Two Israelis share a Pacific paradise with the world

On idyllic archipelago Palau, Navot and Tova Harel Bornovski run Fish ’n Fins dive center and Barracuda restaurant.

Tova and Navot Bornovski in front of Ocean Hunter III (photo credit: George Medovoy)
Tova and Navot Bornovski in front of Ocean Hunter III
(photo credit: George Medovoy)
PALAU – Never in my life did I imagine being served gefilte fish on a remote Pacific island. But that’s exactly what happened on Palau, an archipelago renowned for scuba diving and snorkeling in blue-green waters, the unrivaled natural beauty of hundreds of mangrovecovered, limestone Rock Islands... and as the setting for Survivor, the reality TV show.
Palau’s waters are also treasures of World War II naval wrecks, and perhaps the bloodiest battle of the Pacific was fought on Peleliu Island.
But let me backtrack a bit to set the stage.
I was invited here by the Palau Visitors Authority and had long dreamed of setting foot on one of these dreamy Pacific islands. (Palau is a constitutional republic in free association with the United States. Its currency is the US dollar).
When I also heard that two Israelis, Navot and Tova Harel Bornovski, were living and working here, I said to myself, “That’s gotta be a story!”
Yes, I know, there are Israelis everywhere, so what’s the big deal? Well, yes, Israelis are everywhere, but the Bornovskis’ story is pretty special, given how they got here and the fact that Tova is also president of the Micronesian Shark Foundation and an accomplished cook, with a book combining Mediterranean and Palauan recipes.
My itinerary took me from Los Angeles, via Honolulu and Guam, and then on to Koror, Palau’s main town, where things go at a much slower pace and locals fishing off the rocks will invite total strangers to share a fish barbecue with them.
On the final leg of my journey, from Guam to Koror, it was night, so all I could see through the aircraft’s window was total darkness.
Then, as if magically, a handful of small lights appeared in the black of night: It was Palau International Airport, a “toy” airport, I like to call it, which was all so refreshing and innocent in a way. I mean the smallness of it all after long airport lines and hurried, lastminute departures leading up to our arrival.
During the short bus ride into the town of Koror itself, I tried to make out some of it in the night.
Koror’s main street, a two-lane, paved road sprinkled with palms, was planted with modest houses and small stores.
We passed Reng-Marie’s Beauty Clinic next to Palau Curtains & General Merchandise in a worn, three-story building.
As we continued down the street, I saw a laundromat and a few restaurants, including one with an illuminated sign above a corrugated awning that read, “I Love Noodles,” a red heart substituting the word for “Love.”
At one point, I could see a group of people seated in what looked like a church meeting.
It felt good to finally get to the five-star Palau Pacific Resort, with the kind of white beaches made for postcards.
I slept well most of the night, but at around 4 a.m. I was awakened by what sounded like someone taking a shower in an adjoining room.
At 4 in the morning? This needed some checking into, so I got out of bed, and as I walked past the doorway leading to my balcony, I realized that the water was coming from outside.
I opened the balcony door, stepped into the warm night, and discovered a huge downpour, one of those island storms so common in this part of the world.
I stood in my shorts, taking it all in as a lone hotel employee carrying an umbrella arranged chairs under an awning at the outside bar about 20 yards away.
“Welcome to Palau,” I whispered to myself in sheer delight.
By daybreak the rain had slowed down, but it was still raining lightly. Of course, it was also sunny. Not surprising, given the fact that Palau’s average annual temperature hovers around a balmy 82 degrees.
Then it all came together for me: All that rain and all that sunshine have blessed Palau with so many rainbows, that it’s no wonder it claims “Rainbow’s End” as its official motto.
Palau’s eco-consciousness reflects its natural beauty, which is easy to enjoy in so many ways, such as Jelly Fish Lake, where I swam with jelly fish; the Milky Way, a hidden lake whose water looks like it was mixed with milk and where white deposits are said to act like beauty cream; Ngellil Nature Island Resort, a pristine, eight-room hideaway where sweet orange coconuts grow alongside thatched huts; and Carp Island Resort, where I awakened to a spectacular sunrise.
Meanwhile, breakfast awaited me in Palau Pacific Resort’s dining room, where an invisible “fourth wall” opened up to island breezes and the beach.
A chef was making omelettes to order with a friendly “Good morning,” and there were all sorts of delicious pastries and croissants, plus plenty of coffee.
Because of all the Japanese tourists – Palau is about a four-hour flight from Tokyo – the group I was with got used to seeing a lot of rice and tofu wherever we went.
We had a big day ahead of us: Some of us were going scuba diving, and others (like me) would snorkel.
