Day 10 – Taro and Ecotourism

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 cultures
Closeup 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

Day 9 : Free Day

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.

Scuba Diving

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.

Sea Krait

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

Island Tour

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 Ngardok
Hiking back from the lake and appreciating all the local flora
Patrick and Karissa beaming because they made it through the forest with only a few cuts and scratches

Day 4 – Over the hills, through the woods, and down to the river we go!

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

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.

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.

A beautiful end to another great day