Day 14: Sulong e mechekung! Farewell to Palau.

As we draw closer to the end of our trip, we want to take a moment to reflect on how amazing our experience has been. From wading in knee-deep mud in the taro patch, to the skin-crispening sun on the ocean, to singing in a monsoon, we’ve made the most out of every single day. We’ve been especially aware of the dedication shown to us by every person we’ve interacted with. Each of us has developed on this trip in so many ways.

Image: Watching the sunset as we headed back to the dock after an awesome day of kayaking


We learned about each other and more importantly, about ourselves. We discovered new ways to communicate with people of different backgrounds and cultures. Additionally, we learned to work and live together as a close-knit group.

Image: Getting cozy in the girls dorms at Ebiil


We learned to observe the world differently and at a greater depth. Our experiences taught us to take a broader view of conservation and culture.  Through the programs we participated in, we learned to focus more on long term solutions, rather than becoming discouraged by immediate challenges.

Image: Noah Popping Up For Some Air

Expanding Our Comfort Zone

From trying new foods to learning how to swim in the ocean, we all pushed ourselves to our limits and then some. We each learned that we are capable of more than we originally thought. Each day was a challenge but by the end of our trip, we took change in stride and are grateful for all of our experiences.

Image: Trying new foods, prepared in new ways


This class has given us a better understanding of how complicated natural resource management is, and how important it is to encompass the needs of all those who may be impacted. We were blown away by the people we met who had identified issues in their community and then constructed long-term solutions to those problems. They emphasized the importance of involving all the stakeholders and that none of this work can be done alone.

Additionally we learned how difficult balancing the intricacies of biodiverse ecosystems and societal needs can be. For example, the issues surrounding land use management, food security, and development within the bounds of a space-restricted nation. Every decision no matter how well informed has a tradeoff.

Image: Converting bauxite mine to native forest for new land uses

We are so grateful to all that made this amazing trip possible. 

We’d like to thank…

The staff at PCC (Lik, Clarence, and the kitchen staff), Ebiil Society (Ann Singeo, Cindy Fitzpatrick, Sharon, Aot, and the rest of the staff), Paddling Palau, Chris and Ann Kitalong, Dr. Nwe, PCC Multispecies Hatchery, Koror Solid Waste Facility, Cooperative Research Extension Program, Koror and Ngarchelong State Rangers, Belau National Museum, Palau Aquarium, Mechas Anne-Marie from the taro patch, Tino the fisherman, the staff at the Melekeok Bai and Stone Paths, OSU’s Departments of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, and Rangeland Resources.

We’d like to personally thank Drs. Scott Heppell and Bryan Endress.

And finally, we’d like to thank the rooster, without whom we would not have known it was 4:00 am every single morning.

Palau OSU crew 2023 signing off.

Authored by Dustin Audirsch and Melissa McMullen

Day 13: Rain or Shine

Today we started our day with Paddling Palau picking us up for round two. The weather was very rainy but that didn’t stop us from going out to learn and explore new places in the Rock Islands. We got on our boat and we headed off in the rain which was a chilly ride.

Hilary, Melissa, and Veronica enjoying the boat ride

We arrived to our first destination of the day, the Milky Way. The Milky Way is a nice little cove that is full of limestone sediment that is muddy and very white in color. The limestone mud is good for your skin and some local stores even sell the mud for skincare. We also had a great time playing with the mud and diving through a pool doughnut.

Students enjoying their mud bath
Noah, Midner, and Alanna having fun

Our next destination was the famous Jellyfish Lake. It is a small hike going up and over the island to get to this marine lake. Jellyfish Lake is comprised of two stingless jellyfish, the moon jellyfish and the golden jellyfish which look amazing. The lake is also comprised of cardinal fish, silversides, little pied cormorants, and the Entacmaea medusivora which is an endemic species that preys on the jellyfish. The jellyfish population has been low over the past two years, but they are starting to bounce back. On good years, there can be up to 5 million golden jellyfish! The lake is comprised of several layers, the mixed layer with oxygen where the species in the lake hang out, the pink bacterial layer, which is 13 meters deep, and the poisonous layer which is 15 meters deep. Our guide Mac strongly advised not diving to those more dangerous layers.

The beautiful Golden Jellyfish
Rebecca admiring the jellyfish

We went and visited a spot that has a large piece of traditional Palau money . The traditional money piece is called a yap, or they are also commonly called a rai stone. These magnificent stones are made from calcite, which is is formed when limestone and water which calcifies. The yap is very important for the Palau and Yap cultures and once the stone hits the ground, it must stay right where it touches the ground and no longer holds its original value. People can buy the yap, but it still must stay in the same spot. The large stones would get carved from a calcite cave and then they would shape the stone with pumice and other tools very carefully because the stone is fragile and can crack very easily. We learned that the hole in the center of the stone is meant for transportation.

Broken calcite
The class next to the rai stone

After seeing the yap money, it was time for our lunch. We ate lunch on the beach of an island that had quite a bit of black tip reef sharks. Everyone swam with the sharks and were able to check them out up close which was pretty dang cool. We saw as many as five sharks!

Blacktip Reef Sharks with juvenile Golden Trevally
Blacktip Reef Shark with a Remora under it
Everyone swimming with the sharks

Our final stop for the day was at the fishbowl or otherwise known as the fish cemetery. At the fishbowl there were lots of big, beautiful coral and many fish. We also were able to perform some conservation by taking out some crown of thorns. The crown of thorns like to feed on coral reefs, so it is essential to limit their population so help mitigate some of the damages. The crown of thorns is very poisonous, so you have to be careful to not touch their thorns, so the best method of removal is by using a spear to pick them up. While the crown of thorns is not an invasive species, there is a population imbalance, and they require management. Our guide Finn was able to spear one crown of thorns while we snorkeled.

