My Palau adventure has sadly come to an end, but I had an amazing last week in this beautiful place. I was in Palau for a 3-week research seminar on coral reefs, and if you missed my first two posts about this trip you can read them here and here. We were hosted at the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC), Palau’s top research institution, which also runs the Palau Aquarium. It was great to meet PICRC’s CEO Yimnang Golbuu and interact with many of the researchers there. The seminar was taught by two Stanford faculty members, Rob Dunbar and Stephen Monismith, and a faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Bob Richmond.

Rob Dunbar was originally trained in geology, but has since expanded greatly to cover what seems like nearly every scientific discipline. He conducts field research in the tropics and the poles, which seems kind of strange, except that he studies global environmental change. It makes sense that he examines the two extremes of our range of climate regimes on Earth, and he examines changes in atmospheric chemistry in fairly recent history as well as thousands of years in the past. One of the main tools he uses to look at past atmospheric content is drilling cores, or long cylinders, of corals, lake sediments, ocean sediments, and ice. Chemical compounds that remain in these natural materials give clues as to how the atmosphere has changed over time, and how that relates to modern concentrations of important gases like carbon dioxide. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work in Rob’s lab last summer, and you can check out my research blog here. Rob is also very involved in the policy sphere – he is a Trustee for the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, has testified in front of Congress, and is a member of the Management Committee for the Center for Ocean Solutions. In the Palau class, Rob provided a great perspective on climate change, geology, coral reef conservation, and field work in general.

Stephen Monismith is a physical oceanographer that studies and teaches Environmental Fluid Mechanics at Stanford. He uses lots of large instruments, processing software, and numerical models to do research in the field and understand more about flows and mixing in both freshwater and saltwater systems. In Palau, his work mainly revolves around measuring flows over coral reefs and understanding how they interact and inform the biological interactions on reefs. Stephen has an incredible understanding of systems research, and works tirelessly to connect his physical measurements to chemical, biological, and environmental applications. He is on the Science Advisory Committee of the Center for Ocean Solutions, and has worked on management options for increasing the “health” of the San Francisco Bay.

Bob Richmond runs the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and started doing work on coral reefs in Palau 30 years ago. He has developed close working relationships with many of the local researchers and environmental leaders in Palau, and was a great resource for the class in terms of bringing in awesome speakers and giving us some background on Palauan conservation policy. His work focuses on marine conservation biology, and in addition to Palau and Hawaii, he works in Japan, Central America, the Galápagos and the Caribbean. Bob continually amazed me with his extensive knowledge of Palauan reef ecosystems; when we were snorkeling in the field I would come up to him and point to some crazy-looking creature and ask “Bob, what the heck is that?” and he would tell me the scientific name, its behavior, its role in the ecosystem, what it’s related to, and about five other random facts about it. For someone who at the beginning of the class usually had a hard time telling major coral types apart from each other, I was very impressed that Bob could fit so much information into his brain.

Our three professors did a great job of giving us a well-rounded educational experience over the 3-week class, showing us lots of the top snorkeling sites and beautiful reefs of Palau but also giving us a taste of what it’s like to live in Palau, and how society and politics operate. Palau is a democracy, with a president (Tommy Remengesau) and executive, legislative, and judicial branches. This might start to sound a bit like the United States’ governmental structure, and when we visited the Capitol of Palau, the resemblance to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. was a bit uncanny:

There are many more ways in which Palauan politics are vastly different from American politics, however. While there’s no law against forming political parties, there aren’t currently any political parties in Palau. Long before Palau became an independent democracy with its own constitution in 1981, Palau had historically operated with traditional chiefs as the governing officials. Chiefs represent different clans within each state, and only men were chiefs. This tradition carried over to the new democracy – only men can hold positions in government, but only women can vote. Today, Palau’s government structure is a combination of the three-branch modern democracy and traditional chiefs, of which I know very few details.

