Today is the last day on the beautiful islands of Palau for most of the 2022 Ridge to Reef crew. The experiences we have had filled us with inspiration, motivation, and ideas for the future to bring back to our communities. Each of us has grown in many ways personally and academically over the past two weeks, and we are all excited to move forward with new perspectives in our careers, education, and life experiences.
We can never truly express our gratitude to everyone who helped make this the incredible trip it was, but we would like to thank Ann Singeo and the Ebiil Society for their hospitality while we were in Ollei; their kindness, delicious cooking, and knowledge have left a strong impression on us, and we appreciate all the experiences and guests they facilitated. We would also like to thank mechas Rosa at the taro patch, Tino for fisheries management, the boat captains who took us out fishing and to the Ebiil Channel for snorkeling, and Jack Lin at the Palau National Aquaculture Center for sharing their time, culture, and experience with us. We have learned so much more than we could have anticipated, and we look forward to applying our newfound knowledge in our respective fields.
Our second week spent in Koror was equally enriching, and we would like to thank everyone at Palau Community College and the Cooperative Research Extension – where we learned about taro culturing and agroforestry, Ron Leidich and everyone at Rock Island Kayak Expeditions for two full days exploring the beautiful lakes and reefs of the Rock Islands while learning about eco-tourism in Palau, and Amy Lee at Reef Environmental Education Foundation for talking to us about citizen science and what career and education options are available at non-profits.
Last but not least, we would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to all the citizens of Palau for making us feel welcome while visiting their beautiful home, and to Bryan Endress, Scott Heppell, and Demian Hommel for facilitating this experience. Their guidance and experience were invaluable, and we cannot thank them enough for putting up with us for two weeks while guiding us through important conversations and providing a safe space for exploration and questioning.
Our morning began slowly, with a 9am meeting to discuss different graduate school and career options. We discussed the differences between thesis based and Professional Science Master’s programs and associated career trajectories. Scott, Damien, and Bryan spoke about the pros and cons of getting a Master’s degree directly after graduating with a Bachelors, and encouraged us all to go into a graduate program with a clear idea of what we want, to take our time deciding, or even consider alternative routes of career success through work experience. This was extremely valuable to all of the students in various stages of their lives and education.
To fill time until our next meeting, we decided we would visit the Etpison museum. Unfortunately, it was closed. Then, we improvised a trip to a local artist, Ling Inabo, who is famous for his story boards. Unfortunately, that was also closed, so we had another change of plans. Afterwards, we quickly decided to splurge at, L’Amarena, a local Italian owned gelato shop.
After sugar rushes and a slow morning, we returned to Yogi’s to rest and relax.
In the early afternoon, Amy Lee, from Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) came to visit us at the BnB and talk about her program based in Key Largo, Florida. REEF is a non-profit that promotes citizen science and education related to conservation and biodiversity in marine ecosystems. Anne discussed the scope and techniques for their research. It is volunteer based, many of which are self proclaimed “fish nerds”. The volunteers are taught to identify region specific fishes before diving with a waterproof clip board that they use to document their findings. Divers mark what species they observe and designate their viewings as few, some, many, or abundant. Divers can increase in rank dependent on how many dives they’ve done through the REEF program. Over 225,000 surveys have been completed since the program started in 1993. There is a public database that provides valuable data to scientists and the general public. This research contributes to understanding species declines, the presence of invasive species, and even species discoveries.
REEF checks the data by comparing divers’ findings with the statistical norms for that region. By following up with divers who have observed species that are out of the ordinary for the location, they verify they were not confused with another species and that the diver is truly confident in their viewing.
REEF has been a highly successful program that has been involved in volunteer research, competitive invasive lionfish hunting, marine education for children, internships and graduate research, and much more.
After a few more hours of R&R, we left for Drop Off, a local bar and grill for our final organized meal together. We reunited with Ann Singeo to discuss the remainder of our adventures in Palau, exchange contact information, and say our final goodbyes before returning for the USA.
