Our first day in Palau made me realize that, unlike the United States where the environment is often an afterthought, this is a place where people take pride in their connection to the natural world and work hard to protect it.

As we took a bus tour through the countryside our guide explained the ties the Palauan people have to the lands of their ancestors and pointed out villages where people still lived off the land through agriculture and fishing.

Right: Kirstie Jones (right) and other USC students descend to perform measurements in the the Ngederrak Conservation Area.  Photo by Jim Haw.

Though tourism is important to Palau, major hotels and chain food restaurants don’t dot the landscape as they do in Guam. Instead, Palau has structured its tourist industry around educating visitors on Palau’s natural wonders. During the bus ride I noticed many signs denoting conservation areas as well as informational boards discussing the different environments of Palau.

Left: One of the target sea cucumbers lies fortuitously below Kirstie's transect tape.  Photo by Jim Haw.

Even though it had only been a short plane ride from Guam to Palau I felt like I had traveled to a completely different part of the globe. The dense jungles we saw during our river boat cruise and waterfall hike could not have been more different than the hotels and strip malls we had seen in Guam. When we stopped at a site with stone ruins to eat lunch countless rails darted through the grasses.

Only a week ago at the Guam Department of Agriculture I had witnessed the struggle to revive the ko’ko’ population, a close relative of the rails. Their presence here further emphasized how untouched Palau was compared to the other Micronesian island we visited, where foreign intrusions such as those that brought the brown tree snake had greatly influenced the environment.

Right: A coral-eating crown of thorns starfish just outside the transect belt in the Ngederrak Conservation Area.  Photo by Jim Haw.

On our second evening in Palau we met with representatives from the Department of Conservation and were given a presentation on the Ngederrak Conservation Area where we had been diving during the day. Once again we were given insight into Palauan’s drive to maintain a connection to the land and the sea that surrounds their islands.

We learned that in 2001 local knowledge and traditional laws were instrumental in the implementation of a two-year moratorium on fishing, entry and collecting of flora and fauna in 5.8 square miles of Ngederrak reef. This moratorium was extended to 4 years and eventually resulted in Ngederrak’s designation as a permanent marine protected area.

Our work in Ngederrak collecting substrate and invertebrate data has allowed us to help the Department of Conservation to quantify the life in this protected area and to be a part of Palau’s effort to continue to protect and preserve its environments.


About the Author: Kirstie Jones is a junior majoring in environmental studies at the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This four-week course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the 24-student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam, Palau and other Micronesian islands.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.