Clown fish peeking up
Finn spearing the crown of thorns

After a long day out on the ocean we headed back to Paddling Palau and then back to PCC. We all freshened up to go out to one last group dinner at Kramer’s. We were joined by a few special guests like Chris Kitalong and Dr. Nwe. It was a lovely evening together just chatting, playing pool, and eating some really good food.

Group photo after the day’s adventures
Everyone eating and enjoying our time together at Kramer’s

Written by Garret and Veronica

Day 12: Rock Island Hoppin’

Paddling Palau picked us up today at 8:00 am to take us to their shop. Once we got there, we made sure that all of our permits were good to go for the Rock Islands, and then we boarded the boat. Once we arrived at our destination of Risong Bay, we split up into three groups on kayaks with our snorkel gear and rotated locations. The first group was dropped off at the site of a shipwreck, which was a Japanese cargo ship from World War II. The second group was dropped off at Mandarin Fish Lake, where they were on the search for the skittish mandarin fish. This group got lucky and had the chance to see one!

Image: Mandarin Fish photographed by Reid Endress

The third group was dropped off at what was called the fish pond, which is basically a lagoon that has been closed off with rocks which were put in place by the Japanese during WWII; it is where people would hold and rear the fish until they reached a harvestable size.

Image: Remnants of a fish pond photographed by Scott

While out on our kayaks, we heard the most ethereal bird calls. It was so peaceful to be able to sit out there and just listen to the sounds and live in the moment. Some of the species that we heard included the Palauan Bush Warbler, which almost sounds like a human whistle. We also heard the Imperial Dove, which has a growl-like call. We saw lots of Fruit Doves, which are the national bird of Palau, and are an endemic species to Palau. We also saw lots of fruit bats!

Our tour guides Mac, Finn, and Adam were brimming with knowledge about all the different birds, plants, history, and basically just everything that we saw. They could answer any questions that we had about the area, and really made the tour extra special. Mac told us all about the formation of the Rock Islands as well as the erosion which causes the undercut. These islands are essentially just pushed up coral reefs made out of limestone, that have been slowly eroding away at the waterline. Mac pointed out on a rock face in one area that had a distinct line which is an indicator of the sea level once being much higher than its current level.

Image: Erosion of the Rock Islands photographed by Anna

Once everyone had a full rotation on the kayaks in Risong Bay, we hopped back on the boat to eat some much needed tasty bento boxes. When everyone was finished eating, the shenanigans commenced! We had people belly-flopping off of the bow of the boat, jumping, and swimming around the reef that we were anchored above.

Image: Haley with her bento box

Our next stop was to try and spot some Mesekie (dugongs) near a sanctuary area they are known to frequent. The water was a little rough (okay maybe a lot for some), so it wasn’t easy to spot them at first. However, after a few minutes, someone spotted several and we were able to watch them for a little bit. While waiting for them to surface again, we also saw many sea turtles in the area.

After seeing the dugongs, we headed out to a channel in which our guides knew some manta rays had been using recently as a feeding zone. Almost right away we saw several from the boat at the surface feeding. We spent some time snapping some photos from the boat, but the real excitement came when Mac asked us if we wanted to get in the water with the mantas. Of course, the answer was yes. The current was really strong in this area because of the rising tide carrying water and nutrients from the deep blue nearby. This is primarily the reason the mantas show up in this spot. Almost immediately we had mantas swimming directly below us! One cool thing that Mac mentioned about the mantas is that they tend to get white spots on their top side when they’re feeding. This is a sign that they’re eating well and happy. We had so much fun on our first drift-snorkel through the channel that the boat captain, Jeff, took us to the beginning so we could do it all over again. 10/10 recommend!

Video: Manta Ray swimming directly beneath Haley

After a successful day of kayaking, listening to the birds, seeing the lush flora and fauna of the rock islands, and swimming with manta rays we headed back to Paddling Palau and called it a day.

Image: kayak raft photographed by Alanna

Written by Anna and Rebecca

Day 11: Kayangel Atoll

We started the day with an early morning boat ride, going 2.5 hours to the north. During the ride, we saw spinner dolphins jumping out of the waves to greet us.

When we reached the island the water was a gradient of colors ranging from turquoise blue to deep ocean blue.

The turquoise blue waters near the atoll
Our boats docked along Kyangel Atoll

There was work lined up for the day, but the Kayangel State Conservation Staff was on lunch break, so we sat in the summer house and ate our lunch. Each of us got a single piece of the best mango on the planet.

Delicious mango that we all cherished

Afterwards, we took the opportunity to explore or talk to conservation experts. It was low tide, and on the far side of the island there was more trash than any of us had seen here. All of this was washed up by the tide, and most was not from Palau.

Disco ball shack

We also explored a cool island shack that seemed to be the life of the party! Cue the disco ball.

Trash piled along the east side of the island

Down in the tide pools, we came across two different species of moray eels. They were hiding under rocks away from the sun waiting for the tide.

Moray eels within the tide pools

We then made our way to the clearing to help the conservation staff continue their work. Our job was to remove the invasive green vines that were growing over the trees. Removing the vines prepares the land for reforestation, which will improve the habitat of the Megapode (a native ground bird).

A group photo of work being done to remove invasive species
Melissa clearing vines from the trees

We boarded the boat to start back towards Babeldaob, and to listen to Chris Kitalong talk about the destructive coconut rhinoceros beetle. The beetles have always been in Palau, but go through cycles of destruction. They eat the heart of the palm , which kills the tree, resulting the loss of palm fronds and fruits. It is clear when the beetles have been to a place because the palms are left looking like giant sticks. Coconut trees are important to island life because coconuts provide a hydration source where freshwater is rare or absent.

Chris Kitalong giving us a lecture about the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle
Coconut trees that have been decimated by the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle

As we were making our way to the dock, the sun began to set, which made a calming glow on the tranquil waters and the rock islands.