Continuing the previous day’s exploration of Palau’s Southern Rock Islands, we met again with Ron Leidich and departed for Risong Bay. After a short boat ride, we paired up into kayaks awaiting us beneath eroded overhang of an island. Ron explained the geological history of the islands, describing how thousands of years of coral growth around volcanic structures of the tectonic subduction zones were pulled deeper into the ocean and then forced back up to the surface, creating the limestone structures we know today. Erosion caused by tides, rain, organismal activity, and humic acids in the decaying leaf litter shaped these coral masses into forms of steep rock faces and undercut edges, an entirely unique environment from the main Palauan island of Babeldaob.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABryan and Damien paddling into King Fisher Bay
At our first stop, King Fisher Bay, we were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Palau’s evasive endemic national bird, the Palauan Fruit Dove. The birds are so rare that some Palauan’s have never even seen one.
We paddled further throughout the maze of islands and reached a no motorboat zone that led us to Mandarin Fish Lake, named after the multicolored fish that often reside in the large brain corals growing in the small marine lake. Although we never spotted the fish, we were able to explore and discover several other unique biological and geological features such as a salt waterfall with a tide dependent direction of flow and a sea crate that slithered past our kayaks before we too began to explore the area underwater. Secluded in a location that sees little tourism and is sheltered from storms and waves, the corals in Mandarin Fish Lake were some of largest and healthiest corals we had seen so far. The addition of freshwater from the rain from the previous night also created obvious halocline layers in the lake caused salinity difference between the first few feet of water and the water further down.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJenn diving in the Mandarin Fish LakeSchools of fish in Mandarin Fish Lake
The next area was much smaller and secluded compared to the previous two. With the help of a large wooden ladder, we accessed the so-called Sunken City Lake. Hidden from poachers, and access only granted to those who are willing to climb over sharp limestone, the lake has harbored a brood stock of giant clams for the past few years. The presence of an underwater siphon channel leading to the main bay, which allows larval clams to pass, creates an ideal nursery for rehabilitation of the threatened group of bivalves. We got to help plant a few younger clams among the beautiful older clams.
Annika planting one of the clams at it’s new homeLarge older clam at Sunken City Lake
We enjoyed some bento box lunches and diving competitions off the boats before exploring yet another bend in the continuous twists and turns of the Rock Island Marine Reserve. The small cove, colloquially known as Fish Pond, had a rich past. Historically, it was used by the Japanese for marine aquaculture so successfully that production became a profitable export. As we had seen throughout the whole trip, the tropic environment is quick to swallow and degrade, which we could see more evidence of from the WWII shipwreck covered in coral and clams at the bottom of the lake. Palau, although small, had an especially deep history relating to WWII.
Wreckage of Japanese WWII ship
Leaving the kayaks behind, we traveled to a fringing reef that we were told was decimated by Typhoon Bopha, ten years prior. Our first look through our snorkel masks was an incredible tell of the reef’s capacity to recover. Large boulder sized corals the size of small cars and fields of branching acropora corals hosting an array of fish including moray eels and rare rock mover wrasse kept us entranced until it was time to ride home. The end of the day consisted of naps and exciting reflection of our Rock Island adventures.
Our day started promptly at 8:00, meeting Ron and his crew at Rock Island Kayak Expedition. After he explained where we would be spending the day, we loaded the boats and made our way to the island of Mecherchar, home to Jellyfish Lake! After the hour-long boat ride, we hiked to the lake with anticipation. The jellyfish (which don’t sting) were abundant throughout the lake but were in the highest densities at the Eastern side. We swam about 20 minutes to the large mass of jellyfish. They were magical. Taking our time, we swam among the jellies until we were forced to head to the next destination.
We made our way to the island aptly named ‘shark city’. The Rock Islands are breathtaking, but the mix of bright sand and countless shades of blue had us all truly speechless. We ate chicken, fish, and veggie bento boxes overlooking the beautiful Rock Islands. After lunch, some of us immediately ran to the water to snorkel with the black-tip sharks. Little did we know that Ron had an even better surprise for us. He explained that the sharks inhabiting the waters surrounding this island have been habituated to large numbers of tourists. Consequently, they are accustomed to free food from tourists (Remember, never feed wild animals anywhere you go!) Our guides set up a line in shallow water and had us all gather shoulder-to-shoulder along it. They began throwing small food scraps in the water, and the 3-4-foot sharks began feasting right in front of us. After a few minutes of feeding frenzy, the sharks started getting a little too aggressive and this experience came to an end. We once again packed up the boats and headed to our next location.
