Palau Expedition: Pristine Paradise

Pristine Paradise. Palau. It sounds like a mantra, which one cannot help but repeating after being there. We just finished a Pristine Seas expedition to Palau, invited by the government to explore, survey, and document the underwater world of this little island nation that is also a large ocean nation.

Unlike other Pristine Seas expeditions—typically in uninhabited areas—Palau has a population of 20,000 and receives about 120,000 tourists per year. But we went to Palau because President Remengesau has a bold vision, a National Marine Sanctuary where industrial fishing would be banned, where only Palauans would fish (for local consumption) and where protection of the reefs would increase economic revenue to the country through sustainable ecotourism.

Palau has a long history of traditional management of marine resources and encyclopedic knowledge of the natural history of the sea. That tradition includes the bul, which is nothing but a traditional marine reserve, where fishing is prohibited by the local community to ensure that species will be able to reproduce and replenish. The bul was implemented in special areas where reef fish aggregate to spawn. Our team visited one of these sacred places, where we witnessed hundreds of 4-foot long bumphead parrotfishes aggregating in the early morning to reproduce.

Bumphead parrot spawning aggregation. Photo by Manu San Félix.
A spawning aggregation of bumphead parrotfish in Palau. (Photo by Manu San Félix)

Our preliminary scientific results, in collaboration with the Palau International Coral Reef Center, suggest that the few no-take marine reserves in Palau have greater fish abundance than unprotected areas nearby. And these reserves are the places where tourists come from Asia and around the world, to experience giant manta rays swimming among giant fish schools and abundant sharks, among other natural wonders.

Mantas glide gracefully through the waters of Palau. Photo by Enric Sala.
Mantas glide gracefully through the waters of Palau. (Photo by Enric Sala)

After learning from the people in Palau, diving in its wonderful reefs, and swimming in its jellyfish lake, I am confident that Palau will continue to be a leader in ocean conservation and set the way for others to follow.

Pristine Paradise. Palau. This is now the official tagline of Palau’s campaign to showcase to the world the natural beauties of this large ocean country.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
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.