Sun setting on a group boat by the dock

It was a quick turnaround from returning to the dorms to leaving for the night market. The Koror night market occurs biweekly, and features food, art/craft vendors, and dancers. We all got to try fried spiral potatoes and bought some fresh dragon fruit.

Local night market under the Friendship Bridge in Airai

Written by Rachel, Abby, and Haley.

Day 10: June 30th

We all loaded up in the Mesekiu bus yet again and ventured back up north through the winding mountain roads to the PCC Multispecies Hatchery. We met Richard Page, an aquaculturist who has worked at the facility over a year. The facility is a polyculture center that houses and reproduces multiple types of sea creatures such as sea cucumbers, tiger shrimp, rabbit fish, giant clams, mangrove crab, and some rescued hawksbill turtles. Just in the last year this institution has grown exponentially, increasing their success in aquaculture production. In the past eight months they released 16.5 million mangrove crab megalope into the ocean.

(Group gathering around the sea cucumber tanks)

The tour began in the lab where they culture the algae in mother cultures and transfer them into water jugs. There are three different types (CM, Nano, ISO) that are used as the base for the aquaculture feed.

(The three types of algae)

There were three different tanks with tiger shrimp. Tank 1 had a high protein feed, tank 2 had a Taiwanese feed, and tank 3 had a low protein feed. We observed that the shrimp in tank 1 were the largest around 200 grams and had much more color and energy.

(Tiger Shrimp chilling out)

We moved our tour to the sea cucumber tanks where there were two different types. Most interesting was the Stichopus cucumber contains the highest amount of fucan sulfites. These sea cucumbers can be segmented into additional ones. Richard Page has been studying the effects of the holothurin toxin that they contain and the regenerative processes that they can have. When mixed with stem cells they have the potential to help with growing skin, cartilage, and ligaments.

(Veronica, Rebecca, and Abby holding sea cucumbers)

We returned to PCC for a quick break and then returned to our bus to make our way to the Koror Solid Waste Facility. It is a multi operational facility ran by the local government. Here they separates the glass from the plastic and compost.

(The group photo in front of Koror Solid Waste Facility)

Onsite it contains the Belau Eco Glass Studio that turns the glass in the recycling process into art.

(Belau Eco Glass Center sign)

(Recycled glass art replication of Palauan women’s money (Bachel))

Part of the waste facility is dedicated to recycling plastic into a synthetic Diesel fuel. The process begins with separating plastic into four categories, cutting them up into tiny bits, washing, drying, and then heating that into a gas that distills into the end product of fuel. This process creates enough energy to fuel itself with a 10% surplus. The Chief engineer of the facility told us that they would like to expand the operation to process all of Palau’s waste plastic, but they are facing a prohibitive cost and a lack of personnel. We also learned how the Japanese government gave Koror a grant (in alignment with the UN mission for sustainability) to replace equipment lost in a 2017 fire.

(Separated plastic shreds)

We came back to PCC and toured their 3D printing lab where they had made lots of these cool fruit fly traps that twist onto plastic bottles. They also had a giant lantern trap for Rhinoceros Beetles. One type of the beetle lives in a coconut tree and spreads a disease into the trees which can eventually kill them. The lantern traps have a light and pheromone pouch that lures them inside.

(Bryan, Scott and KB introducing the Rhinoceros traps)

This day gave a lot of insight into how the Palauan community, government, and outside partnerships collaborate to solve sustainability issues and to better improve the cultural and economic environment.

This blog was written by: Alanna and Brittney (With some help from Alex and KB)

Day 9: Plant Tissue Culture and Agriculture

After a refreshing day off, we got up bright and early and headed out to PCC’s Cooperative Research & Extension (CRE) station to visit their research & development section.

Image: Road sign at the entrance to PCC-CRE

We started with presentations by Dr. Nwe and Arsenio, a representative from Koror State Solid Waste Management. Dr. Nwe gave us a brief background and explanation of the research they are conducting regarding plant tissue culture and agriculture. We learned that they do a lot of research around crop improvement not just for the country of Palau but to help surrounding islands as well.

Arsenio gave us a background of what their office does and how they manage waste in the island and their overall goal of “environmental protection & preservation”. They sort the waste into different types of materials: recyclables, plastics, food waste, metals, and glass. For the plastics they have implemented an energy recovery program that will melt plastic into a bio-diesel fuel which can be used for their generators to power facilities all while producing no harmful emissions and reducing plastic waste. Another interesting project they told us about was their repurposing of glass. They will take the recycled glass and melt it down in a kiln to be turned into blown glass art to be sold.

Image: Dr. Nwe introducing the PCC-CRE staff

After the presentations, we split into three different groups to get hands-on experience of the work they do. One of the stations was in their plant tissue culture lab, where we got to see and help propagate clones of different species of taro. This was conducted in a sterile environment so before entering we put on lab coats, masks, and gloves. This is to protect the genetic diversity of the taro as the lab serves as a form of seed bank for taro. The process begins by taking a clone and dissecting it down to the sprout and then placed in a gel media to grow. The gel is changed every month for 3 months, and then the taro is taken out of the jar and then cleaned and planted.

Image: Garret (left) and Alix (right) showing their successfully dissected taro shoots.

Another station was learning about soil analysis with Arsenio. We got to review the results of the soil samples taken when we were at the bauxite mines on day 3. While the dirt is still generally unproductive, the soil from 2020 did show some progress in that there was an increase in magnesium. Arsenio and his office use this system to analyze the compost they make to see if they need to add or take away anything, they also use this to test areas of concern around the island. One of the projects that Koror State Solid Waste Management has started is the Urban Growers Program. This program provides opportunities and access for families and households in Koror to grow their own gardens to give better access to healthy and fresh food. They provide the tools and resources needed for the families to understand proper waste management.

