This week, I have traveled thousands of miles to the small Pacific island nation of Palau to celebrate Earth Day with its conservation-minded people. I am here specifically for the world premiere of the National Geographic documentary film about the Pristine Seas expedition to Palau that took place last September. The film, entitled Return to Paradise, brings to life Palau’s pristine and resource-rich marine environment and its unique traditions and culture. The film, like the country and its way of life, is gorgeous.Corals exposed during low tide are one of nature’s playgrounds for local children. (Photo by Monica Medina)
One of Palau’s most enduring traditions is to declare a bul, or period of rest for the natural resources of an area from being harvested so that they can replenish themselves. Bul has recently become the rallying cry of Palauans favoring a bold proposal to create a marine sanctuary covering approximately 80 percent of the nation’s waters—nearly 500,000 square kilometers in size. Palauans see it as part of their sacred responsibility to pass on the riches of their natural environment to future generations, rather than squander them for a quick buck. Their symbol for the sanctuary movement is a graphic of a traditional wood carving of fish and other marine life spelling out “BUL.”
At first, Palauans were concerned about limiting fishing and other development in such a large portion of their waters. But with the support of the country’s leaders—President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr., all the local chiefs, and 13 of the 16 state governors within Palau—the sanctuary movement is growing. Nearly half of Palau’s adult population has already signed a petition favoring the creation of the sanctuary. The President is hoping that a positive public response to the National Geographic film will catalyze enough support to propel the legislation creating the sanctuary through the Palauan legislature and to his desk for final signature.
I was not lucky enough to participate in the Pristine Seas expedition to Palau—I am a novice diver and I don’t have a Ph.D. in marine biology. But this past weekend, while here getting ready to debut the film, I had a chance to go snorkeling and diving with some of my new Palauan friends. They took me to some of the best spots in the world for diving, where I was surrounded by dazzling tropical fishes, turtles, rays, whitetip reef sharks, and schools of barracuda. I also watched their children play on a gleaming white sandy beach littered with sand dollars and sea cucumbers, splashing in teal ocean water so clear and sparkling it was blinding.
That is when I realized that for me this is the epitome of our natural world, but for them it’s just another day at the beach. Their country truly is paradise. Their environment is not just something they make time to appreciate one day a year. It is much more than that—it is who they are as a people. Earth Day is every day in Palau.