During the first week of class, we had two guest speakers that gave me a great introduction to the state of conservation policy in Palau. Noah Idechong (pronounced “Idiong”) is a leading environmental activist in Palau, having started the Palau Conservation Society and served in Congress for 12 years including as Speaker of the House for 4 years. He is now Chairman of the Board of Directors at PICRC, and the Senior Fisheries Advisor to Umiich Sengebau, the Minister of Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism, who was our second speaker and used to work for The Nature Conservancy. Yimnang “Yim” Golbuu, the CEO of PICRC, also talked to us about conservation on the first day of class. According to Noah, there are “Four Corners” of conservation in Palau: the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism (representing the government); PICRC (conducting research); The Nature Conservancy (arguably the most involved foreign NGO in Palau); and the Palau Conservation Society (which mostly deals with education and awareness). There is also an organization called EQPB in Palau, which is the local environmental agency and does most of the regulatory, enforcement, and monitoring work.

A cornerstone of Palau’s current conservation policy is the new Protected Areas Network (PAN), which was established in 2003. Yim told us that historically, marine protected areas have been set up and run by individual states, and now states can apply to be a part of PAN and join this larger network of enforcement and regulation. The PAN is funded by the Green Fee, a $30 fee that every visitor to Palau pays when they leave. Another major area of work is on fisheries, as fish are the main source of protein for Palau and its rich and biodiverse reefs are keenly eyed by many other nations all over the world. Palau is pretty unique in that only Palauan fisheries are allowed to catch fish within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the 200-nautical-mile area that extends beyond its shores. Some other nations allow foreign nations to fish within their EEZ but just charge access fees. In Palau, the entire EEZ is theirs, and there are dire consequences for nations that don’t obey the rules. Just a week before I arrived, Palauan officials burned a Vietnamese illegal fishing fleet, and sent the fisherman packing on a few of the remaining boats, within enough food to make it back to Vietnam.

Traditional knowledge and culture is an integral part of Palauan decision-making, in conservation and many other areas of policy. As Noah told us, “Science validates what the locals already know.” For many centuries, traditional chiefs have been implementing a conservation policy of their own, called bul, or a ban on fishing a certain species. Palauans know how to monitor fish stocks and they notice when a population is being overfished, and a bul is called to allow a species time to recover. Today, the president calls the bul, and it is still an extremely important and arguably pretty effective part of Palauan conservation. Noah is very keen on letting the community own the decision, which I agree with. Palauans have been managing their resources pretty darn well for the last couple thousand years, and if the local community buys into decisions, they are much more likely to be effective. Minister Umiich agrees that there has been much more progress on conservation issues in Palau than on other areas like healthcare or education, but there are still problems in implementing conservation policy. Palau is still getting used to their new government structure, and Noah said that it is often hard to enforce or monitor regulations effectively. He added that it is hard to get accurate, unbiased information to Congress to help them make decisions – there are too many special interest groups, and Palau needs one reliable organization that is responsible for writing scientific reports to inform Congress. Minister Umiich also commented that many Congressmen still prioritize being a part of man-made projects rather than conservation.

Now I was only in Palau for 3 weeks, and I’ve only just started learning about many different aspects of the country. But in my opinion, Palau is doing a great job on conservation, and it seems like most of the population is generally keen on protecting its marine resources. This is understandable, since managing their environment responsibly has been a part of Palauan culture and tradition from the beginning. Minister Umiich quoted the President’s notion that “our economy is our environment and our environment is our economy”, and I think this is a fantastic way to approach conservation policy. Palau is considered a world leader in conservation, but at first I was surprised when Noah told us that he doesn’t like that reputation. He “doesn’t believe in models” and said that since Palau is so unique, it is hard to replicate the work that has been done there to different countries. Every nation has a different background, culture, ecosystem, and set of priorities, and it’s unrealistic to think that a specific Palauan policy will work exactly the same way in another country.

