Helen Reef

The welcoming sign right on the beach of Helen Reef

Helen Reef is a single atoll in the middle of nowhere. The ring of corals in the western Pacific is roughly 27km long and 10km wide. The only firm ground is Helen Island. Its length and shape changes with the storms and waves of the season, but barely exceeds 500m. It's home to four rangers that protect the natural treasures of Helen Reef national park and belongs to Palau.

A sleeping nurse shark on a sandy slope at around 12 metres

Highlight of our journey

As you might guess, Helen Reef is so much more than its naked facts. The living situation of the rangers, three ship wrecks and a hidden war treasure, the natural beauty of the surrounding reef and an enormous tern colony, can all tell their own story.

Our expectations were high and our hopes to dive the Helen Reef even higher. With my background in marine biology, I hoped to explore a pristine reef teeming with fish and an abundance of coral that would readjust my idea of an untouched, tropical marine environment. Positioned on the border of the coral triangle (the most biodiverse marine area of the world) and surrounded by nothing but ocean, I had hopes to find the rare combination of a highly diverse reef life and large high seas predators.

The chance of encounters with open ocean creatures, such as blue marlins, mahi mahi, moon fish and oceanic mantas, is very low at more accessible dive sites, where most recreational diving takes place. Isolated oceanic reefs, such as Helen Reef, however, are often frequented by these large predators for feeding and cleaning purposes. They form a welcoming and much needed diversion in their normal open, blue water lives.

Green Turlte cruising the reed top of Helen Reef

1.500 US dollars diving permit

 I was devastated when we learned that a diving and even snorkelling permit for three days would cost 1.500 US dollars for the entire crew. My dream of diving the remotest place I had ever been and would probably ever go to, was shattered in seconds. The administration of the southern most province of Palau had simply gotten too greedy.

Having had sailed hundreds of miles to see this place and being set back like that, left me in despair. Capitalism and greed had once more succeeded in breaking dreams.

Eventually, my mood was saved by the amazingly friendly and helpful rangers of Helen Reef station. Of course, they couldn't act against the regulations and take me diving, but they could take us along on their own hunting trips to a part of the reef where they were allowed to fish for their subsistence. After all, I got a chance to at least snorkel the reefs of Helen Atoll and if only the inside.

A fairly healthy coral cover on the lagoon side of Helen Reef. The flat tops of the Porites corals in the background nicely show the neap tide level

The marine life of Helen Reef

On our first “hunting” excursion we explored the western side of the lagoon. It was close to one of the large wrecks that had found their end on Helen Reef.

To my surprise, the visibility was really good, something that can be expected from the reef's outside, but is rather unusual on the lagoon side, where the exchange of water is naturally limited. We found the anticipated healthy coral cover with a fairly high abundance of the usual suspects, surgeon, angel and butterfly fishes, together with parrot fish and largest giant clams I had ever seen. However, climate change and especially the El Niño of 2015/16, had taken their toll on Helen Reef, though maybe not as heavily as in other parts of the oceans. While around 55% of the corals of the northern part of the Australian Great Barrier Reef were killed by bleaching in this year, the corals of Helen Reef showed only patchy and superficial signs of heat stress. A healthy, diverse and thus resilient reef usually copes well with these minor damages and recovers comparatively quick, as long as it is not stressed again in the following years. In this respect, reefs recover a lot better, when there are no additional, usually anthropogenic stressors present. These range from agricultural pollution from rivers and untreated waste waters, to unsustainable fishery and targeted poaching, all the way to plastic wastes.

Liko and a Giant Clam

The highlight of the day was a sleeping nurse shark that slept on the gently inclined and soft sand at around 12 metres. For a second, I even thought it was a Leopard Shark, as it was rather short and stout. Thanks to Claudia's small camera and our freediving skills, we could take a couple of nice shots.

Gigantic wreck at Helen Reef - west side

After that we couldn't resist to swim across the wide top reef to visit the huge wreck on the reef's outside. Here, the oceanic waves kept on breaking the remains apart that were inhabited by sea gulls and terns. We couldn't reach the wreck itself, as it was too far away and the surge to dangerous, but the scattered remains further on the top, were infested with reef fish and made more than up for the frustration of the previous day. By all means, it was an excursion to remember.

The rangers of Helen Reef in 2016. Mathew, Louis, Antonio and Derlace, and us: Dave, Sherry, Claudia and Liko

The Rangers of Helen Reef

The rangers of Helen Reef are one of the friendliest bunch of people, I've met in a long time. When we arrived at their station, our water supplies had ran low again. We never really figured out why we used so much water, whether there was a leak, or we took too many showers, drank too much, or whatever. It was a mystery.
In any case, the rangers helped us out immediately. They didn't even ask how much we needed, but told us to take all we needed. Problem solved by generosity. This is remarkable, in a place where fresh water is a precious good and the rain catchment area restricted to a couple of tin roofs.

The best times with them were the snorkelling and fishing trips, which were followed by BBQs at their stations. Truth be told, they spoiled us good and proper. They served at least 6 different fishes in various cooking styles. Their fumes caused nausea and made my canines drool. And in the end they even made all the dishes, theirs and the ones we had brought. They refused our help, no matter how hard we tried.

To put a long story short, no one could have been a better welcoming committee to Palau than Louis, Mathew, Antonio and Darlece! Thank you so much guys for having us. You were amazing hosts.

Goodbye Helen Reef, we had a fantastic time

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