Our destination, Blue Corner Reef, about 25 miles from Koror at the northwest end of Ngemelis Island, is one of the world’s premier dive sites, with a 60- foot-wide plateau and an incredible 1,000-foot drop! With my soon-to-be-meeting with the Bornovskis at the back of my mind, we took off in a tarpaulin-covered speedboat after getting fitted with gear, zipping along bumpety-bump around Palau’s Rock Islands.
Some of them are spread out over the calm waters like a giant string of pearls, while others, standing alone, take on the appearance of giant mushrooms, and all are covered with a green canopy of vegetation.
But it wasn’t only the Rock Islands that impressed us – it was the color of the water, which varied from an artist’s palette of deep blue to aqua-green.
Sometimes our guide would slow down to thread his way through a narrow passage, which provided a better look at small, sandy beaches perfect for dropping anchor and having lunch.
This was just what we did on one of the islands, which I’d describe as a kind of park in the middle of the ocean with tree-covered picnic benches, basic toilet facilities – and a resident community of wild chickens to keep us company! After lunch, we could walk along the beach or just sit in the warm water by the shore.
When we reached Blue Corner, other divers were already in the water. Once we got in, a chorus of “Wow!” went up in reaction to all the reef life.
As I looked down through my snorkel mask, I imagined that I was swimming on top of a mountain – and I was, since the reef has a 1,000-foot drop! I saw enormous sea fans with giant corkscrew twists of every conceivable shape and size, and I swam with fish that looked like some mysterious hand had colored them with wild abandon.
Two fish really caught my attention, bright-yellow “friends,” I’ll call them, which played tag with each other in and out of the corals.
When the divers came up, they told of being attached to a thin rope wound up on anchoring loops hooked to the edge of the reef cliff.
Their 10-minute “drift dive” required very little kicking, as the current did most of the work for them. They saw thousands of fish, including barracuda and mackerel, and white- and black-tipped sharks, some no more than 20 feet away. Someone in our group who’s been diving for 26 years said it was his best dive ever.
By late afternoon, we headed back to Koror, and my hosts dropped me off on a dock in Koror at Fish ‘n Fins, the Bornovskis’ dive center. The place was humming with activity as a group of divers watched a video of their dives on a monitor.
I sat down in front of Barracuda, Tova’s informal restaurant, which had a window for service, a few tables and chairs dockside, and a first-class menu, shaped like a sailboat, with Mediterranean, Greek, Italian and Israeli items, including felafel, foccacia sandwiches, paninis, salade Nicoise, all sorts of burgers and fish and desserts such as figs and ice cream and apple delight.
Nearby was one of Fish ’n Fins’ live-aboards, the 95- foot Ocean Hunter III, which takes avid divers out for up to a week or more of diving.
Tova greeted me and said, “I have a surprise for you.”
She disappeared briefly and then came back with the surprise I never expected on Palau – a tray of gefilte fish prepared with native reef fish. She served it with chrein and fish jelly.
Next was a platter of warm pita sliced into squares, accompanied by flavorful Israeli classics – felafel, humous, babaganoush, Moroccan pumpkin dip and eggplant in balsamic and rosemary.
Her cookbook, Taste of Rainbow’s End, is a reflection of Palauan cooking with European and Asian tastes.
Traditional Palauan cooking, she noted, tends to be rather bland, since it focuses on true tastes and few spices.
”You don’t disguise anything,” she said. “You really eat the ‘real thing.’” So here I was, having felafel on Palau, and I thought to myself: “I’m dreaming. This must be Tel Aviv!” No, it wasn’t, it was Palau. So one of the first things I wondered was how she and Navot got here.
“We spent a year in Palau in 1986 to 1987,” Tova said, “crewing on the first live-aboard in Palau, and we totally fell in love with the island.”
When the Palau live-aboard ceased sailing, the couple returned to Israel, where Navot studied for an engineering degree at the Technion. (He is both a mechanical engineer and a ship engineer.) Tova, who is also trained as an Israeli tour guide, speaks Hebrew, English, French, German, Spanish, Palauan and “can manage with Italian.”
As fate would have it, an opportunity opened up to run a live-aboard on Palau, and they decided to return.
“We sold everything,” Tova recalled. “We took loans, we flew to Florida and bought our first boat, Ocean Hunter I, a 60-foot motor sailor.”
By then, the Bornovskis had two of their four children, Yarden, who was four, and Udi, who was three.
“We sailed with the children through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, and through the Pacific to Palau,” she said, “and since 1993 we’re here.”