*Disclaimer for the next section: It is not my intention to unfairly blame or scorn any particular race, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, or identity. I am simply attempting to portray the current situation in Palau and apologize for any inconvenience or offense caused by this next section.

In my first post about Palau, I talked about my tourism project and some background about tourism pressures on the environment. In recent years, the majority of tourism growth has occurred in charter companies, mostly from mainland China and Japan. This pie chart shows the visitors to Palau in 2014 by nationality:


Data from Palau Visitors’ Authority

Now what’s so bad about charter companies? Palau tourism used to be only for people who could afford high-end hotels and lots of scuba diving (which believe me is very expensive – I nearly broke my bank account after 3 days of diving). Now, charter companies are providing prepaid tour packages at a much cheaper price, so a lot more people can now afford to visit Palau through this option. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that more people are getting to see these incredible reefs, but the way they are experiencing and impacting the environment may not be the best for Palau. Many of these charter companies organize tours that use foreign buses, foreign restaurants, foreign hotels, and foreign boats, and the only time these visitors interact with something Palauan is while snorkeling on the coral reefs. Charter companies are quickly taking over, and in my opinion I don’t think these kinds of tours allow visitors to fully experience Palauan culture, learn about the ecology of the reefs, and understand how to interact with the environment in a safe and sustainable way.

Tourism accounts for over half of Palau’s GDP, so theoretically as the amount of tourists increases (which it is certainly is right now) the GDP should increase proportionally. But that’s not happening. Because many tour companies are foreign-owned, the vast majority of the money earned is wired back home, and does not stay in Palau. At first, this didn’t make much sense to me, as I had heard that only Palauans could own land, so every storefront has to have a Palauan co-owner. But then I learned about something called the 99-year lease. This was signed into law in 2007, and says that while only Palauans can own land, it can be leased to non-citizens for up to 99 years. It seems like a good deal – you still own the land, and you get a bunch of money for leasing it – and that’s why more and more Palauans are offering up their land. But 99 years is a long time – enough time for a new company to get established and make a lot of money that won’t contribute to the Palauan economy, and enough time for the original landowner to pass away before the lease expires, leaving his or her children or grandchildren to figure it out. It’s easy to see how this situation could get out of hand, and it definitely has in Palau.

For my group’s research project on tourism, we had four different types of results. While I can’t share the specific results we found, here’s a summary of what we were looking for:

  1. Coral cover – We did ecological assessments (with quadrats, as explained in my last post) of seven different reefs, estimating percent coral cover and types of coral. We used this data to get a sense of what each reef looked like and to estimate the relative fragility of each reef compared to the others we surveyed. For instance, reefs with mostly branching or plating coral would be more susceptible to breakage when a tourist steps on it, and therefore more fragile, than reefs with mostly encrusting or massive corals.
  2. Breakage – We counted broken pieces in each of our quadrats, and got an average number of breaks for every reef we surveyed. It was hard to know for sure which breaks were caused by tourists, and which were caused by other factors like storm damage, bioerosion, and natural predators, but we did our best to evaluate our results through a holistic assessment of each reef.
  3. Tourist Observations – At every site, we observed tourists’ behavior in the water, how many boats and people there were, and what equipment the tourists used. One interesting thing we noticed were that a tourist not wearing fins was less likely to kick the reef due to the risk of personal injury than a tourist wearing fins.
  4. Tour Companies – We were lucky to be able to talk with managers and tour guides from several tour companies in Koror to get a sense of how many snorkelers they take out every day, what kinds of equipment they use, and how they brief customers on how to interact with the reef before they get in the water.

Tourism is bringing up a lot of challenges for the Palauan government, but they are trying to change the situation. By the end of July, each tour guide for every tour company in Koror needs to have completed the state’s training program, which requires each tour guide to learn about safety, culture, and the environment and take an exam, be certified in CPR, and be proficient in Palauan or English. At the end of the training program, each guide receives a certification card. This is a great step in the right direction, since this program makes sure that all guides know the same information, and the tour guides are currently the only way that environmental education gets passed to tourists. In April, the Palauan government cut the number of Chinese charter flights in half, but tourism growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down. 2015 could see the largest number of tourists to Palau in history, reaching to as many as 200,000 people.

