Changing Planet

Palau Expedition: The Future of the Past in Palau

In September 2013, Palau’s current President Tommy Remengesau announced his intention to protect 80 percent of Palau’s waters as a National Marine Sanctuary. For the month of September 2014, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Enric Sala is leading key scientists and filmmakers to explore, survey, and document the diversity and abundance of the marine life that will be protected by the new offshore sanctuary. The team will also assess how well inshore marine protected areas have performed to date.

The night was dark, and the breeze warm. Without clouds on the sky, the ancient mariner knew exactly where home was. A small tweak on the sail, and his little dugout canoe was sailing straight to his home island in the West Pacific, 400 miles north of the equator. He could guess the vague silhouette of the limestone rocks covered with lush tropical forest against Orion, now setting under the horizon. Even before he could see his island, he knew exactly how far he was from it, for he could hear the waves breaking on the reef miles away. He let his right hand touch the seawater softly, as if not wanting to disturb the sleeping marine creatures. He felt the sea caressing him back.

A skilled spearfisherman back in 1967 uses a sharpened concrete reinforcing rod to make his catch. (Photo by David Boyer)

In his head there was an encyclopedic amount of knowledge about his world, from the stars that guided his way among the archipelagos, to the reefs underwater where he fished for him and his family. He, like all other elders, knew where the fishes lived, where they reproduced, and how and when to catch them. But they also knew when to leave them alone, so that there could be fish for all and forever. For generation upon generation, this traditional conservation method, the “bul“, preserved the livelihoods and food security of the people of what we know today as Palau.

However, after WWII, the traditional ways were lost to many, and “Westernization” and population growth created increasing pressure on the marine resources of Palau, including the irony of having to provide fish for the tourists who come to observe those very fish.

Lines of giant clam shells await export to shell and curio collectors in the 1960s. (Photo by Walter Meayers Edwards)
Lines of giant clam shells await export to shell and curio collectors in the 1960s. (Photo by Walter Meayers Edwards)

Aware of their past and concerned about their future, Palauan President Johnson Toribiong declared at the United Nations General Assembly the first shark sanctuary in the world in 2009. In September 2013, also at the United Nations, current President Tommy Remengesau announced his intention to protect 80% of Palau’s waters as a National Marine Sanctuary within the next few years, because he recognizes the advantages of a “pristine” environment for their tourism-based economy.

Hence our presence in Palau. We are about to start a Pristine Seas expedition to support Palau’s bid to develop a sustainable future. Our objectives are to conduct scientific research to estimate the diversity and abundance of the large fishes that will be protected by Palau’s offshore sanctuary. In addition, we will test how well inshore marine protected areas have performed to date. Finally, we will film to produce a National Geographic documentary to tell the formidable story of how Palau is securing the future of their past.

We will be posting expedition dispatches regularly, so that you can follow along and discover with us the underwater richness of Palau.

Read All Pristine Seas: Palau Blog Posts

The Pristine Seas expedition to Palau is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.

Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.
  • Sebangiol Sakuma

    I also wanted to extend my sincere thanks to your organization for showing to the world the importance of sustainable resource management and capturing the reality of our impact on the very same place we are eating from. I hope the locals as well as the world can realize the truth of our destruction and equally the efforts to conserve resources and minimize that destruction through your research efforts. So from this tiny island in the Pacific…..KOM KMAL MESULANG (Thank you very much)!

  • Ron Christman

    My daughter is diving in Palau this very moment experiencing what NG is showing me with their Pristine Seas efforts. Thank you National Geographic.

  • Debbie Ngiraibai

    Thank You National Geographic for telling Palau’s story to the world.

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