Image: Soil Analysis results of our soil samples with 2020 on the left and 2023 on the right.

The last station, was with Kodama-san in the greenhouse. He showed us propagation techniques of air layering, cutting, grafting, and budding. Air layering is when we expose the stem and then wrap in moss to encourage roots to form, which you can then cut and plant after a few months. Cutting is taking a healthy portion of a plant, applying hormone powder to the base, and placing it in soil where it can then grow and become a separate plant. Grafting is a technique where tissues of plants are joined together so that the new branch will become part of the host plant. Budding is grafting technique in which a bud of a plant is grafted onto the stem of another plant.

Image: Dustin trying his hand at air layering

After lunch, PCC CRE provided us with some refreshing coconuts to enjoy before our tour of the farm.

Image: (Left to right) Noah, Rebecca, KB, Veronica, Melissa, Alix, and Alanna enjoying their refreshing coconuts

The first stop on our tour was their livestock, where the manure of the pigs is collected to be used for compost. We also got to view their banana crops where they had two separate crops to test how one did with fertilizer and one without. Even though they were planted at the same time, and are the same species, the fertilized group was larger in size and healthier overall. The last stop was their taro and tapioca patches. They explained that Palau has three different crop environments: sers (uplands), mesei (swamp/marshlands), and dechel (wetlands). We were able to see examples of all three environments, with taro traditionally being grown in a mesei environment.  

Image: View of a tapioca crop at PCC-CRE with taro fields in the background

Today’s blog was written by Noah and Alix

Day 8: Free Time

Today was a day of rest and/or free exploration for us. Some of us went to the beautiful Long Island Park and Conservation area to hike in the jungle.

Ngermalk – Long Island Park and Conservation Area
One of many labeled trees along the trail and the raucousness of the jungle (volume up!)

At the park was a medicinal plant garden full of species like Kertaku (Myrtaceae Descaspermum fruticosum – native), Blaulked (Rubiaceae Timonius mollus – endemic), Rur (Rubiaceae Bakia palauensis – endemic), Ebechab (Plypodiaceae Microsorum scolopendria – native), Chemudelach (Rubiaceae Hedyotis Korrorensis – endemic), Kelsechedui (Lamiaceae Vitex trifolia – native), Ukellelachedib (Fabaceae Chamaecrista mimosoides – native), Ngmak (Asteraceae Ageratum conyzoides – native), and several others. We learned that endemic refers to species found only in a certain region, and native refers to species that are naturally occurring without human introduction but can be found in other regions.

Indigenous medicine garden

Medicinal uses for Kelsechedui, for example, include reducing high blood pressure, use as a mosquito repellent, a tonic to simulate appetite, give you energy, and keep your body hydrated. Recipes and instructions for these remedies can be found in the Palau Primary Health Care Manual.

Across the island, another group spent the day with Sam’s Tours diving out in the Rock Islands. Palau is known worldwide for its incredible diving and this group did not want to pass up this opportunity.

Ready for a day of diving! From left to right: Brittney, Reid, Melissa, Scott, Alex (eyeballs only), Jocelyn, Dustin

We left the dock and before we even reached our first dive site, we came across a reef manta ray swimming across the reef.

Reef Manta Ray

The first dive took place at German Channel. An equal mix of sandy bottom and reef, this was the perfect easy dive to begin the day. We spotted many varieties of fish and other sea life including sharks and turtles.

Before ascending to the surface, we stopped to snap a few quick pics to remember the moment.

Brittney and Dustin throwing shakas 50 feet down
Jocelyn throwing shaka 48 feet down

The next dive site, Dexter’s Wall, exhibited plunging reef walls that disappeared far below what we could see. The reef was made of mostly soft corals mixed in with hard corals. Here, the sea turtle sightings continued with our group spotting at least five of the beautiful creatures.

Melissa observing a green sea turtle

The dive concluded when we arrived at the Blue Corner, which swept us away into a drift dive. People who talk about diving in Palau never fail to mention the sudden swift currents that can catch a diver off guard. After a fast-moving safety stop at 15 feet, we popped to the surface for lunch.

After a delicious bento box, we hopped back into the water for our last dive of the day, Canyons. This site displayed steep walls of colorful hard corals with canyons breaking up the scenery. We swam though a rather large overhead tunnel and finished our dive at a vertical wall full of life and color.

Hard coral rock wall at Canyons

From laundry to shopping, to diving and hiking, we ended our day feeling rested, refreshed, and ready for another week of adventure here in Palau.

Written by Jocelyn, Dustin, and Hilary (Shaka)

Day 7: Sad Goodbyes and New Beginnings

We soaked up our last little bit of Ollei at the Ebiil Society camp this morning with what had quickly become a routine of coffee, chats, and laughter in the kitchen area with some much needed snuggles and scratches with Dice, the dog that everyone has become so fond of. Before splitting into our groups to do camp clean-up chores, some students took a walk over towards the dock for breakfast and a milkshake. When everyone was all finished, we convened in the classroom one last time for a group reflection. It quickly became apparent how much of an impact this experience had on each of us. Some teary eyes, hugs, and thank-yous were made to Anne, Cindy, Omar, and the rest of the wonderful staff as we geared up to head to the traditional fish weir in Ngekkeklau. The high emotions were an indicator that our souls were fulfilled and inspired by what an incredibly special place the Ebiil Society is. It was hard for us to leave such a warm and welcoming place in which we all felt that we had become part of a big family. We all succeeded in rediscovering our inner child at Ebiil Society.

Students and Ebiil Society staff

After taking a group photo we all hopped on the bus (with air conditioning!!) to head to our next destination; the traditional fish weir. Before arriving, we were all expecting that we would be wading in the water at most up to our knees, well, we were wrong! Not one of us was prepared to go for an unplanned swim, but being flexible and having the ability to find laughter in uncomfortable moments meant most of us just went for it.