While I came to Palau to study and do research, I was also a tourist. Nothing reminded me more of this than our visit to Jellyfish Lake on the last day of class. This is one of the most famous places in Palau, and one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my life. Jellyfish Lake is a marine lake, so it contains seawater, and true to its name, it is filled with 12 million golden jellies. This species is related to the spotted jelly, which I saw in the Monterey Bay Aquarium six months ago and wrote about in a blog post. Normally, I wouldn’t be so keen on swimming in a lake with 12 million jellyfish, but these little guys don’t actually sting people (well, unless you have super thin skin, which I luckily don’t). This is because they evolved into a unique species in this lake, where their only natural predator is a carnivorous anemone that lives on the sides of the lake, and can attack something 20 times its mass. To avoid this understandably scary creature, the jellies track the sun as it passes overhead to make sure they stay away from the edges of the lake. We arrived at Jellyfish Lake at 11am, so most of the jellies were close to the center.

When we arrived, we hopped in and swam towards the middle of the lake. At first I only saw a few jellies, but the concentration increased quickly until you could not move without running into a jellyfish. I was being super careful, but I still kicked a few and would look behind me to make sure they were ok. Whenever I accidentally knocked into one with my hand, it would tumble through the water and I shake itself off before swimming off merrily again. I did see some broken and dead jellyfish though, and it made me think about the impact tourists must have on this place. Just in the one hour I was there, I estimated 100 other tourists in the water. I chose not to wear fins, which kill a ton more jellyfish than your bare feet, and I did not wear sunscreen or bug spray since they contain chemicals that can harm the jellyfish. Here are some pictures I took in Jellyfish Lake:

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I am so grateful to have been able to visit Jellyfish Lake, and all of the other amazing ecosystems that we saw during our 3 weeks in Palau, and to get to meet locals and learn about the politics, culture, and society of this incredible place. I can’t remember the last time I was so blown away by every single aspect of a country I’ve visited. It also brought up something for me that I’d like to call “The Traveler’s Dilemma”. I have always been of the “Have passport, will travel” mentality, and I don’t foresee that changing any time soon. But traveling often takes a large toll on the places that we visit. Flying produces tons of carbon emissions, and tourists can often damage the local environment during their stay. This is certainly the case in Palau. Ideally, everyone in the world would be able to have the resources and opportunities to be able to visit spectacular places like Palau, but if everyone went there, it would not be nearly as spectacular or special. Seeing firsthand how difficult it is for Palau to manage the gigantic influx of tourists, and their impact on the environment, made me reflect very deeply on how to continue traveling, but with a keen consciousness about my impact on the country I’m visiting. I never want to be the kind of tourist that visits a place without learning about its history, people, and culture, and without doing everything I can do to protect the ecosystem I’m visiting. I hope that through my blog and other methods of communication I can share the places I visit with the world in a way that inspires others to think more about their individual impact, both at home and on vacation. 

Palau was the last leg of my ten-week journey through the Pacific, beginning with a few days in Moorea before Stanford at Sea in early May. What an incredible few months it has been, and I am still finding it hard to believe everything I’ve seen. Not many people in the world have been to many of the places I just visited, and I will be forever grateful that I had the opportunity. I’ve learned so much about the ocean and myself on this adventure, and seeing some of the most untouched reefs in the world has reminded me that places like this do still exist, and they are 100% worth fighting for. There is still time for many coral reefs around the world to recover, but we have to start now. Thank you to all my readers who have been following my journey for the past three months, and here’s to many more adventures!

*If you want to see more of my time in Palau, check out this 4-minute video I made with footage from the Rock Islands!