Fifteen years have passed since my first visit to Palau, a dive vacation that exposed me to the majestic and truly singular coral reef ecosystems of the Rock Islands. It would be an understatement to say that I feel privileged to have the opportunity to return to Palau and to learn from Palauans how they use and conserve their natural resources and how they incorporate traditional knowledge into management practices. I was especially happy to learn that on our second day we would be kayaking in Nikko Bay with Blue Planet Sea Kayak Tours, an operation founded by Ron Leidich. Ron is an American expatriate from Oregon who has been in Palau for nearly 20 years and has extensive knowledge not only of the local flora and fauna, but also of Palauan history and contemporary society. It also happens that I went kayaking with Ron in Nikko Bay back in 1998, and I was interested to see whether the area had been noticeably impacted from the significant increase in tourism during the past 15 years.
Although Ron was unable to join us for the tour, we were fortunate to be led by Jaden, a Palauan-American who has worked for Ron for several years, and Matt, an American who recently started working for Ron after graduating from Redlands University in California where he participated in a conservation biology class that traveled to Palau. Jaden, in particular, shared with us an extraordinary amount of information on a wide range of topics, including the Japanese occupation of Palau, the battle on Peleliu during World War II, medicinal uses of native plants, the geology of the Rock Islands, and information concerning Palauans’ perceptions of the natural world. With respect to the last topic, I was fascinated to learn that Palauans only ever assigned names to plants and animals that were of some use to them. In particular, Jaden told us that all named organisms fell into one of four categories: (i) organisms with medicinal uses; (ii) organisms consumed as food; (iii) organisms used as building materials; and (iv) plants and trees that serve as habitat for other species that are consumed (e.g., a species of tree that commonly serves as habitat for a bird that Palauans eat). All other species apparently went unnamed. This aspect of traditional Palauan culture made me think about how our desire to preserve biodiversity, including those organisms which serve no practical purpose for Palauans, might be received by some Palauans.
I’ll conclude by reporting that Palau’s reefs continue to be magnificent and nearly as healthy as I remember them. Nikko Bay still has an astounding diversity of rainbow-colored large-polyped stony corals, lush seagrass beds, giant clams, and a fairly large number of juvenile and adult reef fish. I say “nearly as healthy” because Jaden and Matt took us to a heavily trafficked snorkel site to show us how irresponsible tourist practices can impact the marine environment. There we witnessed scarred and crushed corals, as well as schools of fish that were unnaturally emboldened from frequent feeding by snorkelers and tour operators. I should also mention that Palau recently experienced a super typhoon that heavily damaged the reefs in certain areas of the Rock Islands. Although Nikko Bay was well protected, I saw some evidence of storm damage while diving on the outer reef prior to the start of class. Fortunately, Palau’s corals seem to be exceptionally resilient, as nearly all of the corals have recovered since the 1998 coral bleaching event that killed a large percentage of Palau’s corals shortly after my first trip to Palau. I’m therefore optimistic that if I have the good fortune to return to Palau in another 15 years, I’ll continue to be amazed by the extraordinary beauty and diversity of Palau’s underwater environment.