Our last stop of the day was across the bay in the Giant Clam beds. We anchored and swam among 500lb clams. We were instructed to keep our eyes out for crown of thorn sea stars, which eat coral and can be destructive to the reefs. We enjoyed the snorkeling and eventually made our way to the nearby beach, which was littered with plastic. We scoured the beach, filling 11 large trash bags. The trash was loaded onto the boats and brought back with us to Koror for proper disposal.
Overall, it was a fantastic day, full of unique experiences that we will all remember for the rest of our lives and being able to pick up such a large quantity of trash made us all feel as though we have left Palau cleaner than we found it.
We started off our morning by piling into our three touring vans. The Disco Van took up the rear and discussed favorite fiction and non-fiction books while jamming out to house music and reggae. Other vans appreciated a sleepy ride in the early morning. Our first destination was the Palau Community College’s Cooperative Research Extension to learn about taro experiments led by Dr. Yin Yin Nwe. Dr. Nwe discussed the efforts to learn about the different taro species and how their different strengths can lead to better food security for island communities across the Pacific. The research has led to more than 2,000 taro plant materials delivered annually to communities.
Growing taro culturesCloseup of taro propagation
Under Dr. Nwe’s tutelage, we learned how to culture plant tissues in a sterile environment, placing them in agar mediums to asexually propagate them for further research. Due to the size limitations of the lab, we split into two teams—one cutting and propagating the plant samples, while the other half toured the research fields and participated in a separate cultivation technique.
The first group learned how to propagate and sterilize month-old taro plants. First, the lab tools are dipped in an alcohol solution then lit on fire to fully sterilize. The plants were carefully extracted from their growing medium and placed on the lab table. The roots and shoots of the taro plants were removed and divided into offspring plants. The offspring cuttings were then placed in a new agar solution to encourage further growth.
A successful taro culture transplant
The second group completed a propagation process with larger parent plants. This began by harvesting the taro and cutting both the corm and leaves from the stem. After cleaning the lower portion of the stem, we carved away the outer layers and soaked the cube-like sections in a bleach solution for thirty minutes. Once sterilized, we carefully dissected, shaped, and placed each cube into agar solutions with a rooting hormone to promote growth.
Preparing a parent plant culture
After we finished in the lab, the groups met up for lunch provided by PCC and enjoyed a tour of the rest of PCC’s research facilities. The research extension raises swine and chickens for protein, while also harvesting the manure to use as a valuable soil amendment. When combined with waste vegetation and properly aerated, the mixture forms compost within only two weeks. Next, we toured their taro patches, where we also learned about cultivation of sweet potatoes, lemongrass, Palauan apples, pineapples, and other native fruit trees that are grown alongside the taro. Each variety was carefully monitored and managed by the local women, who can easily identify each type of taro by assessing the color and shape of the leaves, stem, and corm. PCC and Dr. Nwe work closely with local Palauans to preserve the diversity of taro species around the island and identify the best management methods for each variety.
Sweet potato cultivars produced by PCC
Upon returning back to base, we had a short break before heading back out to meet with Ron Leidich and his crew from Rock Island Kayak Expeditions (RIKE). Leidich gave an overview of his work cataloguing new species found on the Rock Islands, which will serve as a perfect jumping-off point for our upcoming two days of activities that he will be leading. He explored topics such as the compounding effects of COVID-19 and tourism on biodiversity. One concept he expanded upon was that of ecological innocence of species – ones that are so remote, they have never encountered humans and are therefore curious and unafraid of human contact. One danger reefs face is the threat of the crown of thorns starfish, which can eat up to its bodyweight of coral in 24 hours. The starfish are indirectly encouraged by tourism, which led to a discussion of the future of ecotourism in Palau. We took a dinner break provided by RIKE, which included potato salad, grilled snapper, pork ribs, and poke. Our closing activity after dinner was to view a boat made by Bradman Yarofalibug and other master craftsmen with traditional techniques—heavily resembling the boat from the movie Moana – unsurprising as Moana drew heavy inspiration from Palau among other Pacific Islands. The boat is seaworthy for the occasional trip out on the ocean.
