before catching up in a last-ditch effort to take it all in. The sunlit, tropical scene suddenly feels like slow motion, disorienting me in a way I haven’t felt since I was 18. a child.

The Coral Triangle in the western Pacific Ocean is home to nearly 600 coral species and more than 2,000 different species of reef fish.

The Coral Triangle in the western Pacific Ocean is home to nearly 600 coral species and more than 2,000 different species of reef fish.

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“That was the most diverse snorkeling I’ve ever seen,” said Brett Garner, one of the National Geographic resolutions expedition team, while we ride the zodiac back to the ship. That’s a lot coming from a marine biologist who spent years of his life in a mask and fins. In fact, most of the expedition team had never snorkeled in the center of the Coral Triangle due to its extremely remote nature, and they were similarly astounded.

Later that evening, as I curl up in the hammock on the balcony of my room and enjoy a homemade shortbread cookie in the shape of a parrotfish, I feel particularly pensive. Growing up as a water baby, I snorkeled and dived with my family in the Caribbean – almost every vacation involved a place where we could get underwater. But I haven’t really snorkeled since, almost 16 years. Looking at the mushroom-shaped limestone formations protruding from the sea, each with a drapery of vegetation, it is bittersweet to realize that my newfound wonder at the activity was probably the best I will ever experience.

As I walk to breakfast the next morning, I see marine biologist Heather Denham and assistant expedition leader Alexandra Kristjánsdóttir and grab an empty chair at their table. I share my melancholy with them: that I have only just become passionate, but I feel that I have already seen the pinnacle of snorkeling. They both laugh and assure me that there is always a surprise beneath the surface.

Boy, they were right. A few hours later, on Palau’s Rock Islands, I swim with fellow passengers ranging from their mid-20s to their late 70s, seeing blacktip sharks, psychedelic brain coral, giant clams and playing with stingless jellyfish. At one point, the speedboat captain sees a manta ray. Even though we had been snorkeling all day, we move faster than I have seen in the last eleven days, quickly put on our masks and fins and jump into the deep blue. The current immediately pulls us along as we try to stay close together in the hunt for the ray. ‘HERE!’ Heather shouts, and I turn around to see a 10-foot manta ray right in front of me. I’m frozen in motion as he rises to the surface in a large circle, showing me the underside before diving deep.

On the surface I am greeted with the hooting and hollering of involuntary happiness that comes from seeing such a beautiful creature in its natural habitat. Heather leans toward me on the boat ride back to the ship, “See, it doesn’t get much better than this, does it?” And as someone who finds it difficult to stay present, I can only smile and realize that I haven’t felt this way in this moment in years.

Originally published on Condé Nast Traveler

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