Students standing around fish wier

The fish weir is constructed of stones from the area and was recently rebuilt so that it can be used again to harvest fish this August. The original structure dates back about 1000 years. The fish can swim into the weir at high tide, but the design is such that the fish aren’t able to swim back out because they can’t turn around such a sharp corner. The fish can then be harvested with a spear for a fresh meal. This method is very passive, requiring no refrigeration, no fuel costs, and any unwanted species can be tossed back over to the other side to continue living freely making it more sustainable overall. There are plans being made around Palau to restore and use more ancient fish weirs for these reasons.

Drone photo of fish wier

Our next destination was to visit a reconstructed Bai, the traditional meeting house used in ancient Palau for making many governmental decisions. To get to the Bai we had to hike an ancient stone path that wound up the steep forest hillside. The hike was a brisk 10-15 minutes up the mossy and lush forest. When everyone reached the Bai, our tour guide Thema began to explain the purpose and significance of the Bai. He told us that the Bai was the center of the executive part of the government in the ancient Palauan state.

Ancient stone path to Bai

The Bai is covered in stories. Our guide talked about how each image on the outside of the Bai is significant to what happens inside. One of the most interesting details of the stories and the structure is the entrance. There is no door, just a low opening at each end to allow people to step inside. The short height of the opening is purposeful, it forces someone to bow their head as they enter and show respect as they enter. The front entrance to the Bai also has a large black bat painted on the underside of the beam that supports the front wall. The bat represents the action of bowing; bats hang upside down when at rest, this is considered a show of respect. Thus, the bat in the low doorway requires all who enter to follow suit and show respect.

Reconstruction of traditional Bai

After our hike we continued our journey back to PCC to get settled bac in the dorms. We all gathered and had a chat about what everyone was doing the next day and what the plans for the week are. That concluded our day.

Blog by Anna Tollfeldt and Alexander Van Brocklin

Day 6: A Day on Ngarkeklau Island

Our day started off early in the morning at 5:30 am when we paddled out to watch the sunrise as we floated to Ngarkeklau island in hopes of seeing some dugongs. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any, but we still got to experience the peacefulness of the early morning out on the ocean. The island of Ngarkeklau is an isolated island managed by the Ebiil society in an effort to conserve the mangroves and other unique species, including sea turtles.  

Image: Morning paddleboard to Ngarkeklau

Upon arrival at Ngarkeklau island we explored the tree named Demdemkur. A Palaun legend says that the God’s were having a throwing contest to see who can throw their betelnut the furthest. A trickster god put a bird in his mouth instead of the betelnut, and threw the bird which ended up landing the furthest away. This spot is where the tree lies. After looking at Demdemkur, we wandered the island where we got to explore the mangroves and even see some previous sea turtle nests. We then went and collected clams on the shore with Cindy, which would be used to make, demok (clam chowder). While searching for clams we found other interesting shells and even some broken pottery from when Palauans used to make pottery from the clay on the island. While exploring, we noticed a lot of trash on the island that drifts in from Asia; we even found a glass fishing float from the Japanese when they colonized the area.

Image: Demdemkur tree
Image: Searching for clams with Cindy
Image: Anna holding her Japanese fishing float

After a few hours on the island we got on the boats to go snorkel the Ebiil channel where we saw some awesome fish and coral structures. Bryan and Scott told us how last year they noticed a lot of dead coral and this year they noticed there was some growth, meaning the coral in the Ebiil channel is recovering. We got to see giant clams, tons of fish, and even a baby shark! Seeing the giant clams in their natural habitat was especially cool after visiting the aquaculture center and planting some ourselves. The Ebiil channel is also a marine protected area (MPA) which means there are certain laws and regulations in place to protect the marine life within that area. It was very special to be able to snorkel in an area that was protected, and be able to see the benefits of these MPA’s.

Image: KB diving with a starfish
Image: Baby shark (doo-doo doo-doo)
Image: Alex with a giant clam
Image: Drone footage of all of us snorkeling at Ebiil channel

After an amazing snorkel, we headed back to the island where we got to enjoy a delicious lunch served on coconut leaves.

Image: Lunch; fried fish with veggie slaw, taro, and rice

After eating, we hopped back on the boats and headed out to the open ocean, where we got to fish using the hand lines that we made yesterday. We made some awesome catches, including Red Snappers and a Black Saddled Coral Grouper, and even got an unexpected visit from a sea krate. Some of our catches had to be released back into the water because they were either a protected species or they were juvenile, meaning they haven’t been able to reproduce yet.

Image: Rachel with the biggest catch of the day: a Red Snapper
Image: Sea Krate on our boat

After some fishing we headed back to camp Ebiil where we learned about the anatomy of a fish and the type of data that fisheries collect for sustainable fishing. Some of these include the size, gender, and age. We then had a demonstration by KB and Midner on how to properly scale and gut a fish, and were able to try ourselves for those of us who wanted to. This would be our dinner for the night.

Image: Fish scale and gut demonstration

We ended the day by sitting at the dock and enjoying the beautiful sunset. After dinner with our freshly caught fish, we did a group reflection of the day, and got to enjoy smores by the fire.

Image: Sunset at Ebiil

Written by Veronica and Rebecca

Day 5: Mangrove Ecosystems and Clam Planting

Figure 1. Mangroves viewed from an inshore channel.

The last several days we have been learning about the traditional food systems of Palau. After breakfast, we began the day by preparing hand lines, which we will be using when we go bottom fishing tomorrow.

Figure 2. From left to right: Midner, Jocelyn, Hilary, Veronica, and Rebecca preparing handlines.

Next, we grabbed the paddle boards, kayaks, and snorkel gear to head out to the mangroves.

Figure 3. From left to right: Dustin, Alex, Anna, Jocelyn, Brian, KB, Scott, Omar, Sharon, Nwe, Aot, Brittney, and Red at the mangroves.