Students viewing the traditional boat at RIKE headquarters
Today we had a day off from class. Those of us who were dive certified went scuba diving and those that weren’t spent a day exploring the island.
The day started with an early trip to the donut shop to fuel our adventures. Then around 8 o’clock we were picked up by Sam’s Tours Dive Center and shuttled over to their location in Koror. Once the eight of us, along with four other tourists and three crew members were loaded onto the boat we began our scuba adventure. We had a forty-five minute boat ride until we reached German Channel, our first dive site. Everyone geared up and back rolled off the boat into the open ocean. We were lucky enough to get to see a manta ray around fourteen feet wide that was swimming in circles with smaller fish swimming underneath.
When we all were back on the boat we took a lunch break and discussed all the amazing things that we got to observe. After that we switched out our air tanks, drove to Blue Corner and began our second dive. On this dive we swam with coral reefs to the right and open ocean to the left.
The last dive was at an old cargo ship wreck site with the boat positioned in a way that one end of the boat was about forty feet underwater and the other almost eighty feet. The top side of the boat resembled the sea floor with how much sea life was covering it.
Leah non-stop smiling after diving
Our day started with breakfast and coffee at a small cafe in Koror. Then it was off to hike to Lake Ngardok, the largest freshwater lake in Micronesia. After the hike we went to cool off at a nearby beach and met up with a few others who had gone straight to the beach. We also had a delicious picnic of bento boxes. Afterwards some of us went to see some stone paths that are all around Palau, some of which are over a thousand years old. It was cool to see the blend of old Palau mixed with modern Palau.
Lake NgardokHiking back from the lake and appreciating all the local floraPatrick and Karissa beaming because they made it through the forest with only a few cuts and scratchesKarissa and Kacper’s afternoon snack they found on the beachOne of Palau’s stone paths we got the chance to explore
After a breakfast of leftover pizza and pineapple, we walked to the end of the pier and waited for the boats to take us to Ebiil Channel. We made friends with the neighbor dog and relaxed in the shade. The glassy blue water made for a pleasant boat ride out to the snorkeling spot. We were all excited to see the channel that the Ebiil Society was named after.
The Ebiil Channel has been protected as a marine reserve for about 20 years, following the most devastating coral bleaching event that Palau has faced in 1998. The Ebiil Channel was somehow spared from the event, which inspired its protection. The protected area is about four miles wide and is a vital spawning ground for over 50 fish species, many of which are important food species. Ann described the reef as a magical area with an overwhelming number of fishes and colors. She said that it looks like a 100 pack of crayons exploded in the ocean, which got our hopes up for the most amazing snorkeling of our lives.
Upon leaving the boat, many of us were disappointed, seeing mostly shades of beige. For others, this was one of the first coral reefs they ever saw, quickly making it one of the most diverse ecosystems they have seen. We saw all types of fish species and even saw sharks, dolphins, and jellyfish. Nemo and Gill were even spotted in the area.
Once we got back to Ebiil, Ann compared the current state of the reef to what it has looked like in the past 20 years. Firstly, the reef is 0.36 degrees above what it normally is which can cause many effects on the reef. “The reef is dead,” she said. She spotted two types of algae that have choked and killed the coral that once flourished. The skeletons of the coral remain, but they are lifeless. From this, many fish species have been on the decline, in both quantity and quality. There was once two-foot long fish in this reef, but now it is difficult to see fish that are half the size. She could not believe the devastation that had happened since she last visited within the last year.
She mentioned that she must speak to the community and other researchers about it, and she wonders if a coral bleaching event has been happening without their knowledge. Many corporations pay in order to pollute which does not solve many issues as these payments are usually seen as loans. Due to the long history of this reef, there is evidence that this ecosystem will bounce-back and continue to promote local biodiversity with a healthy reef.
