Palau Expedition: An Alien From the Deep

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.

A nautilus near Palau. (Photo by Enric Sala)

I looked down and only saw blue. We were over an underwater wall, the bottom of which we could not fathom from the surface. Two to three hundred meters down lives a creature found nowhere else on earth: the Palau nautilus. The nautilus is basically an octopus living inside a beautiful white shell with brownish tiger stripes. Adults do not move much, and make a living from scavenging food. They lay eggs on the deep reef, and baby nautiluses hatch after a long 18-month period.

Other than using a submarine, the only way to see one alive is to trap them and bring them close to the surface. In Palau, people have become experts in catching and releasing them so that divers coming from all over the world can see with their own eyes this alien creature from the deep.

This morning we were invited to see some caught by a local dive shop. Since I was a kid I have wanted to see one, and today we finally were able to see not one, but twelve.

A gentle creature, the nautilus moves slowly and does not seem particularly afraid of humans. Unfortunately, in many places there is demand for their gorgeous shells, and they are killed and sold to tourists in curio shops. The good news is that the Palau nautilus is protected by law here. Furthermore, I think anyone who saw them underwater, moving gracefully, would never want to have one killed just to have its shell collecting dust on a shelf at home. When areas like this are protected, more people have the chance to live out that experience, and more sea life simply has a chance to live.

Read All Pristine Seas: Palau Blog Posts

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

Changing Planet


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.