Greetings from Palau! After Stanford at Sea, I spent one week in Kauai with my family, and now I am onto my next adventure: a 3-week field seminar in the beautiful island nation of Palau. Palau is located at 7˚ N, to the east of the Philippines and Indonesia:

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Map of Palau in relation to Oceania http://www.howitworksdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Palau_and_oceania.jpg

Palau is the definition of a tropical paradise: hundreds of gumdrop-shaped islands completely covered with lush green jungle, clear warm water that looks to be a million different colors at once, and intricately mesmerizing coral reef communities. One of the really special things about Palau is that it contains a huge variety of different ecosystems. In one country, there are volcanic islands, limestone islands, and coral atolls, as well as four different kinds of reefs. Barrier reefs are parallel to an island but are located offshore. Fringing reefs are next to islands. Atoll reefs surround coral atolls, which are circular strips of land with lagoons in the center. Patch reefs are isolated reefs not associated with islands or larger reef structures.

I am here to learn about coral reefs and marine conservation policy, and I’m having an absolute blast so far. I arrived three days before the class started to go scuba diving, as the diving here is some of the best in the world, and I’ve had four days of class. We are staying in Koror, the commercial capital and most populated state of Palau. Koror is right in the middle of the famous Rock Islands region, which features prominantly in most famous images of Palau:

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Typical image of Palauan Rock Islands http://resources1.news.com.au/images/2015/03/17/1227265/489589-4d13a666-cb86-11e4-9626-5d9793fb55e0.jpg

The Rock Islands are even more spectacular than they look in the photo – I’ve now spent hours zooming through them on boats, winding through this maze of everlasting green and blue, holding my breath for the beauty that awaits around the next bend. It makes me feel like a little kid again, and I’m sure I’m not the only foreigner to come to these islands and feel that way. Palau is a very popular tourist destination, and while it fuels a large portion of their economy, managing tourism is a big challenge for the Palauan government. In 2014, Palau had just over 139,000 tourists, and for a population of 21,000, that’s a lot to handle. Hotels have been springing up everywhere, straining the sewage infrastructure, using tons of energy, and increasing transportation loads. Tourists are going to Palauan restaurants and ordering local fish, which is taxing the local fisheries that are already trying to conserve their limited resources. And the reefs are feeling the pressure too – they are, after all, the main attraction here, and big boats of tourists often end up stepping on corals and feeding the fish. While I’m here, I’m doing a research project on tourism impacts in Palau and I’m excited to learn more about this topic and hopefully provide information that can help the Palauan government make decisions.

So far, I’ve been spending tons of time in the water, getting to know the spectacular coral reefs of Palau. While there’s a huge variety of sites, and some have been damaged by coral bleaching and storm events, most of the reefs that I’ve seen have at least 70% coral cover and look pretty darn healthy. I’ve also seen a ton of marine organisms on my visits to the reefs: rays, turtles, sharks, eels, and tons of big and small fish, including triggerfish, tuna, parrotfish, trumpetfish, clownfish, anthias, and damselfish. Here is a collection of photos from my adventures so far:

I’m having a blast in Palau, and I’m so glad that I get to explore this amazing place for two more weeks. In the coming posts, I will talk about the anthropology, history, culture, politics, and society of Palau as well as marine conservation policy. Palau is doing some incredible work on managing their marine resources and conserving them for future generations, but as with any modern democracy, still faces barriers and obstacles in doing so. What an incredible opportunity to be here, learning about the issues I care about the most, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life.

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My friends Marina (left), Drew (right), and me (center) on our way to go diving

Cover image is from: http://resources1.news.com.au/images/2015/03/17/1227265/489589-4d13a666-cb86-11e4-9626-5d9793fb55e0.jpg