We started the morning driving from Ebiil to Koror and then headed to the beautiful caves on Airai. After a 30-minute boat ride, we explored a couple of caves with Ann and enjoyed some time in the water. We then headed to the next island, explored the underwater cave, ate a delicious lunch, and spent several hours snorkeling around the outside of the cave. Throughout the day, we saw many fish, clams, jellyfish, and a barracuda. 🐠
Our day began with a heavy downpour over Ollei– a few students out on a morning paddle got caught in the rain, and came back to a small flash flood around the Ebiil buildings! However, the rain was soon followed by a beautiful and calm morning, rainbow included.
After a nourishing breakfast (and caffeine) to start our day, we began our drive to the Cooperative Research & Extension Aquaculture Facility, where we met with staff to tour the hatchery and learn more about aquaculture in Palau. First, we got an overview of aquaculture’s ancient history and importance– these practices began as long ago as 5000 B.C., and held an importance as a sustaining food source. Today, it can be used as a method to replenish degraded populations, as well as to prevent over-harvesting of other marine systems. With extensive experience and knowledge in the field of aquaculture and fisheries, the manager helped provide us with new perspectives on hatchery management and the incorporation of hatcheries into Palauan communities.
Students viewing one of the working tanks at the Cooperative Research & Extension Aquaculture facility.
The facility itself, founded decades ago, has since fallen into disrepair and is no longer fully functional. For example, all of the facility’s raceways were painted with exterior-only epoxy paint, which leaches into the tanks and kills the fish they contain. The epoxy painted concrete raceways cannot be used until completely stripped of epoxy and repainted, with an estimated price tag of $75,000. Our visit prompted extensive group discussion about the future of the hatchery, its goals, and its long term success. Currently, the manager is applying for grants and meeting with Japanese government representatives to improve the hatchery’s production capacity and hire a team of staff to manage it. Though students are skeptical about its long term success, we hope that the facility’s conditions improve and the community becomes more involved with hatchery operations.
For lunch we had arrangements at an oceanside cafe. We were served fresh poke, fish fingers, rice, pad Thai, and tempura fried vegetables. After a full meal and refreshing drinks, we spent a few minutes in the water before driving to our next site.
We made a stop at Mesekelet Conservation Area where we hiked down to a waterfall and cooled off in the pools. The deepest pool was about 8ft deep with a waterfall on the upstream side making it a favorite spot for most students. On our hike back up to the vans, we discovered that the concrete stairs and trail surface were dated to 06/13/2022, just a week prior to our visit!
After swimming in Mesekelet Falls, we drove up to meet Jack Lin at the Palau National Aquaculture Center. The stark contrast of this facility with the facility we toured earlier in the morning was evident to all of the students. Jack started our tour by showing us the lab where he works. He was able to show us various life stages of sea cucumbers under the microscope and how to tell when to move eggs, larvae, or juveniles to different tanks in the hatchery. Jack also led us through the clam, giant clam, and sea cucumber stocks. He described each species, how they are managed, and their use and importance in the community. Once these species are grown to a suitable size, they are distributed to different communities throughout Palau to help support sustainable fisheries management.
Getting a closer look at the clam stock.
Staff members from the Taiwan Technical Mission led us through the rest of the hatchery and showed us rabbitfish, tiger shrimp, milk fish, and others. Staff fed some of the fish which gave us a great view, especially in some of the deeper tanks. There were even two sea turtles (one hawksbill and one green), being held in rehabilitation tanks until they are healthy enough to be released back into the ocean.
Jack teaching the class about clam tank management.
We all agreed that this hatchery is really well run, clean, and has knowledgeable staff. It even has a beautiful view of the ocean and surrounding islands. Most students really enjoyed this location and gave even more of a perspective on the aquaculture industry. Some students even commented that they would love to intern at this location.
We ended our night with a trip to the Koror night market where we sampled food from local vendors. After eating and enjoying live music, we sat under the bridge and watched the sunset until we drove back to Camp Ebiil.
Day 5 started off nice and early with two very informative lectures; one from Ann discussing gender and resources and one from Jack, a fisheries scientist working with the Ebiil Society on restoring sea cucumber populations. Ann covered the difference between what men and women traditionally gathered and fished. Traditionally, men have been assigned the roles of managing and fishing for larger fin fish species that exist further off the shore (using methods such as spear fishing, trolling and net use), while women often managed and foraged fisheries such as clams and sea cucumbers in shallow water sites, a process known as gleaning. The takeaway from Ann’s presentation was the importance of working with nature rather than against it.