Aot talked about the many different benefits of the mangrove ecosystem. Mangroves are unique trees with many adaptations. To survive in the saltwater, individual mangrove trees use “sacrificial leaves”, which they divert salt from the ocean into, instead of dispersing the salt through the whole tree. Another strategy is the aerial root structures, which vary from species to species. The four types of root structures are buttress, knee, snorkel, and prop. Because of the complex root structure, mangroves protect the coastlines from wave erosion, typhoons, tsunamis, and catch sediments from terrestrial runoff. These ecosystems are also vital to the traditional subsistence practices of Palau. Women go out foraging at low tide for clams, fiddler crabs, and sea cucumbers. At high tide, when larger fish come near the shore to feed, men will spear fish for the larger species such as mangrove snappers, rabbitfish, and mangrove crab. These systems also function as a refuge for early growth of juvenile fish, which then disperse to support the reef fisheries. As estuarine systems, mangroves have high productivity and high biodiversity.

Figure 4. Mangrove prop roots on the left, with snorkel roots on the right.

After the introduction by Brian, Scott, and Aot, we tied up our paddle boards and went snorkeling along the edge of the mangroves. Along the edge of the shore, we primarily saw snorkel roots, but saw more prop roots when we swam up inland channels. Further offshore, beyond the snorkel roots, there was patchy seagrass. Throughout the seagrass, there were mantis shrimp holes guarded by different species of shrimpgoby. This is a mutualistic relationship, where mantis shrimps will dig the holes, and the shrimpgoby guards the hole; the shrimpgoby gets a home, and the mantis shrimp is protected.

Figure 5. Mantis shrimp and shrimpgoby house.

When we swam into the mangrove channel, it was much calmer than in the ocean along the shore. It was cool to experience firsthand how the mangroves keep the waters calm.

When we got back to Ebiil society from our excursion in the mangroves, the power was out so we had a few hours to catch up on journaling, relaxing, and lunch. We wrapped up lunch with a chemang (mangrove crab) that Noah caught!

Figure 6. Noah’s chemang.

Once the boats were fueled up, we piled on three boats and took a 20 minute ride out to Bngall, a traditional fishery which has been degraded by overfishing. The Bngall fishery is located just south of Ollei where we have been staying, near the island of Ngerkeklau.

Figure 7. Garret’s drone footage at Bngall.
Figure 8. Group photo right before clam outplanting. Picture credit Rachel.

The giant clam restoration area was marked by four white buoys, approximately a square kilometer in area. Because it was low tide, we were unable to boat all the way to the restoration area. We put on our snorkel gear and swam in about 2 feet of water for about a kilometer to meet with the smaller boat, which had the clams from the hatchery for outplanting.

Figure 9. Tridacna species ready for outplanting.

Omar explained how to proceed with outplanting to increase the chances of clam survival. He said to plant close to a protective structure such as seagrass, a rock, or coral, so that wave action would not knock the clam over leaving it to die. However, he also said not to put the clams too close to coral or rock, to make sure the clam had room to open and to grow. We planted 55 clams in Bngall!

Figure 10. KB outplanting two Tridacna.

We returned to Ebiil society, where the power was still out and dinner was going in the smoker. We had another amazing meal with tapioca, chicken, fresh caught fish, and the taro which we harvested yesterday.

Most evenings we gather for discussion and reflection on the activities of the day, and talk about all that we are learning. Tonight, welcomed Ann (executive director of Ebiil society) home to Ollei, and had the chance to hear about how she saw the need for cultural resurgence and natural conservation, and how she acted on that.

Figure 11. Brian and Ann at evening discussion.

The earliest project of the Ebiil society was establishing protections for the Ebiil channel. Ann also told us the story of how the sea cucumbers outside of Ollei were overfished. Traditionally a women’s fishery, the sea cucumbers were targeted by the men in the community who had boats for export to China. The fishery was stressed to the point where the lack of sea cucumbers began to effect other organisms in the system, with meas (rabbitfish) being the next thing to disappear from the waters. The desolation of the system impacted the women in the community the most. Once the community understood the damage to the fishery, it was time for action. The mechas (women elders) knew the spawning cycle of the sea cucumbers, which was instrumental to the success of restoring populations. Ann attributes the success of Ebiil to the community engagement and country leadership involvement. Without Ann’s leadership in the early days and continuing behind-the-scenes contributions, Ebiil society would not be where it is today.

Day 4: Mesei, Monoliths, and Monster Fish

Throughout the trip we have learned various ways to use the plants that surround us. Today, we started out braiding betel nut fibers into bracelets to either use on our baskets we made last night or just to wear.

Handmade basket woven from coconut

“A taro field is the mother of life.” – Palauan Proverb

Hilary, Veronica, and Dustin holding Taro that they harvested

Last night we had an honorary guest, Anne Marie, come and speak about her taro garden. She explained the history of how taro is grown and its significance in the Palauan culture. A point that has been stressed every time we learn about taro is that this is a plant that grows on Palau and is Palauan. Rice, and many other foods, are imported, but taro is always here. “Taro is our staple food” is a phrase that comes into conversation often.

There is a legend of how taro is easier to grow in some areas and is not so easy to grow in others. It is said that there was a woman who lived all over Palau, in each place she lived she planted taro. In areas where the taro is harder to grow, the wife liked the husband she had, so she spent little time in the fields and lots of time at home. In areas where the taro is much easier to grow, the woman did not enjoy time with her husband, so she spent more time in the taro patches. This story is used to explain why taro is so difficult to grow in this part of the island. This morning, we walked about 15 minutes to the taro patch that is owned and farmed by the local women, just down the road. Anne Marie showed us the process of harvesting the taro plant, it’s uses, and how traditionally women were the ones who would work in the taro fields. While the women worked the taro patch, the men would set off to catch fish for the day. The taro patch is a source of food through all times, good and bad. It is an anchor that allows for food independence and security.