In 1998 the couple bought Fish ’n Fins from Francis Toribiong, a famed member of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and the brother of Johnson Toribiong, Palau’s current president.
In the intervening years, the Bornovskis and Fish ’n Fins have become synonymous with Palau’s prized reputation as a world-renowned dive site.
I walked through Ocean Hunter III and found it to be very comfortable, with nine spacious cabins that can hold 16 people. The boat also has a lounge, a sun deck with two Jacuzzis, a camera room for those taking underwater photos and a dining room with “gourmet cuisine,” Tova noted.
Divers come from “all over,” she said, including a few couples from Israel on their honeymoon.
Besides diving and snorkeling, Fish ’n Fins offers kayaking, bird watching, ATV tours around the island and World War II tours.
“In 2000,” said Navot, who was born on Kibbutz Merhavia, the home of Golda Meir, “we found the USS Perry, the only US ship that sank in Palau during World War II. It was very exciting.”
Last June, Fish ’n Fins held the 10th-Annual Wrexpedition to dive and explore World War II wrecks.
And during my own kayaking trip, I came right up to a sunken Japanese seaplane submerged in shallow water, its wingspan easily visible near the shady edge of a Rock Island.
The Bornovskis’ third and fourth children were born on Palau and have Palauan middle names: Liam Lmall, 16, and 15-year-old Gayle Dilmowais (“Girl of Dawn” in Palauan).
Their daughter Yarden, who is now 23, studies medicine in Italy, and their son Udi, 21, is in college in British Columbia.
All their children, Tova noted with pride, “have the easy island personality.” And, being Palauan at heart, they are divers, too, the two oldest being certified instructors.
Liam is also a member of the Palau swim team and, coached by Navot, took part in the Israeli Maccabiah Games two years ago, single-handedly representing Palau, plus being the youngest swimmer at the games.
On the question of Jewish life here, Tova noted that there have been other Jews on Palau, but they usually come to work under contract for a year or two and then leave.
“Since we’re the only Israeli or Jewish people [on the island],”she said, “I made a vow that for my kids, for tradition every Friday night we have a family dinner and we light the candles, and I bake hallot.”
Tova’s father, Yitzhak Kallenberg, was the mayor of the Israeli town Tivon for 17 years and later was sent to Vienna by the Jewish Agency to manage the huge wave of Russian Jews coming out of the Soviet Union. Navot’s mother, Dganit, was born on Kibbutz Ma’abarot.
Tova is also deeply involved in shark preservation and education as the president of the Micronesian Shark Foundation.
Palau, which was the first nation in the world to declare itself a shark sanctuary in 2009, has a shark “nursery,” a protected area of the sea surrounded by Rock Islands that can be seen by kayak.
I kayaked there with a group and chanced to see two baby sharks up close, gray in color and maybe 15 inches long, darting by us in shallow water.
Shark parents, we were told by our guide, go out to open sea after depositing their young here, and the young eventually follow.
Tova stresses the need for shark protection in talks she gives around the world.
“Sharks are in a losing battle,” she said. “They’re the kings of the ocean. “They started 100 million years before the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are long gone. Sharks are still here, but they’re going to perish because of humans.
That’s the major reason that they’re disappearing from our planet, from our oceans, and it’s very sad.”
On my second visit to Fish ’n Fins, I caught Tova stepping off a boat after taking a visiting UNESCO delegation on a dive to see how sharks are monitored with acoustic sensors. UNESCO is considering declaring Palau a World Heritage Site.
“Even today,” Tova said, “we were diving and we saw this one shark that had no dorsal fin, and it looked like somebody cut it.”
Navot believes that Palau also offers an additional allure for Jewish visitors.
“I think that nowadays, with growing tension in the world, with Jewish and Israeli people not welcome in many countries and facing danger, Palau is a great escape because it’s very friendly, very safe. You can fly here directly from the US,” said Navot. “You don’t stop in any countries that are not comfortable to be in. So for the US market and the Israeli market and Europe, I think it’s a very good escape.”
Joining me over pita and felafel, Navot also reflected on the warm political relations between Palau and Israel.
In two weeks’ time, he said, a group of Israeli radiologists would be arriving to do a seminar at the local hospital – their third visit. Israeli ophthalmologists have also visited Palau to do eye surgeries, in one case partially restoring the sight of a baby who was born blind.
All this work leaves a good impression about Jews in general, not just Israelis, because “for a lot of people in this region, Jewish and Israeli is the same,” he said.
But beyond everything else, said Navot, living in Palau is paradise. “It’s a good place, very quiet; people are very polite, very friendly. They deserve a lot of credit for what they’re doing here.”
George Medovoy writes on travel at