Jack’s presentation focused on his own work of study in the field and laboratory. Jack explained the individual needs of developing sea cucumbers and the numerous factors that need to be considered when raising and planting the juveniles, such as timing of the tides and moon cycles.
Students setting up transects
With tide timing in mind, we set out to the nearby sea grass beds after both presentations. Led by Ime, a team member of the cucumber restoration project, we set up multiple transect lines to record sea grass species diversity and the overall amount of sea grass percentage. We also noted any sea cucumbers we found along the way.
Ime giving a live demonstration of sea cucumber harvestingsea cucumbers 🙂
After walking back, Mekatl Blaiyok, a Palauan traditional healer spoke with us about her practices with native plants and how the loss of Palauan land to development negatively affected said practices. Most of her knowledge she kept to herself since healers only shared the details of their practice to their apprentice, however, she did share the name of some key plants that can be used in a variety of different ways, especially in traditional first birth ceremonies. As we waited for the tides to come in for the replanting of the sea cucumbers, we had a lunch of yogurt fruit salad and sea cucumber with lime and soy sauce while enjoying the exceptionally sunny clear skies. Around sunset the water was finally high enough for us to take out the paddle boards and sea cucumber juveniles, and head back to the sea grass beds. Planting from the same transects we had set up earlier, we placed hand fulls of nail sized cucumbers in the bunches of sea grass and made our way back to the dock.
Immediately after breakfast we loaded up the truck with over 100 native plants grown by the Ebil Society. These plants consisted of; kisaks, ukall, las, blacheos, btaches and rebotel. All plants are either grown from seed or cuttings at the Camp Ebiil greenhouse.
Native plants grown at the Ebiil Camp
After loading the plants, we drove to meet the Ebiil Society Staff at the bauxite mines in Ngardmau. Prior to WWII, the Empire of Japan began mining for Bauxite ore (used to make Aluminum), which caused severe deforestation and soil degradation. This left the area eroded, bare, and infertile, making the terraced hillsides the subject of restoration efforts.
Walking towards the old mining sites
Misinterpreting the directions to the planting site, we had the pleasure of our very own jungle adventure. We forged our own trail through the dense vegetation of a ravine. Despite the detour, we were grateful for the experience, ultimately discovering the remains of a boxcar system and coming out at the planting site covered in orange mud.
“Detour” through the forest
Mining cartIn the jungle like Indiana Jones
Reaching the planting site, we found the Ebiil Society staff ready with all of the saplings and planting supplies. Prior to our arrival, they had dug holes in a grid pattern across six different plots. We were provided a demonstration on the planting technique. The first step was to add a base layer of mulch, an organic compost mixture produced by the Ebiil Society, in the bottom of the hole. Next, we carefully removed the plant from the growing container and placed it on top of the mulch layer, trying to keep the roots intact. Then, we filled the rest of the hole with mulch and surrounding soil. Once the saplings were in the ground we placed coconut husks around the base in order to reduce competition and provide slowly released nutrients. After a plot was completely planted, we placed palm fronds between rows of plants perpendicular to the slope. This helps to slow the corresponding flow of water during rain events, helping reduce erosion and increase uptake of water by the new plantings.
Rebotal saplingFinished plot
After we finished planting and had a lunch break, we traveled over to the nearby watershed that consisted of a stream that led to several pools of water and into a waterfall. We all enjoyed this refreshing water after a hard day’s work in the hot sun. Many of us sat in the pools, washing off the mud we had gained from our earlier excursion and admiring the freshwater shrimp.
Later on, some of us went to enjoy the sunset from a nearby lighthouse built by the Japanese, which, with the help of WWII destruction, has since degraded. There, we asked questions about the northern islands of Palau and the local dugong populations. After a delicious dinner, we enjoyed each other’s’ company, talking and laughing into the lightless hours.