Taro field from aerial viewpoint using drone
Drone video of the class working in the taro patch

While washing our taro plants in the river, Anne Marie showed us a rock that lay by the roots of a tree next to the taro patch. We were told that this was a sacred rock that fell from the sky called “Emeraeche” which is Palauan for “North Star”. It made the river by rolling down through the forest. She said the rock was unusually heavy for its size, and when it was moved from the river to rest by the tree it took five men to pick it up.

The sacred rock at the base of the tree

Midner showed us how to climb the betel nut tree. A number of us tried, but we will have to make sure we practice a bit more to master the technique.

Midner climbing the betel nut tree

After our lesson on taro, we helped her clean up debris from last night’s storm at the construction site downstream of the taro patch. The buildup of the debris was contributing to higher water in the taro field and a subpar drainage. We managed to get much of the debris removed from the dam quickly by working a team to pull debris and carry it away. The water quickly started to flow again and we expect the water level to be lower by tomorrow.

Clearing the debris down below the taro field.
The finished product

After lunch we decided to visit the historical stone monoliths or Badrulchau. We met up with Cristopher Kitalong who told us the legends of the monoliths. This was presumed to be the foundation for a large structure or Bai which was typically the local meeting house for men within a village. The legend goes that the gods were building this structure were only active at night. One god from the south wanted to keep his village powerful, so to stop the building of the house he shot fire into the sky to make a rooster crow. This fooled the gods in the north into thinking that day had come; they thought it was morning and dropped the stones where they lay on the ground today.

Everyone listening to Christopher Kitalong telling the story of the stones

After the monoliths, we made our way back to the Ebiil Society. Many went paddleboarding, fishing, and snorkeling, while some took a much-needed nap. To conclude our day with a sweet treat, Bryan brought us ice cream and sodas. In a few minutes we’ll be eating yesterday’s catch, doing our dishes, and falling asleep.

Noah’s fishing update:
Noah went out to the outer reef with the rest of the paddle boarders, he reeled in another, bigger, Giant Trevally after having a fierce battle with the 25 pound big boy.

(This blog entry was written by Garrett, Haley, and Alex.)

Day 3: Trees!

We started our day heading out to the state of Ngchesar.  There was an area where dead trees had been observed and our task was to survey and try to determine what the cause of this was. We split into groups and set off through the tall bush and grass to different areas to make our observations and hypotheses.

Image: Haley making observations of a suspected tree system that was dying.

We observed lichen, burrow holes, evidence of past fires, and erosion. We came back to the bus full of excitement to share our findings with our classmates.

Image: Dustin, Melissa, and Hilary comparing notes

Next, we headed north to Ngardmau to the bauxite mines and had lunch before our next project. The bauxite mines were historically used by the Japanese up until the end of WWII. The result of this was that the soil was left degraded and generally unproductive. The Ebiil Society and the state of Ngardmau are undertaking a project to plant native trees that will reestablish vegetation to restore the site.

Video: Drone footage of the reforestation sites taken by Garrett

After an introduction to the different types of native trees and a planting demonstration, we set out to work. We planted 192 trees, with coconut husks around the base of the tree for protection, and then placed palm fronds between the rows to prevent erosion.

Image: A newly planted Btaches tree (Calophyllum inophyllum)

We then took samples of soil from the site we planted at today to compare to soil samples taken from a site previously planted in 2020. The sample from today’s site will provide a controlled baseline to detect if there is any change in the pH in the site from 2020. The hope is that the plants will help decrease the amount of acidity in the soil.

Image: Jocelyn and Dustin collecting a soil sample

Piling back into the bus after a hard day’s work, we headed to Todai Light House, not far from the Ebiil Society. This site would give us a great view of a watershed above the taro fields. It began to downpour while we were there and according to Scott “You can’t have a watershed without water!”

Image: The watershed viewed from the Todai Lighthouse

We walked around the area to look at the site where the remnants of the lighthouse are and the group bonded while hiding away from the rain in a nearby picnic hut.

Image: A group of students huddling together away from the rain

While most took the bus back to the Ebiil Society, some of us decided to take a walk in the rain, making observations about how runoff from heavy rain can affect the ecosystem. Returning to a flooded home, we set to work rescuing adrift flip flops and fishing poles. After drying off, we relaxed for the evening of our rainy day and then had some delicious food for dinner.

Image: Walking back to the Ebiil Society in the rain

After dinner, we all gathered in the learning center to listen to two local Palauans, Tino and Anne Marie, speak to us. With the help of Cindy translating Palauan to English and vice versa, we learned about their expertise in the fields of fisheries and taro cultivation. They told us their backgrounds and answered our questions.

Image: Anne Marie, Tino, and Cindy speaking with Garret listening attentively

Today’s blog was written by Alanna, KB, and Alix

Day 2: Koror to Ollei

Our day began at 9:00 AM when everyone gathered their belongings and hopped onto the Palau Community College (PCC) bus.  This was the start of our journey north to the Ebiil Society in Ollei  ( We were joined by two PCC students, KB and Midner, and by Dr. Nwe, who will all be with us for the remainder of the course.

Image: All ready to go!

Image: Route for today, PCC to Ebiil with a stop (A) at Ngardmau Waterfall.

After traveling through four states, passing ancient earthworks and grasslands, we arrived at the trailhead to the Ngardmau Waterfall. We trekked through the jungle down many stairs (hundreds according to Bryan). Part of the path crossed a single raised rail that had once been used for a tourist tram as an attempt to bring ecotourism to the area.  However, it is now abandoned after that attempt failed. We also walked along the remains of a Japanese railroad that was used to haul bauxite from a nearby mine when Palau was under Japanese occupation. We encountered carnivorous pitcher plants growing in the nutrient-poor volcanic soil, causing them to evolve to feed on insects for sustenance. Other things we saw were several orchid species (there are 80 in Palau!), stingless bees, toads and guppies.

