Day 12: Swim. Eat. Repeat.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Day 11: Jellies, Sharks, and Clams oh my!

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.

Day 3 – Catch, Harvest, and Cook

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.