Our day started with the majority of us waking up right around 5:30 to experience the calm sunrise, full of anticipation for the day ahead. Around 8:00 we made our way to the boat ramp where we met the fishermen who would be taking us on their boats. Before heading out we had an introduction on how to handline, something most of us had never done before. We split our group into the two boats and motored out about a mile into the reef, only to discover we had forgotten the weights for the handlines. Luckily we were rescued by the Ngarchelong State Rangers who delivered us with plenty of weights. Before we even got a line in the water we noticed a Hawksbill Sea Turtle not too far from the boat.
We baited our hooks, and dropped them to about 90 feet. Before any luck on our lines, the first fish of the day jumped straight into one of the boats! It only took a couple of minutes before the first tug on the line. Jen had the distinction of catching the first fish, and we all watched with anticipation to see what she was going to pull in. As it approached the surface we saw its dark orange color, and after getting it in the boat, it was identified as an Emperor. No one could wipe the smile from their face, and before long, others started hooking into fish.
We only had a couple of hours to spend on the water, but quickly, we found ourselves with a cooler full of 13 fish. There were a couple of fish that had to be released; Allie caught an amazing 2 ½ foot Shark Sucker, Jake caught a small Camouflage Grouper as well as a massive chunk of coral. The fish that were kept included multiple species of Emperor, Sabre Squirrelfish, Red Snapper, Midnight Snapper, and a Black Banded Snapper.
“Nothing matters, just the ocean.” – Jen
We headed back to land around 11:00, and met around the fish cleaning station for a lesson by the fishing guides who took us on the water. We learned about the digital fish measuring system which collects data of fish caught to be used for research by The Nature Conservancy, helping to monitor the status of the species in the area. We also had a discussion on other methods of determining fisheries health.
It was now time to get our hands dirty! We broke out the scalers to remove the scales from our fish, followed by gutting. Cleaning our own fish allowed us to gain a deeper appreciation for these animals, and made our dinner that much tastier. After cleaning up the station, we gathered up our fish and headed back for some much needed lunch.
Lunch consisted of fried chicken, fresh apples and oranges, rice and taro. After fueling up, we journeyed over the hill to a taro field where we met with Ann Singeo and Rose, a mechas who has spent many years working in the taro fields. She graciously shared her wealth of knowledge, and invited us to join her in her taro patch. Carefully making our way through the muddy paths created by the irrigation channels, we circled the taro patch and the women were instructed in how to harvest the taro. Gender roles restrict men from working the fields, as they have always been managed by women. It was an incredible privilege for the men in our group to be allowed to even step foot in the field. While the women harvested taro, the men observed the diversity in the field and the intentionality in the surrounding forest which was cultivated with the community, and children especially, in mind. The taro fields are traditionally very communal, with the women sharing labor and coming together to work and support each other. Great importance is placed on introducing younger generations, and encouraging young women in continuing the culture.
One aspect of the taro fields we greatly admired is the irrigation system and the methods used to ensure equal access to water. There is a main irrigation channel surrounding the field, which is diverted and returned to the river; each taro patch is surrounded by channels which also act as safe walkways to prevent harming the young taro plants. Taro requires a specific amount of saturation to cultivate the highest quality taro. Too much water can cause rotting, too little and it will dry out and most likely won’t survive. Many times, the woman chief would have her patch at the bottom corner of the field to regulate water use. If the chief’s patch was not receiving adequate water, she would ask the women, “where’s my water?” and they would all work to fix the issue to avoid getting penalized. In this way, she ensures equality in access to resources.
Before leaving the taro field, we walked around the perimeter to take it all in one last time. We walked back to Ebiil Society where we were instructed on how to scrape the taro and prepare it for our dinner that night.
Afterwards, we enjoyed some free time. Some of us chose to snorkel, others paddle boarded to the mangrove forests, and a few enjoyed some much needed rest. We gathered for dinner, and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. The fish we caught was served with a delicious sauce, and the taro was cooked in coconut milk. They also provided rice, fried taro leaves, and a sweet tapioca dessert.
The evening ended with an opportunity to talk about fisheries management with traditional fishing expert Tino. Ann provided some context for his lifelong experiences with the ocean and fishing, sharing stories about his passion for the marine environment and conveying his extensive knowledge of Palau’s marine systems. We were able to ask any questions we had and to have an open conversation about changes to the fisheries over time, conservation, policies, and the challenges in management they are working to address. He ended the conversation by extending an open invitation to reach out to him at any time during our stay with any other questions we may have, and an offer to share his knowledge of Palau’s marine life.