Image: Starting the hike down the stairs.

Image: Remnant tracks of Japanese bauxite trains and tourism rail.

Image: Carnivorous pitcher plant

Image: The beautiful Ngardmau Waterfall.

After reaching the falls, we took the opportunity to relax and take a dip in the water. Then it was time to make the long trip back up all those stairs so that we could eat our bento box lunches and continue on.

Image: Students at the waterfall.

Image: Garret, KB, Midner, and Noah hanging out.

Image: Lunch spot.

We arrived at the Ebiil Society and were welcomed by Cindy, then settled into our dorms for the next five days. While others were exploring, a few of us had the chance to learn about collecting and peeling betelnut leaves. The leaves of betelnut are commonly used for wrapping food or even gifts. Cindy taught us how to find good leaves for peeling and the proper peeling techniques.

Image: Jocelyn, Cindy, Anna, and Haley harvesting betelnut leaves (Areca catechu)

Image: Cindy showing Jocelyn proper peeling techniques

Everyone then broke out their snorkeling gear and we headed down to the docks. We swam through sand flats, seagrass beds and patch reefs where we encountered some familiar animals from the day before (the chocolate sea star, the blue sea star, and giant clams), as well as a few new ones.

Image: A familiar friend the giant clam.

Image: A network pipefish (Corythoichthys flavofasciatus)

While others were snorkeling, Noah caught a bluefin trevally (Caranx melampygus) that he brought back to Ebiil for dinner.  They used it to make us an amazing poke and fish soup.

Image: Noah and his catch.

Image: Dinner time.

We ended our day with an evening group reflection on what we had seen and learned. We’re excited to continue spending time here at the Ebill Society.

Today’s blog post was written by Jocelyn Wilson, Hilary Hillis and Melissa McMullen

DAY 1: Orientation

Hello! This is our first day of OSU’s 2023 Ridge to Reef class.

Our day began by gathering in one of the Palau Community College classrooms where we became acquainted with one another and were introduced to the class curriculum for our two week course. After the briefing we ventured out in the pouring rain to our new form of transportation, the Palau Community College bus.

(Image: Palau Community College Bus)

Our first destination was the Belau National Museum in Koror. Upon entering the first exhibit we noticed that new research had been compiled to exemplify the most up to date information on the monumental earthworks of Palau. This research process was done using LiDAR, these earthworks are the earliest expression of earthen monuments in Oceania. 

Upon moving to the upstairs exhibits, we found that the presence of Germans greatly influenced the ecological and cultural environment of Palau. German currency was the first form of foreign currency to be introduced to Palauans. The German Channel was created in the Rock Islands as an easier alternative for passage. This channel was created through means of explosives devastating wildlife. Mixed in with these exhibits were testimonials from Palauan’s who lived during these times. 

After exploring the gift shop we stumbled upon a shelf of old license plates. Shuffling through, one of our classmates came across a very familiar logo.  

(Image: OSU license plate at Belau Museum)

Our next stop was the Palau National Aquaculture Center. It was here we learned about the complexities of giant clam aquaculture and their species. In the wild a giant clam such as the Maxima can live past 200 years. However, in captivity they can only survive a few decades. Which is why the aquaculture center plants them in the wild. We also learned that clams are identified by their shells and not their colors or lack of colors. Palau was the first to successfully cultivate giant clams in captivity.

(Image: Palau National Aquaculture Center Entrance)

(Image: View of Giant Clam Aquaculture Facility)

(Image: Nursery Tanks)

(Image: Giant Clams )

(Image: Hilary (an OSU Student) holding a baby Hawksbill sea turtle)

After the Palau National Aquaculture Center, we made our way to the Palau International Coral Reef Center. At this research institute we encountered chocolate chip sea stars and sea cucumbers in their interactive touch tank.

(Image: Chocolate Chip Sea Star at the Palau International Coral Reef Center)

(Image: Bryan showing Brittney (an OSU student) the chocolate chip sea star)

(Image: Blue sea star)

After this extremely informative and immersive experience we ended our day with an amazing presentation and dinner at Paddling Palau. This presentation built upon what we learned today, and we were given first-hand accounts by Mac, a guide from Paddling Palau. He started the presentation by explaining the culture and history of Palau. He talked about his research projects around the islands and discoveries of new fish species and lakes. His work has been instrumental in protecting Palau and its environment. After the presentation we were graciously treated to a delicious buffet of Palauan cuisine by the Paddling Palau crew. We truly appreciated their hospitality and their willingness to share their knowledge with our class.

(Image: Students enjoying an evening at Paddling Palau)

(Image: Students posing for a picture at Paddling Palau)

(Image: Chambered Nautilus center piece)

(Image: Buffet presented to OSU students by Paddling Palau)

We ended the day by reflecting in our journals and discussing what we all learned and want to learn more about while on this amazing journey together.

Today’s blog post was written by: Abby van Klaveren and Brittney Collins

Day 14: The end of one journey means the beginning of another one.

Sunset from the Ebiil Society on the first night in Ollei.

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.

Jack Lin holding rescued Green Sea and Hawksbill Sea turtles.

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.

Ron Leidich talking to the class about the formation of the limestone Rock Islands and lakes.

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.

“Be kind and do good work.” – Scott Heppell

Sunset from the KB bridge on the last night in Koror.

Day 13: Plan G… Gelato!

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.

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 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 8: Finding Nemo

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 wrapped up at Ebiil and headed off to Koror!

Day 7: Exploring Airai Caves

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. 🐠

Day 6: A Tail of Two Facilities

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: Ocean… Now With a Side of Sea Cucumber

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 harvesting
sea 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. 

Planting sea cucumbers at high tide