It had been a long and eventful day full of new experiences, and though it had been a great time, our energy had run out. After Tino left, we all quickly found our beds, hoping to get plenty of rest and prepare ourselves for the next day’s adventures.
Day 2 in Palau began early at 7:00 am. We all piled into the vans prepared to go sit in on a traditional leaders conference back in Koror. However about an hour into the drive Bryan got the text that the chiefs had closed the conference to an outside audience. We pulled over under a bridge to reconvene while Bryan and Ann Singeo came up with plan B–taking a boat out to Ngereklau island to learn about coral reefs, invasive species and more–after which we took a trip into Koror to grab some breakfast at the local grocery stores.
We ate some delicious food during our trip back to the Ebiil Society, and dropped a hefty sum for some expensive gas along the way. Upon arriving at the Ebiil Society, we learned that plan B would no longer be an option. Because it was a full moon, the tide was too low for our boat trip to the island, so we settled for plan C–to freely explore the area. A majority of us decided on snorkeling, so we grabbed our gear and headed out to the docks directly down the road from the Ebiil Society.
Once out in the water, it became clear that the visibility wasn’t conducive for a great snorkeling experience. With the tide so low and the water so cloudy, corals became a hazard for experienced and new swimmers alike. Despite this, the day was beautiful and occasionally a bright fish would pop out from the murky depths.
After about an hour snorkeling around near the docks, we came back to enjoy a lunch of marlin burgers and veggie wraps. Another plan was set in motion soon after, when we discovered that the Ebiil Society had 10+ paddle boards and 2 kayaks for a trip out on the water. A lot of sweat and a popped board later, we were ready to take off. Two groups were formed; one that went to see the mangroves, and another that left to find a sunken WW2 Japanese plane.
Three hours, mosquito bites, sunburns, and a broken oar later, we all made it back for a fantastic dinner of marlin steak, tapioca, pumpkin, rice, chicken soup and vegetable stir fry. We wrapped up the day with a little reflection time, where we talked about how the trip was going so far and played a getting to know each other game called NACHO’s. Each person spoke about things they were either appreciative of, concerned about, or proud of based on their experiences so far on the trip.
Exhausted after another busy day we all called it a night at around 9:00pm, ready to enjoy the activities waiting for us tomorrow.
Day 1 in Palau began with a trip to the Belau National Museum (BNM). We were excited to learn about Palauan culture, history, and art. BNM taught us that Palau has a diverse history influenced by western Europe, eastern Asia, and Melanesian traders, colonists, and voyagers. This has resulted in an extremely beautiful country with very unique traditions, customs, and politics.
After our trip to BNM, we enjoyed a bento lunch of teriyaki beef, pork, fried chicken, fried rice, and the most delicious bananas on the planet, provided by a local restaurant, Yano and Son’s. When lunch was over, we departed for the island of Babeldaob. Along the way, we stopped at Ngardmau Falls, a former Japanese bauxite mining site. We followed the rail tracks to beautiful natural water slides and pools. Continuing the trail through the jungle, we were refreshed by a sudden rain storm. At the end of the trail, we waded under Ngardmau Fall, enjoying the cool water before our long trek up over 500 stairs.
Upon our arrival in the fishing hamlet of Ollei, we were delighted to learn we would be hosted by the Ebiil Society on a scenic oceanfront. After settling in, the Ebiil Society staff provided us with our evening repast, a dinner of fried marlin, marlin poke, stir fry noodles, coconut milk taro, tofu salad, and rice. Many of us realized for the first time how incredible fresh fish could be, despite life long aversions to seafood.
Later, we met in the classroom to discuss plans for our week in Ollei, and have a formal introduction to Anne Singeo, the executive director of the Ebiil Society. She spoke passionately about marine management, the opportunities we have here as students, and the village’s eagerness to share their knowledge about fishing and resource management over the coming days.
Exhausted and well fed, we turned in early to prepare for our next day of adventure in Palau.